Taboo by Yusef Komunyakaa“No subject is taboo.” –Yusef Komunyakaa, from a 1985 interview available on Nathanielturner.com
Yusef Komunyakaa has nothing to prove. With a Pulitzer Prize under his belt for a decade, a teaching position at Princeton University, rambling lists of poetry prize credits, and the Bronze Star for his correspondent work in Vietnam, Komunyakaa certainly commands a bit of respect. It is curious, then, that his most recent collection does not appear to be generating much interesting conversation. I admit that my research was confined to Internet sources -- I was looking for some information about The Wishbone Trilogy at large, of which Taboo is Part One -- but I was hard-pressed to find more than one passionate review. And even the one I ended up with was a little bland. I was looking for more to read because I am not reasonably familiar with Komunyakaa’s work. I suspect I am not alone. Guiltily, I have to confess that I had seen his name, had probably read some of his poems, but knew nothing. Taboo was my first true rendezvous with Yusef Komunyakaa. I should say now that I resisted the whole book something awful. I have grown so fond of the decorative whimsy that characterizes much of today’s best new poetry and I had forgotten how to enjoy a staunch, meaty short line with heady allusions to sets of mythology I just barely recognize. It is not easy to jump right into this stuff.
Taboo raises several questions for me. The first is the issue of a series. Certainly I am not the only reader who cannot overlook “THE WISHBONE TRILOGY, PART ONE” stamped on the book’s cover. What a tease. I can’t help myself. I read the whole thing wondering what the other two books would look like. Are they already written? Did the poet set up a trilogy constraint as part of a longer project? Were there several hundred poems that needed organizing? What is the deal, Yusef? These questions of process and system lead naturally to my second question: in what conscious and unconscious ways does Komunyakaa merge his form and content? There are more than a hundred poems in this book, and every single one is made of dense little stanzas, all tercets, all metrically charged in some way or another. The content is suggested by, though not restricted to the connotations of, the title. What do we do with all these details? Finally, I am wondering about the possibility of poet as historian. The review mentioned above made an intriguing statement about Komunyakaa’s poetry. More about that in a moment.
As for the series, I can only wonder and wait. During my reading, I found such information both intriguing and distracting. As for the form and content, allow me to do some quoting here so that you might get a feel for the oddness of Komunyakaa’s rhythm.
Herodotus, woven into his story,
tells how the Phoenicians lent
war fleets to Greece & Egypt,
how a ghost-driven flotilla
eased like salmon up birth water
& sailed the Red Sea,
hoping to circumnavigate Africa
around the Cape of Good Hope
& along Gibraltar. A blue
door opened . . .
These are the very first words of the collection. Note the short, packed lines. And the discombobulating line breaks. There is something so lovely, though, about the harshness. Komunyakaa channels Emily Dickinson here, but without the sudden self-reproach that erupts from a more inhibited voice. The poet in these jerky breaks and lickety-split movements speaks with a panting confidence, ala Buffy the Vampire Slayer punning it up with the demons.
...There is a reason why the dead
may talk through a medium
about how Aryans drove cattle
along the seven rivers & left
with tongues cut out, sugarcane
fields ablaze, & the holy air
smelling of ghee & soma . . .
. . . If not the split-tongued
rook, the sparrow is condemned
to sing the angel down.
It is the movement through the tiny little stanzas that engages you. Things change word by word. I found that the endless references tired me out and the small stanzas made me feel inadequate as a reader. But with a little patience and the willingness to purchase Neon Vernacular (his 1994 Pulitzer Prize-winning collection), I started to really eat Taboo up. This is definitely a poetry book that requires some work. It is worth it, though.
What I found myself doing was a sort of mental squinting at the text. How does he get so much into a line -- or into a line break, for that matter? I’m too ill-informed about meter to do a good scanning of these puppies, but there is some real punch here. The song of these poems is jolting. Singular lines are nearly indigestible without the others. Entire thought processes with complicated references live in the smallest spaces you can find on the page. This might be part of Komunyakaa’s game.
In the aforementioned interview, Komunyakaa says this: “Within the context of a poem you can have a lot of things going on side by side. You can have different senses of language. You can have the street alongside the more sophisticated colloquial. All those things that help define our individual lives.” These packed lines then, are the result of hard distillation. Yusef Komunyakaa has a lot in his head. And when he lets some of it escape, there is no dreamy flow of musing and comprehension. Instead, there is a tight bundle of all things condensed. A poem that begins with a friendly tequila-driven conversation about Oklahoma City puts Arabian poets, the Crows of Arabs (children of Egyptian concubines) in the present-day room, after the poet gazes out at some falling snow. Another poem imagines a romantic encounter between Langston Hughes and Lorca. An old friend tells the story of Masinissa in the backyard where he and the poet dawdle, waiting for dinner. Everyone sits together in this book.
Can a poet act as historian? If the juxtaposition of various elements acts as a reflection of the poet’s most complicated churning of thought and fact and theory and narrative, then isn’t the poetry collection a document? Something we can refer to for social history? For records of how people lived in this world? For a much-needed appendix to the whitewashed histories we are fed? The reviewer I read for back-up made an excellent point. Although Komunyakaa’s endless references risk bringing on a case of tedium, we need only look at what he points to. Komunyakaa asks that we re-evaluate what we remember and how we remember it -- when Langston Hughes’s and Lorca’s hands pass over one another, they are re-establishing time and place. And distilling it. Bite-size, but very spicy. “‘But Othello’s/only fictional,’ I say./ ‘No, he’s actually/ a composite,’ the archivist says.”
Taboo by Yusef Komunyakaa
Farrar, Straus and Giroux