Komunyakaa’s Everyday Mojo

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Everyday Mojo Songs of Earth: New and Selected Poems, 2001-2021
by Yusef Komunyakaa
(FSG, June 2021, 288 pp., $35)

One aspect crucial to understanding the importance of Yusef Komunyakaa’s poetry of the last twenty years is its fastidious attendance to histories and mythologies both familiar and obscure. As Komunyakaa acknowledges, the poet’s role is like that of “a magpie collecting every scrap / of song.” For Komunyakaa, poetry not only preserves the past, it creates it. Poetry recalls often forgotten traditions and beliefs, offering these not as alternatives, not as supreme fictions, but as talismans against forgetting. The Great Migration, the Hindu Trimurti, Chet Baker huffing gasoline, the birth of the centaurs, Saint Kinga’s cathedral of salt, Napoleon’s penis, Christ and Mohamed—each figure gets shuffled through the divination deck of this book, which follows Komunyakaa’s first “New & Selected,” Neon Vernacular (1994), as well as Pleasure Dome: New & Collected Poems, 1975-1999 (2001). It makes for essential reading.

Like Yeats, Komunyakaa mythologizes the past, personalizing it, so that even the most ancient narratives sound new. Readers of the poet’s previous work will recognize this tendency from Magic City (1992), which explores the poet’s childhood in Bogalusa, Louisiana, in poems such as “Venus’s Flytraps” and “My Father’s Love Letters,” or his widely anthologized poems of the Vietnam War such as “Facing It,” “‘You and I Are Disappearing,’” and “Thanks.” Everyday Mojo Songs of Earth continues this work of imagining and imaging the American South, the wars in Southeast Asia, white supremacy in the United States, and the legacies of jazz and the blues. The book also marks a significant development.

Everyday Mojo represents a turn not only in Komunyakaa’s style and approach to these subjects, but an expansion of his concerns. More linguistically dense, image-laden, and allusive than his earlier work, the poems in Everyday Mojo are formally restless, improvisatory, experimental, and (most noticeably) indirect. Where much of Neon Vernacular is rooted in autobiographical experience often informed by myth and history, the finest of these new poems take myth and history as primary subjects, tinging these with the personal in order to enliven them, to make myth and history seem lived.

This is what I mean by “indirect.” Take “After Summer Fell Apart” (1986) and “Ignis Fatuus” (2012), two poems concerned with the same ostensible subject, infidelity, but one written in the early style, the other late. The first poem begins with a direct confession addressed to a female lover: “I can’t touch you. / His face always returns,” continuing, “He has you. Now / he doesn’t. He has you / again.” The second poem opens with a description of a will-o-the-wisp in a Louisiana bayou, culminating in a startling simile that establishes the wounded tenor of the poem, foreshadowing the hurt and violence to come:

……………A swampy glow haloes the Spanish moss, & there’s a swaying at the edge like a child’s memory of abuse growing flesh, living on what a screech owl recalls.

The hallucinogenic merging of vivid images, including the owl’s kill recollected in tranquility through its celebratory cry, imitates the illusory phenomenon being described. Then, at exactly halfway through the poem (line fifteen of thirty), a major shift occurs in the form of another metaphor:

……………A foolish fire can also start this way: before you slide your key into the lock & half turn the knob, you know someone has snuck into your life . . . his sweat still owning the air.

“Foolish fire” is one translation of the phrase ignis fatuus. It also serves as a figurative description of erotic passions, the fools we make of ourselves for love, especially when what we desire is an illusion.

