Yusef Komunyakaa

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Joseph Parisi (review date 15 March 1984)

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SOURCE: A review of Copacetic, in Booklist, Vol. 80, No. 14, March 15, 1984, p. 1024.

[Below, Parisi offers a mixed assessment of Copacetic.]

Born in Bogalusa, Louisiana, but bred all over the place, Komunyakaa once edited a magazine called Gumbo. His own verse is rather a spicy concoction, too, mixing the scents, sights, and sounds of "cottonmouth country" with the patois of the bayous and the blues joints of Bourbon Street. Sometimes this heady brew [in Copacetic] conjures up authentic images of those southern climes and eccentricities, especially in several vignettes of jazz stars (among them Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus) and lesser known New Orleans "characters." When the poet's transcripts drift further from these deeply felt, personal experiences, the results are less satisfying. Perhaps it's the sophistication of his further education (especially those advanced arts degrees) that puts the somewhat off-putting "processed" and professionally jived up tone into others of these verses. Still, in the bluesy lyrics and elegies, there's a good deal of the steamy high spirits, as well as the sadness, of real life.

Introduction

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Yusef Komunyakaa 1947–

American poet and editor.

The following entry provides an overview of Komunyakaa's career through 1994. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 86.

Best known for Neon Vernacular (1993), which won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 1994, Komunyakaa is noted for verse in which he uses surrealistic imagery, montage techniques, and folk idiom to focus 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 violence, death, racism, and poverty, his poems are often infused with rage and exhibit a pessimistic outlook on life while invoking feelings of tenderness and hope. Toi Derricotte has observed: "Komunyakaa takes on the most complex moral issues, the most harrowing ugly subjects of our American life. His voice, whether it embodies the specific experiences of a black man, a soldier in Vietnam, or a child in Bogalusa, Louisiana, is universal. It shows us in ever deeper ways what it is to be human."

Biographical Information

Komunyakaa was born in Bogalusa, Louisiana. After graduating from high school, he enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1969; he served in Vietnam as a front-lines correspondent and editor for the Southern Cross, eventually earning a Bronze Star. Komunyakaa attended the University of Colorado, graduating with a B.A. in 1975, and began writing poetry and publishing in small presses. He later earned an M.A. at Colorado State University and an M.F.A. in 1980 at the University of California at Irvine. After his early poems appeared in such journals as Black American Literature Forum and Beloit Poetry Journal, Komunyakaa published his first collection, Dedications and Other Darkhorses, in 1977. Komunyakaa has held fellowships and teaching positions in New England and New Orleans and has been a professor of English at Indiana University at Bloomington. He has been the winner of many awards for poetic achievement, including Creative Writing Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1981 and 1987, and—in addition to the Pulitzer—the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award for Neon Vernacular.

Major Works

Lost in the Bonewheel Factory (1979), Komunyakaa's second collection of verse, is comprised of six sequences addressing a wide variety of themes, including beauty, pathos, and moral degradation. Copacetic (1984), the first of his works to gain the attention of reviewers, is a collection of blues and jazz poems in which Komunyakaa focuses on his childhood and youth. In "Jumping Bad Blues," for example, Komunyakaa writes: "I've played cool, / hung out with the hardest / bargains, but never copped a plea." In I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head (1986), Komunyakaa examines the effect of the past on the present, invoking lost loves, scenes of Bogalusa, his experiences in the Vietnam War, and past generations. In "Go Down Death," considered one of the most powerful poems in the collection, Komunyakaa states: "The dead / stumble home like the swamp fog, / our lost uncles and granddaddies / come back to us almost healed." The poems about Vietnam in Dien cai dau (1988) were not started until 1983–fourteen years after his tour of duty—but as Komunyakaa told critic Bruce Weber in a 1994 interview, beginning them "was as if I had uncapped some hidden place in me…. Poem after poem came spilling out." Focusing on the mental horrors of the war, Komunyakaa uses surrealistic imagery, a variety of personas, and the present tense to describe his experiences. Komunyakaa followed Dien cai dau with February in Sydney (1989) and Magic City (1992)—the latter a highly autobiographical examination of childhood and rites of passage. Neon Vernacular reflects Komunyakaa's penchant for travel and his passion for jazz, blues, and classical European music. Komunyakaa has also edited The Jazz Poetry Anthology (1991) with Sascha Feinstein.

Critical Reception

Komunyakaa's reputation as a poet has grown steadily over the years, with original charges of obscurity or superficial treatment of subjects and themes giving way to praise for both surrealistic juxtaposition of images and compelling storytelling. Critics especially laud Komunyakaa's examination of such complex themes as identity, war, and the paradoxes of art; his ability to transcend moral, social, and mental boundaries; and what Vince F. Gotera has called Komunyakaa's "counterbalancing of seeming oppositions and incongruities." As Kirkland C. Jones has stated, "Komunyakaa has come of age, not only as a Southern-American or African-American bard, but as a world-class poet who is careful to restrain the emotions and moods he creates, without overdoing ethnicity of any kind."

J. A. Miller (review date November 1984)

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SOURCE: A review of Copacetic, in Choice, Vol. 22, No. 3, November, 1984, p. 425.

[In the following review, Miller highly recommends Copacetic, stating that the work reflects a "wry, hard-won wisdom."]

Copacetic, Yusef Komunyakaa's first collection of poetry, signals the emergence of a fresh and distinctive Afro-American voice. Like that of many of his contemporaries, Komunyakaa's work is deeply influenced by the blues, but his poetry draws upon both the idiom and the philosophical core of the blues with a facility that is striking for a young poet. Komunyakaa associates the term "copacetic" with "… jazz musicians and street philosophers who have been educated by some real hard falls," and the voices he creates in his poetry often reflect this wry, hard-won wisdom. Komunyakaa has a fine command of language and rhythm. He is definitely a poet worth watching—and reading.

Principal Works

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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

Yusef Komunyakaa with Vince F. Gotera (interview date 21 February 1986)

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SOURCE: "'Lines of Tempered Steel': An Interview with Yusef Komunyakaa," in Callaloo, Vol. 13, No. 2, Spring, 1990, pp. 215-29.

[In the following interview, which took place on February 21, 1986, in Bloomington, Indiana, Komunyakaa discusses such subjects as his upbringing, his poetic influences, and the nature of poetry.]

[Gotera]: Why don't we start with your background, biographical stuff, books you've written, and so on?

[Komunyakaa]: Okay. I grew up in a place called Bogalusa. That's in Louisiana, about 70 miles out of New Orleans. It's a rural kind of environment, and I think a great deal of the bucolic feeling gets into my work. If not directly, then indirectly so.

I started writing in the military. It was a different kind of writing, of course—it was journalism. That was in Vietnam, between '69 and '70. I started writing poetry in '73 in Colorado, where I lived for seven and a half years—in Boulder, Colorado Springs, and Fort Collins.

Actually, I had been reading poetry for many years; in fact, that's one of the things that kept me in contact with my innermost feelings when I was in Vietnam, because I would very systematically go through anthologies such as Donald Hall's Contemporary American Poetry, Dudley Randall's Broadside Press editions, and the New Directions annuals. But I didn't attempt to write poetry then; I just enjoyed reading it.

Were you writing any creative stuff at all, at the time? Fiction, perhaps?

I had started experimenting with short stories, in an attempt to emulate James Baldwin and Richard Wright, but I never really stayed with short fiction long enough to develop it in any significant way. Perhaps I'll return to that genre in the near future. I admire and love Baldwin, especially his Go Tell It on the Mountain and Another Country. And as an essayist, he can be meticulous and almost heartless with the truth. That is what keeps me returning to his Nobody Knows My Name and The Fire Next Time. As a matter of fact, I remember first checking out Nobody Knows My Name at the black library in Bogalusa that was really a bedroom-size building in the late '50s. I read that book about twenty-five times.

Anyway, it took some time for me to actually start writing for myself. At the University of Colorado in '73, I took a workshop in creative writing, and that was my introduction, really, to imaginative writing as such.

In '77 I came out with a limited edition—a few poems—called Dedications and Other Darkhorses, published by Rocky Mountain Creative Arts Journal, which was edited by Paul Dilsaver. In '79, I had another limited kind of edition, called Lost in the Bonewheel Factory, published by Lynx House Press.

Of course, I kept writing, and I went into the graduate program in writing at Colorado State in '76 with Bill Tremblay. Bill is certainly one of the most underrated poets in America—check out his book Crying in the Cheap Seats.

Well, okay, and from there, I went on to the University of California at Irvine, studied with Charles Wright, C. K. Williams, Howard Moss, Robert Peters, and James McMichaels. There were also some wonderful student writers there: Garrett Hongo, Deborah Woodard, Vic Coccimiglio, Debra Thomas, and Virginia Campbell.

Then I went to the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center—I was there in '80. That was an interesting time: a kind of semi-isolation in which I could very methodically deal with my writing. It was a close community of artists where I could get feedback; but mainly it was a place to develop one's own voice, I suppose. Well, in essence, really, one's voice is already inside, but a sort of unearthing has to take place; sometimes one has to remove layers of facades and superficialities. The writer has to get down to the guts of the thing and rediscover the basic timbre of his or her existence.

Where does your first book, Copacetic, fall into this process of unearthing and rediscovery?

Copacetic falls into, or better yet, accumulates from many places, because it has some of my very first poems in it. The book covers a time when I had traveled around a whole lot: I lived in Panama for a year, also Puerto Rico, Japan for a while, too. Along with all that, I had spent seven years in Colorado. Copacetic, however, was finished in Louisiana; I went back to Bogalusa in '81, after being away for many years. It was almost like going back to a hometown inside my head, to my own psychological territory, but in a different way, from a different perspective—hopefully a more creative, objective point of view. And also it was an opportunity to relive, to rethink some things.

Bogalusa definitely has its problems, and some of those are racial problems. At one time, it was the heart of Ku Klux Klan activity, and consequently a lot of civil rights work went on. The Deacons of Defense worked in that particular area.

And now, in Indiana, you're almost in the heart of that again. Just twenty miles down the road is a town, as you know, with the dubious fame of being the residence of a onetime Grand Dragon of the Klan.

I realize that; I see it around me [laughing]. I can deal with it. I've learned to deal with it. Some of those things—some of the racial problems—surface in Copacetic.

But, a lot of that in Copacetic seems to be focused on South Africa.

Right, right. There are parallels—definitely parallels. Even though we might not see those parallels on the surface, they do exist, I think. People are people, I suppose, wherever you are, and they definitely have their problems, things to work through.

And that's true for many writers; a good example would be Galway Kinnell. He worked near where I grew up, I think, in the late '60s and early '70s. He was a field director for CORE. I remember some photograph—you might have seen it—on the cover of Life or maybe Look: it was Galway Kinnell with a bloody face.

Etheridge Knight addressed a poem to Galway Kinnell.

Okay, that makes sense. I know that the two appeared together at the Great Mother Earth Festivals with Robert Bly.

What are you working on now?

I'm working on some performance pieces, theater pieces. Which I've been writing since I've been here [in Bloomington, Indiana] … able to have a distant, disembodied kind of voice at times. You need that to work on certain kinds of monologues and soliloquys.

I'm also working on a book called Beaucoup Dien Cai Dau; these are Vietnam-related poems. Also, a book called Magic City, about growing up in Louisiana: childhood experiences, observations. Trying to throw myself back into the emotional situation of the time, and at the same time bring a psychological overlay that juxtaposes new experiences alongside the ones forming the old landscape inside my head. Trying to work things through, still; I suppose writers constantly do that.

What about the book that's upcoming?

Well, it will be published in September by Wesleyan. It's called I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head. Actually, it's not really an apology, of course. [Laughing.] It's the opposite of that, in an ironic, satirical way. Once you look at the book, you'll see that I'm not really apologizing for anything.

Have you found that living in Indiana has affected your work? Do you find that Indiana—the place itself, or the people you've met here, perhaps their speech—is that impinging at all on your work?

No, not really. There's a sort of Southern tinge to speech here, perhaps even more than in Louisiana, particularly near New Orleans. Of course, Louisiana is a mixture of things—a mixture of people, of cultures. A different psychological terrain, an interesting place. Yet I don't know if I could really live there, especially since I'm on my way now to Australia, you know? The other side of the world…. But, anyway, Indiana has been a part of a growth process of sorts. Both in my personal life and in my writing—poetry and drama.

One effect Indiana has had is that I've had more time here to work on certain things. For some reason, I had been thinking of certain poems, certain monologues and soliloquys in New Orleans, but they never really got down on the page. Now I have the space, I suppose; it's not really a physical space but more of a psychological space to actually deal with certain things and put them down on paper. A space for me to go back to my early childhood. At one time, I saw all of my experiences in a negative context; that's probably true of most of us. But I see those now in more of a positive framework, and that's good for me. It's liberating, necessary for growth.

Actually, you've had a similar effect on my work. For many years, I had been resisting certain memories, resisting my Filipino-American identity as a poetic subject. When you introduced me to Garrett Hongo's book, Yellow Light, many things came together for me.

It's interesting, the way Garrett is able to work those things through, you know, and I think he influenced me, especially in Magic City, to return to my childhood experiences and respect them for what they are.

Let's talk about some larger, more universal issues. What is your definition of poetry? How do you go about writing it?

My definition of poetry is, I suppose, grounded in everyday speech patterns. I really think the poem begins with a central image; it's not tied down in any way, not predefined. When an image, a line, develops into a poem, if it has an emotional thread running through it, when it can link two people together, reader and poet, then it's working.

I don't necessarily disagree with Wallace Stevens when he says that "a poem is a pheasant," but I think I feel closer to Coleridge's statement: "What is poetry?—is so nearly the same question with, what is a poet?—that the answer to the one is involved in the solution of the other." In essence, poetry equals the spiritual and emotional dimension of the human animal.

