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Thieves of Paradise

Yusef Komunyakaa

Wesleyan University Press, $13.97


by Kevin Young

Yusef Komunyakaa belongs to a generation of black poets that often gets lost in the wake of the Black Arts sea change of the 1960s. Though that decade's black aesthetic (along with the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s) helped make these poets possible, their work does not fit the aesthetic's often strict parameters. Of course, the Black Arts movement was not simply one thing, nor in the end was its parameters as strict as the previous white demands on black writing that it rebelled against. But in taking advantage of the newfound freedom of the Black Arts, this newest wave built upon the works of Amiri Baraka and other late 1960s iconoclasts-Toni Morrison, Michael Harper, Audre Lorde, Jay Wright-who combined surrealism, music, feminisms, and an international view of culture in their vision of black writing. For this "lost generation" of poets-including Komunyakaa, Toi Derricotte, Rita Dove and Cornelius Eady-writing has meant a combination of form and funk, of classicism and contemporary concerns. Let's call them the Third Stream, a term that characterizes their stance after the second black renaissance of the century, as well as their relation to the mainstream; a term Clarence Major defines in his Juba to Jive dictionary as "a type of music (by people like Charles Mingus and John Lewis) that reflects to a very noticeable degree both the European and black technical experience."

Jazz metaphors come to mind when thinking of Komunyakaa especially, and not only because he has been co-editor of Jazz Poetry anthologies. His work-like all best Third Stream writing-combines pure wattage with a twangy, slangy sense of line: a banjo gone electric. With his latest book, Thieves of Paradise, Komunyakaa makes himself over akin to Picasso and Miles Davis, combining classicism and innovation. In poems from "Palimpsest" (with its first section, "Modern Medea") to those in the book's last section, "Blue Hour," Komunyakaa mirrors Picasso's range and ability to render a still life with violence (Cubism), or to render the terrifying and tragic with lyricism (Guernica); despite the range of styles, subjects and sentiments, much as with Miles, we can always detect Komunyakaa's distinctive tone. It's no accident that this Vietnam vet, whose Dien Cai Dau chronicled the war in a brilliant and balanced fashion, has returned to this crossroads of violence and history. Yet while Dien Cai Dau began with illusion ("Camouflaging the Chimera") and ended with redemption ("Facing It"), Thieves starts with the Paradise of the title already lost. We begin with the section "Way Stations," with its titles telling us plenty: "Out There There Be Dragons," "Gutbucket," "The Modern World." We proceed from daybreak to twilight, the poems taking on even more than before a Bitches Brew as devastating as it is unexpected. This is in part because the subject of Thieves is not simply exploitation, but "Debriefing Ghosts," talking back to the void while acknowledging its despair.

Whereas his earlier work, especially his last two books, Dien Cai Dau and Magic City, could be read as extended meditations (on the War and Louisiana respectively), Komunyakaa has achieved something different here. Thieves reads like another take on a selected poems. A new book, after a selected poems, would seem, in some ways, the hardest to write-after the watershed, what now? To risk distant shores? To hug familiar territories? Komunyakaa has sidestepped all this by giving us a body of work-in one volume-as compelling as a whole new selected. With Thieves, he demonstrates the range of a whole new vernacular-from quatrains to prose poems, from ecstasy to war. Listen to these endings, all from a sequence called "Palimpsest": "Treed / as if by dogs around an oak- / she stands listening to a river / sing, begging salt for her wounds" (from "Modern Medea"); or, "You left Memphis, headed for Ohio, / pushed by hard times. For thirty years / you were a doorstop, & then a Saturday-morning / yardsale made you a debutante's paperweight" (from "Meditations on a Smooting Iron)"; or (from "Gutbucket"):

I'm fool enough to believe

loneliness can never tango me into

oblivion again. I've swayed to Lockjaw

Trane, Pepper, & Ornette,

& outlived the cold whiteness

of Head Power in Shinjuku.

I know if you touch beauty right

a bird sings the monkey to you.

With "the bird [singing] the monkey," we are in the soup: the line is part ars poetica, part Vietnam jungle (echoing Africa's), and part riff off Charlie "Bird" Parker and the junkie monkey that deviled him as he sang through it. In other words, Komunyakaa is reaching for Paradise-what Pound attempted in the Cantos ("a paradiso terrestre") but Komunyakaa best achieves with the simplicity of Pound's "The River Merchant's Wife."

But in Komunyakaa's Paradise, there is no simple sainthood, only what "John Says": "I'm more medicine / than man." Is the cure more problem than the sickness? Is civilization? John recites "Kubla Khan" to the crowd for money, on "furlough / from the psych ward": "After years of Thorazine, / Hamlet and Caliban still / share his tongue." This forked thing, this crossroads-between the inadvertently comic hero of tragedy (Hamlet) and the tragedy underlying comedy (The Tempest)-is the terrain explored in Thieves's second section, "Tropic of Capricorn." If Caliban uttered revelations in the language he learned to curse in, then Komunyakaa and his proxy John lament in the lofty language they have learned to praise in:

He tells almost the same story

Harry told me about the LSD

one Friday night in April,

what God kept telling him.

Harry said an axe was used,

but John says he cut off a leg

with a power saw. The trees

ignite the brook. A smile

flashes among the goldfish,

& he says, This is what love made me do.

