Witnesses, Chronicles, and Participants: Three Recent Books
The Chameleon Couch, by Yusef Komunyakaa. FSG, 128 pp., $14.
World Tree, by David Wojahn. University of Pittsburgh Press, 144 pp., $15.95.
Fall Higher, by Dean Young. Copper Canyon Press, 120 pp., $16.
In "Philip Levine and Other Mediocrities: What It Takes to Ascend to the Poet Laureateship," critic Anis Shivani argues that the American "professional poetry establishment" rewards poets for work that is not only mediocre, but completely irrelevant to contemporary American life. He declares, "The truth about American poetry is that it is in very bad shape ... The quality of poetry being produced by American poets regularly awarded the highest prizes in the land and recognized as the equals of past masters is not meant to last this pathetic moment of self-absorption and lassitude." Shivani then attacks American poets for being "troublingly content free" and removed from "the tectonic shifts of contemporary American culture."
Shivani is writing a particular sub-genre of criticism that diagnoses contemporary poetry with a fatal disease (in this case disconnection from reality) and then, in order to support a broad generalization about a diverse field, cherry picks a few poets to drag through the mud. Shivani selects Sharon Olds, Jorie Graham, Louise Glück, and Philip Levine and gestures vaguely to "their camp followers." He argues that the establishment's embrace of these poets—whom he deems mediocre—is indicative of just how rotten American poetry is. He calls them members of a "regressive political elite," condemning them not only for their poor writing but also for their backwards political vision. He then claims there are no "promising alternatives" to this group of poets, as if the entirety of contemporary American poetry is a barren wasteland of twittering self-obsessed back slappers.
Most readers will find much to argue with in Shivani's critique of Olds, Graham, Glück, and Levine. His complaints smack of elitism and sexism; he refers to Olds as a "little prefeminist girl," calls Graham a "third rate student of Wittgenstein and Derrida," says Glück simply has a "case of the blues," and claims the "poetry grand poobahs" appointed Levine "as their very own Bruce Springsteen." In order to write such a sweeping dismissal, Shivani must rely on selective reading, avoid serious textual analysis, and keep supporting examples to a minimum.
This essay addresses Shivani's overarching argument: that American poets are unwilling to engage in the political, social, and cultural present because such engagement might damage their careers. Looking at three recent books by established and decorated poets—Fall Higher by Dean Young, World Tree by David Wojahn, and Chameleon Couch by Yusef Komunyakaa—we see not "self-absorption and lassitude," but a deep engagement with contemporary American life.
Hedonism, a philosophy dating at least to ancient Greece, maintains that life's purpose is to pursue pleasure and avoid unpleasantness. The hedonist who appears in The Chameleon Couch, Yusef Komunyakaa's fourteenth volume of poetry, is a different creature. He has all the ravenousness of the ancient Greeks, but refuses their escapism.
Rather this hedonist partakes in beauty and abundance without ignoring tragedy and grief. He "suck[s] all the sappy nectar / from honeysuckle blossoms," and would "die for October's last juicy plums." But he then declares, "I'd stand on an anthill to learn / the blue heron's treatise on agony / Every joy and sorrow are mine." Here, the hedonist actively seeks to experience the pain of others.
Komunyakaa, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his 1993 Neon Vernacular, has a long career of writing politically and socially engaged verse that confronts the dark places of both national and personal history. Magic City explores the legacy of racial violence in his childhood home of Bogalusa, Louisiana; Dien Cai Dau revisits his experience as a young soldier in the Vietnam War; and Warhorses limns millennia of war from ancient Persia to contemporary Iraq. The Chameleon Couch is the poet's most overtly personal book. Unlike the retrospective Magic City, The Chameleon Couch deals with events in the poet's recent past. Many poems take place on the streets of New York City, the city where he now lives, and relate conversations with close friends. However, one cannot accuse Komunyakaa of navel-gazing; even in the pieces describing personal encounters, the themes of history, race, and violence are always hauntingly present.
"I made love to you, & it loomed there," he writes in "Cape Coast Castle." "It" is the harrowing image of a Ghanaian fort where slaves were held before being sold to European slave traders. Even as the speaker leaves Ghana, the image of the castle follows him, into airports, bathrooms, and bars. For the speaker, the history of the slave trade is painfully present. He asks, "Why do I taste salt water in my mouth?" Here history is embodied within the speaker.
