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Yusef Komunyakaa, Pleasure Dome (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2001, $24.95, 445 pages, ISBN 0-8195-6739-6)—Aileen La Tourette, Liverpool John Moores University


These poems sing. There are many references to music, to jazz and jazz musicians. Here are some lines from “Elegy to Thelonious”:

Tonight’s a lazy rhapsody of shadows

swaying to blue vertigo

& metaphysical funk.

Black trees in the wind,

Crepuscule with Nelly

plays inside the bowed head.

O dig the Man Ray of piano!”

O Satisfaction,

hot fingers blur

on those white rib keys.


Those of us for whom “Satisfaction” conjures a different—and lesser—musicology will have to bow here and go ferret out some Thelonious Monk, something we’ve long intended to do anyway. Likewise Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and some of the other musicians who haunt these pages, rhythmically and emotionally. This is a blues book, sweet and hot.

My slightly guilty note above is not accidental. There is no way that a white American of my generation can read and review a book of poems by a black American, whose life span exceeds but coincides with hers and not feel stricken, at intervals, with thoughtful, even contemplative guilt, rather than the knee-jerk variety—though that kind crops up, too, with lines from “Blues Chant Hoodoo Rival” like:

let’s pour the night

into our stone water jars

this song isn’t red flowers

crushed under silence

our story is

a rifle butt

across our heads

arpeggio of bowed grass

among glass trees

where they kick down doors

& we swan-dive from

the brooklyn bridge [125]

And more. The poems are not accusatory. They are profoundly generous, existentially generous, I want to say, the kind of intimate sharing of experience we need and rejoice in even as we wince. The authenticity of the voice is immediate and total. You have to listen, and it is one of the greatest pleasures of the work that the voice is so immediate and integral you feel you are listening, rather than reading. There is no hectoring here, only witnessing, with a tenderness and bite that combine for maximum impact.

“Blue Chant Hoodoo Rival” is from Lost in the Bonewheel Factory (1979). This collection spans a poetic career of twenty years, from 1977-1998, and includes some unpublished early poems as well. It is the kind of truly satisfying book from which the reader gets a real sense of who the poet is, and what his preoccupations and concerns have been over the years. Slim volumes have their place, but they often feel like a flying visit, an interrupted conversation. A book like this is a companion. Like a companion, it takes time to absorb. It needs to be lived with, picked up at odd intervals, treated, in fact, like a book, not an email.

The Early Uncollected poems are placed a bit oddly, after New Poems but before the rest. This is a small quibble; I tend to think they would be best placed at the end, after we had read through the collected poems. As it is, when you come back to them after reading on you realize the extent to which the early poems do hold the scent and promise of what is to come in sensuous and rhythmic lines like these from “Loneliness”:

Morning swells in my brain

till my fingers retrace a woman

on the air. We all use our hands

for something, against something.

The Orange Pekoe taste of her

stays, even after a brown bottle

wraps my voice in cerecloth.


While sometimes also showing us how far he’s come from a kind of youthful swagger that occasionally breaks through in these early poems. Later in “Loneliness,” for example, we get:

[…] I return

to my rented room,

put a bullet into the chamber

& snap the chamber four times.


Those are lines which, at least in the mind of this reader, resonate with a certain macho quality. It’s fascinating that as the book goes on, the crucial and central place accorded to women in all circumstances, including wartime, (Vietnam), defines as it helps to describe the masculinity that is delineated in these poems.

This is black American maleness, unapologetic but often wistful; always vulnerable. I think it’s the feeling of truthfulness that pervades the lines that gives the sense of vulnerability. Everything is questioned, examined, restlessly, even relentlessly. There is no time for a fixed sense of what this masculinity is, or might be, to set hard (no pun intended). Everything is in play, in motion, dynamic, as it is in jazz. There’s a wonderfully improvisatory feeling here, freeing and freewheeling, even scary in its exhilaration. I once heard Tony Morrison speak about her novel, Jazz. She said that it was her understanding that improvisation meant you could takes risks without fearing mistakes, because wherever you got to would turn out to be a new and interesting place from which to move on to somewhere else. That’s the feeling of Komunyakaa’s poems: risk.

One entire book, Dien Cai Dau (1988), came out of Komunyakaa’s experiences in Vietnam. These poems are arresting and extraordinary. As you would expect, they do not make for “easy listening”—none of these poems do, in the watered-down sense of that phrase—but these, one of which, “Re-creating the Scene,” tells the story of the gang-rape of a Vietnamese woman by American soldiers, are full-frontal, in-your-face accounts of a brutal war. Needless to say, to come upon them today is sobering. As I hinted above, many of the Vietnam poems are about women—Vietnamese women caught up in the conflict, some of them hustling in various ways, others suffering—all suffering, in one way or another.

It’s difficult to single out lines to quote—these poems need to be read whole. Just a taste, then, of “Facing It,” an account of a visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., the famous black granites slab with the names of the dead etched into it:

A white vet’s image floats

closer to me, then his pale eyes

look through mine. I’m a window.

He’s lost his right arm

inside the stone. In the black mirror

a woman’s trying to erase names:

No, she’s brushing a boy’s hair


Poets pause long and hard over punctuation, and that lack of punctuation at the end conjures the image of the woman’s hand, continuing to brush the stone and the hair of the dead boy through the stone, as if she cannot stop. We feel the movement of her hand, we feel the invisible blowing of the dead boy’s hair. We feel; and that is what these poems accomplish.

There are myriad love poems—bluesy, sexy, full of vitality and humour—again, from Early Uncollected, we get these lines at the close of “Lover”:

But I hope you fall

from your high horse

& break your damn neck


A sentiment we can all relate to. Komunyakaa is a great poet but also a close one—close to everyone, no tricks, no jargon, just language doing its work and doing it to music. In “Woman, I Got the Blues”:

Sweet Mercy, I worship

the curvature of your ass.