Poetry is so difficult to define, I think, because it's constantly changing, growing. It's becoming something else in order to become itself—amorphous and cumulative until it forms a vision.

When you say that an image or a line occurs and develops, does that mean you keep a notebook, and let jottings or ideas percolate?

I keep a mental notebook. I realize that I might write an image down that has recurred for four, five or six years. And so I know where it came from. A good example is my Vietnam poems, where it's taken me about fourteen years to start getting those down. But some of the images go back to a time when I was writing more journalistic kinds of articles.

It's difficult to define what poetry is, and yet numerous people have tried to define poetry as such. I think it ties into the oral tradition for me, because I grew up with some strange characters around me. You know, storytellers and sorcerers. One of my first Magic City poems was about a gentleman who used to tell me ghost stories—it's about how he was able to pull me into those stories and create a kind of near-agonizing mystery. I'm definitely attracted to that.

In much of your work, probably more so in Lost in the Bonewheel Factory than in Copacetic, it seems to me that you strive for a tension between levels of diction. I see you yoking, for example, Latinate words with everyday ones.

That's probably who I am. Fluctuating between this point over here and another strain over there: the things I've read that come into my work, and also the things I've experienced that affect my work at the same time. And both of these work side by side. I don't draw any distinctions between those two, because after all that's the totality of the individual.

It goes back to a statement by Aimé Césaire: essentially, he says that we are a composite of all our experiences—love, hatred, understanding, misunderstanding—and consequently we rise out of those things like—to use a cliché—a phoenix. We survive the baptism by fire, only to grow more complete and stronger. The way we are, perhaps today, might be entirely different tomorrow.

It's interesting that you bring up the word cliché. In your Vietnam poems, I see you doing something different from what you do in Copacetic and Lost in the Bonewheel Factory. You thread in clichés and then deflate them.

Right, the kind of intellectual wrestling that moves and weaves us through human language.

And that strikes me as something that's very hard to do.

That's interesting, because, especially with soldiers, for some reason—individuals coming from so many backgrounds: the deep South, the North, different educational levels—clichés are used many times as efforts to communicate, as bridges perhaps. And soldiers often speak in clichés—at least this is what I've found.

I've been using quotations a whole lot, as I remember them. Certain things in a poem will surface, and I can hear a certain person saying those things. And I can see his face, even when I cannot put a name to the face.

That really rings true for me. I've been thinking about an Army poem and trying to hear those voices, you know? And I hear, "No brass, no ammo" and "Smoke 'em if you got' em."

Yeah, right. [Laughing.] Those are clichés, but they work in poems, mainly because there are real people connected with those words. I've been going through faces in writing these Vietnam poems, and I'm surprised at how few of the names I remember. I suppose that's all part of the forgetting process, in striving to forget particular situations that were pretty traumatic for me. Not when I was there as much as in retrospect. When you're there in such a situation, you're thinking about where the nearest safest place is to run, in case of an incoming rocket. You don't have time to even think about the moral implications.

Does that mean that you find yourself psychologically resisting some of those memories?

Yes, I did at one time. Now, it's more or less a process of recall. I had pushed many of those images aside, or at least attempted to. It's amazing what the mind can do; the mind does work like a computer, storing information.

And that's how poetry works as well: in Magic City, I'm recalling images from when I was four or five years old. I've always been fascinated by certain plants, Venus's-flytraps, for example, their ability to digest insects. Of course, you know, something like that would fascinate a kid at four years old. Going back to that time … I was able to do that only a few years ago.

Is poetry then some sort of need fulfillment?

It's a way of working things out; it's a way of dealing with all the information taken in. I write every day. I'm probably writing when I'm not sitting down at the typewriter or scribbling the first draft of a poem on a pad. I think all writers probably do that.

Yeah, I would agree. It's interesting that you talk about "working things out." Not all readers may see your poems in that light; in one review of Copacetic, the reviewer complains that you can tell a good story, but you're trying too hard for effects, and your poems are "too hip."

Too hip? [Laughing.] I think, perhaps, he's talking about diction. And that's a similar thing: someone else accused those poems of being "too sophisticated," which is ridiculous. Going back to that whole thing of New Orleans as a composite of influences, the word "copacetic" for me conjures up a certain jazz-blues feeling. And many times, for the speakers in those poems, that's their psychic domain: a blues environment.

That was especially the case for me when I was in New Orleans, because there are so many layers to everything there. You have the traditional and the modern side by side; there's a xenophobia among New Orleanians, and it's all grounded in what the blues are made of. An existential melancholy based on an acute awareness. Those are some pretty hip characters, right? [Laughing.]

I admire that to an extent, because linked to it is a kind of psychological survival. How one deals with life: to be on this plane one moment and the next moment, a different plane—the ability to speak to many different people. For example, I can more or less rap with my colleagues, but I have to be able as well to talk with my grandmothers, whom I'm very close to. They're not educated, and yet we can communicate some very heartfelt emotions. I'm still learning a whole lot from them.

We were talking earlier about Etheridge Knight; he, of course, belongs to a long line of poets, starting with Phillis Wheatley, the abolitionist poets Frances Harper and James Whitfield, and, later on, Paul Lawrence Dunbar. Poetry for blacks, for the most part, has functioned as a "service literature." What I mean is that there has been a systematic need to define just what the essence of being black in America is about. But in a certain sense, it has moved beyond that service-literature category, especially within the 1980s, where there has been more of an introspective poetry, a voyage inward, and my belief is that you have to have both: the odyssey outward as well as inward to have any kind of constructive, informative bridges to vision and expression.

How does this double journey surface in your own work?

Basically, it's a recognition of history. It's almost like having one foot in history and the other in a progressive vision. The future as well as the past inform one another in possibility. A good example of this in action is Robert Hayden: in a work like "The Middle Passage," or an earlier poem called "The Diver," we find intense images which conjure up a journey on the ocean as well as in the ocean to a certain depth, touching the tangible—the slave ship—as well as the unconscious in various symbolic ways.

How have you been influenced by other black poets?

Melvin Tolson is one poet who achieves an interesting play on language: he brings together the street as well as the highly literary into a single poetic context in ways where the two don't even seem to exhibit a division—it's all one and the same. Langston Hughes is another important poet because he celebrates the common folk—the true strength of black America—and his work clearly rises out of a folk tradition. Another poet who comes to mind is Sterling Brown, again a poet who celebrates the blues tradition. One of the most important voices is Gwendolyn Brooks, mainly because of her concern for language, forms, and content—all three of these come together to create a unique poetic synthesis.

Other contemporaries of Hughes also come to mind: Countee Cullen and Claude McKay, especially the poem "If We Must Die"—which is a challenge more than anything else. McKay also has a number of protest sonnets which display so much strength and control at the same time. Of course, we are again in the period of "service literature." During the same period as Cullen and McKay, Helen Johnson was also an important poet—there are a number of women, in fact, who are not often acknowledged as writers of the Harlem Renaissance, although they were an intricate, important part of that movement.

After the Harlem Renaissance, of course, comes the time in which we see women as vivid presences: Margaret Walker and, of course, Gwendolyn Brooks. A later important poet is Nikki Giovanni, whose work arises out of the '60s and is really grounded in oral tradition. Her poems are quite effective but, let's face it, she is a popular poet. And we may wonder how popular poets will endure in terms of literary history. Gwendolyn Brooks is clearly an example of a poet whose reputation will continue to endure. And there are other significant black voices—I've already mentioned Etheridge Knight—also we have Ishmael Reed, Imamu Amiri Baraka, Michael Harper, Sonia Sanchez, June Jordan, Alice Walker, Rita Dove, Colleen McElroy, Quincy Troupe, Lucille Clifton, and many others.

Etheridge Knight has clearly been influenced by the blues, in the same way that a poet like Michael Harper or Sonia Sanchez has been influenced by jazz. Do you find that the rhythms of blues and jazz influence your work?

Yes, yes. I think we internalize a kind of life rhythm. The music I was listening to when I was seven or eight years old and the music I listen to today are not that different. Because I listen mainly to jazz and blues, and some of the same artists are still around: B. B. King, Ray Charles, Nina Simone, Bobby Blue Bland, Aretha [Franklin], and so on.

I listen to a lot of classical jazz, as well as European classical music. I think you do all those things side by side, and it's not a kind of disparate incongruity. You need an ability to accept different things and not feel them to be in absolute conflict.

Does teaching poetry as opposed to writing poetry involve that sort of resolution for you? What do you consciously try to do when you teach poetry?

I like to listen to what different people are doing. I try to point out a poet's strongest points. Some may produce a baroque kind of poetry, while others may produce a "down-home" sort. Usually I can detect what the poet is trying to do and when that individual succeeds or when he or she falls short. What you have to do is look at the poem in its overall context, so you see when the diction strays, when it's off the mark. The poem has to be believable.

What I look for is conciseness of language. Yet, you can probably relate a given scene in a hundred different ways, and to an extent those hundred ways might work. I like to have an open-endedness in a class situation, and yet still have a structure there. That's the space where people can grow; that's where I found myself growing. A relaxed kind of space.

When you revise your own work, do you go about it in the way I see you approaching poems in a workshop: cutting words, superfluous language?

That's what I do, yes. For the most part, I cut. I believe that we all over-write. As a matter of fact, in my own work, I find that I will go back to poems as they were originally typed, with fewer linear connections. I might have ten versions of a poem, and midway through, the fifth version may work better than the ninth or tenth.

Some poems I write just off the top of my head, and I realize that I don't really have to revise those poems that much. But the writing of them has been a continuous process inside my head. I can pretty well see the poem in lines, and I can go back to it day in and day out, without putting it on paper. Usually, I'm working on five or six such poems at once.

That brings up a question I've had about the way you break up your lines. When I have heard you read, it has seemed to me that the spoken chunks are quite different from the lines on the page.

Many times that's the case, yes. I find myself doing that. For the simple reason that, when I first write a poem, I will confine it to its initial line breaks, but when I'm reading, I read basically according to how I'm feeling.

Some people view the line break as a clue to the reader about how to read a poem aloud. Does what you say mean that for you lineation doesn't have the purpose?

That can be bent. It's got to be flexible. I might have more of an improvisational kind of feeling about me on a particular night. When I'm reading, I'm not always looking at the page, but I remember the words.

Even if you read the lines as markedly different from the way they might have been published, do the line breaks nevertheless remain for you as entities in themselves?

Yes, they still exist. I probably couldn't go back and change a line break on paper. That's definitely the line break for me, that's the way the end word falls, and there's no possibility I could break it any other way. There's a completeness about a line, a completeness and yet a continuation. It's the whole thing of enjambment, what I like to call "extended possibilities." The line grows. It's not a linguistic labyrinth; it's in logical segments, and yet it grows. It's the whole process of becoming; that's how we are as humans. There's a kind of fluid life about us, and that's how poetry should be. Say you're down to line three—sometimes, I will cut a line. I would like to write poems that are just single lines. That is, a continuing line that doesn't run out of space because of the margin. I would like to write poems like that.

In some ways, a prose poem may be described in that way. Do you see the prose poem as a different creature?

Yeah. Incidentally, I was looking at Michael Benedikt's anthology of prose poems from years ago, and I was really surprised not to find Jean Toomer, especially excerpts from Cane. Essentially, it's a novel composed of prose poems. The chapter "Karintha" is a very beautiful, compassionate prose poem.

But, yeah, the prose poem is different. What I mean by a continuing line is … well, it's the same way that Marquez can write a thirty-five-page sentence, linking things without having strict categories. Where feeling becomes the connective. I see things as blending into each other, as a painter would do, blending colors to make a single emotional landscape. A kind of spatial elasticity. Lines should be able to work that way.

Okay. You don't mean linearity as such, not just a string of words that extends only horizontally. But that there are vertical relations happening as well.

Right.

Samuel Delany suggests in his criticism on science fiction that each word, as you add words, affects all the other words, so that even he contends that the beginning "the" in a sentence is already a picture, and for Delany that's something like a gray ellipsoid about a yard off the ground, if I'm remembering this correctly. And that an "a" or "an" may be pink. And then of course the first content word affects the overall picture in its own way. So there's a cloud of meaning, a valence, around each word that affects each other word, including spaces, or in poetry, line breaks.

Okay, yeah. Definitely. Language is color. All the tinges and strokes equal the whole picture; it is what converges within the frame of reference. The same as music and silence. And one doesn't need psychotropic drugs to see and feel the intensity of expression. After all, language is what can liberate or imprison the human psyche. Yes, all the parts are important; in that sense, language is like an organism. It's interesting what Delany says about "the" and "a," because I tend often to leave out articles. I feel that they're excessive baggage for the image and the line. Creeley and Ginsberg use a similar approach.

Speaking of other poets, what would you say the state of poetry is in America, by any definition? Where do you see poetry going? And where do you think it should go?

I've been kicking around the phrase "neo-fugitives" inside my head. What I mean by that is that there tends to be a fugitive sentiment which can be compared to John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate. The creed states that basically the poet shouldn't get social or political. That he or she would do better to stick with the impressionistic and ethereal to the extent that true feeling evaporates off the page. That's much safer, and too often it insures a poet's empty endurance and superficial reverence in the literary world.

There's a sameness about American poetry that I don't think represents the whole people. It represents a poetry of the moment, a poetry of evasion, and I have problems with this. I believe poetry has always been political, long before poets had to deal with the page and white space … it's natural. Probably before Socrates, in Plato's Republic, banished poets from his ideal state—long before South Africa, Chile, Mississippi, and Marcos in the Philippines suppressing Mila Aguilar and others. There seems to be always some human landscape that creates a Paul Celan. Too many contemporary American poets would love to dismiss this fact. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule: Michael Harper, June Jordan, Forché, Rich, C.K. Williams, and Baraka. But still, if you were to take many magazines and cut the names off poems, you would have a single collection which could be by any given poet; you could put one name on it, as if they were all by one person. True, a writer can say almost anything in America and have it completely overlooked, yet I think we should have more individual voices.