In the first half of "Cape Coast Castle," the speaker broods on the castle and its meaning for the history of an entire people. Then the poem narrows suddenly like a funnel to tell the story of an individual female slave selected by an unnamed governor. The governor says, "Bring me that tall, ample wench." As she is dragged fighting up the stairs he adds,
There's a tyranny of language in my fluted bones.
There's poetry on every page of the Good Book.
There's God's work to be done in a forsaken land.
There's a whole tribe in this one, but I'll break them...
I'll break you with fists & cat-o'-nine.
I'll thoroughly break you, head to feet,
but, sister, I'll break you most dearly
with sweet words.
A strange intimacy is created here by the governor's referring to the slave as "sister" and using the phrase "sweet words." This distorted intimacy simultaneously mirrors and creates dissonance with the act of intimacy that opens the poem when the speaker describes making love to his partner. Curiously, the governor never touches the slave. His "absolute power" comes from his ability to command language—to give orders—and his authority is derived from the Bible, specifically its poetry.
The connection between the governor and poetry as well as the poem's shift into his voice brings up a troubling possibility. Perhaps the speaker identifies not with the slaves but with the slaver. The speaker seems to be implicating himself in oppression. Indeed, many of the speakers in the book grapple with a sense of guilt because they are masters of language.
Throughout the poem, the speaker seems to be trying to flee the image of Cape Coast Castle, to get away from the burden and responsibility of barring witness to history. However, the speaker of "Cape Coast Castle" cannot make love without remember the tragic history of Ghana, joining sensual pleasure with the pain of memory just as the hedonist takes on "[e]very joy and sorrow."
In "Blackbirding on the Hudson," the speaker also struggles with the desire to be free from such remembrances.
I'd love to forget those years when a black boy or girl sent to the grocery store
at dusk to buy a loaf of bread, or three apples, or a quart of kerosene,
or a half pound of salt meat could disappear between a laugh and a cry ...
Here Komunyakaa describes the practice of slavers kidnapping free Northern blacks to sell them into slavery in the South. And yet this isn't a history lesson. The level of specificity (three apples, half a pound of salt meat) shows that the speaker is conjuring specific tragedies; he relies on imagination rather than fact.
Despite wanting to forget, the speaker, addressing the Hudson River, urges "keep speaking to me," though he knows "beauty can't set records straight." He acknowledges poetry cannot bring justice to the kidnapped children and their families. Instead he is motivated by a need to act as a witness for those who disappeared into the Hudson. He can't recover their exact stories, but instead through an act of imagination adds his voice to that of the mockingbird who "stole cries out of the air ... & is now our only reliable witness."
However obliquely, Komunyakaa suggests that one of the roles of the poet is to be a specific type of witness, one who plucks individual stories—real or imagined—from the grand currents of history and illustrates the true human costs of historical forces. But this role isn't limited to history. Komunayakaa also argues that poets are meant to be witnesses of their own times.
In "Dangerousness" the speaker castigates a true hedonist, one who reads "Rimbaud / & other romantics of the secret handshake" while "swearing you can't hear cries / from Guantánamo Bay." The speaker accuses his companion of "dangerousness," suggesting that the one looking away from suffering is as culpable as the one causing it. The subject of the poem, leaning against a café wall and blithely ignoring the word around him, resembles the American poets Shivani damns in his essay for retreating into self-absorption.
While Komunyakaa criticizes another in "Dangerousness," he reserves his sharpest words for himself, "wondering if he has been a coward in hard times." However, there is little in these poems to suggest cowardice. Komunyakaa takes on some of the darkest moments in recent history, including the Holocaust. He presents a group of poems related to his trip to Czestochowa, a city in Poland where Nazis killed some 45,000 Jews.
Taking on such a subject is fraught with difficulties. When Theodor Adorno famously declared "to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric," he was describing the inability of human language to describe such horror. But Komunykaa neither tries to describe, explain, or apply metaphors to the event. Rather he takes care to explain he is viewing history through a particular lens, that of his present identity. He writes,
I am a black man, a poet, a bohemian
& there isn't a road my mind doesn't travel.
I also have my cheap, one-way ticket
to Auschwitz & know of no street or footpath
death hasn't taken.
While he mourns both historic and present tragedies throughout the book, Komunyakaa allows for just one poem dedicated wholly to his own grief. In 2003, Komunyakaa's partner, the poet Reetika Vazirani, killed herself and their 2-year-old son Jehan. The Chameleon Couch contains his first published piece about the incident, a heart-wrenching prose poem about his inability to erase her voice on the answering machine. He writes, "Sometimes we all wish we could put words back into our mouths."