I build an altar in my head.

I kiss your breasts & forget my name.


Woman, I got the blues.

Our shadows on floral wallpaper

struggle with cold-blooded mythologies.

But there’s a stillness in us

like the tip of a magenta mountain.


There’s a sense of adoring women here, a slightly old-fashioned feeling perhaps, but one that comes through like an old song—or a new one, for that matter; not so much old-fashioned, then, as recurrent, insistent. His poems are to specific women, which keeps this feeling from being in any way depersonalizing. In fact, the love poems are profoundly personal and intimate, the sexual connection between men and women believed in and expressed like a faith, not without irony but without any of the exhaustion or scepticism which accompanies its expression elsewhere. We’re left with a sense of love’s difficulty, its urgent, unlikely magic, and its vulnerability—to us, above all. The love-faith and/or sex-faith in these poems is never po-faced; it’s faced with relish, with gusto, with a laugh and a sigh, as in “Jasmine”:

I thought my body had forgotten the Deep

South, how I’d cross the street

if a woman like these two walked

towards me, as if a cat traversed

my path beneath the evening star.

Which one is wearing jasmine?

If my grandmothers saw me now

they’d say, Boy, the devil never sleeps. [5]

There are some wonderful long poems, some of which also have long titles, such as “Changes” or “Reveries at a Window Overlooking a Country Road, with Two Women Talking Blues in the Kitchen” [313] from Neon Vernacular (1993). “A Good Memory” [318] and especially “Song for My Father” [333], a verse of which illustrates the toughness and quiet erudition of these poems:

I am unlike Kikuji

In Kawabata’s Thousand Cranes

Since I sought out one of your lovers

Before you were dead.

Though years had passed

& you were with someone else,

She thought I reminded her

Of a man she’d once known.

She pocketed the three dollars.

The big red lampshade bloodied

The room, as if held by a mad

Diogenes. Yes, she cried out,

But she didn’t sing your name

When I planted myself in her.


The last section, Thieves of Paradise (1998) includes several long prose poems, including “Nude Interrogation,” “The Poplars,” “Surgery,” “Phantasmagoria,” and “A Summer Night in Hanoi,” as well as a poem called “The Glass Ark” (Two paleontologists working inside a glassed-in cubicle at La Brea Tar Pits). The poems contain the same brand of surrealism that runs through jazz, as well as the magical realism that came, originally, from the grotesque realities of daily life in Latin America. Such horrors demand a language and a genre all their own, and Komunyakaa tells us that the everyday realities north of the border in the US are not really very different.

The US is a constant, wherever else the poems may go. The flavor of the States is everywhere, celebrated, decried, present, along with the noise the smells, the ominous silences—or, to let Komunyakaa make out the list, because he does it so much better in “The Wall,” from Thieves of Paradise:

Lovenotes, a bra, lipstick

kisses on a postcard, locks

of hair, a cerulean bouquet,

baseball gloves broken in

with sweat & red dirt,

a fifth of Beefeaters


The directness of the poems is a tonic. Komunyakaa, the book jacket tells us (there is no introduction, which is also refreshing in its implicit faith that the poems will speak for themselves), is Professor in the Council of Humanities and Creative writing at Princeton University and a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. The list of awards his poems have won is long and includes a Pulitzer—one would expect no less.

In the New Poems section which opens the book, we find addresses to prominent black figures like Mohammed Ali and Michael Jackson. “Never Land” ends:

your sperm will never

reproduce that face

in the oval mirror


The poem to Ali closes with:

Word for word.

we beat the love

out of each other.


Komunyakaa writes about language as he writes it, like all poets. There’s a reveling in words, a sharp precision and wide-awakeness to this language, whether in apparently throw-away lines like the ones that open “Boy Wearing a Dead Man’s Clothes” from Toys in a Field (1986):

I must say I never liked

gabardine’s wornout shine.


Or a showier riff at the beginning of “Jonestown: More Eyes for Jadwiga’s Dream” (from I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head):

After Rousseau

Brighter than crisp new money,

Birds unfold wings into nervous fans,

adrift like breath-drawn kites, among

tremulous fronds with flowers crimson

as muzzle flash. Tropic silk, root color,

ocean green, they float to tree limbs

like weary scarves.


Or the bold blow struck at the beginning of “Landscape for the Disappeared” from the same book:

Lo & behold. Yes, peat bogs

in Louisiana. The dead

stumble home like swamp fog,

our lost uncles & granddaddies

come back to us almost healed.

Knob-fingered and splayfooted,

all the has-been men

& women rise through nighttime

into our slow useless days.


Or the visible, palpable images that start off “Blackberries” from February in Sydney (1989):

They left my hands like a printer’s

Or thief’s before a police blotter

& pulled me into early morning’s

Terrestrial sweetness, so thick


Which mirrors, exactly, the way the senses do pull us into the world. That’s what Komunyakaa’s words do; pull us back into the world, into realities habit is so good at dulling. This includes dropping us into history, a drop that’s made with an accompanying anger that’s always embedded in a crystal-clear sense of what’s happened. The anger springs like blood from the truth, the event, the outrage. It isn’t so much inscribed as spilt.

This is a book to go back to again and again, which I do and will, to savor and pass on. I haven’t begun to really sound it, after about six months of picking it up when a space opens. I don’t imagine I will do so in another six months, or ever. I’ll give Komunyakaa the last word(s), taken from “The Music that Hurts” (from I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head):

Tonight I sleep with Silence,

my impossible white wife.


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