Everyday Mojo Letters to Yusef
A series of creative reflections on why Yusef Komunyakaa remains one of our greatest living writers and what it means to be a Black Jazz Poet.
June 18, 2021
Jun 18, 2021
17 Min read time
A series of creative reflections on why Yusef Komunyakaa remains one of our greatest living writers and what it means to be a Black Jazz Poet.
Everyday Mojo Songs of Earth: New and Selected Poems, 2001–2021
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $35 (cloth)
START OF THE SIXTEENTH DRAFT OF AN EXCESSIVELY WORDED DOCUMENT TITLED “EVERYDAY MOJO LETTERS TO YUSEF”
Dear Yusef, I was thinking I’d write about your star in the genre of the Black Jazz Poet, but I keep changing what I mean by Black and Jazz and Poet. Such words come boxed in metaphor. Ken Burns, for example, said the word “jazz” was derived from the scent of jasmine on prostitutes when Louis Armstrong was a boy in New Orleans. The poetry of a black man gets romanticized and boxed in the same way. The difference between the jazz of Louis Armstrong and the jazz of Miles Davis says how useless it can be to describe the spirit of jazz or blackness or manhood. To call you a Black jazz poet is to call you an elusive, walking metaphor. I nod. Was it John Coltrane who said, “I don’t play jazz I play John Coltrane”? You are not simply writing “jazz poems” at this point, you are writing “Yusef Komunyakaa.” Duke Ellington was clearly playing Duke Ellington. Maybe Quincy Jones comes closest to extending Ellington’s poise. “Jazz has always been a man telling the truth about himself,” Jones said. (A Black woman can be heard saying, That might be why jazz is dying, Quincy.) Gordon Parks simply said jazz was inherently elusive: “The meaning of it is as evasive as silence.” I love Gordon Parks.
Like “jazz,” the word “mojo” is one of those words that got its roots clipped or crisscrossed during the Middle Passage. I read somewhere it can be traced back to the West African medicine man. The root doctor carrying cures for the body in a mojo hand. I know the griot’s gris-gris wards off griefs and ghosts. In the first poem in this collection, “A World of Daughters,” you write “one glimpses what one did not know” and the sense echoes across the pages. I made evidence of it.* What does it mean to know in Everyday Mojo Songs Of Earth? It sounds less fixed than “knowledge.” It’s the kind of “knowing” that is glimpsed; it is insistent and fixed as a refrain. “A World of Daughters” makes me think of something you said about “Requiem,” the last poem of the book, on the Poetry Society of America website: “I knew I wanted to attempt to capture a continuous motion, looping and winding, dredging up and letting go.” Starting with new poems that lead back to new poems makes any reading of a selected poems “a continuous motion.” For example, the intimate and allegorical pitch of “A World of Daughters” returns later in “Requiem.” Or how the book feels wonderfully framed in prayer when I read “Prayer for Workers” in the new poems and later return to “Prayer” in The Emperor of Water Clocks (2015). The collection is also framed by those ghazals, “The Mountain” and “Ghazal, after Ferguson.” In my most perfect world there would be a forthcoming collection of Yusefian jazz ghazals.
*FOOTNOTE AS A CENTO COMPOSED OF TWENTY ITERATIONS OF TWENTY YEARS OF KNOWING IN EVERYDAY MOJO SONGS OF EARTH
“one glimpses what one did not know” “We know the men from women by the colors they wear” “He knows ‘We Shall Overcome’ & anthems of the flower children” “& the Angel knows defeat” “But I know when the question flew Into my head” “I need to know if iron tastes like laudanum Or a woman” “These ghosts know the power of suggestion is more than body language” “There’s a pain inside of me, but I don’t know where” “I know laughter can rip stitches, & deeds come undone in the middle of a dance” “I know all seven songs of the sparrow” “I mean, I also know something about night riders & catgut. Yeah, honey, I know something about talking with ghosts” “I’ve known of secret graves guarded by the night owl in oak & poplar” “I know all the monsters lurking in Lord Byron’s verses” “I know, I also said I’d kiss the devil” “I know time opens an apple seed to find a worm.” “I know the scent of belladonna” “I know hearsay can undo a kingdom.” “I, too, know my Hopkins (Lightnin’ & Gerard Manley)” “I know a dried-up riverbed & extinct animals live in your nightmares” “& now I know why I’d rather die a poet than a warrior, tattoo & tomahawk.”