Though Komunyakaa still works with the taut free-verse line consisting of roughly two to four beats that we find in both poems, the poems in the new book sound different. “After Summer Fell Apart” borrows from the somewhat idiosyncratic visual arrangements of William Carlos Williams’s free verse, particularly in the way the enjambments of “He has you. Now / he doesn’t. He has you / again. Now he doesn’t” echo those of “To a Poor Old Woman”: “They taste good to her / They taste good / to her. They taste / good to her.” This echo can’t be accidental, considering the “munching a plum” that happens in the more famous (and famously sexualized) plums in “This Is Just to Say.” Komunyakaa’s line in “Ignis Fatuus,” on the other hand, is more sonically driven, more heavily stressed. In addition to the dominant metrical echo being that of iambic tetrameter (“you SLIDE | your KEY | IN-to | the LOCK”) or trimeter (“his SWEAT | still OWN-ing | the AIR”), what governs these lines is image rather than speech, “luminous buttons & subway tokens” rather than “Honey, sweetheart, / I hold you against me,” making the newer poem pulse with a deeper aural resonance.

One might accuse this approach of being less immediate than the earlier work, equating direct address with tonal urgency. Yes, the poem written in the early style is more literally direct, being either a soliloquy or a monologue. Yes, the poem ends with an implied post-coital embrace: “like counting your ribs / with one foolish hand / & mine with the other.” But, given Komunyakaa’s overt reference to Genesis here, this powerful image implies intimacy as much as separation. I would also argue that “Ignis Fatuus” achieves, through its reliance on image and metaphor rather than apostrophe, a greater intimacy, and that the poem does so through its use of another kind of “you.” By forgoing an “I,” or by swapping the first-person pronoun for the second, “Ignis Fatuus” invites the reader into the poem not as eavesdropper, overhearer, or spectator (which is the reader’s role in any monologue), but as direct participant in the internal action or drama of the lyric. In “Ignis Fatuus,” Komunyakaa asks the reader to serve as co-author, imagining each image, conceptualizing each metaphor, and internalizing the poem’s rhythms and leaps. Of course, this kind of co-authorship happens in any poem. But Komunyakaa makes this collaboration the focus, rather than the consequence, of his late style.

The first poem in Every Day Mojo Songs of Earth does so even more explicitly by apostrophizing the reader. It opens, like the “You come too” of Frost’s famous proem “The Pasture,” in the imperative mood:

Say licked clean at birth. Say ……………weeping in the tall grass, where …………………………this tantalizing song begins, ……………birds paused on a crooked branch over a grave of an unending trek ……………into the valley of cooling waters. …………………………Lessons of earth, old questions ……………unmoor the first tongue. Say I have gone back, says the oracle, ……………counting seasons & centuries, undoing fault …………………………lines between one generation & the next

Whether as invitation or command, “A World of Daughters” begins at the beginning, returning to the “borrowed-rib / story” alluded to at the end of “After Summer Fell Apart,” but reversing it. The poem argues that it was “the other way round,” that Adam was made from Eve. But, before arriving at this moment, the poem indirectly divests humanity, or at least womankind, of original sin. Rather than emerging into a state of tainted human nature (peccatum originale, as Augustine put it), we are “licked clean at birth.” This gesture restores humanity to its genetic origin as animalistic, mammalian, making us more beast-like and free. The poem’s most forceful enjambment echoes this notion; the gesture of licking us clean of original sin becomes a way of “undoing fault” as well as “undoing fault / lines between” generations, which shifts tectonic plates, recreating a kind of Edenic Pangea.

This sentiment, that we are all linked by a common origin, is the overarching theme this poem sings. The poem also suggests that humankind, in order to progress and endure, requires the courage, good sense, and wisdom to embrace this idea. The imperative “Say,” which the poem repeats six times, can also be interpreted as a hypothetical (“Let’s say, for argument’s sake, it was the other way round”), or an appeal (“Please, for the sake of humanity, instead of Adam’s rib, say it was Eve’s, say original sin is a lie”). But an appeal for what, and to whom?

Written between the publication of Komunyakaa’s most recent full-length volume, The Emperor of Water Clocks (2015) and the 2021 publication of Everyday Mojo, the “New Poems” respond to the acute divisiveness exposed and exemplified by the Trump administration. Surely this appeal for “one” to acknowledge shared ancestry can be read as a call for not only American but also for global unity, for a broader application of E pluribus unum rather than the myopic alternative of “America first.” The poem also reminds its American audience that this common ancestry is not white, European, and Protestant:

……………………………………………………Yes, ……………hinged into earth, we rose from Lucy …………………………to clan, from clan to tribe, & today ……………we worship her sun-polished bones, remembering she is made of questions. ……………No, mama is not always the first word …………………………before counting eggs in the cowbird’s ……………nest. It begins in memory. Now, say her name, say Dinknesh, mother of us all.