Although the speaker knows words cannot be unsaid, a persistent hope in the possibility of healing runs through the book, connected most often not to language, but to music and to touch. In "Aubade at the Hotel Copernicus," he writes, "We enter to be strummed / till mercy unfolds torn wings in the dark, / till the forsaken heals." Here hedonism is re-imagined; music and love are valuable not because they offer escape, but because they contain the possibility of healing.
The Chameleon Couch is saturated with the past; both the reader and the speaker are stalked by history. In the final poem, however, the speaker literally sheds history to celebrate the present. In "Ontology and Guinness," he writes,
Darling, my daddy's razor strap
is in my hands, & there's a soapy cloud
on my face. I'm a man of my word.
Didn't I say, If Obama's elected,
I'll shave off this damn beard
that goes back to '68, to Chicago?
As the speaker shaves, he sheds the taste of tear gas and the sound of billy clubs from the Chicago protests and stands, barefaced and joyous in the present.
Like Komunyakaa, David Wojahn drags history into the present in poems that collapse time periods. In World Tree, his eighth volume of poetry, Wojahn collides the ancient past with contemporary politics. Particularly interested in prehistoric cave paintings, he tries to connect millennia of human history through his explorations of the art-making impulse.
These connections are not always clear. "Nocturne: Newark Airport" contains sudden shifts in time periods. In this poem passengers stuck in an airport during a snowstorm transform into cave dwellers. Wojahn writes, "The evidence that we were here is in dispute. / Ochre reddening our mouths, we blow it on the cave wall." One theory for the existence of the cave paintings is that the individuals who made them wanted to "make their mark," meaning simply record their presence. The transitory people in the airport waiting room will move on without leaving any record of their passing. But it is difficult to connect the act of blowing ochre on to a cave wall with anything the passengers do in the waiting room.
When leaps like this one are more successful, however, Wojahn's poems read like essays, their long lines tracking the poet's thinking as he grapples with the big subjects of life and death. Like an essayist, Wojahn brings together a breadth of scholarly knowledge and contemporary observation. In the series "Ochre," Wojahn spans some 20,000 years of human history. Each section in the series is accompanied by an illustration, including reproductions of cave paintings, anonymous turn-of-the-century snapshots, and digital photos. Susan Sontag defined photograph as "the inventory of our mortality"; in "Ochre" Wojahn creates his own inventory of mortality using a range of images. Both the handprint on the cave wall and the photograph record an individual's momentary presence while serving as a reminder that that moment has passed. In one of the sections Wojahn writes, "We are but charcoal, ink & pixel before Thy / Manifold inseparability." Here he connects humans over twenty millennia through their shared desire to represent the ineffable. Our contemporary attempts in front of the computer screen are as clumsy as those of the early cave people.
Like Komunyakaa's, Wojahn's throughline from ancient to modern is violence. In the section "The Killed Man," a Paleolithic cave drawing of a man repeatedly stabbed appears with a poem asking:
The invention of torture
Is so fresh they are confounded.
How to depict
The human figure mangled, the whole reduced
To the gutted sum of its parts, a brilliant ooze
Of sinew? ...
They keep you chained & hooded on the flight
From Kabul to Gitmo. They serve a meal
Of rubber hoses, then another. ...
Strikes you down.
On fettered hands & knees, crawl.
Wojahn's shift from the Neolithic era to the present points up the primitive instinct toward violence that both eras share. The final image of the crawling prisoner could also describe the paleolithic figure, who is similarly bent over.
Wojahn also hypothesizes a deep and timeless human need to record our acts of violence, as well as a desire to gaze at the resulting images. While the primitive painters struggle to represent torture, contemporary peoples can make a sophisticated image with the click of a button. The question of why one would want to record such heinous acts was at the heart of the Abu Ghraib scandal, during which commentators puzzled over the soldiers' compulsion to take photos of the prisoners they tortured. Wojahn places a photo of an American soldier with thumbs up over a dead Abu Ghraib prisoner directly after a paleolithic drawing of a stabbed figure, suggesting that the impulse to represent the "human figure mangled" is an ancient one. Yet he wisely declines to speculate on the reasons for that impulse.