Would you say that this situation—a milieu that fosters a "poetry of the moment" or, we might further coin, a "poetry of fashion"—is attributable to the writing-workshop system that's developed in academe, the MFA industry?

That brings up another point; for the first time, there is also a rather healthy community of readers and poets. There are probably more poets writing today than [laughing] … there are more poets writing than reading. We can look at the amount of books written and the number which are sold, for example, and see that.

Anyway, on one hand the poetry community is healthy, and on the other hand it is unhealthy. There are very few individualistic kinds of voices. We tend to emulate each other and also imitate success. You might have someone writing in a unique voice, and before you know it, you have twenty, thirty, or forty clones. I think we are so easily influenced without realizing that we have a unique voice that we can improve, each of us. That is, if we're willing to take risks and reach deep enough into ourselves and touch the true passion. Yes, there's a vacuum that our waste economy has created that reaches into the arts … a cultural hedonism that touches everything.

What workshops do many times is they will get rid of, or at least downgrade, that which is different. Consequently there's a kind of threat: if it's different, people ask "do I really understand that?" or "shouldn't I have some kind of objection?" There's often a censorship against so-called taboo or inviolable topics and uniqueness, creating a kind of taciturnity.

Do you think this fosters a kind of "missionary" mindset? That there's a "correct" way to write poetry?

Correct, yes. But without realizing that what is considered wrong today is often right tomorrow. That's happened to certain writers. Ginsberg is a good example; in the '50s, the literary world said "no" to him, and now it's "Ginsberg, yeah, we know exactly what you were doing, and we agree with it." It probably has something to do with endurance and tenacity as well. If the risk-taker and innovator survives, he is then accepted in the academic realm.

Who would you classify these days as having that sort of individualistic voice you're talking about?

I admire all of Alan Dugan's work. Also Michael Harper. I think C. K. Williams is another. If you look at Williams's work, in his recent books With Ignorance and Tar, he has these long lines. His images and phrases are strung together with commas. He was doing something like that in his earlier two books, Lies and I Am the Bitter Name: short lines with slash marks. A continuous kind of voice.

Who else? Ai has a unique voice. A sense of hard reality. At times, however, I wonder if it has really been earned. I don't know how long she can carry on that kind of voice. Let's see. There's something different in Denis Johnson: a straightforwardness in some of his work. I think Garrett Hongo is different; he's able to weave things together in a unique way, and his sense of history is almost flawless. There are also a number of high-energy poets I like a lot: Jayne Cortez, Larry Neal, Wanda Coleman, Shirley Ann Williams, Anne Waldman, Dionisio Martinez, the Japanese poet Kazuko Shiraishi, and others.

What about the place of rhyme, meter, form? There's clearly more and more of a movement towards that kind of formality.

There's one poet who does that quite well, I think, and that's Marilyn Hacker. It's not obvious that she's using rhyme because she does it in such an off-handed, very effective way. You don't know you're reading a sonnet or a villanelle even if she puts "villanelle" or "sonnet" in the title. And I admire that in her work. I also love her political breadth and depth in formalized structures. She has some of the same surprises and playfulness as Brooks and Roethke, especially in her earlier works.

As a matter of fact, there's a book that I've been slowly working on called Black Orpheus and Other Love Poems. The book is made up of poems with traditional structures, and it's something that's going to take me a long time to write, partly because of the forms dictating the tone indirectly. I think form does that, and a poem does not really fly off the page like it's supposed to … it doesn't stay with the reader.

What you say about inherited form not staying with the reader, at least in a contemporary context, reminds me of Hayden Carruth's Asphalt Georgics. In that book, he's taken enjambment to even further lengths. He achieves his rhymes by hyphenation—quite a tour de force. But it's the other direction from Hacker, where you think of her rhymes as being natural and subtle; instead, Carruth's rhymes are broken

Automatically drawing attention …

It's like Hopkins taken to the furthest extreme. But it is technically interesting, perhaps even significant.

Carruth has done so much—he's really prolific. I think he probably started with a formalized structure. I also like what he's done with jazz and blues. I've been working on an anthology off and on for a number of years now—a jazz poetry anthology. You'd be surprised at the number of poets who have been influenced by jazz. There are some wonderful poems by Hayden Carruth on jazz musicians—and of course, there are some important poems by William Matthews, Al Young, lots of people.

I'm interested in all the things a poet can do in a single poem. Tolson comes to mind; if you look at his book Harlem Gallery, you'd be surprised at what he can accomplish, as I said earlier. I partly agree with Allen Tate's statement that "Tolson out-Pounds Pound." If you want to really see things coming together from so many places and points of view without clashing, look at Tolson.

Well, speaking of Pound, what about experimentation today in American poetry? You mentioned Robert Peters as one of your teachers, and I'm reminded of his books on single people, like Kane and Hawker.

Robert Peters is very prolific and inventive. He has an amazing talent which, I think, is often underestimated. I admire especially "Gauguin's Chair" and what he did with the Shakers. Which I understand is an impromptu rendering, where he's actually taken over by voices and things of that sort. I admire that capacity, especially since he was trained as a Victorian scholar, and yet he's able to go on these voyages and imaginative tour-de-forces, using different kinds of voices.

What's happening in experimentation…. Well, the language poets like Michael Palmer and Ron Silliman and others on the West Coast, mainly in San Francisco, and of course the people associated with Colorado's Naropa Institute, the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. I think Anne Waldman and Laurie Anderson and Tom Waits are others…. And yet there is a resistance in the academic community when you bring up these names. Perhaps that resistance is what we should look at: why? I've been asking myself that question.

I recently read an article written by a photographer which addresses the issue of conflict of interest in the world of art—how any single person may be asked simultaneously to be artist, critic, curator, collector, and so on. One wonders how that affects the objectivity and ethics of the artist.

Yes, the artist can be easily forced into the position of demigod … catering to a number of factors that have little to do with artistic merit and talent … controlled by others and divided against himself or herself. That can take the passion and need out of the artist, who can become Faust overnight. Yet, I would like to believe that such multifarious persons often meet the challenge in maintaining objectivity and ethics, but I know that too often that isn't the case. What we lose is art, and what we get is only a ghost of true possibility.

In rejecting Walter Benjamin's stern analysis and contempt for Baudelaire, Ernst Fischer [in The Necessity of Art, 1963] says this: "For the vulgar hypocrite and the anaemic aesthete, beauty is an escape from reality, a cloying holy picture, a cheap sedative: but the beauty which arises out of Baudelaire's poetry … is like the angel of wrath holding the flaming sword. Its eye strips and condemns a world in which the ugly, the banal, and the inhuman are triumphant. Dressed-up poverty, hidden disease, and secret vice lie revealed before its radiant nakedness. It is as though capitalist civilization had been brought before a kind of revolutionary tribunal; beauty holds judgment and pronounces its verdict in lines of tempered steel."

Fred Muratori (review date December 1986)

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SOURCE: A review of I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head, in Library Journal, Vol. 111, No. 20, December, 1986, pp. 115-16.

[Below, Muratori notes that I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head "showcases a talented surrealist."]

Komunyakaa's poems [in I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head] create and populate a world in which the linchpins of common sense and everyday appearances come loose, "where simple / answers fall like ashes / through an iron grate." Photographers airbrush the truth, Cinderella wakes up in a California pleasure dome. Even individual poems take on phantasmagoric dimensions akin to Bosch's busy but fascinating paintings as the poet reels off catalogs of apocalyptic events: "A white goat / is staring into windows again. / Bats clog the chimney like rags. / An angel in the attic / mends a torn wing." The invention is considerable, and though the accretion of wild images and preposterous characters eventually wears thin, this volume showcases a talented surrealist whose future work will warrant close attention.

Further Reading

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Criticism

Collins, Michael. "The Metamorphoses: Jazz and Poetry." Parnassus: Poetry in Review 19, No. 2 (1994): 49-80.

Negative review of The Jazz Poetry Anthology in which Collins states Feinstein and Komunyakaa "lose the way to the bridge between poetry and jazz."

Ratner, Rochelle, Review of The Jazz Poetry Anthology, by Yusef Komunyakaa and Sascha Feinstein. Library Journal 116, No. 4 (1 March 1991): 94.

Brief mixed review of The Jazz Poetry Anthology.

Interview

Kelly, Robert; Matthews, William; and Komunyakaa, Yusef. "Jazz and Poetry: A Conversation." The Georgia Review XLVI, No. 4 (Winter 1992): 645-61.

Conversation in which Kelly, Matthews, and Komunyakaa discuss the roots of jazz and the effect of jazz on poetry.

J. A. Miller (review date September 1987)

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SOURCE: A review of I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head, in Choice, Vol. 25, No. 1, September, 1987, p. 125.

[In the following positive review of I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head, Miller calls Komunyakaa "one of the important poets of his generation."]

[I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head extends] and deepens the terrain Yusef Komunyakaa explored so effectively in his first collection of poems, Copacetic. Komunyakaa is a poet of the night and of the streets, and in this collection his narrator roams through the dark alleys and side streets of the American landscape—a world populated by hustlers, prostitutes, angels, and ghosts—witnessing and participating in the world he records. Ordinary experience is often transformed into allegory and everyday people appear as mythic figures: The Thorn Merchant, Mr. Magnifico, The Thorn Merchant's Wife. And the "I" that records these poems is also the eye that perceives them, seeking in the process to restore the vital connection between the heart and the brain, the mind and the senses. Komunyakaa's poems are works of impressive verbal dexterity and striking images and rhythms, and this collection should consolidate his place as one of the important poets of his generation.

Matthew Flamm (review date 4 October 1987)

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SOURCE: "Facing Up to the Deadly Ordinary," in The New York Times Book Review, October 4, 1987, p. 24.

[Flamm is an American journalist. In the following excerpt, he characterizes I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head as "fierce yet mysterious," though he also notes some "poetic posturing."]

Yusef Komunyakaa's first book of poems was called Copacetic, a description it lived up to with its street-rhythmic, impromptu style. His new collection, I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head (the book is better than the title), continues his explorations of local history, private experience and the charged, semi-surreal language that can dig out the difficult truths in either one. Mr. Komunyakaa works intuitively, with an intense distrust of any sort of conventional knowledge. "The audacity of the lower gods—/ whatever we name we own," he says.

      I'd rather let the flowers
      keep doing what they do best.
      Unblessing each petal,
      letting go a year's worth of white
      death notes, busily unnaming themselves.

Born and raised in Bogalusa, La., Mr. Komunyakaa in his poems is pain's constant witness, often speaking for the historically dispossessed, but with the assumption that he does so only on his own idiosyncratic terms. Truthfulness is the supreme virtue in his world; lying, like the touch-up man "airbrushing away the corpses," is the worst evil. But since Mr. Komunyakaa deliberately chooses instinct over reason as his guide, the path to reality can be as lush, thick and hard to fathom as the backwoods. In "How I See Things" (a poem in which Mr. Komunyakaa does not apologize for the eyes in his head), he reminds a former freedom marcher about the civil rights days, the poet's impressions having an eerie feel to them. "Negatives of nightriders / develop in the brain," he says. Ghosts haunt the landscape, injustice continues—all you have to do is look:

       You're home in New York.
       I'm back here in Bogalusa
       with one foot in pinewoods.
       The mockingbird's blue note
       sounds to me like please,
 
       please. A beaten song
       threaded through the skull
       by cross hairs.
       Black hands still turn blood red
       working the strawberry fields.

That is Mr. Komunyakaa at his best—fierce yet mysterious. But the poems are not always so clear, and sometimes their obscurity seems no more than hip poetic posturing:

       Like some lost part of a model kit
       for Sir Dogma's cracked armor
       an armadillo merges with night.

Fortunately, Mr. Komunyakaa is more often worth the effort he requires.

Alvin Aubert (review date 1989)

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SOURCE: "Rare Instances of Reconciliation," in Epoch, Vol. 38, No. 1, 1989, pp. 67-72.

[Aubert is an American educator, critic, and writer who specializes in African-American studies. In the following review, he discusses the major themes in Dien cai dau, including war, nature, and home.]

Yusef Komunyakaa, a Black American poet and Vietnam vet, achieves striking surrealistic effects in his poetic renditions of the horrors of Vietnam. He is careful, however, not to overdo it. We find him equally cautious in dealing with his ethnicity, apparently apprehensive of some of the aesthetic risks involved on both counts. In incorporating his African-Americaness into his poems he maintains a balanced general European- and African-American perspective of Vietnam combat experiences while keeping his readers sufficiently aware of the extent to which the Black American soldier still has to contend with the differential burden of racial, oftime racist, inequities.

Thus, ironically, Komunyakaa's Vietnam experiences and perceptions and the poems in which he so aptly inscribes them are simultaneously distressed and relieved, both in their ideological or socio-political concerns, by the strain of Vietnam wartime conditions, relief stemming from the peculiar camaraderie and ceremonies of survival the two groups of GIs—Blacks and whites—must devise for confronting a relentless foe in a nightmarish, absurdist warscape that acknowledges no racial, ethnic or sociopolitical distinctions and would as soon mangle the flesh of a Black American GI as that of a white.

