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Seeking Komunyakaa

by Austin Shifflett

Standing on my tiptoes on the third floor of Carrier Library, embraced by silence, I pulled down Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems, winner of the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. As I flipped through the pages and scanned stanzas, the language proved strange and elusive yet incredibly intriguing. Certain lines arrested my consciousness. Often, I’d think I was following the poem’s line of thought only to have its apparent meaning explode in the last two to four lines. My brow furrowed and I felt a tension headache creeping in—the poems were just so mind bogglingly bizarre. But I could not put the book down.

Here was the cryptic and uncanny world of Yusef Komunyakaa.

Horse-headed clouds, flags
& pennants tied to black
Smokestacks in swamp mist
(From “Fog Galleon”)

Where shadows
of trees pulled your face down to kiss
stones
(From “Looking a mad Dog Dead in the Eyes”)

Something close to sleep
hides low voices drifting
toward a red horizon
(From “Boat People”)

An honored attendee at JMU’s Furious Flower Poetry Conference (Sept. 24-27, 2014), Komunyakaa was one of the recipients of the Lifetime Achievement Award along with contemporaries Rita Dove, Toi Derricotte, Michael Harper, Marilyn Nelson, Quincy Troupe and Ishmael Reed, all towering trailblazers in the relatively young canon of African American poetry.

Fusion: Poetry Voiced in Choral Song

To open the conference, a poem Komunyakaa wrote to encapsulate his encounter with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was set to a musical arrangement by Randy Klein (pictured right) and directed by Dr. Eric Conway of the Morgan State University Choir. The poem, “Facing It,” initially appeared in Dien Cai Dau (1988), a collection of poems reflecting Komunyakaa’s experience during the Vietnam War. Translated into English, the title means “crazy in the head.”

After introduction, a slight young man from Morgan State stepped up to the mic as a lilting piano arpeggio undulated through the auditorium. The contemplative, melancholy sound washed over us, causing a drastic change in atmosphere. He nodded respectfully to Komunyakaa and adjusted his posture in preparation for his solo. A rich, deep baritone reverberated through the room. Vibrations reached my body and triggered goose bumps as the words were given song:

My black face fades, hiding inside the black granite.
I said I wouldn't, damnit: No tears.
I'm stone, I'm flesh.
My clouded reflection eyes me
like a bird of prey, the profile of night
slanted against morning ...

The words were released slowly; the vocalist took his time and gave every one its musical weight. Waves of oooos from the choir gently buffered his voice, accenting certain phrases with a ghostly aura of sound. Conway directed with his eyes closed, head bowed slightly as his arms guided. As the arrangement finished the culminating lines hit a note not quite dissonant and not quite resolved, much like Komunyakaa's poetry. The entire audience immediately gave a standing ovation.

Komunyakaa’s words cut through mundane reality with the sword of the moment. His mystical authority on the page had intrigued me, but I’d grown increasingly intimidated as I tried to decide on the best way to approach the poet.

After heavy contemplation, I’d devised a conversation starter for meeting Komunyakaa: like him, my dad had served in Vietnam. This topic would bridge the gap of awkward formality. “He was there. He was on the ground,” Dad had remarked after I’d shown him the poems from Dien Cai Dau, all of which he’d read voraciously in one sitting. The imagery of the dead man in “We Never Know” is all too vivid, captured by a writer who has observed the phenomenon of death at close range: “He danced with tall grass / for a moment, like he was swaying / with a woman,” but “when I got to him, / a blue halo / of flies had already claimed him. / I pulled the crumbled photograph / from his fingers. / There’s no other way to say this: I fell in love …” And in the moment before leaving the body: “I slid the wallet into his pocket / & turned him over, so he wouldn't be / kissing the ground.”

Two days after the concert, Komunyakaa would read his poetry at Wilson Auditorium, and I planned my introduction.

Yusef Komunyakaa, 2014 Furious Flower Poetry Conference

When the time came, the theater was all abuzz and I tentatively walked to where he was sitting. “Hi, Mr. Komunyakaa?” He didn’t hear me at first, so I repeated myself a little louder. He snapped into focus and looked at me inquisitively with penetrating eyes. “I'm a student of Dr. Gabbin.” His hand swallowed mine whole in a warm clasp. “Could you sign my book?” As he began signing the cover page of Neon Vernacular, I mentioned that my dad was also a Vietnam War vet and took an unexpected interest in the Dien Cai Dau poems.

A light and sense of recognition entered his eyes. “Is that so? You know, there's going to be an anthology of Vietnam War poems coming out soon next year. He may be interested in that.” He suddenly asked if I wrote poetry. When I replied that I did, he gave me his email address at NYU, where he is currently Global Distinguished Professor of English in the creative writing program, and told me to send him some poems. My pulse quickened. This was unexpected, simultaneously a flattering and frightening prospect. In a daze and with the intention of sending that email, I thanked him and returned to my seat as the other poets began gathering onstage.

I reflected on the interview I’d recently read in JMU’s student paper, The Breeze. In it, Komunyakaa had remarked, “Poetry keeps renewing itself, because ... it comes out of that great mystery ... I think that’s where poetry came from originally. It was there to at least, not answer questions, but at least probe mystery.” The reporter, freshman Anna Goocher, had spoken with him at length and told me over coffee, “I’ve never met someone who speaks so deliberately. It made me want to alter the way I speak and address people in general.” Fellow English majors, we’d both been drawn under Komunyakaa’s spell.



When Komunyakaa stepped up to the podium, a quiet yet intense energy accompanied him. With his dark skin, dark clothes, and cap that partially shaded his face, he was a mysterious figure. He gave the audience a warm smile and briefly expressed his gratitude before launching into his reading. “An island is one great eye gazing out, a beckoning lighthouse, searchlight, a wishbone compass, or counterweight to the stars,” he began, reading “Islands,” the only previously published poem he included that afternoon. The others were from an upcoming collection, Empire of Watercolors. His voice was sonorous, hypnotic, and remarkably deep, deeper than I’d imagined, though I’d already watched YouTube videos of his past readings.

The voice also seemed persistently to hold something back, pulling us in inch by inch. A peculiar rhythm moved through his body. He swayed and dipped in short, staccato motions as the words came out in microbursts of twos, threes and fours. The breath and brief pauses carried equal weight that drove his idiosyncratic syncopation forward. Initially, I sat poised to take vigorous notes but soon realized that it was best to let myself go, allowing the words and spirit to flow through my consciousness like waves from an inexplicable sea. The final lines slowly closed the poem with a subtle yet mighty finality: “After conquering frontiers, the mind comes back to rest, stretching out over the white sand.”

. . .

To date I have not received a reply from Mr. Komunyakaa. Some further questions I posed remain unanswered, and by this point in time I wish I’d refrained from sending him several of my amateur poems. Still, I have the opportunity to enter into open dialogue with him whenever I want: all I have to do is open a book of his poems and keep probing mystery.


Austin Shifflett is a senior majoring in English at James Madison University. This essay has been adapted from a class assignment for Dr. Joanne Gabbin's English 362, African American Poets (Fall 2014), and reprinted with permission.

Photos by C. B. Claiborne (top) and Thomas Sayers Ellis.

You might also like to read these other reflections from students: “Patricia Smith: Golden Wordwoman” by Brittany Fisher and “In the Company of Poets” (selections from several writers).