MOJO LETTER AFTER ERIK SATIE’S INSTRUCTIONS FOR PLAYING GNOSSIENNE No. 3
Dear Yusef, after Ed asked me to write about this new book, I dug out an interview we did in New York in the spring of 2002. I remember trying to get you to say things you hadn’t said before about your influences, your ambitions, yourself. I have been circling back to one of my questions:
In Blue Notes you said, ‘It is difficult for me to write about things in my life that are very private, but I feel I am constantly moving closer to my personal terrain, to the idea of trying to get underneath who I am.’ What are you doing to get closer to this more private terrain, and how do you draw the line between the Private and the Public, as a poet?
You slyly did not answer the question. I also dug out a brief mediocre review of Talking Dirty to the Gods (2000) I wrote for the Xavier Review when I taught in New Orleans. I was so embarrassed when I read it, I decided to write you a letter of apology. I shuddered at my critiques of what I called your “leaps of obscurity” in the book. The tiny eyes of a young poet. Icarus critiquing the wings of Daedalus just before takeoff. I’ve learned to embrace the confusion I sometimes experience inside a poem. (Our young poets will ask for an example and I will say find your own damn example of confusion.) Everyday Mojo Songs of Earth got me thinking about the continuous motion between learning and knowing. I’ve spent the last two months poking at Erik Satie’s Gnossienne No. 3 between poking around your poems. Satie’s coinage of the word “gnossienne” is rooted in gnosis, the Greek word for knowledge. Satie’s use of the word is not incidental to his interest in Gnosticism, but the original gnosis suggests the kind of circular, lyric, open knowledge that helps me think about you.
I’ve learned to look forward to the things I don’t know—the room left inside a Yusef poem—the way I look forward to the room Satie leaves me in his compositions. His first and third Gnossiennes share similar motifs and patterns but are written without bar lines or time signatures. The third is easiest so I figured learning it would make learning the first easier. The waltz of the left hand is a dressed-up kind of blues minimalism. A “dressed-up kind of blues” works as a jazz definition sometimes. Satie, a famously weird dude, was, I suppose, afraid folks would not get the mysteries/obscurities of the Gnossiennes. He left a set of instructions specific to playing each piece. For Gnossienne No. 1, he advises the player to “wonder about yourself.” I haven’t started learning that one yet. For Gnossienne No. 3, he advises the player to “counsel yourself cautiously,” and “be clairvoyant,” “alone for a second,” “Very Lost.” I am still learning to feel clairvoyantly self-counseled in poems.
I don’t believe we have ever actually talked about poems or poetry in all our years of hanging out. For our first poetry conference nearly twenty-five years ago, we listened to jazz with the wiry widow of an abstract expressionist amid the kayaks and canoes she rowed across Provincetown. Listening to music with you and Pat is on my list of top ten ecstatic life memories. Listening was feedback. You, Larry, Radi, and me listening to live jazz at the Candlelight Lounge is also somewhere on that as-yet unpenned list.
Readers will not be wrong, exactly, to highlight the presence of jazz in this book, but “The Candlelight Lounge” is as concerned with community as it is with music: “Faces in semi-dark cluster around a solo.” Readers will not be any more wrong to highlight the presence of jazz in your poems than they would be to highlight the presence of jazz in the poetry of Michael S. Harper or Al Young. Y’all are as uniquely oriented—or about as harmonic in your love of jazz—as a room of uncles debating which song should be played at the Black jazz poet family reunion. Poems like “The Candlelight Lounge” measure the impact of the music as much as they track its construction. Talking Dirty to the Gods marks the transition to a kind of poem that can invoke jazz poetics with or without concerning itself with jazz as a subject. I could write about you and the genre of the Black Jazz Poet, but you keep changing what it means.
MOJO LETTER CANNIBALIZED BY A FAILED UNBOXING VIDEO SCRIPT FOR EVERYDAY MOJO SONGS OF EARTH
On YouTube you can find a whole genre of these videos of people unboxing new stuff. I’ve seen a few smartphone unboxings, and a few sneaker unboxings, an unboxing of a compact automobile. I watched a few before writing my own unboxing script. The book arrives in a real box. “You want to come at it from as many angles as possible,” I say, cutting into the cardboard where it is held by tape. Inside the book inside the box, I begin removing lines of poems and holding them up to the camera. The lines echo with innuendo and throw shadows. The lines look like electric transparent eel–shaped sentences evaporating at the mouth. “Yeah, honey, I know something about talking with ghosts.” Everything in the box is useful. The top and bottom perspectives held up by four sides of perspectives. Make something with the box. Even if you have no glue and scissors, you can turn it into a legible surface or fortress or sculpture. Throw nothing away. “Do not necessarily subscribe,” I say as I lower myself into the box of poems. I begin to hear sideways piano. Sometimes I will just sit and read Komunyakaa poems out loud in the unboxing video. These poems make a vintage entrance and provide vibrant everyday interactions. Inside the book inside the box, find poems never-before seen by readers old and new. Storms, crows, gunmetal drones, shouts, circadian incantations, mantras of healing expand in the box. The liberty and music of musing & muscling mischief out of melancholy is packed into the box. “Great Ooga-Booga” almost rhymes with “didgeridoo.” Inside the box a room of belladonna and jasmine mingle with a humid afternoon in New Orleans. “There’s a pain inside of me, but I don’t know where.” “I know laughter can rip stitches, & deeds come undone in the middle of a dance.” “I know all seven songs of the sparrow.” Inside the box the brothers, sons, and nephews of James are not gone. “The mojo is a talisman and practice, a noun and action, and you, Reader,” I say, shouting up from inside the box, “are privy to the everyday mojo songs of a psychic blues historian like Zora Neale Hurston and Sterling Brown. Yusef Komunyakaa is one of those fortunetellers born of soothsayers who raise griots who live as teachers,” I say, vanishing between the lines.
