ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
“I learned from jazz that I could write anything into a poem.”
Books by Yusef Komunyakaa
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By Yusef Komunyakaa
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2001)
Essays, Interviews, and Commentaries
By Yusef Komunyakaa
Edited by Radiclani Clytus
University of Michigan Press, 2000
Review Excerpts by Adam Kirsch
Yusef Komunyakaa is a musical poet . . . . In Blue Notes, a collection of his interviews and occasional prose, there is a short statement about Komunyakaa’s relationship to jazz music, with the instructive title “Shape and Tonal Equilibrium.” He insists, fairly enough, that “As an African American poet . . . I resist being conveniently stereotyped as a jazz poet.” But jazz is nonetheless a primary inspiration for his technique: “Jazz . . . has been the one thing that gives symmetryshape and tonal equilibriumto my poetry.” It provides a way to unify the eclectic references and “tonal insinuations” that crowd his poems. In other words, what Komunyakaa takes from jazz is improvisation: “I learned from jazz that I could write anything into a poem.”
“Tone,” he writes in another short essay, “is the poem’s buried structure. Here I think of Charlie Parker as he played `Cherokee,’ incorporating surprised feelings into the composition.” But the jazz metaphor leads to a particular, and perilous, interpretation of what it means to improvise in language. For, in the most basic sense, all writing of poetry is partly improvisation; there is no complete certainty as to what the next word, the next image, will be. The real choice is whether to make the improvised words seem composed, to give them the appearance of inevitability; or else to make the poem read as if it were improvised. (This choice is parallel to the choice between formal verse and free verse.) Komunyakaa opts for the latternot just for the fact of improvisation, but also for the appearance of improvisation; and what it gives in range and energy it takes away in precision and control.
A good example is the poem “1984,” from I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head, which appeared in 1986. (Komunyakaa’s first seven books are excerpted in Neon Vernacular, which was published in 1993.) The title sets the theme for Komunyakaa’s variationsOrwell’s dystopiaand he allows a series of associated words and images to swarm together:
We say, “I’ve seen it all.”
Bombardment & psychic flux,
not just art nouveau tabula rasa
or double helix. We’re ancient mariners
counting wishbones, in supersonic hulls
humming a falconer’s ditty
over a banged-up job.
The passage can be called jazz-like, if by that we mean a frenetic and wandering attention, but it has nothing intrinsically to do with jazz. (In its fractured narrative it is reminiscent of John Ashbery, a poet who has no proclaimed affinity with jazz.) It proceeds by non sequitur, a weakening of syntactic and semantic logic, and it suggests the same kinds of questions that we ask of Crane.
Even when the meaning is clearer, there are always particular words and transitions that seem born less of design than of whim. Consider “Diorama,” a section of the sequence “Palimpsest,” from Komunyakaa’s 1998 volume Thieves of Paradise:
& lines on the atlasanywhere
have-nots outnumber raintrees along
igniting skylines, marrying the dead
to the unborn. The meek. The brain
an Orwellian timemachine where Boyz
N the Hood drifts into a Fagin school.
They look for Wild Maggie Carson,
Crazy Butch, the Little Dead Rabbits,
Plug Uglies, & Daylight Boys. No one
escapes the concentric shotgun blast.
Circles reach back to Hell’s Kitchen
& out to Dorchester, coldcocking
the precious sham of neon. The night
sways like a pinball machine on a warped
slowdragged smooth by Love & Hate
in each other’s arms.
Here the “buried structure” is not clearly announced, but it can be teased out: the poem is a set of improvisations on the subject of urban poverty and gang violence. Komunyakaa suggests a continuity between the urchins of Oliver Twist (“Fagin school”), nineteenth-century New York gangs such as the Plug Uglies, and the contemporary African American gangs portrayed in the film Boyz N the Hood. These zones of poverty are, to most people, “terra incognita,” inhabited by nameless “have-nots.” The “shotgun blast,” the effect of violence, reaches everyone in the old New York ghetto of Hell’s Kitchen, the modern Boston ghetto of Dorchester, and, by implication, the similar neighborhoods in every American city. But there are wide gaps in this net of inference. How does an avenue ignite a skyline? Why are there “raintrees” in these urban landscapes? Who are the “they” that “look for” the people named (and who are most of the people)? How do you “coldcock” a “sham”?