In writing about the photo of Private Sabrina Harman (whom the book mis-identifies as Sabrina Herman) standing over the dead prisoner, he compares the corpse to "Sandier Cave: a Neanderthal male" who has "received his grave-goods." While the Neanderthal is piled with "burdock, cornflower, hollyhock / & a cache of flints / For the perilous & beflowered afterlife," the prisoner is packed with ice. The burial ritual for the modern man is the act of snapping the photograph, which carries the subject into the afterlife not as a person but as an image replayed in the wake of the scandal.
With pointed use of the images of American soldiers and tortured detainees, Wojahn wears his politics on his sleeve. "Ochre" also contains a photo of former Vice President Dick Cheney wearing a gas mask. In the accompanying poem, Cheney declares, "I am Kali." Kali is a Hindu goddess, whose other name is "She who destroys us." Cheney adds, "I gobble your head. / I am programmed to swallow your thoughts." Wojahn takes a similar tone in "For the Honorable Wayne LaPierre, President, National Rifle Association." In this poem Wojahn places LaPierre in the seventh circle of Dante's hell with "Alexander, Attila & various tyrants, those whose violence to others / brings down cities & nations."
Other poems deal with politics more subtly by weaving together the personal and the political. In "Nazim," a crew removes trees from the speaker's yard after a hurricane. One of the crewmembers, a Turkish man, is named after Nazim Hikmet, the first modern Turkish poet. This Nazim sold his kidney to pay his way to America, where he is trying to save enough so that his wife and kids can join him. The poem becomes a quiet meditation on globalization. Wojahn writes,
... [Nazim] pulls the photo from his wallet, giving thanks, even to the Brazilian
who owns his kidney, which rides a limo through the boulevards of Rio & daily rubs
a money belt thick with bills & floats beside a bladder streaming piss into a marble
its goal-platted fixtures agleam. Praise Allah, as if justice & injustice could be equally
While the speaker provides commentary on the inequity of wealth, Nazim resists that narrative, refusing to be a figure of pity. Where the speaker sees inequality, Nazim sees opportunity. Rather than a figure couched by misfortune, he is astonishingly vigorous: "Just when the branch being to sway & creak he's go / the motor off, earthbound again." The speaker and his sons marvel at Nazim's ability to leap just when the branch is about to break. While Wojahn makes Cheney no more than a caricature, Nazim is fully human—more than mere trope in the speaker's argument about global politics.
Another poem that shows off Wojahn's ability to bring together the personal and the political in unexpected ways is "Scribal: My Mother in the Voting Booth."
Stylus through Nixon, stylus through Agnew. Two hours
she's waited in the wet
November snow of Minnesota & her cold next week will worsen
to pneumonia. Over
the churning columns she'll cough & pass out & waken in County General,
shrouded in an oxygen tent.
Here the effect of politics on an individual life seems random: she happened to get a cold while voting in a historic election. Now she lies motionless in the hospital as the country teeters on the cusp of political change, stasis and flux are juxtaposed.
In "Napping on My Fifty-Third Birthday," the speaker remembers a quote from English poet John Clare: "The place / we occupy / seems all the world." Indeed, in this book Wojahn attempts—and often succeeds at—taking on "all the world." At times the poems can sag under the weight of the references and one group of poems is marred by the unfortunate printing of a dingbat between each line. But overall, Wojahn's acrobatic logic, intellectual ambition, and well-crafted sentences make for an exhilarating read.
Unlike Wojahn and Komunyakaa, Dean Young is rarely explicitly political. However, he is still neck-deep in "the tectonic shifts of contemporary American culture," which may show less in the content of his work than in its language of sudden swerves.
"All the new thinking / was about collision," Young writes in Fall Higher, his thirteenth collection. This is a reference to Robert Hass' 1979 poem "Meditation at Lagunitas," which begins "All the new thinking is about loss." At the time Hass was writing, structuralism's argument that words are meaningless symbols assigned random significance by culture had put poets in a bind. "A word is elegy to what it signifies," Hass muses. Hass offers poetry as a bulwark against structuralism and its attendant theories by creating a poem that, while ending up in a very different place than it began, is still cogent and unified. He insists on making connections where theory argues there are none.
Young offers a different tactic. While Hass presents poetry as an alternative to the speed and cynicism of contemporary culture, Young writes poetry thoroughly of the moment. With jump cuts, vernacular asides, and pop culture references, it imitates the velocity and randomness of America's electronic age:
That Ravel's "Bolero" was used in the naked
Bo Derek seduction scene in 10
and the pageant buildup to the monster-slaughter
in Conan the Barbarian should tell us
something of our predicament. The barbarian
became the Golden State governor.
