ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



Komunyakaa’s writing has an implosive quality

that makes even his shortest lyrics quite powerful.



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

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New and Collected Poems

By Yusef  Komunyakaa 

Wesleyan University Press (2004)

Talking Dirty to the Gods


By Yusef  Komunyakaa

Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2001)

Review Excerpts by David Wojahn

Yusef Komunyakaa is also one of our period’s most significant and individual voices, and the publication of his new Collected volume, along with an almost-simultaneously issued book-length sequence entitled Talking Dirty to the Gods, offers us a chance to appraise his career thus far.

Komunyakaa is [not] a subdued or impersonal writer . . . . he has a near-revelatory capacity to give himself over to his subject matter and to the taut concision of his free verse. This sort of empathy is rare in contemporary poetry, and those few who possess it certainly do not have Komunyakaa’s infallible ear.

It took Komunyakaa awhile to refine these qualities, as his early work attests. Komunyakaa began his career as a Deep Image poet, churning out the sort of tidy surrealist tidbits that everyone was doing in the Seventies. But suddenly, with his third full-length collection, 1986’s I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head, he found his characteristic voice, and his work has been consistently strong ever since.

He did not abandon surrealism and his gift for dazzling metaphors but began to apply them more ambitiously, taking as his models Vallejo and the Negritude poets (especially Cesaire), and finding ways to graft into his metric something of the flavor of the jazz and blues greats whom he so often evokes as tutelary spirits, among them Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Eric Dolphy, and especially Charlie Parker, whose life is the subject of one of the Collected’s longest efforts. As befitting the self-effacing quality of his work, Komunyakaa’s use of his influences has always seemed more a kind of psychic channeling than it has resembled more conventional sorts of literary borrowing and homages.

There’s a synthesizing erudition at work in Komunyakaa’s poems that makes for some surprising linkages: a poem about the convict-Blues man Leadbelly morphs into a poem about that other famed convict artist, Villon; in another effort the ghosts of Whitman, Billie Holiday, and Crazy Horse commune and harmonize on a New Orleans street corner. It’s as though the associational play at work in Komunyakaa’s metaphors–which have the oddball but exact quality of surrealism at its best, as when a young crack dealer approaches “walking on air / solid as the Memnon Colossi”–can also be found in the way he makes use of literary and musical allusions.

Komunyakaa’s prosody gives a montage-like pacing to these effects: he favors short lines, few of them longer than three-beats, and surprising enjambments. He has an aversion to articles and his unexpected verb choices often have a jarring resonance. Even when he is working in forms such as the prose poem, his writing has a jittery and hyper-kinetic quality. As with Merwin and Creeley, those two other masters of the short line, he’s found a prosody so characteristic that it’s hard to mistake one of his stanzas for anyone else’s.

When these qualities come together at their frequent best, the writing has an implosive quality that makes even his shortest lyrics quite powerful. “Facing It,” a poem set at the Vietnam War Memorial, succeeds through a relentless application of displacement and synesthesia. The memorial does not elicit from Komunyakaa a stately meditation; by the poem’s second half the speaker is lost in a terrifying hall of mirrors:

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 the names:

No, she’s brushing a boy’s hair

This is the final poem of Dien Cai Dau, a book of lyrics recalling Komunyakaa’s experience as a military journalist during the Vietnam conflict, and it contains some of the most memorable war poetry to have been penned by an American poet. Ever since Dien Cai Dau ‘s appearance in 1992, Komunyakaa has favored book-length poetic sequences; 1993’s Magic City focuses on the poet’s childhood in the Jim Crow South, while 1998’s Thieves of Paradise is predominately concerned with issues of memory and history, particularly the ugly legacies of racism and colonialism.

Talking Dirty to the Gods is also a book-length sequence, more loosely structured than the three previous collections, but more cohesive in its formal concerns: 132 poems, each of them containing four quatrains. The lines in the new book tend to be a bit longer than those in his previous collections, many of them stretching out to tetrameter, with some of them employing end rhyme. The subject matter is more motley than in Komunyakaa’s previous several collections, and the tone of the poems is new for the poet: the stance is ironic and even satirical.

Commencing with a poem entitled “Hearsay,” and closing with one entitled “Heresy,” the book contains apostate retellings of Biblical stories and classical myth, visits each of the seven deadly sins, offers thumbnail portraits of figures ranging from Genet to Stalin, meditates on artworks (everything from the Venus of Willendorf to paintings by the Dutch masters), visits a fair number of erotic perversities, and even creates its own macabre Olympians, figures such as “The God of Land Mines,” “The Goddess of Quotas,” and “The God of Variables.” It’s a huge, sprawling gallery, an assemblage of “thing poems,” along the lines of Rilke’s New Poems volumes.

Komunyakaa’s meditations are surely more caffeinated and edgy than those of the German poet, but the best of the poems have the same self-erasing fixity of gaze, and they even–in an oddly Manichean fashion-have something of Rilke’s spiritual element as well.


New Poems • Early Uncollected • Dedications and Other Darkhorses • Lost in the Bonewheel Factory • Copacetic • Toys in a Field • I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head • Dien Cai Dau • February in Sydney • Magic City • Neon Vernacular • Thieves of Paradise • Index of titles and first lines

Talking Dirty to the Gods  is an uneven book, prone to self-imitation and formulaic writing in its worst patches, but astonishingly inventive in its best. Komunyakaa’s soloing is sometimes bravely exploratory, sometimes static–but so was that of the great jazzmen whom Komunyakaa so reveres. As delighted as I was to watch him display his chops, I also found myself wishing that the book were shorter. As it is, the collection resembles those CD reissues of classic jazz albums, brilliant at the core, surely, but a bit bloated thanks to the needless alternate takes. This is a minor caveat, however. Komunyakaa, the most recent recipient of POETRY’S Ruth Lilly Prize, is clearly one of our premier poets, and his work has a pungency and resourcefulness that are unmistakably his. Witness “Ode to the Maggot,” one of the best and most corrosive of the new book’s iconoclastic hymns:

Brother of the blowfly

& godhead, you work magic

Over battlefields.

In slabs of bad pork

& flophouses. Yes, you

Go to the root of all things.

You are sound & mathematical.

Jesus Christ, you’re merciless

With the truth. Ontological & lustrous,

You cast spells on beggars & kings

Behind the stone door of Caesar’s tomb

Or split trench in a field of ragweed.

No decree or creed can outlaw you

As you take every living thing apart. Little

Master of earth, no one gets to heaven

Without going through you first.


Poetry, Dec2001, Vol. 179 Issue 3, p168, 5p.  

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Mockingbirds at Jerusalem (poetry Manuscript)

*   *   *   *   *’s 25 Best Selling Books

For July 1st through August 31st 2011  


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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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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

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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)

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Ancient African Nations

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Negro Digest / Black World

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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

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

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

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update 8 November 2011



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

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