The poem’s conclusion implies a transposition of the familiar motto, reversing Out of many, one as Out of one, many. Understanding that both are true is an existential imperative. Given the recent rise of white nationalism in the United States, along with its attendant threats, “clan” menaces with its echo of “Klan.” Rather than dwelling on tribal violence, however, Komunyakaa urges us to remember that our Australopithecus afarensis ancestor Lucy, or Dinknesh in the Ethiopian Amharic language, “is made of questions,” not answers—violence being a primitive “answer” to uncertainty, change, mistrust, and fear.

The rhetorical scheme of the poem seems itself a response to the easy answers that any would-be autocratic regime might issue: the fingering of scapegoats, reliance on alternative facts, demands for absolute devotion, and promises of future greatness. The poem’s discursive tone (Yes, but . . . No, but . . .) expresses an aversion to the oversimplification often implied by such pernicious binaries as With/Against, Good/Evil, and what Komunyakaa refers to in a 2006 interview as “the us/them syndrome.”

Everyday Mojo Songs of Earth keeps insisting that poetry is a means of asking “old questions” about the past as a way of understanding and establishing the present. Channeling Phillis Wheatley’s ideas about “the sacredness of the human imagination,” Komunyakaa concludes in a recent essay that poetry “reconnects us to the act of dreaming ourselves into existence.” As with “A World of Daughters” and “Ignis Fatuus,” the selves that these poems dream are collective. Though the poems in Everyday Mojo incorporate elements of personal experience, they become more concerned with pluribus than unum.

This democratic motif of many-ness resonates throughout this collection which, beyond a generous selection of new work, includes poems from Talking Dirty to the Gods (2000), a book of remarkably condensed lyrics, each written in four quatrains; Taboo (2006), lyric-narrative poems written in stepped, three-beat tercets covering, as Komunyakaa puts it, “the collision of cultures defining blacks and blackness in the ancient and modern worlds”; Love in a Time of War (2009), a sequence of twenty-five sonnets; Warhorses (2009), which confronts our age of global military conflict; The Chameleon Couch (2011), a book more varied in form and content than any other in Everyday Mojo; The Emperor of Water Clocks (2015), which offers chronicles of power, its corrupting force, and its inevitable decline; and Requiem (2019), a 150-line, single-sentence tour de force celebrating and eulogizing New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

If this catalog sounds too eclectic to cohere, such a list belies Komunyakaa’s genius for astonishing juxtapositions, associative improvisations, and verbal collage. In his best poems, Komunyakaa makes the most unlikely connections seem inevitable. One of the most powerful poems in Everyday Mojo, “Cape Coast Castle,” combines the infamous Ghanese slave fortress, love-making on “polluted beaches,” the decapitation of Pompey, Van Gogh’s restless brushwork, and the mausoleum of W.E.B. DuBois, concluding with a monologue spoken by an eighteenth century Governor of Accra: “There’s a whole tribe in this one, but I’ll break them / before they’re in the womb.” This talent for evocative, often painful cultural mash-ups extends to individual volumes as well as this “New & Selected” as a whole.

But this practice, this democratic habit of mind, can derail other poems. Komunyakaa often employs intentionally enigmatic phrases that yoke concrete images with abstract ideas: “a bundle of wild orchids / broken at the wet seam of memory & manna.” Such interplay can sound like riddle-speak, the glossolalia of an addled oracle. In “Canticle,” for example, Komunyakaa writes, “Because I know twelve ways to be wrong / & two to be good, I was wounded by the final question in the cave, / left side of the spirit level’s quiver.” Why twelve ways? Why the left side? Which cave? Who is “I”? Such moments, though rich and evocative, challenge the reader to solve for X and Y, as the linguistic syntheses of John Ashbery often do. But, unlike Ashbery, Komunyakaa’s language play can lack playfulness, leaving the reader with the impression of an incomplete puzzle, a non-sequitur too hermetic to grasp. This kind of obscurantism happens in Ashbery, too, and far more frequently. It’s Komunyakaa’s tonal earnestness, though, his passionate intensity—as if he has something urgent to communicate—that makes the vagueness of these moments seem incongruous, unresolvable, even indulgent.

