Yusef Komunyakaa has a voice that drifts like steam from the surface of hot coffee on an early morning. A purposeful, presidential cadence accompanies the soft, moistened edges of his timbre, drawing listeners to the importance of his words. When he recites his poetry, one can hear the duality often depicted as a recurring theme. It’s the double-edged sword forged by words of the South. He places beauty alongside war, wisdom with youth, and struggle with riches. In its own way, Komunyakaa’s own life is a testament to duality.
Born and raised in Louisiana, Komunyakaa was named after his carpenter father James William Brown. In a Ploughshares profile, Susan Conley describes their relationship as “‘a kind of contest early on’—one which Komunyakaa worked hard to win.” Where his father worked “menial labor” to make ends meet, Komunyakaa picked up a couple of jobs after school and used mental escapism to transport himself to other places outside of his hometown of Bogalusa. As for his hometown, he described Bogalusa as “a typical Southern town: one paper mill that dominated the place, and a public library that did not admit blacks.”
Despite no allowance into the library, Komunyakaa figured out other ways to stimulate his desire for reading. “The first book Komunyakaa found time to read as a boy was the Bible—which he read twice in its entirety,” Conley notes. Komunyakaa would go on to describe how the Bible’s own poetic manner of storytelling greatly influenced his own talents, helping him weave his own “texture of language.” Eventually, Komunyakaa would experience the Vietnam War first hand. Another manifestation of duality in his life, his desire to “bare witness” to the volatile event would overcome his opposition to “senseless violence”—though he did fight the idea of going AWOL.
Such dualities provided some of the most fascinating material for the metaphorical poet. The imagery and usage of specific words in his poems reflect a struggle that all humans experience. In “Facing It,” Komunyakaa describes his visit to the Vietnam memorial.
“My black face fades,
hiding inside the black granite.
I said I wouldn’t,
dammit: No tears.
I’m stone. I’m flesh.”
This stanza describes how a human becomes the war they survive. While Komunyakaa’s war is a literal one that manifests physically, all humans bear testament to the violence they survive—be it real or mental.
“Names shimmer on a woman’s blouse
but when she walks away
the names stay on the wall.”
Komunyakaa shows his readers with precision how the violence of war touches and infiltrates all citizens of the country that participated—even if they weren’t drafted. The poem begs its readers to consider the heavy consequences that violence has on the collective conscious shared by the world – whether the government commanded that violence or not.
Komunyakaa further sets up the idea of duality in “Blue Dementia,” as people unknowingly face subconscious projections of both good and evil.
already I’ve seen three dark-skinned men
discussing the weather with demons
& angels, gazing up at the clouds
& squinting down into iron grates
along the fast streets of luminous encounters.”
The angels and demons could be folks that the men work, live, and commune with on a daily basis. They could also be complete strangers testing the waters for some conversation of greater weight, setting the stage for a test or battle of which the men are unaware. Komunyakaa sends readers the warning that each encounter may have larger implications on their future than they realize.
One lesson that comes with Komunyakaa’s extensive collection of published poems is that Southerners mustn’t leave their conscience at home. In a time when the American president speaks from both sides of his mouth, places blame away from himself, and lacks self-awareness in his speech, Komunyakaa reminds Southerners to contemplate themselves, their words, and actions carefully. To whom is today’s violence directed? History is in the making, and we must pick the correct side on which to stand. Letting the collective Southern conscience sleep allows blind eyes to turn toward violence in words—which later evolves into actions.
“I double-check my reflection in plate glass
& wonder, Am I passing another
Lucky Thompson or Marion Brown
cornered by a blue dementia,
another dark-skinned man
who woke up dreaming one morning
& then walked out of himself
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