Perhaps the most significant theme in Dien Cai Dau—as suited to a literary rendition of absurdist wartime experiences as it is to their surrealistic representation—is that of the relationship between war and nature; specifically, warfare's subversion of nature. In the poem "Somewhere Near Phu Bai" for example, instead of casting nature in its familiar signifying role of proffering alternatives to war, Komunyakaa employs apt surrealistic conceits to portray certain natural elements as in complicity with the ravishes of war and as totally unresponsive to human appeal: there being no recourse, for example, in a moon that "cuts through / night trees like a circular saw," or in "blue-steel stars." The moon image recurs in "Phu Bai," typifying the poet's persistent rendition of normally benevolent natural manifestations as systematically devalued by the accidents of war, equating them reductively with such manufactured objects of destructiveness as anti-personnel mines. The allusion to nature we get in connection with the mines in "Phu Bai," more complex than space allows dealing with here, is that of bestial predation, involving the natural image of the identifying ear markings of prey-stalking tigers viewed from the rear: "The white-painted back / of Clamore mines / like quarter-moons," the explosive fronts of which Vietcong soldiers mark with identical quarter-moon images and turn deceptively and destructively in the direction of their American foe.

The idea of nature as perpetrator of violence appears again in the poem "Prisoners," in the surrealistic rendition of "Sunlight [that] throws / scythes against the afternoon." Also, in its closure (quoted below), "Prisoners" exemplifles the sprung lyrical stylistics generated by the surrealistic effects in Komunyakaa's poems in textual support of their absurdist strategies. The subjects of "Prisoners" are a group of recalcitrant Vietcong captives, perceived by the poem's isolated poet-observer as shrouded in the aura of an enviable ancient alien culture, evoked in the poem in distancing, ne'er the twain shall meet surrealistic terms that are deftly intermingled with typically Komunyakaaian grounding images of earthbound concreteness: the reference to the Cobra combat helicopter and to the nononsense stare of the corporal in charge that stand in stark contrast to the attenuating visionary glance of the poet-observer. The overall effect is an intensification of the poet's sense of otherworldliness about the place, a perception that is at once elusive and productive of a somewhat apocalyptically epiphanic moment that typifies the recurring war-induced epistemological dead-ends the speaker experiences in poem after poem:

       Everything's a heat mirage; a river
       tugs at their slow feet.
       I stand alone & amazed,
       with a pill-happy door gunner
       signaling for me to board the Cobra.
       I remember how one day
       I almost bowed to such figures
       walking toward me, under
       a corporal's ironclad stare.
       I can't say why.
       From a half-mile away
       trees huddle together,
       & the prisoners look like
       marionettes hooked to strings of light.

The poem "Hanoi Hannah" employs even more telling sprung stylistics. In its depiction of the Vietcong's propagandistic efforts to demoralize the black American GIs, it focuses the racial issue in the book. "Soul Brothers," Hannah's alluring female broadcast voice inquires, "what are you dying for?" The "Brothers" respond with a volley of small arms automatic weapons fire in the direction of the elusive voice, precipitating a surrealistic display rendered in words that allude thematically to the biblical Genesis, World War II's Tokio Rose and the Virgin Mary, among other things. The effect is an amplified confirmation rather than a silencing of the seductress's taunting words:

       We lay down a white-klieg
       trail of tracers. Phantom jets
       fan out over the trees.
       Artillery fire zeros in.
       Her voice grows fiesh
       & we can see her falling
       into the words, a bleeding flower
       no one knows the true name for.
       "You're lousy shots, GIs."
       Her laughter floats up
       as though the airways are
       buried under our feet.

A related thematic concern of Komunyakaa's lies in bridging the experiential gap between the Nam and backhome scenes, coordinating the experiences of GI and vet, backhome usually being associated with the figure of the woman imbued with redemptive potentialities. "Sun Threnody," the ironically titled "Combat Pay," and "Facing It," the closing poem of the book, are three such pieces. The first of the three typifies Komunyakaa's mythmaking propensity as he locates the poem in a field of African-American folk and popular culture with allusions particularly to the various forms of expressive behavior issuing therefrom. In black folk/popular parlance dating back at least to World War II, the name Jody is short for the black homefront folk figure trickster Joe the Grinder (usually a military rejectee or deferee or even, adding insult to injury, an older man) who seduces the wives and lovers left behind. The conclusive incident in the poem, which is scenically split between incidents occurring in Vietnam and backhome, is after the fact; the speaker, now a vet or a black GI on post-Vietnam leave of absence, recalls his first wartime experiences and the love letters he received from his fiancée and the sustaining memories and images of her they evoked. The experience is rendered in a surrealistic comingling of images of violence and sex:

               & it took closing a dead man's eyes
       to bring the war's real smell
       into my head. The quick fire
       danced with her nude reflection,
       & I licked an envelope each month
       to send blood money,
       kissing her lipstick mouth-prints
       clustering the perfumed paper,
       as men's voices collected
       in the gray weather I inhaled.
       Her lies saved me that year.
       I rushed to the word
       Love at the bottom of a page.

His tour of duty over, the speaker finds himself in a backhome bar sitting across a table from the Jody of his case who provides, somewhat ritualistically, the specific terms of the young warrior's cuckoldry:

       I asked her used-to-be
       if it was just my imagination,
       since I'd heard a man
       could be boiled down to his deeds.
       He smiled over his wine glass
       & said, "It's more, man.
       Your money bought my new Chevy."

"Sun Threnody" is one of the most interesting of Komunyakaa's poems. The opening statement ("She's here again.") might refer to the lost lover of the Jody poem or it may evoke memories of the elusive "night Muse" of an earlier poem in the book who "shows up in every war." Like these other women, she is something of the femme fatale, for like them (she is an army nurse, ironically) and the other women of Komunyakaa's poems, in addition to her role of redemptress she is closely associated with the masculine allurements of war. When the speaker of the poem sees her she is "Shaking the ice in her glass / to beck-on the waitress / for another Tom Collins," a gesture which simultaneously beckons him. He recalls the brushes he has with death and finds himself futilely resisting her charms as he is transported back to Vietnam:

       & I'm a man fighting
       with myself. Yes, no,
       yes. I'm crouched there
       in that same grassy gully
       watching medevac choppers
       glide along the edge
       of the South China Sea …

But as he moves toward her, the all-in-all in his life for the moment, we perceive that he moves simultaneously into a combat zone:

                    I'm still
       there (in Vietnam) & halfway to her
       table where she sits
       holding the sun
       in her icy glass.

"Facing It," too—the last poem in the book—ranks among Komunyakaa's finest. The "It" of the title is literally the Vietnam Veterans [Memorial] in Washington, D.C. but the reflective wall functions metaphorically as an enter-Lewis Carrollian "black mirror," signifying the speaker's multidimensional confrontation of his past. Entrance or enterableness is multidimensional, also, temporarily; the black Vietnam vet speaker in the poem apprehends the reflective wall's present and future as well as its past, the war itself, and all three definitely in terms of the speaker's blackness, a commensurable, undeniable fact of his existence, past, present, and future. On first facing the wall the vet experiences the urge to cry, which he suppresses partly by allowing his face to be absorbed into the wall: "My black face fades, / hiding inside the black granite." Suppressing the urge to cry, he gains release from the stone only to be absorbed into it again, at which time he finally begins the memorial ritual he has come to perform:

       I go down the 58,022 names,
       half-expecting to find
       my own in letters like smoke.
       I touch the name Andrew Johnson;
       I see the booby trap's white flash.

The potentially redemptive woman is introduced:

       Names shimmer on a woman's blouse
       but when she walks away
       the names stay on the wall

but the closure of the poem posits redemption only as a future possibility. It briefly calls forth the irrepressible human urge to revoke the past, to expunge the names from the wall, but the poem and with it the book ends, albeit on a note of hope in the interaction between the woman, presumably a war widow, and her young son, in gestures suggestive that life must go on. Before perceiving this, however, the black vet seems to sense the need to make peace with his white counterpart. Seems to, because the reconciliation—perhaps more of a balancing of opposites for the moment—is ambiguous at best and may simply mean that once back home from the impelling wartime camaraderie of Vietnam, the old familiar racial attitudes take hold, the old backhome racist conflict resumes for, after all, the white vet's "pale eyes" are perceived as looking uncommunicatively through and not into those of his black counterpart:

       A white vet's image floats
       closer to me, then his pale eyes
       look through mine …
 
          … In the black mirror
       a woman's trying to erase names:
       No, she's brushing a boy's hair.

Komunyakaa has succeeded as few artists ever have in depicting the artistic sensibility struggling to come to terms with experiences as harsh as those encountered in Vietnam. The poems in Dien Cai Dau are works of heroic confrontation and, though they achieve only rare instances of reconciliation, such is to be expected. Very little has been resolved, the experiences have by no means been totally lived down, but in these very fine poems Komunyakaa has shown how the artist might proceed in quest of such an ideal.

Steven Cramer (review date May 1990)

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SOURCE: A review of Dien Cai Dau, in Poetry, Vol. CLVI, No. 2, May, 1990, pp. 102-05.

[In the following positive review, Cramer examines Komunyakaa's depiction of the Vietnam War in Dien cai dau.]

Dien Cai Dau (the title, meaning "crazy," is Vietnamese slang for "American soldier") strives for total immersion in the visceral horrors of America's most unpopular war, the book's forty-four poems assembled without the intervention of section dividers or the mediation of an epigraph. It's as if Komunyakaa wanted nothing to palliate the blinding immediacy of combat.

Komunyakaa served in Vietnam as a correspondent, and as a number of his titles signal—"Camouflaging the Chimera," "Somewhere Near Phu Bai," "Starlight Scope Myopia," "We Never Know"—he seeks to depict the sheer confusion of war, the infantryman's chronic sense of dislocation. Sometimes the soldier's survival depends upon this absence of distinct outlines: "when will we learn / to move like trees move?" asks a GI who has unwittingly crossed paths with the Viet Cong; elsewhere the image of camouflage epitomizes how quickly the landscape can swallow its infiltrators, who "move like a platoon of silhouettes / balancing sledge hammers on our heads, / unaware our shadows have united / from us, wandered off / & gotten lost."

To convey the ordinary soldier's edgy watchfulness—the helpless awareness that mortal threat looms on the periphery—Komunyakaa deploys his present-tense, declarative sentences over a gridwork of enjambed free verse, coupling syntactical nervousness with a method of detailing that suggests the darting glance of a jittery sentry:

       The moon cuts through
       night trees like a circular saw
       white hot. In the guard shack
       I lean on the sandbags,
       taking aim at whatever.
       Hundreds of blue-steel stars
       cut a path, fanning out
       silver for a second. If anyone's
       there, don't blame me.
                        ["Somewhere Near Phu Bai"]

If visual murkiness is Komunyakaa's metonym for the blurred moral outlines of all wars, Dien Cai Dau is also charged with the Vietnam veteran's peculiarly anguished knowledge of this war's moral ambiguities. In naming his book after a Vietnamese phrase for the American occupier, Komunyakaa articulates a deeply divided allegiance, his ambivalence reinforced by his status as a black GI, who experiences recurrent inklings of solidarity with his nonwhite antagonists: "VC didn't kill / Dr. Martin Luther King," claims one propaganda leaflet Komunyakaa encounters. In "Starlight Scope Myopia," Viet Cong stacking a cart with supplies and ammunition are "brought into killing range" through an infrared lens. The longer the poem spies on these enemies, however, the more individuated and representatively human they become:

       Are they talking about women
       or calling the Americans
 
       beaucoup dien cai dau?
       One of them is laughing,
       You want to place a finger
 
       to his lips & say "shhhh."
       You try reading ghost talk
 
       on their lips. They say
       "up-up we go," lifting as one.

This epiphanic recognition of mortal enemy as fellow mortal—as Whitman put it, "my enemy is dead, a man divine as myself is dead"—forms one of the thematic centers of war literature. Komunyakaa renders that tragic identification most indelibly in the terse "We Never Know." The poem recalls the famous trench scene from All Quiet on the Western Front, but in its collision of images drawn from the sacred and the technological, the sexual and the murderous—in short, from the chimerical paradoxes of modern combat—it derives unmistakably from that war we televised but never declared:

       He danced with tall grass
       for a moment, like he was swaying
       with a woman. Our gun barrels
       glowed white-hot.
       When I got to him,
       a blue halo
       of flies had already claimed him.
       I pulled the crumbled photograph
       from his fingers.
       There's no other way
       to say this: I fell in love.
       The morning cleared again,
       except for the distant mortar
       & somewhere choppers taking off.
       I slid the wallet into his pocket
       & turned him over, so he wouldn't be
       kissing the ground.

The last ten or so poems of Dien Cai Dau depict the war's aftermath—the panicked efforts of the South Vietnamese to camouflage their collaboration, the GI's alienating reentry into American society, the legacy of MIA's and Amerasian children, the cathartic reunion with the dead at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Lacking the immediacy of the combat lyrics, these poems sometimes rely on a kind of editorializing by juxtaposed details—"using gun mounts / for monkey bars, / Vietnamese children / play skin-the-cat"—and even, occasionally, on banality: "I'm a man fighting / with myself." Not so much implausible as overmanaged, these poems seem to fabricate paradoxes for effect; they're reductively theatrical. But in the poems growing directly out of combat, Komunyakaa makes a major contribution to the body of literature grappling with Vietnam—a poetry that pierces the artificial border between moral and aesthetic engagement.

Samuel Maio (review date May-June 1990)

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SOURCE: "The Poetry of Truth," in The Bloomsbury Review, Vol. 10, No. 3, May-June, 1990, p. 27.

[Maio is an American educator and critic. In the following excerpt from a comparative review of Dien cai dau and Lowell Jaeger's War on War (1988), he discusses Komunyakaa's examination of the psychological effects of the Vietnam War in Dien cai dau.]

Of the many recent books of poetry concerned with the Vietnam War, Dien Cai Dau by Yusef Komunyakaa and War on War by Lowell Jaeger share the most in common, each resembling the other in thematic focus: the mental anguish of this war, for combatants, observers, participants, and objectors, which Komunyakaa calls "the psychological terrain that makes us all victims." This peculiar aspect of Vietnam continues to rage "behind the eyes" (Komunyakaa's phrase) of all those affected by the war, those who fought in it, as did Komunyakaa, and those who refused, choosing instead to fight against it while remaining, then fleeing home, as did Jaeger.