Which is not to imply that Komunyakaa’s work can’t be playful. Like the jazz rhythms his poems emulate, Komunyakaa’s late style relies on improvisation. Take “Grunge,” for example, which begins with the hilarious pun on Courtney Love’s name: “No, sweetheart, I said courtly love.” Or “Lingo,” which confronts the racist undertones of idiomatic speech, and offers another pun, this time on a famous epithet: “Herodotus, woven into his story.” Or “Ecstatic,” which rewrites Donne’s holy sonnet “Batter my heart, three-person’d God” and ends with a musical pun that yokes jazz, religion, and violence: “Please, good God, / put everything into your swing.” It’s those rare moments when the fervor of a poem’s tone mismatches the obscurity of an image that can detract from an otherwise powerful and moving piece of writing.

Culture itself, of course, is a mash-up. Elements of one period are borrowed or appropriated by another. “What’s Greek,” Komuyakaa writes, “Is forged into Roman,” forged here meaning both “formed” and “falsified.” The sort of cultural juxtapositions we find in Komunyakaa’s work, however, are handled with full consciousness of the ethical and historical implications such borrowings present. In “Begotten,” for example, the poet riffs on Michael S. Harper’s line “nightmare begins responsibility,” which is itself a riff on Delmore Schwartz’s short story “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” which Schwartz lifted from Yeats. “To spend an hour in Uruk / tonight,” Komunyakaa writes, “is to awake in the Green Zone / with another dictator’s lassoed statue / pulled to the ground.” Komunyakaa equates dreaming and waking here, implying the permeability of present and past, of what has happened and what we’ve made.

Similarly, “Nude Study,” from Taboo, wrestles with the slippery ethical issues relating to cultural appropriation, art history, and race. Here is the whole poem:

Someone lightly brushed the penis ……….alive. Belief is almost ………………..flesh. Wings beat,

dust trying to breathe, as if the figure ……….might rise from the oils ………………..and flee the dead

artist’s studio. For years ……….this piece of work was there ……………… a golden struggle

shadowing Thomas McKeller, a black ……….elevator operator at the Boston ………………..Copley Plaza Hotel, a friend

of John Singer Sargent—hidden ……….among sketches & drawings, a model ………………..for Apollo & a bas-relief

of Arion. So much taken ……….for granted & denied, only ………………..grace & mutability

can complete this face belonging ……….to Greek bodies castrated ………………..with a veil of dust.

The “piece of work” this poem references is Nude Study of Thomas E. McKeller (1917-20), which Sargent painted in preparation for murals he made at the Boston MFA and Harvard’s Widener Library. But in the murals the race of Thomas McKeller, perhaps the only black studio model that posed for Sargent, was “hidden”; Sargent painted the head of a white Apollo and a white Arion on McKeller’s body. This erasure is disturbing and strange, especially when we remember that some of Sargent’s murals include Egyptian panels featuring black figures.

The reasons why Sargent erased McKeller’s race are complicated. By all accounts, though, these men were friends. In a letter following McKeller’s death, Sargent wrote, “I don’t know what I shall do without him.” Considering these factors, it seems likely that one of Sargent’s motivations for obscuring McKeller’s blackness pertains to the glorification, by late-Victorian cultural norms, of McKeller’s body, which Sargent found beautiful, but which the Boston Brahmin who patronized Sargent’s work might not have been prepared to appreciate, at least not within the context of classical Greek motifs.