Interestingly, Komunyakaa’s “jazz” styleif it is fair so to call itrecedes before certain subjects, which demand a more straightforward treatment. One of these, oddly enough, is jazz itself, and the lives of its heroes. The section of Thieves of Paradise called “Testimony” is a sequence of fourteen poems about Charlie Parker, and the desire to testify accurately leads Komunyakaa to a plain, prosy style:
I can see him, a small boy
clutching a hairbrush.
This is 852 Freeman
Street, just after his father
took off on the Pullman line
with a porter’s jacket
flapping like a white flag.
Here, more clearly than in Komunyakaa’s wilder poems, we can see that his free verse, like most free verse, is basically made up of prose sentences, arbitrarily lineated. In one of the interviews included in Blue Notes, Komunyakaa says that “when I first write a poem, I will confine it to its initial line breaks, but when I’m reading [aloud], I read basically according to how I’m feeling. . . .When I’m reading, I’m not always looking at the page, but I remember the words.” This seems fairly clear evidence that the “initial line breaks” are not created with any sonic pattern in mind, but with that same inchoate drive towards “equilibrium” that informs every aspect of his poems. And as with almost every free-verse poet, the pressure of those line breaks is not strong enough to direct our reading of the verse.
Jazz, too, invites a certain sentimentality from Komunyakaa. The next to last poem in Neon Vernacular is “Blue Light Lounge Sutra for the Performance Poets at Harold Park Hotel,” and it is a case study in what happens when poetry reaches for the pre-verbal power of music:
the need gotta be
so deep words can’t
answer simple questions
all night long notes
stumble off the tongue
& color the air indigo
so deep fragments of gut
& flesh cling to the song . . .
This is a poem about the insufficiency of poetry, of language: a time-honored theme, but always a problematic one. If the need addressed by poetry is “so deep words can’t answer” it, what can the poet do but gesture at it, declaring his own limitations? Komunyakaa is driven to synesthesiaindigo notes, gut clinging to the songto indicate a fulfillment that is natural to music but extremely difficult to achieve in poetry.
The other subject that calls forth a plain style from Komunyakaa is the Vietnam war. He is perhaps best known as a “Vietnam poet,” thanks mainly to the poems in Toys in a Field (1986) and Dien Cai Dau (1988). This tortured subject has seldom been handled in a truly poetic fashionthat is, disinterestedly and aesthetically. Perhaps enough time has not yet elapsed. Komunyakaa’s poems are, instead, forms of witness, autobiographical and morally insistent. It is an honorable purpose, and one that he fulfills with candor.
We learn from Blue Notes that Komunyakaa was a military reporter in Vietnam, frequently saw combat, and was awarded a Bronze Star. As a journalist, he was already burdened with the task his poetry was to address more completely: “I had to report, I had to witness.” And that is what he does, for example, in “Please”:
Mistakes piled up men like clouds
pushed to the far side.
Sometimes I try to retrace
my fingers down the map
telling less than a woman’s body
we followed the grid coordinates
in some battalion commander’s mind.
If I could make my mouth
unsay those orders,
I’d holler: Don’t
move a muscle.
& keep your fucking head
These poems, for all their awful subject matter, are unsurprising; the writing of the world wars, and other Vietnam writing, has taught us what to expect. The merit of Komunyakaa’s Vietnam poems lies in their precision, like this fine description of a captured Vietnamese soldier “surrendering halfway: the small man inside / waits like a photo in a shirt pocket, refusing / to raise his hands.” Komunyakaa is also striking in his descriptions of what it was like to be a black soldier in the American army, divided from both fellow soldier and enemy. “Hanoi Hannah,” a poem about listening to the North Vietnamese radio propagandist, is restrained but telling:
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.”
