If the writer is a singular filter for history and culture, then Yusef Komunyakaa represents the best sort of amalgamation. His poems are fueled by personal experiences that simultaneously connect to major political contexts, each informing the other.
The winner of the Kingsley Tufts Award, the Pulitzer Prize and the Ruth Lilly Prize, among others, Komunyakaa is considered a giant in American poetry. If you're uncertain about what contemporary poetry is or what it can do, attend the latest installment of Virginia Commonwealth University's Visiting Writers Series on March 22. That's when Komunyakaa will read from his 13th book, "The Chameleon Couch: Poems" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), whose paperback version comes out this month. Those who attend his readings find him humble and unassuming, and yet the work itself can burn right through you.
The work draws water from two deltas: growing up black in the Jim Crow South near New Orleans, and fighting and contributing to the military's script of the Vietnam War along the Mekong River. He's still writing from both origins, but he's gone far beyond his source materials.
His latest mixes the pure vernacular of lost places, the blues, and myth, and "still knows ... the busted / old knuckles of love & desire." Both carnal yearning and virtuous love play major roles, revealing that we are but flesh "held together by what / it pushes against." Herein stands the rub — that we're able to recognize beauty only as it flutters by us: "The poppies rush ahead, / up to a cardinal singing on barbed wire."
This sentiment is echoed by his periodic return to Orpheus, the original poet and blues singer, the first mortal whose singing charmed the Gods enough to enable him to search for his wife among the dead.
Yet there's always a cost to opening the doors of Hades: "When it comes to defending love, / I can make a lyre drag down the moon & stars / but it's still hard to talk of earthly things — / ordinary men killing ordinary men, / women, & children." Ultimately, these sharp-eyed poems are, as the man says, "American as music made of harmony and malice." S
Author Yusef Komunyakaa will read from his latest collection, "The Chameleon Couch: Poems," at the Singleton Center, 922 Park Ave., on March 22 at 7 p.m. The event is free but registration is required. For information, go to library.vcu.edu/events/komunyakaa.