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Posts Tagged ‘Yusef Komunyakaa’


I’m doing the poems backwards tonight. The second/last poem in the magazine, “The Soul’s Soundtrack,” by Yusef Komunyakaa, sings more than it speaks, for me. The first and overwhelming impression I get is that the narrator is a man with a soundtrack of old musicians permanently running in his head, and I admit a great part of my enjoyment of the poem was simply stopping at each name and letting the music enter my head. Son House, Joe Turner, and Big Momma Thornton are names to conjure with for me. If you don’t know them, download a song or two. Indeed. The poem starts, “When they call him Old School / he…looks straight into their lit eyes, saying, / ‘I was born by the damn river…'” The narrator remembers the days of these songsters (okay, maybe not Son House so much) and how the music wove in and out of his life, our life. I love this line: “He believes to harmonize is / to reach, to ascend…till there’s / only a quiver of blue feathers / at dawn…” Wow. Poem as witness, to “the Church of Coltrane,” and to “his life / a fist of coins…” I read it and re-read it.

Back to the first poem, “Time, In Whales,” by Emily Jungmin Yoon. The three braided threads of this poem, as I see them, are the love between a young couple, a theme of whales, and being of Korean heritage in America. It starts, “Our legs of yellow skin next to one another, / calves spread, I think of beached whales…clean and gleaming.” So she weaves the threads together deftly right from the start. “You study Korean, whispering, ‘Muroruda’…meaning…’Water rises’ but really meaning ‘to improve’ or ‘to rise in sap.'” I like the awkwardness displayed, people working cautiously through their heritage, feeling their way, an understanding that flips open, piece by piece: a sort of, ‘This is who we are.’ In doing so, the narrator talks of her ancestors, and of the ancestry of whales. Of using music, like whales do, to “detect where / one another comes from.” In the turn of the poem the narrator speaks to her man directly of his own history as a child. “Your foster mother ran after you…wailing your name.” And all is woven together at the end, still deft: “perhaps the world will end in / water, taking… all loving things.” A marvelous, complex poem.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

My eBook of love poems, Against The Night, is available on Amazon, at https://www.amazon.com/Against-Night-Poems-PMF-Johnson-ebook/dp/B01LXQX9Y5/ as well as at other fine e-retailers.

 

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There are two poems in this issue of The New Yorker, first “Evening Poem,” by Alice Oswald. “Old scrap-iron foxgloves / rusty rods of the broken woods…” There is much to admire here. The metaphor of foxgloves, which are vertical flowers, as bits of scrap iron fallen from the sky to stick here and there at random works so well. Then the narrator brings in a Victorian sofa, a heap of shoes, items seemingly dropped at random into these woods. Of course a fox glove would be a kind of shoe, and I believe foxgloves were loved in Victorian gardens. These sort of subtle references deepen matters wonderfully. She moves to a view of the gods, “the hours on bird-thin legs…” and at the end, night. For such a random seeming poem, things wind up tightly, perfectly. Yum.

Yusef Komunyakaa gives us a somewhat longer poem, also set in the woods, “Slingshot.” I kept going back to re-read it. He is one of my favorite poems going these days. On the surface, a straightforward description of a boy putting a slingshot together. “A boy’s bicycle inner tube / red as inside the body…” A poem anyone can enter, and get some enjoyment out of. But of course other things are going on. “a girl he’s too shy to tell his name / stands in damp light…” love that word damp there. So a poem about young love, trying to impress, unable to speak easily, letting his deeds stand for him. “he whittles the true stock, / knowing wrong from right.” More than just a comment on a slingshot. Searching for wrong and right, doing something a bit dangerous, a bit disapproved of, maybe. “the boy…settling quietly into himself.” So much this poem is about what is unsaid to me, what should not be spoken, an essence of manhood in bloom. “& that is when the boy knows…” And it’s what the poet tells us the boy knows that makes us want to go back again and again, looking for God for truth, for love… Beautiful.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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The March issue of Poetry Magazine starts with Sheila Black’s “Istanbul, 1983.” “In the frozen square, the student asks me if I will / sell him the books…he hides them / under his winter coat…” An intriguing work about the crash of two cultures: the careless attitude about books of one; the intensely serious attitude of the other, where books may be life-changing, or even fatal to own. “The prisoner / remembers only wanting to read…” But there is more than a simple interaction going on here: “To turn a self / to light proves painful…” The narrator is having an epiphany, maybe too big a one, about one’s place in the world. “while he picks mushrooms on / the edge of dread…” A thought-provoking work about limits and limited perception.

