The poet suggests his art’s highest calling isn’t truth-telling but stirring our empathic imagination.
by Ela BittencourtApril 17, 2021
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The nimble verses of the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa, a professor in New York University’s graduate creative writing program, brim with erudition. But Komunyakaa’s vast scholarly interests — ancient myths, historical figures and botanical studies — intersect with the mundane and vernacular. This diversity is evident in Komunyakaa’s new book, Everyday Mojo Songs of Earth: New and Collected Poems, 2001-2021, which features 12 recent poems, alongside selections from six previous books, plus “Requiem,”on Hurricane Katrina.
Born in 1947, Komunyakaa grew up in Louisiana. His childhood memories of the segregated South account for some of the book’s strongest poems. In “Our Side of the Creek,” violence punctures a bucolic scene of children playing, as the “Jim Crow birds sang … after a 12-gauge shotgun / sounded in the mossy woods.” While readying his sling in “Slingshot,” a boy “knows / his body is a compass, a cross,” an image that conflates hopefulness with sorrow and pain. The prose poem, “Shelter,” addresses racial violence directly: a young Black war veteran, falsely accused of rape at knife-point by his former sweetheart, is jailed and beaten by the mob; years later, his name is still “the answer to an unspeakable divination.” The poem’s biblical tone has a Faulknerian twang to it. (The 1932 novel Light in August certainly comes to mind.)
Komunyakaa often returns to the tension between learned knowledge and the intuitive knowing that comes from one’s earthly experience. The set-up of “Slingshot” captures the provisional status of what we typically consider “truths”:
Though Pythagoras owned a single truth, the boy untangles a triangle of pull with a triangle of release.
The certainty of mathematical laws cedes to life’s ambiguity— a recurring theme for Komunyakaa. Personal truths precedes learning; in “The Body Remembers,” childhood is a time when “the shadow of the tree / weighed as much as a man.” Mystical in tone, the poem pulls us back into a world where humankind did not yet see itself as separate from or superior to nature.
In the book’s opening poem, “A World of Daughters,” the concept of truth is bracketed by a tongue-in-cheek skepticism as to how — by which channels or systems — knowledge gets passed down:
To feel a truth depends on how & why the singer's song fits into the mouth. Well, I believe the borrowed-rib story is the other way round, entangled in decree, blessing, law & myth.
The book’s other central theme is conflict, particularly in the sequence of untitled sonnets from Komunyakaa’s previous collection, Love in the Time of War (2005). Written during the Iraq War, the verses nevertheless clearly draw their intimate tone and detail from Komunyakaa’s own wartime experience as a journalist in Vietnam. One page starts off with a list of nouns, “Tribe. Clan. Valley & riverbank. Country. Continent. Interstellar [aborigines],” “Skull & Bone. Them. Body Count.” Only in the second strophe is it clear that this disjointed, feverish litany depicts a soldier having a nightmare, his lover’s and his own voice syncopating: “Honey. Darling. Sweetheart, was I talking in my sleep / again?”
In another section, a longing for closeness overcomes a soldier while reading his sweetheart’s letters, as “months tick down to a naked sigh” and “her skin is now a lost map.” Some of these riveting verses join intimacy with death. One begins with, “When our hands caress bullets and grenades,” followed by “we leave glimpses / of ourselves on the polished hardness.” Here Komunyakaa captures the tortured drama of masculinity in an image that’s autoerotic but also mournful and alienated.
Komunyakaa’s take on the salacious and profane isn’t always dark, though. À la Baudelaire, he revels in the abject, as in his funny, scandalous “Ode to the Maggot,” which starts with direct address:
Brother of the blowfly & godhead, you work your magic Over battlefields, In slabs of bad pork & flophouses. Yes, You go to the root of all things.
In a Bosch-like reveal, the lowly maggot strips humanity of its heroic pretensions (suggested by “battlefields), by treating both human flesh and meat as “slabs of bad pork.” “You’re merciless with the truth,” Komunyakaa writes, and then concludes:
[...] Little Master of earth, no one gets to heaven Without going through you first.
The poem is characteristic of Komunyakaa’s clipped, rhythmic style – in this case, with explosive friction, in words such as “brother” and “blowfly,” and recurrent consonant echoes (“blowfly,” “battlefield,” “slabs”), here pushed to slightly parodic effects. When pared down, as in the war sonnets—e.g. in the above-mentioned lines, in which “hands” resonates with “caress” and “polished hardness”—such musicality takes on a more somber, dirge-like tone.
Komunyakaa’s eye settles rapturously on all sorts of things in his poems. In “Ode to Dust,” dust is presented “as if conjured by doubt / It lives on the imagination”; insects and larvae appear, as do gods — sometimes drastically dwarfed to our human scale: Zeus is “like a rockstar in leather & sapphires” (“Infidelity”); “Eros,” in his eponymous poem, “throws a kiss to a teenage prostitute / & touches the wad of greenbacks / Nestled against his groin.” The poem’s finale suggests that in our world, as in ancient ones, pious paeans to virtue belie human greed and rapaciousness.
Channeling the ancients also gives Komunyakaa a chance to exalt the power of art. The beauty of ancient frescoes, for example, inspires one of his most magnificent poems, “Portrait of (Self) Deception.” Its narrator sees Hermaphrodite and “the master of folly”:
A hairline crack runs beneath The Pompeian fresco, & we feel Like children at a Saturday matinee On the verge of shout Don't Across the river Acheron.
A sense of wonder collapses time and space, pulling us right into the picture. Meanwhile,
We see Hermaphrodite's muscle Beneath the rounded whiteness, & already know the outcome of this Tussle of light & panic against Disrobed stone. We're there With them, where one is another, On the precipice of Hesiod's field As the wind sings false things true.
To defend philosophers’ exclusive claim to truth, Plato accused the epic poets, such as Hesiod, of pretending to wring truth from falsehood or make-believe. But in Komunyakaa’s masterful riff, evidentiary truth is trumped by desire. “The master of folly” — likely Satyr, as in the famous Pompeii frescos — fails to discern the manly muscle beneath Hermaphrodite’s “rounded whiteness.” Komunyakaa beautifully articulates art’s emotive, dramatic power, with “tussle of light & panic,” and by conflating figure and material support in “disrobed stone.”
The poem’s final line corroborates Plato’s mistrust of poetry. And yet, as the poem’s title intimates, the greatest deceiver here is neither Hermaphrodite nor the song, but the rapacious fool himself. While Satyr’s senses mislead him, our own when delighting in the fresco’s beauty make us identify with another – suggesting that art and poetry’s highest calling isn’t truth-telling, after all, but instead stirring our empathic imagination.
Everyday Mojo Songs of Earth: New and Selected Poems, 2001-2021 by Yusef Komunyakaa is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Ela Bittencourt is a critic and cultural journalist, currently based in São Paulo. She writes on art, film and literature, often in the context of social issues and politics. More by Ela Bittencourt