Where Short Lines Meet the Fold:
REVIEWED: Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems by Yusef Komunyakaa
Every so often there is a book of poetry that is indispensable. Neon Vernacular, the Pulitzer Prize- and Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award- winning collection of new and selected poems by Yusef Komunyakaa, belongs on that all hail bookshelf. Komunyakaa, who currently teaches at New York University, was born in the hard South of 1947, in Bogalusa, Louisiana, and grew up amidst the roots of the Civil Rights movement. He served as an Army correspondent in Vietnam, and these and other autobiographical experiences seep into the poems in this collection.
Komunyakaa’s rich baritone voice comes through the poems with a calm and subtle depth that is at once intense and enjoyable. Neon Vernacular features a ream of work from each of Komunyakaa’s books up to 1993, when Neon Vernacular was published. Parts of the poet’s childhood in Southern Louisiana are found in the colloquial language of the “Copacetic” section, including “Soliloquy: Man Talking to a Mirror,” which uses some familiar Southern terms:
panhandling Larimer Square / ain’t been easy. /…Lawd, this flophouse / has a hangover— / you just can’t / love hard knowledge / this way, Buddy Boy.
One of the brilliant things about “Copacetic” is that Komunyakaa turns slang into surprising twists, elevating its usage into a dialogue full of the original terms’ attitude. If poetry has not spoken to you before, Neon Vernacular will. The poems gallop like horses, hum like eight-cylinder engines, and take unexpected turns that just feel right, like in the poem “The Falling Down Song” from his fourth book I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head:
Here I am / with one foot on a floating platform / breaking myself into small defeats— / I’m the ghost of a moneychanger / & halo of flies, half-moon of false teeth / unable to bite bread.
The heady imagery coupled with the undertow of Komunyakaa’s eloquent style transports the reader into parts of Alabama, Louisiana, Newport Beach, and to a welcomed, though ironic, distraction in a war room in Vietnam in the poem “Le Xuan, Beautiful Spring”:
I run my fingers over a photo / torn from a magazine & folded / inside Sons and Lovers. / She’s got one hand on her hip / & the other aiming a revolver /… / it still hurts when a pistol / plays with a heart this way.
Though Komunyakaa is now an established poet and teacher, Neon Vernacular has an unpracticed heart and a regular language that unfolds in supple ways. The book is a gift from a wise man, a best-of album from a then mid-career poet whose contemporary work continues to thrill.