29 April 2013

Yusef Komunyaaka

"Yusef Komunyakaa knows the texture of sound and the multitude of instruments contained in a single voice. He first heard jazz on his wooden radio in 1950s Louisiana: Louis Armstrong’s trumpet, a Dinah Washington ballad. Then came the cadence of the Bible and gospel music, then Shakespeare, then the modernist poets. "Song lyrics brought me to the power of words," he explained in an interview with Poets.org, "the songs taught me to listen." Komunyakaa believes that we internalize the music and rhythms around us, and everything we say or write is "filtered" through that musical memory.

His poems are rich with musical imagery: songs sung in fields, jazz playing on jukeboxes, and wounded musicians struggling for redemption. And yet, there is also breathing room, a space for silence. In his poem "Rhythm Method," he writes about the process of discerning the rhythm of the heart from the variety of sounds in the natural world:

We know the whole weight
depends on small silences
we fit ourselves into.

Music provides Komunyakaa with a means to explore complex issues of race and human relationships, while never reducing it through an attempt to reproduce the sounds themselves. "I gave myself a line of instruction a few years ago: 'I am not a horn,'" he explained. "It troubles me when poetry tries to equal music through outlandish mimicry of musical instruments. It is not music or poetry."

Yusef reads:
"Ode to the Maggot"

Yusef was born on 29 April 1947.

In answer to, "What's poetry?":
"Poetry is a kind of distilled insinuation. It’s a way of expanding and talking around an idea or a question. Sometimes, more actually gets said through such a technique than a full frontal assault."


I sit beside two women, kitty-corner
to the stage, as Elvin's sticks blur
the club into a blue fantasia.
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.
My mind is lost among November
cotton flowers, a soft rain on my face
as Richard Davis plucks the fat notes
of chance on his upright
leaning into the future.
The blonde, the brunette--
which one is scented with jasmine?
I can hear Duke in the right hand
& Basic in the left
as the young piano player
nudges us into the past.
The trumpet's almost kissed
by enough pain. Give him a few more years,
a few more ghosts to embrace--Clifford's
shadow on the edge of the stage.
The sign says, No Talking.
Elvin's guardian angel lingers
at the top of the stairs,
counting each drop of sweat
paid in tribute. The blonde
has her eyes closed, & the brunette
is looking at me. Our bodies
sway to each riff, the jasmine
rising from a valley somewhere
in Egypt, a white moon
opening countless false mouths
of laughter. The midnight
gatherers are boys & girls
with the headlights of trucks
aimed at their backs, because
their small hands refuse to wound
the knowing scent hidden in each bloom.

Edward Byrne on "Jasmine": http://edwardbyrne.blogspot.com/2009/08/count-basie-and-yusef-komunyakaa.html

Link to this poem:


gautami tripathy said...

Thanks for sharing this. You do give us such good insights into African poets and their poetry.

Rethabile said...

Thanks, GT. I'm having a ball, and discovering a few voices myself.

Anonymous said...

So lovely and powerful


ToastySue said...

The first poem I read by Yusef Komunyakaa was "Facing It."

The last line of the poem kills me.

I can't teach the poem because it makes me cry, every time.

Rethabile said...

True. "Facing it" is a beautiful sad, sad poem. let me post it now. Thanks Toasty.

Thami Mhlanga said...

One person Im happy I share my birthday with...when my pastor heard I write and she saw my birth date she said the spirit of Yusef leaves on and I thought it was someone from the Bible...Ta Rethabile

Stephen Bess said...

I've never heard of this dude?? Another one to check out. This is why I love coming here. Dumela, ntate!

Rethabile said...

Yusef rocks, ntate Bess.

Thami, happy birthday, mfowethu.

Toasted, I posted "Facing it". An awesome poem.

Anonymous, Thanks

chiefbiscuit said...

Beautiful sounds and images. Seductive, svelte and knowing.

laura said...

Thank you for commenting on my blog and letting me know it was Yusef's birthday--what a happy coincidence!
I enjoyed this wonderful post and will visit the links.

Michelle said...

I like his face, the expression, a glint of humour, the beginning of a smile.

Rethabile said...

He's at home with himself, whatever that may mean.

Maxine Clarkw said...


Myne Whitman said...

That is a totally lovely poem.

Kaya said...

Love the work...

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