Ravel had neither seduction nor slaughter in mind when he composed the piece; he said his influence was the rhythm of the factories he visited with his father who was an engineer. Our willingness to shuffle and recombine cultural objects leads to a beefcake actor running a state, according to Young.
It's a pleasure to have a ringside seat to the speaker's acrobatic logic, although the speed can make finding an emotional foothold difficult. In his essay "The Dean Young Effect," Tony Hoagland writes that Young's seemingly dissociative style has created "legions of little Dean Youngs" who can "seem chronically hyperactive, hidden inside a shell of theatricality." While praising Young, Hoagland suggests that the "essential earnestness in Young's poetry can be easily overlooked in the razzle-dazzle of the surface." In this book, Young seems to acknowledge the limit of quick-takes in poetry. In "Changing Genres." He writes, "I was satisfied with haiku until I met you / ...but now I want a Russian novel, a 50-page description of you sleeping." Indeed many of the poems in Fall Higher seem to work at a slower pace than his previous work.
A careful reader can parse the associations in Young's seemingly random collection of images. In "Dragonfly," an image of homeless people in marching band uniforms lurches into an argument between the speaker and his mother about suffering and beauty, then come the lines: "The guy who hoses the slaughter house floor / goes home and makes angels out of toothpicks." On first read it may seem as if Young is making a series of disconnected nonsensical statements. But on closer examination, an alert reader will see the poem is slyly making a case for the absurdly useless gestures people make in a misguided attempt to help; like donating marching band uniforms to the homeless or trying to return a baby bird to the nest, but dropping it on the way. What can toothpick angels do in the face of slaughter? The poem ends "I've lost so much tackle in this stream / you'd think I'd give up." But Young doesn't give up. He persists because, for him poetry is not for solving problems. Instead, poetry is like the camera's eye, ceaselessly snapping everything within it sight. In an interview with National Public Radio, Young says, "I think that's one of the jobs of poets: they stare at their own death and through it they still see the world—the world of 10,000 things." While a poetry that looks at 10,000 things has to move quickly, its speed enables outburst of wonder, joy, and delight.
In "Non-Apologia," which can be read as an ars poetica, Young acknowledges that "words fall short" of meaning. But he suggests another purpose of poetry: pleasure. He writes, "Don't we love words too for themselves, / how liquid is almost squid?" The slipperiness of words is not a quality to be mourned, as it is for Hass. Instead, it is a quality to be exploited. Young writes,
Poetry paints nothing but it splashes
color, flushed, swooning, echolocating
and often associated with flight.
This poetic technique relies more on gesture than meaning is possible only because of its particular historical moment. Young draws a parallel with art history to explain where his poetic strategies. He writes,
from the picnic blanket where once
the word lounged with the naked girl
of meaning for Manet to paint.
Young's poetry is more Pollock than Manet, meaning and narrative less important than the texture of the language. Young's composition is instinctual and improvisational, and above all ecstatic. "Hell, even now I love life," he exclaims. "How extraordinary that other people / even exist!" he writes.
"If only bodies weren't so beautiful," begins "Red Glove Thrown in Rosebush." "If only my body wasn't borrowed from dust!" the poem concludes. The line is a painful reminder that Young has suffered from a degenerative heart condition for over a decade. While writing this book his life hung in the balance, but he has since received a successful transplant. The human heart as a failing clumsy mechanism makes multiple appearances. Young writes that when his heart "swelled idio- / pathically" he realized the challenge was to "go out ... with a soft thank-you." This book reads like a long breathless thank you for contemporary life's seemingly random jumble of beauty, strangeness, tenderness, and joy.
In a recent issue of this publication, the reviewer Chris Cunningham writes, "It's been a long time since one could complain that American poets fail to address their own times." Yet this has been the constant complaint of critics who, like Shivani, want to dismiss an entire generation of American poets. Whether probing America's dark past to explain its present psyche, confronting the perceived evils of the NRA, or trying to keep pace with contemporary culture in language that moves as fast as we do, these three poets refuse to succumb to "self-absorption and lassitude." Our time is one in which poets (and yes, even poets embraced by the establishment) continue to look outward to marvel at and mourn what they see.