What Komunyakaa calls, in that same interview, the “vicious arguments with oneself” that he underwent in Vietnam are only alluded to in his verse, but their violence is well communicated by his reticence.
Talking Dirty to the Gods is Komunyakaa’s tenth book, and it is a departure from his previous work. It contains 132 poems, all in the same form, a loose semi-sonnet of four quatrains. It is the first time that he has so comprehensively submitted to a regular form, though it is not a very constricting one: there are no rhymes, the line lengths vary, and the basic structure of the poems remains that of the sentence. Still, the form provides a measure of tension that has been missing from much of his earlier work. Even such flexible limitations have led Komunyakaa to produce his best poems so far.
The nearest analogy to Talking Dirty to the Gods is Robert Lowell’s History, another collection of irregular sonnets. Like Lowell, Komunyakaa meditates brokenly on violence, natural and human; esoteric details from his reading provide many of his subjects and images. The poems do not tell a single story, but the repetition of form and the return to a few subjects and fields of reference make the book feel unified. Komunyakaa looks to Greek antiquity, to nature, and to contemporary America for his subjects, and he mixes the three to good effect.
“Eros,” for instance, sounds one of the collection’s main themes, the power of sex:
He’s on a hammock in Bangkok,
Eating succulent prawns & squid
Spiced with red pepper & lemongrass.
Hesiod’s “Fairest of the deathless
Gods” can feel the fatigue syndrome
Loosen its grip in this archipelago
Of pleasures. He reads a pirated
Edition of The Plague. At twilight,
He’ll go to the corner shop
& buy a jade brooch for Muriel
Back in Boise. He’ll return
To Club Limbo. A new counterfeit
Gift dipped in fire. Eros throws
A kiss to the teenage prostitute,
& touches the wad of greenbacks
Nestled against his groin.
The irony hereEros is not a graceful boy, but a jaded American sex touristis rather heavy, especially the stereotypical “Muriel back in Boise,” a Babbitt wife. Yet the particulars in the poem, the juxtaposition of registersthe gross “wad of greenbacks” delicately “nestled” against the groinis very effective. And in this limited compass, Komunyakaa’s usual obscuritieswho or what is the “counterfeit gift dipped in fire”?seem better calibrated, more jarring, than when they come in a continuous stream.
Another poem, “October,” is equally striking in its respect for archaic violence:
Half of summer, at the lonely
Wooded edge you lingered.
Now, with that wet nose
Pressed to the windowpane,
I fear for you. In changing
Coat, your antlers a crime.
I say Arrow & rifle slug,
But you keep edging closer.
I wish you understood salt licks
& blinds. If you were in northern
Mexico, not in New Jersey
Where the leaves fake blood,
Praise would be a Tarahumara
Chasing you till a heart detonates
Shadows, till Actaeon’s voice is
Surrounded by his baying hounds.
The sudden introduction of Actaeon is a much more unlikely and pleasing use for Greek myth than most contemporary poets can find. Komunyakaa’s wary respect for the hunter, his pity for the elk in domesticated New Jersey, are in keeping with the book’s general distrust of modern life, which has not eliminated violence, but casts it in new and less honest forms. Modernity is derided as an “endless situation comedy,” as mere “modern reason.”
Komunyakaa is nostalgic for a world before Darwin, when “what the worm / Taught us was sacred, / Serene as the beetle / Grub the bird now jabs / With her spear”for the insect world that he conjures in “Bedazzled”:
A jeweled wasp stuns
A cockroach & plants an egg
Inside. In no time, easy
As fear eats into someone,
The translucent larva grows
Beneath its host’s burnished
Shell. The premature stinger
Waits like a bad idea, almost
Instead we now have the far more destructive and vulgar violence of man. One modern specimen is exhibited in the book’s first poem, “Hearsay”:
Yes, they say if you shave a monkey
You’ll find a pragmatist, the president
Of a munitions plant, a tobacco tycoon,
Or a manufacturer of silicone breasts
Who owns a medieval chateau
Decorated with Picasso’s Weeping Women
& Madonna’s underwear.
