Some poets perform an act of creation that supersedes the poem as a mere vessel for thought or emotion. Instead, their writing generates a unique world that we may inhabit, coherent in its logic and distinct in the images that populate it. By spending time with a body of work, we become familiar with a poet, feel a fondness for his methods and metaphysics. Berryman’s Dream Songs or Keats’ Odes spring to mind immediately. In these cases, we find a poet’s landscape so convincing that we are able to lay our mind’s resistance to rest. Our newfound familiarity with the rules, like a secret language, is the source of our pleasure.
Yusef Komunyakaa’s “The Chameleon Couch” is another volume from an author whose creations could not be mistaken for the work of anyone else. Komunyakaa’s poems feel as if they have no ancestors, so busy are they in creating a mélange of jazz rhythms and poetic modernism, dark spirituality and personal confession. However, if we may say that Komunyakaa creates a unique world, Komunyakaa’s images are not wholly responsible for its singularity, arresting as they may be. Komunyakaa instead creates a world of suggestion and enigma, where what is withheld from the reader is just as important as what is revealed. In “The Cage, The Head,” Komunyakaa expands on the tense dynamic between poet and reader: “You sit inside a halved atlas. / Something for us to stare at / as you define us / by how long you hold a gaze.” Though Komunyakaa uses the second person to describe the strange talismanic figure, it remains unclear who is really in control. In “The Chameleon Couch,” it may be truer that the world entered into is more dependent on the power exercised on the reader by the author than any startling image.
The first and most observable achievement of Komunyakaa’s work is its effortless synthesis of images drawn from a diverse group of sources. The poet’s range of influences is remarkable: obscure religious rituals, jazz, Polish landscapes, the history of slavery, confidence men, Dante—the list goes on. An image is suggested and takes flight, only to reappear a few poems later in a new form. Often, Komunyakaa uses the idea of the ode as his jumping-off point, not necessarily apostrophizing the object but using it as a concrete subject around which his strands of imagery can swarm and refract. The subjects vary from the eponymous chameleon, the shakuhachi (a Japanese flute), Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, and figs.
Komunyakaa is a poet who, when naming names, is just as likely to invoke Thelonious Monk as he is Robert Lowell (though both are mentioned), and there’s a certain truth to the idea that his poems have an improvisatory quality to them. It is perhaps best to be skeptical about the connections between the formal aspects of jazz and of literature. Yet, Komunyakaa’s method of cycling through images teases out a link between jazz composition and the fluctuations of a surrealistic unconscious: returning to motifs with intriguing variations. For instance, in “The Hedonist,” Komunyakaa begins with a fantastical narrative, writing, “I pull on my crow mask. / Butterflies & insects rise / in the ether of remembrance” and later modulates to a related but different image: “After eating quail eggs & fish tongues, / I don a snarling dog mask / & pursue a would-be lover / into the hanging garden … & the I enter the labyrinth.” The task is no longer so much to explicate the change of masks to reveal the underlying ‘content,’ but to experience these images as characteristic of the fascinating and alien world Komunyakaa has constructed. His continued attraction to improvisation has a corresponding impulse that seeks more than beautiful and visceral images.
At times, Komunyakaa’s relationship with his African American heritage bubbles up to the surface, often in the middle of poems that seemed to begin with distinctly different subject matter. These comparisons question the political dimensions of poems that often threaten to remain ultimately apolitical, sensual and immersive as they may be. These interrogations, working in the context of the history of slavery and the civil rights movement, radiate deep pain and an effort to speak honestly. These conflicts are perhaps the largest stage for Komunyakaa’s visceral style: the dense images come first, and then Komunyakaa feels his way toward the source of his emotion.
Only occasionally does the author’s threading of registers falter, usually when Komunyakaa attempts to inject the sheen of the brand-new, as when he refers to “your damn blogosphere” in “Dangerousness.” The work is already so complex and multivalent that the appeal to contemporary relevancy seems forced from time to time, as does the occasional insistence on strong markers of the vernacular, like the “You know” and “Yes, that’s right” that pepper a section of “Ten or Eleven Disguises.” However, for the most part it is a testament to Komunyakaa’s skill that everything is sutured together with so few stitches showing.
This stitching together, referred to as a poem’s “tone” or “voice,” is one of the most commonly used—and least defined—terms in poetry. Still, these terms are indispensable here. Komunyakaa’s poetry speaks with authority (or at the very least with a broad assurance of his place). This voice, nearly oracular in its ability to conjure exquisite figures onto the blank page, gains power through its very spontaneity. In “When Eyes Are On Me,” Komunyakaa begins with the assertion of identity, writing, “I am a scrappy old lion … I walk big shouldered, my head raised / proudly. I smell the blood of a king. / The citizens can see only a minotaur in a maze. / I know more than a lion should know.” The poet’s position of privileged knowledge is brazenly stated, making it clear (but enticing) that the reader is at the mercy of the poet’s mutable visions. Anything can be conjured and anything can be withheld, and there is a perverse pleasure in following the dance of Komunyakaa’s material.
There is no question that Komunyakaa’s poetry produces powerful, unpredictable images, but occasionally, one gets the twinge of a feeling that the pieces don’t quite add up. This is the drawback of operating by insinuation: as much as the reader enjoys being teased, he hopes for to be rewarded after his effort. If the answer is always to be withheld, then how high can the stakes really be? The world created is unforgettable, but not totally satisfying. Komunyakaa’s entertaining, enigmatic poems remain unfulfilled in their reading, always leaving something extra on the other side.