Many of the opening poems in Komunyakaa's book (his third full-length collection, yet first taking his Vietnam experience as subject matter) allude to, if not address directly, the most singular aspect of this war: that American soldiers carried on mental battles as dangerous as the physical war surrounding them. The guerilla attacks, the booby traps, the lethal snipers, the unseen enemy in their tunnel network, all loomed in mythical proportions to the average soldier, leaving him bewildered, frightened, unsure of his ability. And bored, finally, having too much time between maneuvers or skirmishes. This "down time" grew contemplative, causing horrific fantasies to fester, compounding the confusion, turning thoughts to the homelife and lover left behind. Other poems depict scenes in which the speaker is involved directly with sudden death, half-expected and accepted as imminent, that quick end to life germane to war (even one called merely a "conflict").

In "Camouflaging the Chimera," the book's opening poem, we are alerted to the strangeness of the GIs' commingling with nature, of their heightened sensory perception rendering the natural to the surreal, the physical world to a spiritual, ghosted darkness—which becomes the metaphor for Komunyakaa's war. The "chimera" in mythology, of course, is a she-monster, one vomiting flames, a disfigured being composed of a goat's head and lion's body. Another, ancillary, definition is that of an illusion or one's intellectual fabrication. Both uses of "chimera" function significantly in this poem, which serves as a prelude to the book's principal themes. The GIs literally camouflage themselves as they lie waiting to spring an ambush, curiously entwining with nature yet acutely aware of their separateness from it:

       We wove
       ourselves into the terrain,
       content to be a hummingbird's target.
 
       … Chameleons
       crawled our spines, changing from day
       to night: green to gold,
       gold to black. But we waited
       till the moon touched metal …

The reality of this eerie, nightmarish circumstance—forcing concentration in darkness, blending with nature towards a deceptive end—assumes a mythical quality, a surreal flavor. The chimera that the ambushers are yields to the chimera in each GI's mind:

       We hugged bamboo & leaned
       against a breeze off the river,
       slow-dragging with ghosts
       from Saigon to Bangkok,
       with women left in doorways
       reaching in from America.

The frightful baggage behind each man's eyes (as the poem suggests)—apparitions of the past and of future promise—is the chimera which cannot be camouflaged, but only brought to the forefront of one's thoughts in this quiet moment just before a surprise attack so characteristic of Vietnam.

Ghosts—imaginations—the dark of night, the past growing more unreal each day, the present undefined, the future as unclear as a distant dream which cannot quite be recalled except for the doubt and fear it left behind—these combine to create the atmosphere surrounding Komunyakaa's representation of the war. The mania of a dien cai dau (meaning "crazy," but taken as the Vietnamese term for an American soldier) suggests the imbalance of perspective engendered in an absurd situation such as the Vietnam War, in which the biggest battle for the GI was psychological, the struggle for reason and comprehension.

The spiritual dimension, or that particular sensitivity the speaker of "Night Muse & Mortar Round" attributes to his metaphysical conditioning generated by this war, is depicted as a protective (rather than prohibitive) force. Invoking the traditional folkloric motif of an angelic—if momentary—savior, this poem recounts such an "extrasensory" experience, nearly divine, which saved his life. A "night muse," or spirit, who "shows up in every war," according to folklore, tries to flag down the jeep driven by the speaker, who stops suddenly upon seeing his vision of the muse, then he continues:

       When you finally drive back
       she's gone, just a feeling
       left in the night air.
       Then you hear the blast
       rock the trees & stars
       where you would've been that moment.

The vision of the night muse saves this soldier/speaker's life—then his C.O., riding shotgun, threatens him with court-martial for stopping the jeep for no apparent reason and without an order to do so.

These mysteries, real and imagined, and the losses incumbent upon war—lovers left at home, the sight of best friends dead in the jungle, faith left in the barracks—comprise the mental terrain the anguished GI occupies.

His only solace, ironically, is to surrender to the inherent sterility ("Seeing in the Dark") or to prostitution ("The Edge") or, finally, to the jungle itself ("Jungle Surrender"), its covered terror, hiding an enemy known for torturing prisoners. But conquering the war of the mind—as difficult as "winning" the Vietnam conflict—only to return home unwelcomed and misunderstood remains the last, continuing challenge the soldier confronts ("Facing It").

Komunyakaa, through his simple and vernacular diction, his evocative images and chronicled experiences, successfully provides us with glimpses into the mind of a dien cai dau, often quite aptly named, the insanity of Vietnam measuring against (and similarly affecting) its principles, as these terrifying poems—drawn by the precise hand of an unerring craftsman—make so strikingly clear.

Vince F. Gotera (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: "Depending on the Light: Yusef Komunyakaa's Dien Cai Dau," in America Rediscovered: Critical Essays on Literature and Film of the Vietnam War, edited by Owen W. Gilman, Jr., and Lorrie Smith, Garland Publishing, 1990, pp. 282-300.

[In the following excerpt from a comparative study of Vietnam War poets, Gotera discusses Komunyakaa's use of surrealism, language, and imagery in Dien cai dau.]

Dien Cai Dau is Komunyakaa's fourth book of poems. In his earlier three books, he has not included a single poem on Vietnam, because he has been waiting for emotional distance—objective and journalistic—from his 1969–70 Army tour there. George Garrett, in his introduction to [D. C.] Berry's saigon cemetery, proposes that "ordinary judgment [of Berry's poems] must be suspended. We are too close, and the wounds and scars, literal and metaphorical, are too fresh." It is just such a suspension of judgment that Komunyakaa does not want; he wishes his work to be tested with the full rigor applied to all serious poetry.

The fact that Komunyakaa has waited almost two decades to publish poems on Vietnam differentiates his work significantly from that of other veteran poets, especially those who published in the early '70s. The difference is not so much that he has achieved a distance from his Vietnam experience but rather that the development of his craft has not been inextricably bound up with Vietnam…. Komunyakaa comes to the material with an academic grounding in modernist and contemporary poetics as well as classic surrealism, and his work registers an esthetic advance not only of poetry about the Vietnam War but also of war literature in general.

From his first chapbook, Dedications and Other Darkhorses, (1977), through his most recent book, I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head (1986), Komunyakaa's forte has been the counterbalancing of seeming oppositions and incongruities. Critics of Surrealism have pointed to "The poet Isidore Ducasse, the 'comte de Lautréamont,' who … had provided the classic example in writing of 'the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissection table'" [William S. Rubin in Dada, Surrealism, and Their Heritage, 1968], a serendipitous yoking in whose interstices an immanent, wholly startling signification can well. Komunyakaa has inherited this mode of juxtaposition from the Surrealists, specifically through the poet Aimé Césaire. A typical example is "2527th Birthday of the Buddha":

        When the motorcade rolled to a halt, Quang Duc
        climbed out & sat down in the street.
        He crossed his legs,
        & the other monks & nuns grew around him like petals.
        He challenged the morning sun,
        debating with the air
        he leafed through-visions brought down to earth.
        Could his eyes burn the devil out of men?
        A breath of peppermint oil
        soothed someone's cry. Beyond terror made flesh-
        he burned like a bundle of black joss sticks.
        A high wind that started in California
        fanned flames, turned each blue page,
        leaving only his heart intact.
        Waves of saffron robes bowed to the gasoline can.

This poem takes as its base a kind of journalistic language, and of course the seed of the piece is the rumor that the heart of a self-immolated monk literally had not burned, a rumor perhaps gleaned from an actual news story. But the poem quickly moves into the contrapuntal surrealistic plane with "the other monks & nuns … like petals," setting up a group of images: petals, leaves, and finally pages, reminding us of Holy Writ. (And the phrase "terror made flesh" of course vibrates for Christian readers.) But the Komunyakaa wrinkle here is how the political situation is mystically manifested—American collusion made evident by the "high wind that started in California." The astonishing final image juxtaposes "saffron robes" with "the gasoline can," succinctly summing up the Vietnam War which arises from this volatile situation: "the gasoline can," a harbinger of technology which emblemizes violence and death, becomes a new deity, and all the saffron robes will be ultimately consumed.

Komunyakaa's surrealism varies from that of the other veteran poets because he does not depict Vietnam itself or the Vietnam experience as literally surreal, as do many of the other poets. Surrealism has been defined as "the attempt to actualize le merveilleux, the wonderland of revelation and dream, and by so doing to permit chance to run rampant in a wasteland of bleak reality" [Herbert S. Gershman, in The Surrealist Revolution in France, 1969]; in other words, the exploration of the strange, through fortuitous juxtaposition, allows revelation to occur in the midst of the real. Through surrealism, Komunyakaa discovers—or perhaps more appropriately, reveals—Vietnam and does not only document its apparent surreality for an incredulous audience. "Camouflaging the Chimera" enacts this process of revelation:

        We tied branches to our helmets.
        We painted our faces & rifles
        with mud from a riverbank,
 
        blades of grass hung from the pockets
        of our tiger suits. We wove
        ourselves into the terrain,
        content to be a hummingbird's target.
 
        We hugged grass & leaned
        against a breeze off the river,
        slowdragging with ghosts
 
        from Saigon to Bangkok,
        with women left in doorways
        reaching in from America.
        We aimed at dark-hearted songbirds.
        In our way station of shadows
        rock apes tried to blow our cover,
        throwing stones at the sunset. Chameleons
 
        crawled our spines, changing from day
        to night: green to gold,
        gold to black. But we waited
        till the moon touched metal,
 
        till something almost broke
        inside us. VC struggled
        with the hillside, like black silk
 
        wrestling iron through grass.
        We weren't there. The river ran
        through our bones. Small animals took refuge
        against our bodies: we held our breath,
 
        ready to spring the L-shaped
        ambush, as a world revolved
        under each man's eyelid.

Surrealism in this poem does not function to present Vietnam to the reader as exotica, but rather to underline the existential reality of ambush: the internal psychic state of each combatant. The wish-fulfillment of camouflage involves becoming the landscape, abdicating one's memories and anything else which might disrupt the illusion. The angst of the situation, the impending firefight, is focused by "a world revolved / under each man's eyelid," a revamping of the cliché "my life passed before my eyes." Of course, the phrase also refers to "the world" or everything not Vietnam, delineating each soldier's acute realization that he does not belong in this place, that his death here would be literally senseless. The dramatic situation of this poem also acts certainly as a signifier for the entire war, and thus the word "Chimera" in the title serves as a political statement.

The poem "'You and I Are Disappearing'" (a quote from Björn Håkansson) is a bravura performance highlighting Komunyakaa's technique of juxtaposed images:

        The cry I bring down from the hills
        belongs to a girl still burning
        inside my head. At daybreak
               she burns like a piece of paper.
        She burns like foxfire
        in a thigh-shaped valley.
        A skirt of flames
        dances around her
        at dusk.
                    We stand with our hands
        hanging at our sides,
        while she burns
                   like a sack of dry ice.
        She burns like oil on water.
        She burns like a cattail torch
        dipped in gasoline.
        She glows like the fat tip
        of a banker's cigar,
              silent as quicksilver.
        A tiger under a rainbow
           at nightfall.
        She burns like a shot glass of vodka.
        She burns like a field of poppies
        at the edge of a rain forest.
        She rises like dragonsmoke
            to my nostrils.
        She burns like a burning bush
        driven by a godawful wind.

In this poem, Komunyakaa is performing "the kind of intellectual wrestling that moves and weaves us through human language," as he told me in an interview. According to Komunyakaa, "language is what can liberate or imprison the human psyche," and this poem dramatizes a speaker who is simultaneously liberated and imprisoned. The speaker here is at a loss to describe this scene fittingly. The charged language grapples with a view that is both unimaginably beautiful and incredibly horrible, all at the same time. The speaker, again and again, tries to find a metaphor that will convey both the beauty and the horror—the dilemma of speaking the Sublime, in Edmund Burke's terms. And the speaker comes enticingly, asymptotically close without finding the ideal phrase. Finally, he simply has to stop. And the final image points a biblical finger: the girl will always burn in the speaker's mind in the same way that the burning bush could have burned forever unconsumed. What really nails this image is the phrase "godawful wind" which puns on "awful God," straight out of the Old Testament, while it resurrects the root meaning full of awe, or more properly here, filling with awe.

"'You and I Are Disappearing'" also demonstrates Komunyakaa's poetic ancestry in English, specifically William Carlos Williams and his use of the image…. [According to critic Marjorie Perloff], Williams' recurrent images—wind, flower, star, white, dark—are perfectly ordinary, but it is their relationships that matter." If we ignore for a moment that the signified is "she"—a human being—Komunyakaa's images here are similarly ordinary: "a piece of paper," "oil on water," a "cigar," "a shot glass of vodka," "a field of poppies"; others are lexically more interesting but still reasonably innocent: "foxfire," "a sack of dry ice," "a rainbow," "dragonsmoke." What drives this poem is the anaphoric repetition of "she burns"—the accretion of which underlines the intrinsic horror of the poem and, by extension, the war itself. The ultimate focus is on humanity and on humaneness.

Many of the poems in Dien Cai Dau deal with human response and connection in combat. "Nude Pictures" begins at the end, only implying the story which comes before:

        I slapped him a third time.
        The song caught in his throat
        for a second, & the morning
        came back together like after
        a stone has been dropped
        through a man's reflection
        hiding in a river. I slapped him
        again, but he wouldn't stop
 
        laughing. As we searched
        for the squad, he drew us
        to him like a marsh loon
        tied to its half-gone song
        echoing over rice fields
        & through wet elephant grass
        smelling of gunpowder & fear.
        I slapped him once more.
        Booby-trapped pages floated
        through dust. His laughter
        broke off into a silence
        early insects touched
        with a tinge of lost music.
        He grabbed my hand & wouldn't
        let go. Lifted by a breeze,
        a face danced in the treetops.

