Yusef Komunyakaa Komunyakaa, Yusef (Vol. 86) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Yusef Komunyakaa Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems

Award: Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award

Born in 1947, Komunyakaa is an American poet and editor.

Neon Vernacular (1993) includes work from several of Komunyakaa's previous volumes as well as various new poems. Like much of his verse, the collection is highly autobiographical and focuses on his identity as an African-American, his upbringing in the small community of Bogalusa, Louisiana, and his experiences as a soldier during the Vietnam War. Incorporating tales of anger, violence, death, racism, and poverty, his poems are often infused with rage and exhibit a pessimistic outlook on life. Critics note, however, that even when writing about emotionally wrenching events from his tour of duty in Vietnam or his relationship with his, at times, abusive father, Komunyakaa is frequently able to evoke feelings of tenderness and hope; in "We Never Know" he writes: "Our gun barrels / glowed white hot. / When I got to him, / a blue halo / of flies had already claimed him. / I pulled the crumpled photograph / from his fingers. / There's no other way / to say this: I fell in love. / The morning cleared again, / except for a distant mortar / & somewhere choppers taking off. / I slid the wallet into his pocket / & turned him over, so he wouldn't be / kissing the ground." Reviews of Neon Vernacular have additionally noted Komunyakaa's emphasis on music as well as the musicality of his writings. Robyn Selman asserted: "Like a brother less self-conscious than the poet, music as Komunyakaa hears it is not merely a celebration or even culmination of heritage and culture, but an alternate linguistic anatomy."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Dedications and Other Darkhorses (poetry) 1977
Lost in the Bonewheel Factory (poetry) 1979
Copacetic (poetry) 1984
I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head (poetry) 1986
Toys in a Field (poetry) 1986
Dien cai dau (poetry) 1988
February in Sydney (poetry) 1989
The Jazz Poetry Anthology [editor, with Sascha Feinstein] (poetry) 1991

Magic City (poetry) 1992
Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems (poetry) 1993

Lenard D. Moore (review date 15 March 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems, in Library Journal, Vol. 118, No. 5, March 15, 1993, p. 81.

[Below, Moore favorably reviews Neon Vernacular.]

[Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems] is comprised of poems from seven of Komunyakaa's previous collections. A master at interweaving memory and history to shape his experiences into narratives, Komunyakaa enriches his poems with details: "His fingernails are black / & torn from blows, / as if the hammer / declares its own angle of reference." Music has its special force with a rhythm that seems to enforce meaning: "Heartstring. Blessed wood / and every moment the thing's made of / ball of fatback / licked by fingers of fire." As an African American, Komunyakaa defines a culture with striking imagery that is often misunderstood by mainstream readers.

R. S. Gwynn (review date Winter 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "What the Center Holds," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XLVI, No. 4, Winter, 1994, pp. 741-50.

[In the following excerpt, Gwynn discusses Komunyakaa's focus on jazz, Vietnam, family, and Louisiana in Neon Vernacular.]

Yusef Komunyakaa is a poet whose work I have known mostly through anthology pieces, one of which, the beautiful "Facing It," is the most poignant elegy that has been written about the Vietnam War. The "it," of course, is the Wall:

A white vet's image floats
closer to me, then his pale eyes
look through mine. I'm a window.
He's lost his right arm
inside the stone. In the black mirror
a woman's trying to erase names:
No, she's brushing a boy's hair.

It is a pleasure to have Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems in hand, a collection that gathers together poems from small press publications with those of three of Komunyakaa's books from Wesleyan (work from his most recent collection, Magic City, is not included). In all, it's a mixed bag, with the best work the newest. Komunyakaa has written about jazz and edited an anthology of poems on the subject, but too often his own jazz poems, like this passage from "Elegy for Thelonious," consist of recitations of allusions that have little intrinsic interest:

Crepuscule with Nelly
plays inside the bowed head.
"Dig the Man Ray of piano!"
O Satisfaction
hot fingers blur
on those white rib keys.
Coming on the Hudson.

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Erik Ness (review date May 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems, in The Progressive, Vol. 58, No. 5, May, 1994, p. 50.

[In the following excerpt, Ness remarks on the themes and subjects presented in Neon Vernacular.]

For Yusef Komunyakaa, the experience that seared him into poetry was serving in Vietnam. In Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems, Vietnam stalks Komunyakaa….

But for him, the atrocities [he witnessed] carry an extra burden. The first-person narrator cannot forget "how I helped ambush two Viet Cong / while plugged into the Grateful Dead," he writes in one of his previously published poems, "Jungle Fever." In some of the new poems, the same sentiment persists. "Fever" begins, "I took orders made my trail / Of blood, & you want me / To say it was right." He warns memorably: "You can hug flags into triangles, / But can't hide the blood / By tucking in the corners."

For shelter, Komunyakaa runs to women and to jazz, and many of his newer poems have a vibrant musicality about them. As he advises, "Don't try to make any sense / out of this; just let it take you / like Pres's tenor & keep you human."

Yet many of the poems are direct and readily comprehensible, especially those that wrestle with his father. The new poem, "Songs for My Father," is as wrenching an Oedipal square-off as you'll find anywhere in contemporary...

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Bruce Weber (essay date 2 May 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Poet's Values: It's the Words over the Man," in The New York Times, May 2, 1994, pp. C11, C18.

[In the article below, based on a conversation with Komunyakaa, Weber relates Komunyakaa's background and origins, various aspects of his writings, and his views on the writing process.]

Yusef Komunyakaa, who won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry three weeks ago, is still receiving congratulations from acquaintances as he walks the hallways and quadrangles of the Indiana University campus here. People seem surprised to see him, as if he had been in hiding, calling out to him "Hey! Man of the hour!" and the like.

You would know he was a shy man just...

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