Yusef Komunyakaa gives us “The African Burial Ground” about an archeological sight in Manhattan, “They came as Congo, Guinea & Angola, / feet tuned to rhythms of a thumb piano…” and what happens to the graves, and the ghosts over the years. “footsteps of lower Manhattan / strutted overhead, back & forth / between old denials and new arrivals…” I like Komunyakaa’s poetry, and this is another moving poem, with a lot to think over. He delivers such a powerful sound here.

Eduardo C. Corral’s “To Juan Doe #234” is the reflection of the friend of an illegal immigrant who died during the crossing (at least that’s what I assume; it’s a bit elusive). A powerful, sad poem. “I only recognized your hair: short, / neatly combed…your body became a slaughter- / house where faith and want were stunned…” Wow, what a line. I’ve gone back to read this poem a few times. Very much worthwhile.

Gayle Danley has a sweet poem about the first discussion of the birds and bees with the narrator’s daughter: “She’ll ask me where babies come from and I will lie to her.” Plenty of little chuckles as we go along: “Babies come from…the Isley Brothers and 3 or 4 glasses of white zin…eyeliner and lips to match…Collision of longing…” We’ll all recognize something here.

Finally, I enjoyed Maria Melendez Kelson’s “Good Friday” — “Jesus, I want my sins back.” She goes through various of the 7 deadly sins, discussing: “Body by Envy. // Makeup and wardrobe provided by Avarice.” And I liked the ending. Again, a fun, sly poem.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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Back in the March 18 issue of the New Yorker, Gibbons Ruark presented us with a poem, “Lightness In Age,” that I am still trying to get my head around. “It means not having to muscle your bag / Onto the baggage rack…A girl your daughter’s age will do that for you.” A poem about the irony of getting old, then. The slight bitter flavor that comes, but the appreciation as well: “Those lightnesses are not to be taken lightly…” After the description of moments in the narrator’s life that define the narrator’s age, the poem turns to detailed images of birds — “the goldfinch feathering down at morning…” then ends with a consideration of the love the narrator has for his/her person. And it IS a poem of light touch, a love poem, nothin’ deep. Why did Muldoon choose this poem? It’s skilled, surely enough, and does a nice job of handling a moment hard to describe without getting klunky. Sometimes the editor just likes to include a simple, straightforward poem done very well, we’ve seen that before.

In the April 1 issue, Yusef Komunyakaa gives us “Night Gigging,” a poem about spearing frogs. “A silhouette lingers, cleaved from the kneeling man, / back to hunger & simple philosophy of the spheres…” Komunyakaa tends to go thoughtful about little moments like this, at least that’s my impression of his approach. It gives us something to chew over, to unwrap in the poem. “There’s a ghost poised between free will & the gig, / waiting for the song…” I like the images of this poem, and I like the ending. Can a sign of success in a poem be simply the willingness of the reader to linger on the language, after it’s done?

And the other poem in this issue is by Louise Gluck, “An Adventure,” almost a bookend poem with the one in The Threepenny Review I discussed a couple blogs ago. Like that one, this poem deals with end-of-life issues. “It came to me one night…that I had finished with those amorous adventures / to which I had long been a slave…” The second stanza develops this idea — “The next night brought the same thought, / this time concerning poetry…” The third stanza goes into the land of death and the dead. “Now I could hear them because my heart was still.” She rides into/through the land of death. “All around, the dead were cheering me on…As we had all been flesh together, // now we were mist.” Note the pun there. But it is all just a dream. She ends by waking from the vision, and in referring to a second person, the narrator’s love, we assume, wraps the poem up in a satisfying way. And the reader is left with…

Well, the direct confrontation with death gives the poem a weight and grandeur that’s rare these days. But the poem twists away from conclusion. From taking a stand. Are conclusions not to be a part of top-end American poetry anymore? Do editors feel they would be fools to buy such a work? Must today’s poems always wear their cloak of irony, be elusive, duck away from the ineffable? As though our whole culture still were terrified of meaning, of taking a stand? Of the grand failure?

For me, that unwillingness to go that last step, to lay out the fear that nothing is there on the other side of death, or the faith that something is…to grab for that melting sense of something more, a connection with us, with something, is a sad loss for poetry.

I want to shout out, what is poetry for, if not such moments? I want to argue, this unwillingness is a failure of courage.

Whether or no, Gluck refuses to go that last step in either of these poems, even at what seems the end of her life. Is that refusal one of the reasons she has done so well in today’s poetry environment, where more bold visionaries would be rejected? Is this unwillingness endemic to the many, many editors who do not seem to ever buy such work, from her or anyone else?

I do conclude this: unlike her other poem, this poem feels as though it had another step to take. In current American poetry, who may be willing to take it? No, let me say instead, who has the courage to publish a poem that did take it?

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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