A Fire Was In My Head

Rhythm Is Pre-Memory: Reading Yusef Komunyakaa
21 February 2009, 3:42 pm
Filed under: Essay | Tags: , , , , ,

For nearly two months, I have lugged and guzzled a collection of poems within Neon Vernacular, a small anthology of Yusef Komunyakaa’s poetry.  I concentrated on the selections from I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head.

I Apologize reads like a city lives.  The whole, relatively contained mass is cordoned off inside strong borders, and due to a degree of isolation and density, adapts a distinct style.  Still, the distinct chunk retains its own sense of infinity, too, of the ever-presence of undiscovered spaces within an unchanging body.  For those of you literate in Russian novels: it is the claustrophobic definition of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866) married to the expanses of Andrei Bely’s Petersburg (1916).  James Joyce famously captured this urban characteristic in Ulysses (1922), isolating his work in time as well as place, showing the mountains of moments and things (and, more academically and satirically, literary genres) always present and interworking in even narrowly defined spaces.  Keita Takahashi’s video game Katamari Damacy (2004), which invites players to amass a stupendous variety of objects (including animals and people), explores the infinity-within-boundaries theme interestingly, as well, and its setting, too, is the city–eventually spreading to the planet as a mass of buildings and land.  And these few examples certainly do not represent a smidgen of the works on the subject. 

So the tradition apparent in I Apologize (1986) exists within a stable framework of antecedents and heirs.  However, unlike those works, and much more like the evolution of culture within a real city, these poems seem to have dipped into the theme quite by accident.  The variety in the collection stems from the story, not vice versa as implicit commentary.  One strong, multi-faceted narrative emerges, centralized around the figure of the Thorn Merchant.  Explicitly, the Thorn Merchant’s right-hand man, his wife, his mistress, and his son all star in poems auxiliary to that first.  The story tells of double- and triple-lives; crime, violence, and family; desire and love; and the seedy, often dreadful, sometimes sad fallout from the Thorn Merchant’s effort to manage all those aspects of himself.  Komunyakaa pens the tale episodically through time and character.

But there are others in this work, not explicitly a part of the story, who seem affected by it: is the boy’s late uncle in “Boy Wearing a Dead Man’s Clothes” a casualty of the Thorn Merchant’s violent streak?  Or did he offend the Thorn Merchant’s sense of lust or love?  Evidence later in the poems “When in Rome–Apologia” and “I Apologize” portrays men who have crossed the Thorn Merchant (or some like character) in love and business, respectively.  And women both abandoned and in the act of love ponder an irretrievable feeling.  Komunyakaa leaves much to the imagination, but his sketches, drawn-out and varied, remain suggestive.

Perhaps the binding force is the way most of the poems read: in contrast to the formal elegance in other modern poets (such as I have remarked on in my recent piece on Richard Wilbur) the pieces that make up I Apologize are stylized with the kinds of sultry details that belong in a 1920’s detective paperback, or in the, somewhat more literary, slick prose of authors like Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett.  Even abstract pieces contain characters with wooden legs or silky voices, men and women as fluent in sex as illegitimate commerce, penny arcades, rusted ironwork, neglected architecture, and eyes everywhere.  It is both fantasy and reality–as the young man playing Asteroids in a 1980s video parlor while attempting to exude a tough facade in “Child’s Play,” trying simultaneously to enjoy a placid present and, through role-play, a seedy past.  I Apologize portrays the city organically, as a function of the limitless teeming cultures latent in a small space, competing, as well as in its own pop-culture self-stylized tradition.  And then there is the desperate dialogue between hands, genitals, hearts, ears, brains, and eyes that tug so uniquely in different directions inside one defined sector: a human body.


11 February 2009, 1:28 pm
Filed under: New Poetry | Tags: , , , , ,


Coltrane slips from his speakers,
soft, to the trolley-pocked streets
like a blue moonlight bath,
and just-so his passage succumbs to
Her milky breath splatters the stark
silhouettes of the city:
black figures cast against walls housing
houses, the nuclear family commercials
colored by schoolchildren. Hearing,
his muscles are tensing.
She wrings him all over,
the saxophone twisting
the sax and the sex and the sweetness of sweat
in her bed.  The salt of the salt of the earth,
bodies slick with bodies’ work:
the building of bedrooms
where bodies will come to and come
from.  The music immures him, his rhapsody
mounting, careening, compelled
by the woman, her song, and her name, and her soul, and the sound of
Her brown hips
he’s helpless
to climax.

A couple exhales in his wake—not unworried—unheard.

An Idea
10 February 2009, 2:07 pm
Filed under: New Poetry | Tags: , ,

An Idea


that bass
Cut it kid.
Saw it in half.
No one’s watching.
Cept for little old me.

Let’s you and me
and that spruce upright
hop a trolley.
We’ll go station to station.

I can throw my hat on the ground.

The moon, and Kansas City,
too. We’ll do it all.
Everywhere we go we’ll be
some people.
The people
will throw money
at you, piper, and me–right into this hat
without even
knowing our names,

just like I don’t know your name.
I’m ready.
You just got to
get down off that stage
and keep cuttin it
the way you do.


QWERTY criticism
8 February 2009, 8:41 pm
Filed under: Draft | Tags: , , ,

You have been loyal readers, and I have been a negligent writer.  I owe all five of you an apology.  Unfortunately, the best I could muster at my little Suedoperuvian typewriter was this off-topic complaint:

QWERTY Criticism

Curse the proud mechanics
who were so vain of this peacock
array of hammers, its forest
arrangement of green keys spaced
to impede my liquid fingers, punishing
flight by metal bramble.
                                        If only they knew
the impossible lag, the network of gaps
and senseless dendrite thickets
these blocky fingers, already,
will never overcome.