Komuyakaa’s poem begins at a particular historical moment, just after Sargent’s death in 1925, when Nude Study was acquired. (The painting, which features McKeller himself—not a whitewashed facsimile—was not seen publicly until then.) Though McKeller also served as body model for Sargent’s portrait of Harvard president Abbott Lawrence Lowell, along with other classical characters in the murals mentioned above, Komunyakaa only mentions Apollo and Arion, two mythological figures associated with poetry. Nude Study also has an airy, ethereal quality often lacking in Sargent’s more polished oil paintings. And the image features faint wings unfurling behind McKeller, who sits perched on a green cushion, his arms stretched back. Evocatively, these wings look “hidden,” painted over, like McKeller’s face, an historical palimpsest: there and not there.

Komunyakaa brings all of these factors to bear on the art of poetry itself. For Komunyakaa, who observes in a 2017 essay that “art is an action,” poetry is “a way of glancing into mystery, of gaining a semblance of control over the unknown and the unknowable.” Though Sargent’s true motivations might never be fully understood, both poem and painting become a means of reseeing this man, of restoring at least part of the “So much taken” from and “taken / for granted” about McKeller.

If Everyday Mojo Songs of Earth has an overarching ambition, it is to restore, reclaim, and re-vision the presence of the past in our daily lives. Such a project seems inevitable for a poet so motivated by the materiality of language which is, after all, “fossil poetry,” as Emerson observed. One marvels at Komunyakaa’s verbal inventiveness, his capacity to shape poems out of such disparate sources, his ever-expanding menagerie of words. Cultural artifacts as diverse as Game of Thrones and Gaddafi’s golden pistol, animals as exotic as the bella moth and congo snake, instruments of torture like the thumbscrew and cat o’ nine, instruments of song like the krar and the oud, batfish, black figs, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, the temple of Castor and Pollux, Michio Ito, Enqelab Square—Komunyakaa packs his poems with such an abundance of luxurious things, even if he claims in a poem near the end of the volume, “My words are simple.”

In a way, though, they are. Komunyakaa merely names what exists, what he finds near at hand, and by naming he praises those objects, narratives, and creatures he can touch, taste, see, feel, and hear. “A war’s going on somewhere,” he writes in “The Circus,” “but tonight / a forest glows beneath the big top.” It’s as if all of Komunyakaa’s poems of the last twenty years begin with the line “A war’s going on somewhere, but” . . . This is the case especially with those poems that praise the pleasures of this world, Komunyakaa’s many odas elementales which, like Neruda’s odes, celebrate such unlikely objects as maggots, nipples, the Venus of Willendorf, mayflies, sex toys, mud, and Ukiyo-e.

As in the Romantic ode, however, celebration for Komunyakaa often merges with loss. In “Slaves Among Blades of Grass,” for example, nature serves as ruthless allegory for human barbarism. Here is the whole poem:

The Amazon ants dispatch Scouts armed with mandibles Sharp as sabers. They return To drum each other’s heads

With antennae, & then send out Columns of warriors to surround a nest & abduct pupae. As if made for battle, With jaws so deadly they can’t feed

Themselves, they possess slaves. New blades of grass beaded with water Light a subkingdom beneath Shadowed footsteps where the sky

Meets indiscernible green of river & jungle, in this terrain Where a world is dismantled To make something else look whole.

The four-square “columns” of the poem’s form emphasize the military efficiency with which polyergus workers carry out their slave-raiding. In this world of “indiscernible green,” “something,” therefore everything, can only “look whole,” and it can only do so through an act of theft. Amazon-ants have evolved so that a colony cannot survive without slaves, much as the socio-economic ideologies of the antebellum South had become so dependent on Triangular Trade that over 260,000 men died fighting to preserve it.

The stakes here couldn’t be higher. As Komunyakaa writes in his essay, “How Poetry Helps People Live Their Lives,” “the poet has become the philosopher, the composer and caretaker, of the most fundamental and urgent questions voiced to the agency of human existence.” The poet’s ultimate role is that of questioner, of seer and singer both. In place of god, who Komunyakaa refers to as “Great Ooga-Booga,” the lyric poem emerges as a redeeming force, maybe the only one left, a song to sing as the end draws nigh.