Talking Dirty Blue Notes Reviews

Talking Dirty Blue Notes Reviews


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

I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head / Dien Cai Dau / Magic City / Neon Vernacular / Toys in a Field

Thieves of Paradise / Talking Dirty to the Gods  /  Pleasure Dome Jazz Poetry Anthology  /  The Second Set  /  Taboo: The Wishbone Trilogy

Blue Notes: Essays, Interviews, and Commentaries

*   *   *   *   *

Talking Dirty to the Gods


By Yusef  Komunyakaa

Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2001)

Blue Notes

 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 symmetry—shape and tonal equilibrium—to 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 latter—not 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 variations—Orwell’s dystopia—and 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:

Terra incognita—crosshairs

& lines on the atlas—anywhere

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” style—if it is fair so to call it—recedes 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 synesthesia—indigo notes, gut clinging to the song—to 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 fashion—that 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

them, running

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.

Stay put,

& keep your fucking head

down, soldier.

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 here—Eros is not a graceful boy, but a jaded American sex tourist—is rather heavy, especially the stereotypical “Muriel back in Boise,” a Babbitt wife. Yet the particulars in the poem, the juxtaposition of registers—the gross “wad of greenbacks” delicately “nestled” against the groin—is very effective. And in this limited compass, Komunyakaa’s usual obscurities—who 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 sequence—and Talking Dirty to the Gods is more or less a sonnet sequence—is 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 unreadable—a screw opens a space that wings inside a heart that slips into a dream—all 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,

and hoped

to snatch its crest, the crown, at last,

and cross

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.

*   *   *   *   *

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.

*   *   *   *   *

Mockingbirds at Jerusalem (poetry Manuscript)

*   *   *   *   *’s 25 Best Selling Books

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 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

*   *   *   *   *

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

*   *   *   *   *

Visions of a Liberated Future

Black Arts Movement Writings

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

*   *   *   *   *

The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

*   *   *   *   *

Ancient African Nations

*   *   *   *   *

If you like this page consider making a donation

online through PayPal

*   *   *   *   *

Negro Digest / Black World

Browse all issues

1950        1960        1965        1970        1975        1980        1985        1990        1995        2000 ____ 2005        


*   *   *   *   *

The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery /

George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

*   *   *   *   *

The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

*   *   *   *   *


*   *   *   *   *






updated 3 April 2010 




Home  Yusef Table   Literature and Arts  

Related files:  Yusef Speaks 2   Yusef Speak 3    Rudy Interviews Yusef   Other Yusef Poems  Talking Dirty/Blue Notes Review  Pleasure Dome/Talking Dirty

Post Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.