The OF Blog: 2011 National Book Award poetry nominee: Yusef Komunyakaa, The Chameleon Couch

Saturday, November 12, 2011

2011 National Book Award poetry nominee: Yusef Komunyakaa, The Chameleon Couch

You wish to know if I cherished a thought
     beyond lore & decorum, if a bloodless virtue
like some fury of wings beating in a cage
     ushered me beyond paradise.  Unbelievable
as I am, I shall say this:  if I am Beatrice
     or Beatitude, muse or pale siren, I am flesh
born to another dream of flesh.  If I am clay,
     it is the same merciless clay you are made of,
with a red vein of iron running through it, the same
     naked prayer in the dark holding the song together.
– from "Flesh" (p, 68)

Compared to the more overt thematic union of Bruce Smith's Devotions and Carl Phillips' Double Shadow, it is not as easy to discern a unifying theme to Yusef Komunyakaa's thirteenth poem collection, The Chameleon Couch.  Unless perhaps one looks at the various skins Komunyakaa inhabits in his poems (here at the beginning of "Flesh" he references Dante's muse/idealized love, Beatrice) and sees chameleon-like qualities to the sometimes languid, sometimes frantic poems found in this 115 page collection.  When reading this collection for the first time last week and even more when I thumbed through it earlier tonight, I was reminded of a jazz beat that plays in the background, altering its rhythm from 4/4 time to whatever beat was needed to imbue a poetic piece with its own unique melody.

At times, Komunyakaa reminds me of Walt Whitman in his joie de vivre, particularly in a little line found in "Aubade at Hotel Copernicus":

A blade of grass in a bottle made me sing
& count footsteps to the hotel.
At other times, for example in the conclusion to "Fata Morgana," there were echoes of the wistfulness found in several of Emily Dickinson's poetry:

...I knew beforehand
what surrender would look like after
long victory parades & proclamations,
& could hear the sounds lovemaking
brought to the cave & headquarters.

Yet at no point do Komunyakaa's poems feel like mechanical reproductions of original verse and meter.  Instead, his poems insinuate that there is a commonality with past masters, but without ever aping the complete style of any particular source.  Komunyakaa references the past, both historical and poetic alike, but he does not linger overlong in any locale or poetic metaphor.  We might see mention of a succubus or labyrinth, but he does not belabor the initial associations we might make with citing "We Shall Overcome," as he quickly moves on in a poem such as "Green" to say:

I've known how "We Shall Overcome"
feels on a half-broken tongue,
but not how deeply sunsets wounded the Peacock Throne.

If a synonym needed to replace the titular "chameleon," the closest and most apt would be "protean."  Komunyakaa's narrators, as well as their themes and references, morph from poem to poem, never staying constant, unless one were to argue that their inherent mutability is the point of these poems and that each interconnects with another to create a thematic mosaic that is more intricately interlocked because of the disparate nature of the poems and their meters.  For some, this might make for a disjointed read, as the reader would need to understand global myths and stories in order to connect most of the narrative dots found in Komunyakaa's poetry.  But for those willing to put forth this effort to process what s/he is reading, The Chameleon Couch will be a rewarding experience.

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