MOJO LETTER IN THE SPIRIT OF THE YOUNG POET’S LETTER TO RILKE
“Go into yourself,” Rainer Maria Rilke advises the military cadet and aspiring young poet, Franz Kappus, in Letters to a Young Poet. (I don’t know if that’s a thing a real poet needs to hear. It’s incredibly useful for a reader though: instruction to “go into yourself” as you read.) There is no wrong way into the self. Kappus was a nineteen-year-old at the time he wrote Rilke, who was himself twenty-seven. The exchange might be more like undergraduate student to graduate student than mentee to mentor were we not talking about Rilke. The other day I was shocked when one of our well-read young poets did not know your poem “Venus’s-flytraps.” That should be standard Komunyakaa canon by now. I dropped into your baritone: “I am five wading out into deep sunny grass.” I played a couple recordings I have of you reading the poem. I directed him to my Vimeo bootleg mashup of you reading the poem over the railroad scene in Andre Tarkovsky’s Stalker and scenes from Kirikou and the Sorceress. Fanatic-fan-in-a-pandemic shit. I know almost no body of work better than I know yours. Or it may be better to say no body of work is more deeply in my blood than yours.
I remember when I was a young poet hearing your name for the first time. When I was nineteen or twenty, poet Judson Mitcham said what sounded like a foreign spell with a magical drawl. I knew only the poems of Black poets I found in literature anthologies when I was in college. Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Hayden, Etheridge Knight, Amiri Baraka, Audre Lorde. I don’t even think Rita Dove or Lucille Clifton were in some of those textbooks yet. When Mitchem visited my tiny, maybe-2,000-student-bodied campus in Hartsville, South Carolina, I got to sit with him and talk poems. At some point he wrote your name in fine southern cursive on a torn slip of paper. Not long after that, I bought my first poetry book, Jorie Graham’s 1990 edition of The Best American Poetry, because I spotted you beside “Facing It.” That poem rearranged my mind. (I think actually Good Night, Willy Lee was the first poetry book I bought, when I was fifteen, but it was because I had a crush on Alice Walker, not because of those very good poems. Someone should do a retrospective of Walker’s poetry.)
Debates over the key Komunyakaa poem always include “Facing It,” “Venus’s-flytraps,” “Anodyne.” This new book only makes the debate more impossible to resolve. And the poem “Fortress” is reason enough to reread everything I’ve read before. How did I miss that poem? I shudder to think how much beauty is covered by blind spots. “Fortress” feels like some of the poems from Magic City carved down to nectar. When you write, “I see the back door / of that house close to the slow creek / where a drunken, angry man stumbles / across the threshold every Friday,” the father reaching for a can of Jax at the opening of “My Father’s Love Letters” echoes in my heart. You write, “I see forgiveness, unbearable twilight, / & these two big hands know too much /about nail & hammer.” Hands open and reach across your poems. I could have found enough references to hands here for another mojo hand cento, but I stopped myself.
The last of my questions during that 2002 interview was: “When you think about being fifteen years old, what do you remember being obsessed with?” You answered: “Strangely enough, I was obsessed with building a greenhouse. I had drawn up all these elaborate plans and I thought that’s what I would really do.” Rilke tells the young poet to find his reason for writing: “confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write.” You say late in the book, “now I know why I’d rather die a poet than a warrior, tattoo & tomahawk.” The work of the hands was to be part of whatever path opened before your clairvoyantly counseled fifteen-year-old self. I rejoice that they make such poems.
