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Yusef Komunyakaa: Pleasure Dome: New and Collected Poems.

Middletown, Connecticut. Wesleyan University Press. 2001. xv + 445 pages $35. ISBN 0-8195-6425-7

THIS POET belongs to an American tradition that includes Jean Toomer and Langston Hughes; one can easily add Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray, novelists and critics who have the sensitivity to language that one expects from good poets. All of these writers have grown up with a parallel tradition of jazz and the blues, and indeed several of them have collaborated with musicians.

Yusef Komunyakaa, who was born in Louisiana in 1947, close to the birthplace of jazz, has made good use of this subject, but he has scarcely confined himself to the native tradition. In his poems he mentions Villon, Pushkin, Cezanne, Vallejo, and Pascal (among many others) as easily as he does Thelonious Monk or Lady Day (Billie Holiday), and he probably expects his audience to have the same familiarity with these names. On the other hand, in a late poem called "No-Good Blues" he almost seems to say that the great names in high European culture are not as important in his experience: "I try to hide in Proust, / Mallarme, & Camus, but the no-good blues / come looking for me. Yeah, / come sliding in like good love / on a tongue of grease & sham / built up from the ground."

Like many other poets since Tennyson and Whitman, Komunyakaa tends to construct his work through sequences. The longest poem in the collection, "Testimony," is a vivid account, in fourteen sections, of the life of the alto saxophonist Charlie Parker. Each section consists of two unrhymed stanzas, each in fourteen lines. In brief, here we have a sonnet sequence, perhaps Komunyakaa's finest achievement. Although he never uses rhymes, he has a strong sense of formal organization through stanzas. The solitary reader of the printed page may sense this better than the audience at a public reading, even though this poet's work has evolved from the oral traditions of song and storytelling. The printed stanza helps to shape one's response -- so this reader feels.

The major public event during Komunyakaa's early career was the war in Vietnam. In 1965, after he graduated from high school, he enlisted in the army and soon found himself in Vietnam, where, fortunately, his verbal talent was recognized and he became the editor of an army newspaper. This is where his life as a poet really began. After his tour of duty was over, he attended the University of Colorado, where he had the usual training in poetry "workshops," after which he published extensively. What about his experience in Vietnam? Although he was a journalist at the time, he did not rush into print with his reactions to the war; this important phase of his life became a subject a dozen years later in two books, Toys in a Field (1986) and Dien Cai Dau (1988). They compose a memorable and sometimes powerful group -- relatively short poems in the classic mode of Imagism, mainly done in the present tense for immediacy. They made his considerable reputation, and more recently he has been honored in various ways, including the 1994 Pulitzer Prize. He is now a professor in the Creative Writing Program at Princeton.

Incidentally, Komunyakaa's recent poetry is so plentiful that an entire volume is missing from Pleasure Dome: namely, Talking Dirty to the Gods (see WLT 75:3/4, p. 153), published in 200o by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Readers who try to keep up with the poet will have to acquire this in addition to Pleasure Dome.
Ashley Brown
University of South Carolina
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Author:Brown, Ashley
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2002
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