In "2527th Birthday of the Buddha," the typical Komunyakaa opposition is the documentary vs. the figurative; here the conflict is between nature and human intrusion. The morning shattered by a firefight "came back together like after / a stone has been dropped through a man's reflection / hiding in a river." The "stone," a semaphore for gunfire, intrudes upon the harmony between humans and nature—here, the squad and the morning. Now the hysterical soldier intrudes upon the reassembled morning, "like a marsh loon / tied to its half-gone song" (i.e., nature gone mad).

The final human intrusion occurs in the arresting close: "Lifted by a breeze, / a face danced in the treetops." Literally, of course, this is a wafting scrap of girlie magazine, with the face coincidentally framed. On a figurative level, however, the image finally rescues humanity: the lexical territory of "Lifted" and "danced" argues for an upbeat ending here. Just as the speaker and the sole surviving soldier hold hands … so too are humans and nature harmoniously reunited, if only metaphorically.

Komunyakaa's devotion to a highly textured language is clearly evident in the poems already discussed. There are arresting turns of phrase throughout Dien Cai Dau: a tunnel rat moves "Through silver / lice, shit, maggots, & vapor of pestilence"; the Viet Cong are "lords over loneliness / winding like coralvine through / sandalwood & lotus"; conspirators plan a fragging, "their bowed heads / filled with splintered starlight"; an armored personnel carrier is "droning like a constellation / of locusts eating through bamboo." For the most part, however, the language of Dien Cai Dau is a spoken language, in the Wordsworthian sense—it is the extraordinary way in which these everyday words are combined which makes the poems significant….

[Komunyakaa] uses the "grunt's" language and speech for credibility. In "Hanoi Hannah," however, he places the argot in the mouth of the enemy, to demonstrate the ambivalent ambience of Vietnam:

        Ray Charles! His voice
        calls from waist-high grass,
        & we duck behind gray sandbags.
        "Hello, Soul Brothers. Yeah,
        Georgia's also on my mind."
        Flares bloom over the trees.
        "Here's Hannah again.
        Let's see if we can't
        light her goddamn fuse
        this time." Artillery
        shells carve a white arc
        against dusk. Her voice rises
        from a hedgerow on our left.
        "It's Saturday night in the States.
        Guess what your woman's doing tonight.
        I think I'll let Tina Turner
        tell you, you homesick GIs."
        Howitzers buck like a herd
        of horses behind concertina.
        "You know you're dead men
        don't you? You're dead
        as King today in Memphis.
        Boys, you're surrounded by
        General Tran Do's division."
        Her knife-edge song cuts
        deep as a sniper's bullet.
        "Soul Brothers, what you dying for?"
        We lay down a white-klieg
        trail of tracers. Phantom jets
        fan out over the trees.
        Artillery fire zeros in.
        Her voice grows flesh
        & we can see her falling
        into words, a bleeding flower
        no one knows the true name for.
        "You're lousy shots, GIs."
        Her laughter floats up
        as though the airways are
        buried under our feet.

It is interesting to note here that Hannah speaks not just colloquial English, but fluent black English; her speech is so well tuned as to be virtually indistinguishable from the American voice who says "Let's see if we can't / light her goddamn fuse / this time." That Komunyakaa is black generally makes no difference in many of the poems in Dien Cai Dau, but here it is significant because blacks (and hence the poet) are being directly addressed here by the Viet Cong; Hannah plays Ray Charles and Tina Turner, speaks to "Soul Brothers," and taunts them with Martin Luther King's assassination—it may well be the speaker's first realization of that event. As this poem shuttles between reported speech and narrative passages, it displays a seamlessness of diction, unlike that of earlier Vietnam—veteran poets like Paquet, who deliberately embattles one set of connotations against another for tension. Here, the everyday diction—"duck behind," "light her … fuse," "buck like a herd / of horses"—is allowed to rest easy with slightly more elevated phrases—"carve a white arc," "knife-edge song," "white-klieg / trail of tracers." But the salient point here is Hannah's intimate command of English and the social nuances conveyed by language.

The plight of the "grunt" home from the war is handled by Komunyakaa differently from other veteran poets, and this variance arises partly from questions of race. The black soldier remembers a different Vietnam: Viet Cong leaflets saying, "VC didn't kill / Dr. Martin Luther King"; the white bars and the black bars on "Tu Do Street" in Saigon, the black POW remembering "those rednecks" in Georgia, "Bama," and Mississippi to help him through VC torture. But other poems focus more universally on the generic returnee. The poem "Combat Pay for Jody" focuses on a soldier and his inevitable encounter with Jody, the folkloric figure back home who steals every combat soldier's wife or girlfriend:

       I counted tripflares
       the first night at Cam Ranh Bay,
       & the molten whistle of a rocket
       made me sing her name into my hands.
       I needed to forget the sea
       between us, the other men.
       Her perfume still crawled
       my brain like a fire moth,
       & it took closing a dead man's eyes
       to bring the war's real smell
       into my head. The quick fire
       danced with her nude reflection,
       & I licked an envelope each month
       to send blood money,
       kissing her lipstick mouthprints
       clustering the perfumed paper,
       as men's voices collected
       in the gray weather I inhaled.
       Her lies saved me that year.
       I rushed to the word
       Love at the bottom of a page.
       One day, knowing a letter waited,
       I took the last chopper back to Chu Lai,
       an hour before the firebase was overrun
       by NVA. Satchel charges
       blew away the commander's bunker,
       & his men tried to swim the air.
       A week later when I returned
       to Phoenix, the city hid her
       shadow & I couldn't face myself
       in the mirror. I asked her used-to-be
       if it was just my imagination,
       since I'd heard a man
       could be boiled down to his deeds.
       He smiled over his wine glass
       & said, "It's more, man.
       Your money bought my new Chevy."

This poem literally brings clichés to life. The testimony of a "grunt" for whom the thought of his lover functioned as a chivalric favor preserving him from harm is so common that it becomes apocryphal. Ditto for the stories of Jody's legendary exploits. In "Combat Pay for Jody," Komunyakaa has composed a vividly lyrical narrative which encompasses the thousand days of the speaker's Vietnam tour and his eventual return to "the world." More importantly, he has created a realistic voice which re-enlivens the overworked clichés of military life and which points up the returning soldier's inability to navigate in what used to be his personal landscape.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial has become an emblem of the difficulties of the Vietnam veteran, and Komunyakaa's poem "Facing It" (the closing poem in the book) does exactly what its title says—face the monument and what it signifies:

      My black face fades,
      hiding inside the black granite.
      I said I wouldn't,
      dammit: No tears.
      I'm stone. I'm flesh.
      My clouded reflection eyes me
      like a bird of prey, the profile of night
      slanted against morning. I turn
      this way—the stone lets me go.
      I turn this way—I'm inside
      the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
      again, depending on the light
      to make a difference.
      I go down the 58,022 names,
      half-expecting to find
      my own in letters like smoke.
      I touch the name Andrew Johnson;
      I see the booby trap's white flash.
      Names shimmer on a woman's blouse
      but when she walks away
      the names stay on the wall.
      Brushstrokes flash, a red bird's
      wings cutting across my stare.
      The sky. A plane in the sky.
      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.

This poem is literally a reflection about reflections; it is a "facing" of the dualities that govern this everyday life: there and here, America and Vietnam, living and dead, night and day, old and young, white and black (i.e., Caucasian and Negro). Komunyakaa does not declaim, does not decry; instead he presents, practically unmediated, a series of images. Like the speaker of "'You and I Are Disappearing'"—the poem about the burning girl—the poet here is faced with an ineffable scene, but instead of searching for apt metaphors to voice his feeling, he reverts to a reportorial mode. Everything ultimately is point of view, and we are always "depending on the light / to make a difference." This is what Vietnam poetry (and all poetry in essence) must do—enlighten, give light, illuminate, the better for all to see and see well.

Dien Cai Dau is a breathtakingly original work of art because of the believable, down-to-earth language which speaks the thoughts and feelings of authentic characters, filtered through Komunyakaa's atypical vision. In the last line of Dien Cai Dau—a book whose title, after all, means "crazy"—a woman is "brushing a boy's hair," an action which affirms sanity and life in the face of the insanity of the war: the love between a mother and child, between two human beings. Writing about [Bruce] Weigl's The Monkey Wars, Smith proposes the potential of a "salvific poetic vision which might unify past and present, anguish and affirmation" [Lorrie Smith, in "A Sense-Making Perspective in Recent Poetry by Vietnam Veterans," American Poetry Review (November-December) 1986]; Komunyakaa fulfills this promise in Dien Cai Dau.

Komunyakaa's achievement points to the possibility and actuality of self-renewal and solace in poetry by Vietnam veterans. As the body of poetry by veterans moves from mere documentary to self-discovery and personal commitment, from a gratuitous surrealism to a conscientious use of French surrealistic technique, future work by Vietnam-veteran poets becomes increasingly able to transcend the paralyzing horror of the Vietnam War…. The transcendental possibilities in poetry by Vietnam veterans, therefore, can make possible a more accurate national vision of the Vietnam War—both in documentary and spiritual terms—allowing us, as a nation, to confront fully the moral consequences of our presence in Vietnam. Perhaps, in some near future, it may not be too optimistic to wish, with [W. D.] Ehrhart, that "the soul of the nation might somehow be cleansed" by poetry.

Eileen Myles (review date 12 January 1993)

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SOURCE: "Lost City" in The Village Voice, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 2, January 12, 1993, pp. 80-1.

[In the following review, Myles states that while Magic City "starts off a little sticky," its "information is unforgettable."]

Yusef Komunyakaa, an African American poet whose last book, Dien Cai Dau, drove a shaft of light into the inarticulate spectacle of the Vietnam War, has now taken on a story easy to mistell: childhood. Magic City is the name of this foray. It starts off a little sticky, in my opinion. I don't think Komunyakaa feels confident with the first person—certainly not a re-assembled first person, like that of the speaker in the first poem: "Venus's-flytraps":

       The tall flowers in my dreams are
       Big as the First State Bank,
       & they eat all the people
       Except the ones I love.
       They have women's names,
       With mouths like where
       Babies come from. I am five.

Komunyakaa has said of this work that he was "trying to throw myself back into the emotional situation of the time, and at the same time bring a psychological overlay that juxtaposes new experiences alongside the ones forming the old landscape inside my head." This is an elaborate construction, but to my mind a "child voice" is almost no voice at all. It lives in the description of one's memories. And what's stellar about these poems are lines like "flesh-colored stones along a riverbed." Whose flesh? The ambiguity asks nothing and everything of the reader. Komunyakaa's physical descriptions of things are bursting with matter-of-factness, a sublime flatness that delivers the unconscious unscathed, because it's a participant rather than an invited guest.

Mostly, he lets the information speak. Quiet rage informs the telling of "History Lessons," which in one of three stanzas describes the former site of a lynching—"No, I couldn't see the piece of blonde rope … the / Flayed tassel of wind-whipped hemp knotted around a limb / Like a hank of hair." Later, Komunyakaa gives an account of the murder of a young black boxer who was "running & punching the air at sunrise / how they tarred and feathered him & dragged the corpse / Behind a Model T … / How they dumped the prizefighter on his mother's door-step … two days later three boys / Found a white man dead … in blackface." The overt content of this poem, and much of the work in this book, is about living under a system of racism, but what's astonishing about Komunyakaa's handling of racism is that every hair of the poem (when he's on) is about that, too. The blondness of the hanging rope tells more about the perpetrators and their victim than any blow-by-blow. In its shorthand, it humanizes the revulsion, making this white reader see the horror of the world in the hues it really comes in.

In the course of Komunyakaa's telling, the ante is raised word by word—the "young boxer" becomes a "prizefighter" who is then rendered lifeless and placed, empty of future meaning, on his mother's doorstep. What could be worse? By the time we get to the man in blackface whose head is tenderly resting "on a clump of sedge," we're simply numbed. Komunyakaa's system of signs and codes is as strongly installed in his work as racism is in society at large; one can't help but share in his fascination with the stray mysteries the system of black / white, male / female yields. These objects of his gaze are delivered point-blank: "Boys in Dresses" is an almost ceremonial poem about just what the title says. "We felt the last kisses / Our mothers would give us / On the mouth …" In "Fleshing-out the Season," a man has two wives: one black, one white. The women are friends and the three live in peace and he sends their children to college and they divide his body when he dies: "One sprinkled him / Over the Gulf of Mexico, / & the other put him under roots / of pigweed beside the back gate—/ Purple, amaranthine petals, / She wore in her hair on Sundays." Such oddities glisten like myth rather than having any moral purpose. Which is another aspect of his collection I adore. The title keys it too: Magic City is more than a bit of an amusement park, with an almost Angela Carter perspective on a southern Black youth. Thereby glints its horror and its power and the information is unforgettable.

Alvin Aubert (essay date Spring 1993)

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SOURCE: "Yusef Komunyakaa: The Unified Vision—Canonization and Humanity," in African American Review, Vol. 27, No. 1, Spring, 1993, pp. 119-23.

[In the following essay, Aubert discusses Komunyakaa's "quest for a unified vision, his bid for literary canonization, and his push for the completion of his humanity."]

In an interview in the journal Callaloo, Yusef Komunyakaa, author of seven collections of poems, expresses his admiration for poets whom he considers to have achieved a "unified vision" in their poetry, an achievement he apparently strives for in his own work. A closely associated, if not identical, goal and a source of tension in Komunyakaa's poetry is his desire to gain admittance into the American literary canon, but not at the expense of surrendering his African American cultural identity.