MOJO LETTER IN THE SPIRIT OF VINCENT VAN GOGH’S LETTERS TO THEO
The distance between a cafe in Paris and the asylum in Arles may be in no way comparable to the distance between New Orleans and Bogalusa to the few souls on the planet to visit all four. Possibly only Yusef Komunyakaa has seen and said more about such worlds. All who dare summarize a poem must then be forced to summarize Thelonious Monk, The Starry Night, joy and shame. One of the plantations on the outskirts of a town somewhere has been converted into a spa of psychiatric poetics. But “psychiatric” it seems is metaphor for nightglow, psycho-kinetic, audiovisual sentences where what is seen and said of the world is music. The ghost of Professor Longhair plays a legless piano in a Van Gogh painting above the chameleon couch where the doctor’s patients rest their eyes. The doctor has the patients read Komunyakaa poems as answers to their plights. All who dare summarize a painting must then be forced to summarize mojo, vibrato, bravado, taste. I love the singing double-talk between “ignis fatuus” and “fata morgana,” the blue dementia of Orpheus at the gate between worlds. The photographs of Van Gogh’s paintings projected on the walls of a museum somewhere in the distant future or far back as the cave of Plato, let us remember, are not the painter’s paintings. I shudder to think how much beauty is covered by blind spots. With my eyes closed below the painting talking to the doctor, I begin to hear sideways piano. Music emanates from the painting when I look at it with my eyes closed. The ghost of Professor Longhair plays piano on the floor in a museum with walls covered in projections of Van Gogh’s colored brushstrokes. The great Bogalusa poet has returned to town. A poem arrives every time Yusef Komunyakaa comes round.
MOJO LETTER IN THE SPIRIT OF JAMES BALDWIN’S LETTER TO HIS NEPHEW
Dear Yusef, for the last month I have been circling back to the spirit of James Baldwin writing his fifteen-year-old nephew and namesake in 1962. Weren’t you around fifteen in 1962 too? You talked about discovering Baldwin as a teenager during our interview in 2002. At the time I wondered whether those private essays in your files and yellow writing pads would ever see the light of day. They need not. The poems themselves are a response to the unspeakable grief shadowing these years. Poetry makes every day some kind of song. I am a witness. I imagine you a black fifteen-year-old greenhouse dreamer reading Baldwin’s letter to his namesake in the Bogalusa library. He might as well have been speaking to you. My father, James, was born four years after you. I guess you already know the name “James” is common among Black folks of a certain generation. You might be part of the Baby Boomer generation had you grown up middle class, safe, and white. Your generation heard word of Emmett Till’s murder in real time. Baldwin means to instill in the younger James a sense of self rooted in the tangled realities/histories/impulses of America. He articulates, to my mind, an unprecedented expression of love for you in 1962. There are few other literary expressions of a Black man’s love of another Black man, and most of those also are found in the writing of Baldwin. (I have been reading you in months following the riot of racists who raised a Confederate flag inside the Capitol. I mean who could have imagined it. ((Octavia Butler maybe. We’ll discover she’s the boss when we get to heaven.)) The riot surprised even our ability to imagine how much white people can get away with in this country.) 1962 is also the year Sonny Rollins released The Bridge. Do you know the story of his 12–15 hours of practice a day on the Williamsburg Bridge? The title track reminds me of a manic, possibly panicked, lyrically frantic Bird accompanied by drummer, double bass, and Djangoistic guitarist. It’s terrific, so live. Then it’s followed by this mellow “God Bless the Child.” Sometimes music is as close as we can get to prayer. Does the nephew write his uncle back? Was his name even really James? I could find nothing about him online. I imagine the Jameses pausing on the bridge where Rollins plays. “You come from a long line of great poets,” Baldwin says in the letter. You are the kind of great poet he means, Yusef. You cross the bridge carrying the song.
MOJO LETTER IN THE SPIRIT OF THE LETTER TO BOB KAUFMAN BY YUSEF KOMUNYAKAA
Inside the box my father’s father’s name waits to be found in a marvel of marble and stone erected inside your baritone warble. Emily Dickinson knew every poem is a letter to someone because every letter is a poem and said so because she had blackbirds for eyeballs. I say she was reborn as Bob Kaufman. The cries of Dickinson when she was alive sounded like hymns because the only songs she knew came from the Bible, whereas the cries of Kaufman continue to reverberate as silence. Two or three years before Kaufman transforms again someone drives him home to New Orleans for a final passage of respects, voodoo, and song. I read you as you read him and dance the Calinda with yourself like a poet from New Jersey. A house of stairs and shadows where you dream a spell for the root worker. Inside the box the brothers, sons, and nephews of James are not gone. Bob was right next door, God as my witness, floating two or three inches from the floor as he improvised a poem.
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June 18, 2021
17 Min read time