Three long poems break up the book like extended jazz solos, "Quatrains for Ishi," "The Glass Ark," and "Testimony." While "Quatrains for Ishi" tackles history, relating the story of the last member of a Native tribe "discovered and studied in California earlier in the century," "The Glass Ark" examines human intimacy and estrangement in a terse dialogue between two paleontologist lovers "working inside a glassed-in cubicle at La Brea Tar Pits." As you may have gathered, Thieves of Paradise challenges and changes us by its sheer breadth-it is fully formed, yet always changing, a jazz composition exploring the same surreal state of mind in Rimbaud's A Season in Hell. With the prose fragments of "Debriefing Ghosts," the book's third section, Komunyakaa approaches the "Dream Animal" head on, drawing on the black surrealist aesthetic traceable from Bob Kaufman to Toni Morrison. This is "Testimony," as the third long poem would have it, merging traditional form with the oblique tale of the legendary bebopper Charlie Parker, making the monkey sing.

The legend and music of Bird-who informs the book in short phrasing, speed, and tone-appears as the subject of "Testimony." In what amounts to fourteen double sonnets, Komunyakaa renders Bird not just as martyr or myth-"he'd blow pain & glitter"-but also as human. While on one hand, "Charlie could be two places at once, / always arm-wrestling himself in the dark," he also cannot physically make it to his wife's side after the death of their young daughter, Pree. The heartbreaking telegraph Parker writes to his wife is almost mute in its grief; though words aren't Bird's chosen medium, Komunyakaa still makes music of what does not get said:

I will be there as quick

as I can. My name is Bird

It is very nice to be out here.

I am coming in right away.

Take it easy. Let me be the first

one to approach you. I am

your husband. Sincerely,

Charlie Parker. Now, don't

say we can't already hear

those telegraph keys playing Bartok

till the mockingbird loses its tongue,

already playing Pree's funeral song

from the City of Angels.

Such long poems and sequences capture the range and beauty of Komunyakaa's lines while allowing him to juxtapose and create various personae in a manner he hasn't explored fully since I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head (1986). In "Testimony," specifically, this technique allows him to assume various voices surrounding Parker, including the Baroness in whose hotel room he died. She appears in this her penultimate, unlucky thirteenth section and speaks to and against the public's voyeuristic curiosity about Bird's mysterious death: "they didn't want to hear / how Charlie died laughing / at jugglers on the Dorsey show. / ... they had him with a needle / in his arm dead in my bathroom."

In Thieves of Paradise's final (and finest) section, "The Blue Hour," Komunyakaa wrestles with angels to question and contain their furious contradictions. "Dolphy's Aviary" segues from the televised Gulf War ("We watched Baghdad's skyline / ignite, arms & legs entwined / as white phosphorus washed over / our bedroom") to jazz musician Eric Dolphy's observation that "Birds have notes between our notes." These are unusual odes, like "Crack," which addresses "the Don of Detroit," cocaine: "Didn't you know you'd be gone," it offers:

condemned to run down a John

Coltrane riff years from Hamlet,

shaken out like a white sleeve?

Bullbats sew up the evening

sky, but there's no one left

to love you back to earth.

With lines like these, we are indeed outside the firmament, past Birdland and Hamlet's ghost of a father. While the poems echo and catch the eye and ultimately deepen each other, they proceed more brilliantly than those in any other book in recent memory-we are not in the presence of the straight narrative line of too much contemporary poetry, but in the swirl of existence.

When Komunyakaa writes "I kill a part / so the other lives," he embodies not just the contradictions of American culture-popular, religious, and imperialist-but also the paradox of the black intellectual in white society, whether thought of as a shaman (John Coltrane) or madman ("John Says"). Put more simply, he explores contradictions in the various roles of "man": bluesman, frontman, freeman. This assumed (and not overstated) blackness courses like electricity in the raw line of Komunyakaa's early books; it lies behind the opening lines of I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head ("Introduce me first as a man"); and it is present in the various "you's" addressed in this new book, which asks how much the intellectual body-a body too often dissected, quite literally, by the "Thieves" of the title-can become a visceral intellectual. Such a balancing act between the physicality of form and the philosophy of funk is achieved by Third Stream writers at their best, a balance embodied in one of Komunyakaa's finest sequences, "No Good Blues":

I rhyme Baudelaire

with Apollinaire, hurting

to get beyond crossroads & goofer

dust, outrunning a twelve-bar

pulsebeat. But I pick up

a hitchhiker outside Jackson.

Tassled boots & skin-tight

jeans. You know the rest.

The internal and off rhymes which combine with seemingly offhand "Yeah's" and Komunyakaa's uncanny ability to speak of love help us understand that sometimes neither conjuring ("goofer / dust") nor lovemaking nor compromise ("crossroads") can save us. Neither can our fine French. The "no good blues" still come looking for us, and rather than simply testing us, they help us survive by "fingering the jagged grain" of both tragedy and comedy, as Ralph Ellison would have it. We are both blues and Proust, twelve-bar Baudelaires into whose life comes the unknown and its dangers. With Thieves of Paradise, Komunyakaa reaches the realm of epic, and I for one can't wait for the rest. n

Originally published in the April/May 1999 issue of Boston Review

 



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