Komunyakaa, Pleasure Dome (Middletown,
CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2001, $24.95, 445 pages,
ISBN 0-8195-6739-6)—Aileen La Tourette, Liverpool John
poems sing. There are many references to music, to jazz
and jazz musicians. Here are some lines from “Elegy
a lazy rhapsody of shadows
to blue vertigo
trees in the wind,
inside the bowed head.
dig the Man Ray of piano!”
those white rib keys.
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.
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:
pour the night
our stone water jars
song isn’t red flowers
of bowed grass
they kick down doors
we swan-dive from
brooklyn bridge 
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.
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some unpublished early poems as well.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.
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”:
swells in my brain
my fingers retrace a woman
the air. We all use our hands
something, against something.
Orange Pekoe taste of her
even after a brown bottle
my voice in cerecloth.
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,
my rented room,
a bullet into the chamber
snap the chamber four times.
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.
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.
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.
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:
white vet’s image floats
to me, then his pale eyes
through mine. I’m a window.
lost his right arm
the stone. In the black mirror
woman’s trying to erase names:
she’s brushing a boy’s hair
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.
are myriad love poems—bluesy, sexy, full of vitality
and humour—again, from Early Uncollected, we
get these lines at the close of “Lover”:
I hope you fall
your high horse
break your damn neck
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”:
Mercy, I worship
curvature of your ass.
build an altar in my head.
kiss your breasts & forget my name.
I got the blues.
shadows on floral wallpaper
with cold-blooded mythologies.
there’s a stillness in us
the tip of a magenta mountain.
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”:
thought my body had forgotten the Deep
how I’d cross the street
a woman like these two walked
me, as if a cat traversed
path beneath the evening star.
one is wearing jasmine?
my grandmothers saw me now
say, Boy, the devil never sleeps. 
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”  from Neon Vernacular
(1993). “A Good Memory”  and especially “Song for
My Father” , a verse of which illustrates the toughness
and quiet erudition of these poems:
am unlike Kikuji
Kawabata’s Thousand Cranes
I sought out one of your lovers
you were dead.
years had passed
you were with someone else,
thought I reminded her
a man she’d once known.
pocketed the three dollars.
big red lampshade bloodied
room, as if held by a mad
Yes, she cried out,
she didn’t sing your name
I planted myself in her.
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.
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
a bra, lipstick
on a postcard, locks
hair, a cerulean bouquet,
gloves broken in
sweat & red dirt,
fifth of Beefeaters
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.
the New Poems section which opens the book,
we find addresses to prominent black figures like Mohammed
Ali and Michael Jackson. “Never Land” ends:
sperm will never
the oval mirror
poem to Ali closes with:
beat the love
of each other.
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):
must say I never liked
a showier riff at the beginning of “Jonestown: More
Eyes for Jadwiga’s Dream” (from I Apologize
for the Eyes in My Head):
than crisp new money,
unfold wings into nervous fans,
like breath-drawn kites, among
fronds with flowers crimson
muzzle flash. Tropic silk, root color,
green, they float to tree limbs
the bold blow struck at the beginning of “Landscape
for the Disappeared” from the same book:
& behold. Yes, peat bogs
Louisiana. The dead
home like swamp fog,
lost uncles & granddaddies
back to us almost healed.
the has-been men
women rise through nighttime
our slow useless days.
the visible, palpable images that start off “Blackberries”
from February in Sydney (1989):
left my hands like a printer’s
thief’s before a police blotter
pulled me into early morning’s
sweetness, so thick
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.
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):
I sleep with Silence,
impossible white wife.