At the core of Komunyakaa's pursuit of a unified vision and literary canonization is his stern resistance, textualized formalistically as well as thematically in his poems, to those forces in the hegemonous counterculture aimed at excluding him as an African American from the ranks of humanity. Indeed, in the singularity of his perseverance and in both the high quality and quantity of his poetic output, Komunyakaa approaches the intensity of no less a figure than prototypical canonization quester Ralph Ellison in his bid for mainstream American literary status. Komunyakaa, however, lacks the irritability Ellison sometimes displays in his attitude toward other African American writers, in particular the young black writers of the culturally insurrectionary 1970s.

The unified vision Komunyakaa seeks involves the integration and aesthetic instillation in his poetry of cultural material from both his African American and his European American sources. A useful sampling of Komunyakaa's artistry at work—including his quest for a unified vision, his bid for literary canonization, and his push for the completion of his humanity—can be found in two poems from his ironically titled fourth collection, I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head (1986): "When in Rome—Apologia," the last two lines of which supply the title of the book, and "I Apologize." I will also refer briefly to "The Music That Hurts."

A particularly illustrative passage appears in "I Apologize," a dramatic monologue that intertextualizes Robert Browning's prototypical dramatic monologue "My Last Duchess": "I'm just like the rest of the world: / No comment; no way, Jose …" After staking his claim for unqualified status in the human race and issuing his somewhat tongue-in-cheek declaration of no comment (ironically noting the extent to which further comment might implicate him in the negatives as well as the positives of the humanity he holds in common with his white auditor), the persona comments anyway. Addressing the person designated as "sir," who occupies the position of the implicit, silent auditor of the traditional dramatic monologue, the persona observes that he "want[s] spring always / dancing with the pepper trees," etc.

Like most of Komunyakaa's poems, "I Apologize" is markedly obscure. On first reading, the persona might be the typical, racially or ethnically unspecified, Peeping Tom, but we soon realize that he is the archetypal reckless eyeballer, the fated African American male in the U.S. South of not too many years ago who is accused of looking too long, and by implication with sexual intent, at some white woman, a tabooistic infringement for which he is likely to be lynched. The accused's only defense, his only recourse in such a predicament, is a desperate and futile excuse. This is typified in the poem's opening lines, which also encapsulate the kind of redemptive humor black people engage in among themselves: "My mind wasn't even there / Mirage, sir I didn't see / what I thought I saw. / … I was miles away, I saw nothing!" Then there is the sheer desperation of the poem's concluding line and a half—"This morning / I can't even remember who I am"—an apparent plea of insanity.

"When in Rome—Apologia" aptly intertextualizes Browning's monologue as well. Both of Komunyakaa's poems allude to the fate of the wife of Browning's jealous persona, the Duke who had his spouse killed for smiling excessively at other men. In Komunyakaa's poems, however, an ironic readjustment of roles takes place, for it is the would-be suitor whose life is at stake, prompting his desperate plea:

      Please forgive me, sir,
      for getting involved
 
      in the music—
      it's my innate weakness
      for the cello: so human.
      Please forgive me
      for the attention
 
      I've given your wife
      tonight, sir.

We note the gap posited by the interstanzaic enjambment between "involved" and its complement "in the music," suggesting a deliberate, playful withholding of the right information from the "sir" of the poem—the sense being I won't say it but it's not music I'm talking about, it's life: Excuse me, just a dumb nigger, for insisting on being involved on an equal basis with you in life. Ironically, the speaker's "innate weakness" is the humanity he has in common with his auditor, as expressed in the phrase "so human." And the use of a highly prized wife to epitomize the cultural exclusion that diminishes the persona's human status is an appropriate choice in view of the idea that enjoys considerable currency among African American artists and intellectuals that, not only are women cocreators with men of culture, they are singularly carriers and dispensers of it as well. Furthermore, the irony informing the speaker's plea borders on sarcasm, thus implying that irony may be too exalted a sentiment to spend on the insensitive "sirs" of this world.

The petitioner's final, desperate plea evidences a loss of control which is due to intoxication: "I don't know / what came over me, sir. / After three Jack Daniel's / you must overlook / my candor, my lack of / sequitur." In a statement that engenders the title of the book, the poem concludes: "I apologize for / the eyes in my head," an ambiguously metonymical reference to the outer (physical) and inner (intuitive) facilities of sight that interact in the process of creating poems. Forgive me, the implication goes, not only for insisting on seeing all that there is humanly possible to see in the world but also for being so presumptuous in my reputed inhumanity as a person of African descent to aspire to write poetry of a quality and comprehensiveness equal to your own.

Who is the forbidden woman in these poems? Is she the same as the "white wife" of the surrealistic poem "The Music That Hurts," personified there as "Silence"? Although Komunyakaa's poems incline toward nonreferentiality, they are not characterized by the nonfigurativeness nonreferential poetry reputedly strives for. Thus, viewed in the context of Komunyakaa's work as a whole, music in these three poems is metaphorical of life; its opposite, "Silence," signifies outsiderness, comprehending an absence of humanity. Add to this the act of seeing as literally and figuratively a means for fulfilling one's humanity, and Komunyakaa's ironic apology may be stated as Sorry, but have I not eyes to see all that there is to be seen in the world, which accords with my right as an American citizen and, preeminently, as a human being? In the very act of laying claim to and pursuing canonical status in his poems, Komunyakaa demonstrates his "qualification" for it in rhetorical and aesthetic maneuvers that include a repudiation of racial or ethnically based limitations or boundaries. He comes across as a person who is well-versed in the poetic traditions of Anglo-Europe and Anglo-America, and who is also aware of the abundant technical and material properties that are available for the advancement of the art of poetry in America, especially the rich resources that abound in African American life and culture.

Not all of Komunyakaa's poems contain African American cultural material, and in some of those that do, the material is not always easily recognizable, possibly identifying these poems as exemplary achievements of Komunyakaa's unified vision. These are among the numerous poems by Komunyakaa that occupy the right end of an accessibility continuum that ranges from obscure on the right to clear on the left, and they provide a unique glimpse into Komunyakaa's artistry, especially in the extraordinary challenge the poems present to the reader who must work to discover, process, and integrate the works' African American cultural material into the fabric of meaning of the poems. The poem, "I Apologize" is a case in point, with its subtle inscription of the persona's African Americanness in a poem not easily identifiable as the work of an African American author. Clues to the persona's identity appear in one of a sequence of desperate alibis he concocts in his apologetic response to the person he addresses as "sir," who implicitly has accused him of reckless eyeballing. "I was in my woman's bedroom / removing her red shoes & dress," he pleads, adding in cadences reminiscent of Browning's poem and in mildly contradictory terms as he attempts to extricate himself, that he could not have committed the "crime" because

       I was miles away, I saw nothing!
       Did I say their diamond rings
       blinded me & I nearly lost my head?
       I think it was how the North
       Star fell through plate glass.
       I don't remember what they wore.

The "sir," as indicated earlier, is a white man; the "they" of the last line quoted above are white women, the reputed objects of the defensively comedic African American male persona's reckless eyeballing. The white women, whom he denies having seen at all, yet whose attire he contradictorily indicates he cannot "remember," are identified with diamonds and refined attire, in contrast with the "red shoes & dress" worn by the person whom we justifiably assume to be the persona's African American woman, with whom he was supposedly, and perhaps actually, too preoccupied in her bedroom to be paying attention to anyone else. The red shoes and dress allude ironically to the reputed fondness of black women for the color red and to the disparagement to which they were subjected in white society's stereotyping of them as sexually promiscuous, as scarlet women.

Another, possibly less obscure, allusion is to the North Star, a symbol of freedom derived from its use as a guide by fugitive slaves on their journeys out of slavery. The persona claims he was more concerned with the star than the white women's diamond rings. Throughout the poem the persona is portrayed as a ludicrously bumbling trickster figure, offering one lame excuse after another in his effort to escape the lynching he is likely to receive for his reckless eyeballing. For all its comedic trappings, however, "I Apologize" is a serious dramatization of the obstacles confronting the African American poet who wants his humanity acknowledged—and a rightful place in the American literary canon.

Also of particular interest are some of Komunyakaa's Vietnam war poems, which appear in the chapbook Toys in a Field (1987) and the full-length Dien Cai Dau (1988). In my review of the latter work for Epoch magazine [Vol. 38, No. 1 (1989)], I noted the appropriateness of Komunyakaa's use of surrealism for depicting the absurdity of Vietnam combat experiences, especially as they involved black and white American GIs together in situations where, despite the combat survival value of camaraderie, the African American soldier had to contend with the differential burden of racial, and ofttimes racist, inequities (which is not to say that one should overlook the absurdity that frequently surfaces in relations between whites and blacks generally).

Especially relevant to the present discussion is the poem "Tu Do Street," from Dien Cai Dau, with its titular punning on "two door." The persona is an African American GI and is immediately identifiable as such, but he also has a penchant for invisibility. He is a quester of sorts for whom invisibility, or at least a certain neutrality, is prerequisite, since he is intent on testing out the waters of racial interfacing along a Saigon bar strip frequented by black and white GIs who enter the area, as it were, through separate doors as they seek relief from the stress and strain of combat among the mama-sans and their attendant bar girls.

An implicit distinction is drawn in the poem between the GIs' quest for sexless or pre-sexual socialization in the bars and their quest for sex in other rooms, for although the black GIs are shunned by the mama-sans and bar girls in the bars frequented by the white GIs, "deeper into alleys," in off-limits areas, the black soldiers have access to prostitutes whose services are available on a nondiscriminatory basis. These assignations take place in "rooms" that invoke a transformational combat landscape: They "run into each other like tunnels / leading to the underworld." Implicit in these conduits is a common humanity, linked to a common death, figuratively in sex and literally in war, for black and white GIs alike:

       There's more than a nation
       inside us, as black & white
       soldiers touch the same lovers
       minutes apart, tasting
       each other's breath …

What's "more than a nation / inside" the GIs, black and white, is of course their shared humanity.

The persona knows about the two doors, but impelled by purposes of the persona behind the persona—the poet in quest of a poem and, consequently, of his equalization and literary canonization—he goes in through the opposite door anyway, purposefully and perhaps ritualistically subjecting himself to the rejection on racial grounds he knows he is sure to get. When he enters the bar frequented by the white GIs, where the music is different from that in the bars where the black GIs go, the bar girls "fade like tropical birds" in their evasiveness. The experience triggers a memory involving an ironic representation of music that separates rather than unites by virtue of its inherent harmony:

       Music divides the evening.
       I close my eyes & can see
       men drawing lines in the dust.
       America pushes through the membrane
       of mist & smoke, & I'm a small boy
       again in Bogalusa. White Only
       signs & Hank Snow.

The impulse that motivated Komunyakaa as a small boy in his Louisiana hometown of Bogalusa impels him now as a GI in Vietnam, both personae laying claim to their humanity. And as it was at home, so it is on the war front—at least in the rear echelon in Saigon where the soldiers go for rest and recuperation. In the combat zone, where "only machine gun fire brings us / together," where interracial camaraderie has immediate survival value, a different code of behavior prevails:

       Back in the bush at Dak To
       & Khe Sanh, we fought
       the brothers of these women
       we now run to hold in our arms.

The surface implications of the last two lines quoted are apparent, but just as we should not miss their function in expressing the common humanity that is the object of the persona's quest, we should not overlook the note of respect the passage affords women in its emphasis on the humanistic aspect of the embrace, virtually annulling the sexual import of the situation and betokening the generally humanistic portrayal of women we find in Komunyakaa's work as a whole.

The bar girls and prostitutes of Saigon are metonymically depicted in "Tu Do Street" as victims, their "voices / wounded by their beauty and war." These women are also a part of the "nation / inside us" quoted and commented on above, for it is they—"the same lovers" touched by black GIs and white GIs alike, implicitly by virtue of their capacity for motherhood, for bringing life into the world, and as the primary sources of nurturing—who are the conferers and common denominators of the universal, of the common humanity that populates Komunyakaa's projected socio-literary commonwealth and makes material his "unified vision."

Robyn Selman (review date June 1993)

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SOURCE: A review of Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems, in VLS, No. 116, June, 1993, pp. 6-7.

[In the review below, Selman examines stylistic features of Komunyakaa's poetry, noting in particular his focus on music in Neon Vernacular.]

       An old anger drips into my throat,
       & I try thinking something good,
       letting the precious bad
       settle to the salty bottom.
       Another scene keeps repeating itself:
       I emerge from the dark theatre,
       passing a woman who grabs her red purse
       & hugs it to her like a heart attack.

Most of Yusef Komunyakaa's poems rise to a crescendo, like that moment in songs one or two beats before the bridge, when everything is hooked-up, full-blown. Over the course of Komunyakaa's seven books, much has been made of the recurring themes in his work: autobiography, African American experience in the South and in Vietnam. Much has also been said about the music in his poetry, the song lyrics and musicians' names.

       Dexter Gordon's tenor sax
       plays "April in Paris"
       inside my head all the way back
       on the bus from Double Bay.
       Round Midnight, the 50's,
       cool cobblestone streets
       resound footsteps of Bebop
       musicians with whiskey-laced voices
       from a boundless dream in French.
       Bud, Prez, Webster, & the Hawk,
       their names run together riffs.

While many critics have remarked on the musical names (Coltrane, Billie Holiday, Leadbelly) that crop up in Komunyakaa's work and the work of other African American poets such as Cornelius Eady, they often regard these ghostly appearances as emblems or elegies, an African American musicians' museum. But while building such a gallery might be worthwhile, there's more to these ghosts than that. In Komunyakaa's poems, they're clanking the very chains of language.

       Pinetop's boogiewoogie
       keys stack against each other like syllables
       in tongue-tripped elegies for Lady Day
       & Duke.
       Don't try to make any sense
       out of this; just let it take you
       like Pres's tenor & keep you human.

