I Knocked On the Walls, In a Circle

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The Chameleon Couch proves itself an expertly crafted book from a poet peaking in his awareness and execution of all the tangled dialectics that manifest in his art.

Poet Yusef Komunyakaa wants you to know that all the old archetypes are alive and kicking around us, from the mythological Greeks (Orpheus) to Christian martyrs (Beatrice) even if they have mutated into unrecognizable beings that are now squatting down by the train tracks. More importantly, their transmogrification and histories are still in motion, not the least of which is Komunyakaa’s own Whitmanesque manifestation which has not escaped the sculpting of history, and thus establishes the opening premise of his most recent collection The Chameleon Couch.

Komunyakaa’s profound connection to the Whitman dialectic makes him perhaps the most “American” poet currently writing in the English language. That might sound strange to an unread citizen of the U.S. or even downright treasonous to the jingoistic (“Yusef who?!”) Still, can you name another poet who currently embodies the bold tradition of “tripping” (life on the road) with the poetic capability and cool authority of the sexually charged bohemian from the West? From “Poppies”:

I am a black man, a poet, a bohemian,
& there isn’t a road my mind doesn’t travel.
I also have my cheap, one way ticket
to Auschwitz & know of no street or footpath
death hasn’t taken.

The difference with Komunyakaa, a native of Louisiana, is the boundless upside of the wild frontier republic that gave Whitman so much hope for freedom gives way to doubts and foreboding of an empire in decline. From “English”:

I glimpsed Alice in Wonderland
Her voice smelled like an orange
Though I’d never peeled an orange
I knocked on the walls, in a circle.

The voice was almost America.
My ears plucked a word out of the air.
She said, Friend. I eased open the door
hidden behind overcoats in a closet.

The young woman was smiling at me.
She was teaching herself a language
to take her far, far away,
& she taught me a word each day to keep a secret.

But one night I woke to other voices in the house.
A commotion downstairs & a pleading.
There are promises made at night
that turn into stones at daybreak.

Komunyakaa has a reputation for frequently writing short, unmetered quatrains with pop culture references and soulful reflection, which have the satisfying effect of making his work accessible and intense simultaneously. While his name is frequently lumped in many quarters with modern jazz poets, he functions more as a tight fusion poet whose uniquely layered rhetoric is described by the title of his Pulitzer Prize winning collection, Neon Vernacular.

Both poems excerpted above are placed in The Chameleon Couch’s second section (of three) which takes a distinct turn toward the political. Both pieces reference the legacies of Nazi Germany, with the unsettling implication that collective nihilism is also a force evolving organically and over time has managed to shed labels like “fascism” and “National Socialism” in favor of other masks, in other locales. But as a nearly forty year veteran of the poetry grind, Komunyakaa has long since proven too smart to lapse into polemic or unbalanced rhetoric, for there are too many other archetypes on the “couch” with dichotomies of their own he is “analyzing:” the slave and the enslaver; the dead lover and their survivors; the mystic and the academic, the muse and her vessel. From “How It Is”:

My muse is holding me prisoner.
She refuses to give back my shadow,
anything that clings to a stone or tree
to keep me here. I recite dead poets
to he, & their words heal the cold air.
I feed her fat, sweet, juicy grapes,
& melons holding a tropical sun
inside them. From here, I see only
the river. The blue heron dives,
& always rises with a bright fish
in its beak, dangling a grace note.
She leans over & whispers, Someday,
I’ll find some way to make you cry.

You can feel the poet getting away from the short, attractive verses and beginning to “jam.” Komunyakaa’s poetic song sets the tempo for these chameleonic mutations, and the echo of these rituals where Komunyakaa sets free the joy of abandoning exterior worlds for interior worlds, allowing the archetypes to become familiar ghosts whose features are forever shifting, waiting to be asked their next turn on the poet’s dance floor.

And this collection of poems is quite haunted. When they are not in motion (23 of the collections’ 57 poems employ some version of the “journey” motif) Komunyakaa’s voice is directly engaged with, or inhabiting these phantoms. He suggests in poems such as “Unlikely Claims” and “A Voice on the Answering Machine” that the line between whether these ghosts are pursued by him or are pursuing him is a blurry one. This is from the latter:

I have a plant of hers that has died many times, only to be revived
with less water & more light, always reminding me of the voice
caught inside the little black machine. She lives between the Vale
of Kashmir & nirvana beneath a bipolar sky. The voice speaks of
an atlas & a mask, a map of Punjab, an ugly scar from college days
on her abdomen, the unsaid credo, but I still can’t make the voice
say, Look, I’m sorry, I’ve been dead for a long time.

This poem, a clear reference to Komunyakaa’s deceased partner, the poet Reetika Vazirani, represents a shift in the book, where suddenly the chameleonic changes become unmaskings in an all-out attempt to see them for what they are, which frighteningly enough, are less resolved to the direct gaze than the masks themselves.

The Chameleon Couch proves itself an expertly crafted book from a poet peaking in his awareness and execution of all the tangled dialectics that manifest in his art, but also refuses to define, or divine like a prophet burned too many times by past certainty, what awaits us or any of our chosen chameleons or ghosts other than the ones we already know, which in Komunyakaa’s hands, resonate perfectly across the wide swath of history.

Paul Corman-Roberts is the author of several poetry collections, most recently Neocom(muter) (Tainted Coffee, 2009) and the chapbook 19th Street Station (Full of Crow, 2011.) He once spent a night barricaded in a Vegas Circle K convenience store the night of the Rodney King riots. More from this author →