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A Poem by Yusef Komunyakaa


Poet's Choice

By Robert Hass
August 30, 1998

Yusef Komunyakaa, born in Bogalusa, La., currently a professor at Princeton University, served in Vietnam where he was a reporter for Stars and Stripes. He wrote what is probably the best book of poems by an American about the Vietnam War, Dien Cai Dau (Wesleyan University Press), and subsequently received the Pulitzer Prize for his selected poems, Neon Vernacular (also Wesleyan). His newest book is as strong as the best of his earlier work and it has immense range. The poem that caught my eye begins as an observation about style among the young in the '90s. :


We pierce tongue
& eyebrow, foreskin
& nipple, as if threading wishes
on gutstring. Gold bead
& question mark hook
into loopholes & slip
through. We kiss
like tiny branding irons.
Loved ones guard words
of praise, & demigods mortgage
nighttime. Beneath bruised
glamor, we say, "I'll show
how much I love by
how many scars I wear."
As we steal the last
drops of anger, what can we
inherit from Clarksdale's blue
tenements? Medieval & modern,
one martyr strokes another
till Torquemada rises.
We trade bouquets
of lousewort, not for the red
blooms & loud perfume,
but for the lovely spikes.

(This comes from Thieves of Paradise, just out from Wesleyan. Not bad: beginning with eyebrow rings and getting to Clarksdale, Torquemada and lousewort in one small fever of a poem about the way we live now.)

"Woebegone" from Thieves of Paradise, 1990 by Yusef Komunyakaa is reprinted with permission of Wesleyan University Press.

Robert Hass, former U.S. poet laureate, is the author, most recently, of the collection "Sun Under Wood."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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