Review – Neon Vernacular by Yusef Komunyakaa

komunyakaa“Is it her, will she know
What I’ve seen & done,
How my boots leave little grave-stone
shapes in the wet dirt,”

pg 4

I’m fascinated by the poetry that Yusef Komunyakaa has written over the years.  Neon Vernacular is the Pulitzer Prize winning collection of poems from Komunyakaa’s career beginning in 1997 and continuing through 1993.  Komunyakaa is a poet that has stayed below my radar; I had not heard of him before picking up this book, but he is considered to be one of the most influential poets of his generation.  Now, after reading this collection, I keep returning to his poetry to read it out loud.  I’ve already placed a copy on order at Amazon so I don’t have to part with the collection for too long.

I am incredibly drawn to poets with perspectives similar to Komunyakaa; he is writing from a place that is completely foreign to me as an African American and also a Vietnam War veteran.  He reminds me a lot of Tim O’Brien, another Vietnam vet whose fiction I fell in love with over winter break.  Though much of the poetry is focused on the heavy reality of war, I would hesitate to label it “war poetry.”  There is an incredible wealth of themes to be found in Neon Vernacular, covering everything from love and relationships to his own family. He blends myth and popular culture with his own perceptions and observations, creating a personal mythology that resonates throughout each of his poems.

The poetry itself is absolutely stunning.  Komunyakaa’s word choice is innovative and inspiring; I find that I’m continuously jealous of the way Komunyakaa says things.  Neon Vernacular is the kind of book that I can never read very much of at one time because I am always finding something to be inspired by, something that makes me want to write.  His language channels jazz and is incredibly musical.  The first poem that really struck me was the second poem in the collection titled “At the Screen Door.” It’s a beautifully written piece about what it is like to come back from war and interact with people, in this case a woman, who has not seen what you have.  The line “Is it her, will she know/What I’ve seen & done,/How my boots leave little grave-stone/shapes in the wet dirt,” speaks volumes.  Another favorite poem is an experimental poem entitled “Changes; or, Reveries at a Window Overlooking a Country Road, with Two Women Talking Blues in the Kitchen.” The poem is two columned, with one column as the conversation and the other a poem written like a jazz song.  It’s such an interesting form that works perfectly.

One of the best poems in the collections is “Safe Subjects” and I couldn’t pick a favorite section, so I’m just going to quote the whole thing:

How can love heal
the mouth shut this way?
Say something worth breath.
Let it surface, recapitulate
how fat leeches press down
gently on a sex goddess’s eyelids.
Let truth have its way with us
like a fishhook holds
to life, holds dearly to nothing
worth saying – pull it out
bringing with it hard facts,
knowledge that the fine underbone
of hope is also attached
to inner self, underneath it all.
Undress.  No, don’t be afraid
even to get Satan mixed up in this
acknowledgmentof thorns:
meaning there’s madness
in the sperm, in the egg,
fear breathing in its blood sac,
true accounts not so easily
written off the sad book.

Say something about pomegranates.
Say something about real love.
Yes, true love – more than
parted lips, than parted legs
in sorrow’s darkroom of potash
& blues.  Let the brain stumble
from its hidingplace, from its cell block,
to the edge of oblivion
to come to itself, sharp-tongued
as a boar’s grin in summer moss
where a vision rides the back
of God, at this masquerade.
Redemptive as a straight razor
against a jugular vein –
unacknowledged & unforgiven.
It’s truth we’re after here,
hurting for, out in the streets
where my brothers kill each other,
each other’s daughters & guardian angels
in the opera of dead on arrival.

Say something that resuscitates
us, behind the masks,
as we stumble off into neon nights
to loveless beds & a second skin
of loneliness.  Something political as dust
& earthworms at work in the temple
of greed & mildew, where bowed lamps
cast down shadows like blueprints of graves.
Say something for us who can’t believe
in the creed of nightshade.
Yes, say something to us dreamers
who decode the message of dirt
between ancient floorboards
as black widow spiders
lay translucent eggs
in the skull of a dead mole
under a dogwood in full bloom.

Wow.  There are so many poems I could have put here.  There are so many poems that I could have quoted.  Get out there and read this book, NOW.

Where have you been all my life?
Where have you been all my life?

(This post was originally written for a creative writing/poetry class blog!)

97% – It’s near-perfect.  I love love love love love love it.

4 thoughts on “Review – Neon Vernacular by Yusef Komunyakaa

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