One advantage of the sonnet sequenceand Talking Dirty to the Gods is more or less a sonnet sequenceis that not every poem needs to succeed equally. The momentum of repetition carries us over the limper or more confusing poems. The latter occur when Komunyakaa attempts too many disjunctions in the short space that he has to work with, as in “The God of Broken Things”:
He could go on forever fixing
Cracks, fissures, dents, fractures,
Rasping & gluing together what is
Unheard-of with what can never be
Broken or hurt beneath the architecture
Of planned obsolescence. Objets d’art
& bric-a-brac mended with ratty hemp.
The secret space the butterfly
Screw opens wings inside a heart
Made to slip into a dream.
The leap from the rather banal list of synonyms to the elevated, wandering, syntactically wounded lines is unsatisfying. And the last sentence is more or less unreadablea screw opens a space that wings inside a heart that slips into a dreamall dreamy connotation, no precise denotation. It is an example of the kind of improvised, “musical” verse that Komunyakaa has often written in the past, and its weakness is the more evident in this more regular form.
Indeed, this is a good example of the virtue of form: it urges a certain objectivity and openness, it prevents the poet from improvising and demands that he compose. If the form in Talking Dirty to the Gods were stricter, Komunyakaa could perhaps get away with more obscurity, since the pattern would enforce a sense beyond the literal sense. That is what Lowell often achieves in the sonnets in History, such as “Bird?”:
A large pileated bird flies up,
dropping excretions like a frightened
in Easter feathers; its earwax-yellow
angrily hitting the air from side to side
blazing a passage through the smothering
the lizard tyrants were killed to a man
by this bird,
man’s forerunner. I picked up stones,
to snatch its crest, the crown, at last,
the perilous passage, sound in mind
and body . . .
often reaching the passage, seeing my
stream on the water, as if I were cleaning
With Lowell’s poem, too, we can ask many questions about sense: what, for example, is the “perilous passage”? And yet the heavy, perfectly tuned lines, each accelerating into its end-stop, create a verbal music that carries all before it. Komunyakaa, by contrast, still takes his direction from prose, not from verse, and so he does not make the most of his chosen form. But even with this limitation, Talking Dirty to the Gods is his best and most beautiful book so far.
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Adam Kirsch is a poet and critic living in New York City. He writes frequently about poetry for The New Republic.
New Republic, 02/26/2001, Vol. 224 Issue 9, p38, 4p.