Komunyakaa is an innovator; his language plays on the infinite nature of vocabulary. In scads of borrowed lyrics, from the upbeat "Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay" down the druggy slope of "Purple Haze," the lexicons of jazz and blues supply him with a raw, articulate alter ego: "The tongue labors, / a victrola in the mad African-American mouth-hole / of 3 A.M. sorrow." Like a brother less self-conscious than the poet, music as Komunyakaa hears it is not merely a celebration or even a culmination of heritage and culture, but an entire alternate linguistic anatomy.

Music appears when and where traditional vocabulary falters. When, for example, a hot day triggers a black man's lust for a white woman, the poet segues to Johnny Mathis's "Beside Her Like a Whisper"; when a black farmer works his stubborn land and turns up nothing but rocks, he hums "Amazing Grace." Each song comes with scores of connotations. The light-skinned Mathis and the prayer "Amazing Grace" become evocative synonyms for more familiar and flatter words like impossibility, forbidden, coaxing, and even goddammit.

Komunyakaa speaks out of more than one side of his mouth—there's the narrator, his musical partner, the language we're used to, and the edges of something newer. Neon Vernacular, Komunyakaa's eighth collection, pushes the layered dialogue further. It contains about 30 pages of new poems, followed by generous selections from previous books. One of the longer new poems is "Songs for My Father," a piece in minute-long, verselike sections caused by sounds the poet hears—a hyenalike laugh, a meditative quiet, the noises of lovemaking—each of which remind him of his father.

       You were a quiet man
       Who'd laugh like a hyena
       On a hill, with your head
       Thrown back, gazing up at the sky
       But most times you just worked
       Hard, rooted in the day's anger
       Till you'd explode. We always
       Walked circles around
       You, wider each year …

The 170 long-playing pages amplify Komunyakaa's tonal range. He says, "The beast & the burden lock-step & waltz," and they do. Neon Vernacular gives rise to the hope that Coltrane, Duke, and Gordon will materialize as synonyms for sinewy or lugubrious, dimensional or heard in the turn-of-the-century thesaurus.

        Tremolo. Dexter comes back to rest
        behind my eyelids. A loneliness
        lingers like a silver needle
       under my black skin,
        as I try to feel how it is
       to scream for help through a horn.

Toi Derricotte (essay date Fall 1993)

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SOURCE: "The Tension between Memory and Forgetting in the Poetry of Yusef Komunyakaa," in The Kenyon Review, Vol. XV, No. 4, Fall, 1993, pp. 217-22.

[In the essay below, Derricotte surveys Komunyakaa's works, focusing on his major themes.]

The publication of Yusef Komunyakaa's Magic City and his new and selected poems, Neon Vernacular, provide an opportunity for a detailed examination of the body of his work. Nine collections have been published since his first, Dedications & Other Darkhorses, in 1977. All the poems discussed here can be found in Neon Vernacular, except those from Magic City. Quite simply, Komunyakaa is one of the most extraordinary poets writing today. This review will consider the characteristics of the voice in four of his books, its style, intent, and the possible reasons for changes in that voice.

"It's truth we're after," Komunyakaa says in "Safe Subjects," a poem from his third book, Copacetic. But it won't be an easy truth:

       Redemptive as a straight razor
       against the jugular vein—
       unacknowledged & unforgiven.
       It's truth we're after here,
       hurting for, out in the streets
       where my brothers kill each other …

In his earlier work, that truth is not a matter of conveying literal or narrative subjects. In fact, his earlier poems retreat from language in terms of these functions—not retreat in the sense of giving up but retreat as an act of resistance, as one retreats in military strategy. In a world where African-American identity—in particular, African-American male identity—is constantly threatened, language and the poem itself become a last defense, the ultimate weapon of the ego against dissolution. Poetry avenges pain, brings back what is lost, masks suffering, denies and heals it. For Komunyakaa, poetry is the expression of an embattled ego determined by whatever means necessary to survive.

In the first poem in Copacetic, "False Leads," the speaker warns "Mister Bloodhound Boss" that a worker he is looking for, "Slick Sam," is extremely dangerous. "They say Slick Sam's a mind reader: / he knows what you gonna do / before you think it. / He can lead you into quicksand / under a veil of swamp gas." He assures the man of his own sincerity: "Now you know me, Uncle T, / I wouldn't tell you no lie." Though the tone is playful, as John Wide-man has said of black speech such as "the dozens" and so-called "street language," words are a deadly serious game. Here, they intend to turn the tables in favor of the underdog—as they did in the Brer Rabbit folktales—to obfuscate the reality of the one who is seemingly in charge at the same time they clarify the speaker's cleverness and control.

Rarely is the word I used in his earlier poems. The title, "False Leads," may suggest that the poems themselves lead us away from a personal narrator. The recent poems are led by memory, but the earlier poems are controlled by focused shots of brilliant imagery that capture an emotional constellation. "Believe this, brother, / we're dice in a hard time hustle. / No more than handfuls of meat," the poet says in "Letter to Bob Kaufman." The disappearance of the poet is often signaled by his taking on the persona of another person or entering another state of being. "I am this space / my body believes in," he says in "Unnatural State of the Unicorn," a poem from I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head, his fifth collection.

In I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head Komunyakaa deepens and extends themes expressed in his earlier work. Images of war appear over and over again in poems that evidently were written before Dien Cai Dau, Komunyakaa's haunting book about his experience in Vietnam. "I am a man. I've scuffled / in mudholes, broken teeth in a grinning skull / like the moon behind bars," he says in "Unnatural State of the Unicorn." In "Touch-up Man," he says, "I lean over the enlarger, / in the light table's chromatic glare / where I'm king, doctoring photographs, / airbrushing away the corpses." In "Landscape for the Disappeared," in a grotesque and macabre procession, "The dead / stumble home like swamp fog, / our lost uncles & granddaddies / come back to us almost healed." At the end of the poem, in one of the most beautiful passages in this—or any—book, suddenly one face becomes clear and singular:

       Here's this lovely face so black
       with marsh salt. Her smile,
       a place where minnows swim.
       All the full presence
       shiny as a skull under the skin.
       Say it again—we are
       spared nothing.

It may be a particular girl he remembers, perhaps a girl he saw in Vietnam. In saying, "We are spared nothing," Komunyakaa refers to the fact that we cannot escape memory, that, in this case, his own poetry has led him back to his buried past. Has she come to accuse or forgive the speaker? "Her smile, / a place where minnows swim. / All the full presence / shiny …" suggests a redemptive transformation.

The poems in Dien Cai Dau, Komunyakaa's sixth book, published in 1988, are held together by the excruciating tension between memory and forgetting. In "Camouflaging the Chimera," the first poem in the book, soldiers prepare themselves for combat. "We tied branches to our helmets. / We painted our faces & rifles / with mud from a riverbank." Their union with nature—their disappearance—suggests both death and transcendence. Later in the poem he says, "We aimed at dark-hearted songbirds." This reference to the gentleness of the adversaries and to their darkness shows the mixed feelings he faces in this conflict against people of color, the sense that he is doing the dirty work of the oppressor of them both. The soldiers are faceless, anonymous. They are so still "The river ran through [their] bones." Are they already dead? Are they ghosts? While they wait to ambush the enemy, each man is lost in his own private vision; "we held our breath, / … as a world revolved / under each man's eyelid." Is the war a dream? Is the poem itself a dream? The title of the book, Dien Cai Dan, is a Vietnamese expression that American GI's picked up and used a great deal during the war meaning "crazy in the head." So we are introduced to the states of depersonalization and denial that war wreaks on the psyche. This is a book about seeing and not seeing, about not being there in order to be there. It presents the paradoxes of a psyche, of an art that is compelled to examine itself, and yet is determined to control reality in a way that makes it able to be endured.

In "Starlight Scope Myopia," the soldiers are given a scope for their guns that makes them able to see at night. The title of the device, "Starlight Scope," like other military terms—for example, "friendly fire,"—masks the horror of what is really happening—that it brings men into killing range. The use of the word "Myopia" suggests that the poet is writing not about what can be seen with the scope, but about what can't be seen—the human toll of the war and, in particular, the toll of a war that seems unjustified. Dream and memory mix so that the "Viet Cong / move under our eyelids / … years after this scene ends." The last lines of the poem are emblazoned on the mind with an image that, paradoxically, owes a debt to the language and evocative imagery of Eastern poetry, "You / peer down the sights of your M-16, / seeing the full moon / loaded on an oxcart." In a sense the horrors of Vietnam become a metaphor for the psychic threat in his earlier poems, a state in which insanity protects sanity. This inner conflict illuminates the nature of forces that operate within the minds of individuals and in communities threatened by mental and/or physical extermination—what one may term as pathological is, in fact, a necessary and healthy response to an untenable reality.

Komunyakaa understands fire and has articulated its destructiveness as few poets ever have. "A girl still burning / inside my head," he says in "'You and I are Disappearing'" (the title is a phrase from Björn Hakansson), "She glows like the fat tip / of a banker's cigar" and "She burns like a burning bush / driven by a godawful wind." It is most appropriate that fire—that god of transcendence and changing states—is so present in these poems.

The new poems in Magic City are among Komunyakaa's most beautiful. They have a straightforward lyricism, as if the terrible confrontation with the self in Dien Cai Dau has brought about an expansiveness, accessibility, and narrative directness:

       At noon, Daddy would walk
       Across the field of goldenrod
       & mustard weed, the pollen
       Bright & sullen on his overalls.
       He'd eat on our screened-in
       Back porch—red beans & rice
       With ham hocks & cornbread.
       Lemonade & peach Jello.
                                 ("The Whistle")

The new poems contain images of great sensuality and beauty—metaphors to die for! "An orgasm of golden dust / clung to the wooden floor" ("Gristmill"), and "Her breasts / Rose like swamp orchids" ("Salome"), and "as if the tongue was a latch / Holding down a grace note" ("Albino"). There is great love for the people in the community in which he grew up, Bogalusa, Louisiana. He writes about his childhood among people in a rural, black, southern community isolated by racism, driven by compelling economic, physical, and spiritual needs, "Unable to divide love from hunger", he says in "Banking Potatoes."

The time frame for these poems is from about the age of five to fourteen or fifteen, from boyhood to sexual initiation, that protected period when a boy learns to be a man. The period of so-called sexual latency provides a wonderful vantage from which to examine the community in which he grew up. "Soon we'd be / Responsible for the chambered / Rapture honeycombed in flesh," he says in "Boys in Dresses." In a wonderful way, the poet combines a child's vision and passion, an adult's compassion and wisdom, and a poet's language in these poems. "Don't mess with me / 'Cause I have my Lone Ranger / Six-shooter. I can hurt / You with questions" ("Venus's-flytraps"). There is always a driving question: What is the nature of good and evil? Martin Luther King distinguished the difference between primary evil and secondary evil by saying that primary evil is the evil that causes other evils to happen. If so, certainly the community Komunyakaa evokes in these poems—even in their acts of violence—are innocent.

No matter how grim the nature of the event, no matter how bloody—for example, the slaughter and butchering of a pig—there is always the coolness and exactness of one who must become used to hard things. "They smile as she passed / Through their hands," the poet says in "Immolatus." "Next day / I tracked blood in a circle / Across dead grass, while fat / Boiled down to lye soap." In "Yellow-jackets," when a plowblade strikes an old stump, the bees swarm all over the horse:

      He shivered, but not
      The way women shook their heads
      Before mirrors at the five
      & dime—a deeper connection
      To the low field's evening star.
      He stood there, in tracechains,
      Lathered in froth, just
      Stopped by a great, goofy
      Calmness. He whinnied
      Once, & then the whole
      Beautiful, blue-black sky
      Fell on his back.

In "Glory," the poet talks about a baseball game played "In a field between a row of shotgun houses / & the Magazine Lumber Company." He speaks of the hard life of the players, "Most were married teenagers / Working knockout shifts daybreak / To sunset six days a week—/ Already old men playing ball…. They were all Jackie Robinson / & Willie Mays, a touch of Josh Gibson & Satchell Paige / In each stance & swing, a promise / Like a hesitation pitch always / At the edge of their lives." He shows the saving grace of ritual, how "A stolen base or homerun / Would help another man / Survive the new week."

In the end, Komunyakaa's poetry is about art, about how it alters reality, how it can change the past, how it is both a desperate and a redemptive act. In "My Father's Love Letters," the father, who can't write, asks the speaker to write a letter to his mother begging her to come home: "He would beg, / Promising to never beat her / Again." The speaker remembers "how Mary Lou / Williams' 'Polka Dots & Moonbeams' / Never made the swelling go down." The words of the letters "rolled from under the pressure / Of my ballpoint: Love, / Baby, Honey, Please." The poet recognizes his father's culpability, yet, at the same time, sees his reasons. "My father could only sign / His name, but he'd look at blueprints / & say how many bricks / Formed each wall." In a final image of resolution, Komunyakaa speaks about the healing work of language, "Laboring over a simple word, almost / Redeemed by what he tried to say." Like life, art must be equal to the brutalization from which it has emerged. Its beauty and meaning must balance horror and give the ego a reason to survive.

In Magic City Komunyakaa revisits his childhood. Perhaps the real magic is that he can come back with the compassion of a man who himself has had to do terrible things. In "Blackberries," Komunyakaa says, "I ate the mythology & dreamt / Of pies & cobbler, almost / Needful as forgiveness." It is as if the new poetry has found a vantage for forgiveness—and, first, of the self!

I am reminded of Romare Bearden who said: "Art celebrates a victory. And that victory is twofold. In general, it involves capturing and redeeming both the beauty and the sullenness of the past. In particular, it proclaims that black people have survived." Komunyakaa takes on the most complex moral issues, the most harrowing ugly subjects of our American life. His voice, whether it embodies the specific experiences of a black man, a soldier in Vietnam, or a child in Bogalusa, Louisiana, is universal. It shows us in ever deeper ways what it is to be human.

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Komunyakaa, Yusef (Vol. 86)