Yusef Komunyakaa has a gift for naming unexpected likenesses, and also a gift for endings, and the two things converge in a poem like “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
Breathes on a thorny leaf.
Before the new wasp breaks
Free, they are one. No longer
Fat on death’s fugacity,
By tomorrow afternoon
It will cling to a window screen
Bright as Satan’s lost tiepin.
Fugacity I had to look up: It means not only something “fleeting” or “evanescent”—fat, here, by the flaring intensity of death—but refers also to a thermodynamic principle having to do with the fluctuation of gases between states, a principle that was first called “the escaping tendency.” The roach’s forced escape. The raw horror of power. A myth that’s brief and enjambed and vivid. An “egg” is “inside” and where I just wrote “is,” Komunyakaa uses the wordless force of the broken line. He likens the stinging to the mechanics of fear, the way it works us. He likens the new life to a misadventure. And melding his gift for likeness with his sense of a poem’s ending, he renders from a roach a gleaming and dangerous tiepin. I’m probably too quick to see metaphors for making poetry in the works of poets, but in any case, I find the poem a stunning demonstration of art’s uneasy relationship with destruction. And of the poet’s commending himself, almost without consent, to a poetry of witness.
Does just seeing the violence of our world make you complicit? Sooner or later every poet has to confront this question, because the material of all art is experience. Komunyakaa has been confronting this question from the beginning. He was in the Army during Vietnam, and one book is called Warhorses. In another book, he has a poem called “The God of Land Mines.” There are lines in “Love in the Time of War” echoing Yeats’s airman foreseeing his death in Komunyakaa’s voicing of a kamikaze pilot in World War II. Another, more recent poem: “Ghazal, After Ferguson.” He himself grew up in Louisiana, on the edge of woods and bayou, and his imagination lives there most of all, even though he’s taught at New York University and lived in New York City for most of the past two decades. His influences, implicit and explicit, range from Biggie and Grandmaster Flash to Langston Hughes, John Donne, Gwendolyn Brooks, Tennyson, and the Greeks—everywhere in Komunyakaa the Greeks.
His newest collection, Everyday Mojo Songs of Earth, puts the poet’s gifts on dazzling display. It’s a collection spanning the first twenty years of the new millennium, but beginning with new poems—mojo songs with titles like “A Prayer for Workers” and “The Soul’s Soundtrack”—before moving back to Talking Dirty to the Gods, which had a publication date of September 12, 2001. Premonitions: Komunyakaa’s excellence in endings draws on them. Which is to say he’s more subtle than climax, he doesn’t tend to finish poems in a climactic moment, but just before. For instance, poems of Eros—and there are many of these, too, in this poet’s oeuvre—break off just before the fireworks begin, leaving us to our imaginations once the stage has, as they say, been set. Likening himself to an acidic sweetness, he ends his poem “Lust” this way: “He longs to be / An orange, to feel fingernails / Run a seam through him.” There’s a whiff of myth here, and Komunyakaa blends a sure-eyed realism with the radiantly mythical like few living poets. Often his books—and this is visible in Everyday Mojo Songs of Earth—take up one shape, and repeat it, demonstrating that core principle of music, poetry, art: repetition within variation, variation within repetition. In Talking Dirty to the Gods, from which “Bedazzled” comes, it’s the quatrain. In Taboo it’s a stair-step-shaped tercet. Love in the Time of War dwells on and in the sonnet. Warhorses and The Emperor of Water Clocks favor a long column of free verse. And so on. Compression, abbreviation, languor, negotiation, form, the blues, “rivers of flesh and idiom”—there’s so much more to say about this poet.
JESSE NATHAN: Every word in your poems feels weighed, has a heft to it, feels earned and chiseled out. But at the same time, the style and the voices in these poems often seem languorous, or to long for a languor. For a lingering, for something slower, something not so driving. Do you think that’s accurate? Why, for instance, do you favor the ampersand in your poems? And what does ‘efficiency’ mean to you, in terms of poetry?
YUSEF KOMUNYAKAA: I like poetry that invites contemplation, and not the false urgency of an ad for an emotion propelled by noise. I read first the protest sonnets by Claude McKay and ballads by Paul Laurence Dunbar, and then ventured to poems by Langston Hughes, Robert Hayden, and Gwendolyn Brooks. Many of those poems one could sing. Now, I believe that there’s an uproar in our contemporary psyche that is attitude or disposition—a noise outside of sound that we ingest—even in poetry. In fact, I admire poetry that invites the reader in as a co-creator of meaning, atypical to the vertical plunge of some contemporary constructed poems of acceleration that does little for hearts and minds. Here, I think of Miles Davis when he began playing “fusion” gigs, trying to keep up with commercial zip-whang-doodle, saying that he stopped playing ballads because he loved them too much. So, yes, there is something to say about differences in the music of language; though I do not create much experimental diction, sometimes one has to follow the movement of one’s mind, even if it is not exactly the tonal reckoning in a Coltrane solo indebted to meditation.
When possible, I like to surprise myself, and I do that by improvising, but then one has to humble oneself and apply craft. In this sense, I learned a lot from my father who was a finishing carpenter who practiced precision. A sense of craft is not efficiency; it is often caring enough about one’s reader to keep working until a poem says what you want lyrically. Writing is work. I feel it takes an unhealthy ego to toss it out there or “spit” it into the air. I’m happy that’s not me. The idea of efficiency makes this sound like the journey of an antihero, someone who doesn’t have heart and soul to endure the daily grind. I grew up doing physical work, and perhaps that has informed my need to get it right, my love for using tools, to trust raw passion to grow and hone the poem beyond any idea of languor. The ampersand has been with me since my first poems. I am a visual person, and I like the look of this symbol, and it seems to speed up a line. It isn’t exactly my temperament to play word-jive, but I embraced some of the Beats—mainly Bob Kaufman, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac—before I read modernists such as e.e. cummings, Gertrude Stein, and Ezra Pound. In the late 1970s, the ampersand appeared informal, and that’s what I wanted my poems to signify, but later I realized the symbol also appears in some classical writings. I never thought about reversing my choice, and lately I’ve noticed some young poets using the ampersand. It is one’s freedom, right?