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Mockingbirds at Jerusalem (poetry Manuscript)
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For July 1st through August 31st 2011
#1 – Justify My Thug by Wahida Clark #2 – Flyy Girl by Omar Tyree #3 – Head Bangers: An APF Sexcapade by Zane #4 – Life Is Short But Wide by J. California Cooper #5 – Stackin’ Paper 2 Genesis’ Payback by Joy King #6 – Thug Lovin’ (Thug 4) by Wahida Clark #7 – When I Get Where I’m Going by Cheryl Robinson #8 – Casting the First Stone by Kimberla Lawson Roby #9 – The Sex Chronicles: Shattering the Myth by Zane
#10 – Covenant: A Thriller by Brandon Massey
#11 – Diary Of A Street Diva by Ashley and JaQuavis
#12 – Don’t Ever Tell by Brandon Massey
#13 – For colored girls who have considered suicide by Ntozake Shange
#14 – For the Love of Money : A Novel by Omar Tyree
#15 – Homemade Loves by J. California Cooper
#16 – The Future Has a Past: Stories by J. California Cooper
#17 – Player Haters by Carl Weber
#18 – Purple Panties: An Eroticanoir.com Anthology by Sidney Molare
#19 – Stackin’ Paper by Joy King
#20 – Children of the Street: An Inspector Darko Dawson Mystery by Kwei Quartey
#21 – The Upper Room by Mary Monroe
#22 Thug Matrimony by Wahida Clark
#23 – Thugs And The Women Who Love Them by Wahida Clark
#24 – Married Men by Carl Weber
#25 – I Dreamt I Was in Heaven – The Rampage of the Rufus Buck Gang by Leonce Gaiter
#1 – Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable #2 – Confessions of a Video Vixen by Karrine Steffans #3 – Dear G-Spot: Straight Talk About Sex and Love by Zane #4 – Letters to a Young Brother: MANifest Your Destiny by Hill Harper #5 – Peace from Broken Pieces: How to Get Through What You’re Going Through by Iyanla Vanzant #6 – Selected Writings and Speeches of Marcus Garvey by Marcus Garvey #7 – The Ebony Cookbook: A Date with a Dish by Freda DeKnight #8 – The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors by Frances Cress Welsing #9 – The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter Godwin Woodson
#10 – John Henrik Clarke and the Power of Africana History by Ahati N. N. Toure
#11 – Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure by Tavis Smiley
#12 –The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
#13 – The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life by Kevin Powell
#14 – The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore
#15 – Why Men Fear Marriage: The Surprising Truth Behind Why So Many Men Can’t Commit by RM Johnson
#16 – Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire by Carol Jenkins
#17 – Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority by Tom Burrell
#18 – A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose by Eckhart Tolle
#19 – John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard
#20 – Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher by Leonard Harris
#21 – Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number: Black Women Explore Midlife by Carleen Brice
#22 – 2012 Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino #23 – Chicken Soup for the Prisoner’s Soul by Tom Lagana #24 – 101 Things Every Boy/Young Man of Color Should Know by LaMarr Darnell Shields
#25 – Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class by Lisa B. Thompson
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The Black Arts MovementLiterary Nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s
By James Edward Smethurst
Emerging from a matrix of Old Left, black nationalist, and bohemian ideologies and institutions, African American artists and intellectuals in the 1960s coalesced to form the Black Arts Movement, the cultural wing of the Black Power Movement. In this comprehensive analysis, James Smethurst examines the formation of the Black Arts Movement and demonstrates how it deeply influenced the production and reception of literature and art in the United States through its negotiations of the ideological climate of the Cold War, decolonization, and the civil rights movement.
Taking a regional approach, Smethurst examines local expressions of the nascent Black Arts Movement, a movement distinctive in its geographical reach and diversity, while always keeping the frame of the larger movement in view. The Black Arts Movement, he argues, fundamentally changed American attitudes about the relationship between popular culture and “high” art and dramatically transformed the landscape of public funding for the arts.Publisher, University of North Carolina Press
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By Larry Neal
“What we have been trying to arrive at is some kind of synthesis of the writer’s function as an oppressed individual and a creative artist,” states Neal (1937-1981), a writer, editor, educator and activist prominent in the Black Arts movement of the 1960s and ’70s. Articulate, highly charged essays about the black experience examine the views of his predecessors–musicians and political theorists as well as writers–continually weighing artistic achievement against political efficacy. While the essays do not exclude any readers, Neal’s drama, poetry and fiction are more limited in their form of address, more explicitly directed to the oppressed. The poems are particularly intense in their protest: “How many of them / . . . have been made to /prostitute their blood / to the merchants of war.” Rhythmic and adopting the repetitive structure of music, they capture the “blues in our mothers’ voices / which warned us / blues people bursting out.” Commentaries by Neal’s peers, Amiri Baraka, Stanley Crouch, Charles Fuller and Jayne Cortez, introduce the various sections.Publishers Weekly
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From The World and Africa, 1965
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updated 3 April 2010