Yusef Komunyakaa | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Yusef Komunyakaa

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"After Nam he lost himself, / not trusting his hands / with loved ones," Yusef Komunyakaa writes in "Losses," a poem from Dien Cai Dau (1988), one of several books in which he looks back on his time as an army combat correspondent in Vietnam. Ironically perhaps, it was after 'Nam that Komunyakaa found himself, turning from journalism to a more exacting search for truth in poetry. He's never given in to bitterness or settled for moral ambiguity; in a more recent poem like "Pepper" he can righteously berate a strung out Art Pepper for a racist crack while remaining firm in his love of the "hint of Africa / still inside your alto." If Vietnam and a childhood in segregated Louisiana inform him morally, his aesthetics derive in large part from jazz, so that street jive and sly innuendo wind through verse delivered in sharp bursts, sometimes celebrating nothing more complicated than simple physical existence. In a seminar I took with him at Indiana University, about the time he was composing many of the pieces for Dien Cai Dau, he would pack us off to the library, each with a list of poems to find in the stacks and copy by hand into our notebooks, as if teaching us to touch what we read and write what we touch. It's a lesson he credits to Chinua Achebe in "Keeper of the Vigil": "Although / sometimes the right hand / wrestles the left, you / showed me there's a time / for plaintive reed flutes / & another for machetes." He'll read at a Poetry Center of Chicago event on Wednesday, May 14, at 6:30 PM in the ballroom at the School of the Art Institute, 112 S. Michigan, 312-899-1229. It's $15.

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