The poetry he has published in the past couple of decades is pleasingly diverse and adventurous. At the same time, Komunyakaa, 74, has achieved a distinctive, recognizable and unifying style. The poems in this new book engage in various formal and thematic experiments — and yet the works embody the same spirit and sing with the same voice.
Komunyakaa’s poems are as contemporary as poems can be: Some of them feel as if they were written a day, a year or a decade from now. At the same time, they draw liberally on historical, mythical or biblical sources. Komunyakaa likes to mix and match, borrowing from various eras and vocabularies, reminding us that the world is complex, that distant objects have invisible affinities with one another, that apparently simple and commonplace objects and events are the result of lengthy, complicated, frequently violent histories. In Komunyakaa’s world, the most ordinary thing, if you look at it right, is imbued with mystical, mythical or metaphysical significance — even if the approved official accounts tend to insist otherwise.
Sometimes Komunyakaa, who teaches English at New York University, picks a form and runs with it, for the length of a book or at least a long poem. Fifty pages of “Everyday Mojo Songs” is devoted to poems from his 2001 volume, “Talking Dirty to the Gods,” in which every poem consists of four four-line stanzas, composed of short lines that invite the reader to move fast. A typical poem from this collection, this one titled “A Small System,” begins:
The Galapagos finch
Clutches a cactus thorn
In her beak. She works
Fast as a fencing master,
The poems from “Talking Dirty” are chatty, profane and allusive, describing a teeming, seething, exuberantly chaotic world populated by gods, historical figures and animals. Expect references to Catullus, Eros, Venus, Utamaro and Zeus, alongside spotted hyenas, the ornate bell moth, sloths, slime molds, cheetahs and a great many more. There are also poems dedicated to thumbscrews, self-deception and sex toys.
The effect of a book such as “Talking Dirty to the Gods” — which reads like a single multi-section poem — is cumulative, impossible to isolate in a single stanza or individual lyric. Komunyakaa tends to reach peak intensity in longer works that afford him the space to stretch out, gather momentum and amplify resonances. (Indeed, two of the strongest shorter pieces here, from “Autobiography of My Alter Ego” and from “Requiem,” are presented as selections from lengthier compositions.) One of the most powerful poems in this collection, “Love in the Time of War,” is a series of 25 sonnets originally published in his 2008 collection, “Warhorses.”
War has frequently been a subject of Komunyakaa’s work; he served as a U.S. Army journalist in the Vietnam War, and his 1988 book, “Dien Cai Dau,” is known as a classic volume on that conflict. “Love in the Time of War” moves well beyond Vietnam, adding echoes and images from more recent conflicts to build a picture of human existence as a concatenation of interminable conflicts. My favorite moment (one standout among many) occurs in the third sonnet in the sequence, where a brilliant line break at the end of the first line enables a dark ambiguity worth savoring:
It seems we all need something to kill
for, to seek & claim, to treasure
till it screams in elemental dark, . . .
To praise Komunyakaa’s longer pieces is not to minimize the accomplishment of his shorter poems. “Cape Coast Castle,” from “The Chameleon Couch,” (2011) seems to me extraordinary. The poem opens: “I made love to you, & it loomed there.” That “it,” unexplained and unidentified, haunts the first half of the poem, turning up in a plethora of settings and circumstances, seeming to follow the speaker wherever he goes, denying him peace, a ghostly stalker from some horror movie:
It went away when the ghost of my mother
found me sitting beneath a palm,
but was in the van with us on a road trip to the country
as we zoomed past thatch houses.
“It” comes to feel like an obsession of the speaker, some neurosis he badly wants to shake but cannot. Or a remnant of collective guilt or any of a hundred other possibilities. But even as hypotheses are proliferating in the reader’s mind, things take a stunning turn: The “it” drops out — explicitly, at any rate — and the poem gives itself over to the story of an atrocity, committed by the European governor of Cape Coast Castle — a slave castle in Ghana, as it turns out — against a woman he enslaved. Komunyakaa — in this poem, and elsewhere — resists both reassurance and resolution. In an era when there is great temptation to offer consoling sentiments, Komunyakaa dares to disturb.
Troy Jollimore’s new book of poems, “Earthly Delights,” will be published in September.
Everyday Mojo Songs of Earth
By Yusef Komunyakaa
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 288 pp. $35