Monday, May 21, 2012

The Chameleon Couch: Poems by Yusef Komunyakaa

The Chameleon Couch: Poems by Yusef Komunyakaa

Release Date: March 15th 2011
Pages: 128
Format: Paperback
Source: Publisher
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Buy It: Book Depository


Somehow, I hadn't managed to read a single collection of poetry so far into 2012, and with nearly half the year slipped away I had the opportunity to pick up the latest book by Komunyakaa. I hadn't read any of his previous collections, but The Chameleon Couch was nominated for a National Book Award, and the author had previously been awarded a Pulitzer Prize. With credentials like that, my expectations were understandably pretty high.

As soon as I opened the book to the first poem, I was awed by the delicateness of Komunyakaa's words, his soft and sharp contrasting imagery. In that first poem, "Canticle", which remained one of my favourites of the entire collection, he writes:
"Because I mistrust my head & hands, because I know salt
    tinctures my songs, I tried hard not to touch you
even as I pulled you into my arms."
The poem itself finishes with these lines: 
"   I only want to hold you this way: a bundle of wild orchids
broken at the wet seam of memory & manna."
His words are filled with these beautiful images that bring his poems alive, vivid on the page. The collection is divided into three parts, but what they all have in common is their haunting insight into personal moments and the time when everything changes. "Ignis Fatuus" was another poem I found especially powerful, and in it Komunyakaa writes:
"A foolish fire
can also start this way: before
you slide the key into the lock
& half turn the know, you know
someone has snuck into your life."
Komunyakaa also has an amazing ability to bring alive inanimate objects, like "Ode to the Shaukuhachi" brings to life the instrument and later in the collection, "Ode to the Guitar" does the same. "A Translation of Silk", another one of my favourites, ends with the following words:
"Humans crave immortality, but oh,
yes, to think worms wove this
as a way to stay alive in our world."
This shows how even when the source of his fascination is non-human, he still manages to bring out the emotional aspects of it. The Chameleon Couch is filled with beautiful images, but they aren't just flat words, they bring the shape into existence and give it personality. In one of the final poems, "The Thorn Merchant's Godson", Komunyakaa writes:
"The gift
is the weight of a pocket watch
ticking like a fat slug of gold
pressed against his groin."
It is the kind of image I can exactly picture, bringing the moment to life with his tiny details and metaphors. That said, there wasn't exactly the kind of connecting themes I often find in poetry. There was a lot about music, and part II had many references to the Holocaust– boys with stars pinned to their sleeves and other Nazi imagery like Auschwitz– but there wasn't the kind of common thread that easily strings the poems together. Maybe that was the reason there were a few I simply didn't get, like "A Poem Written Inside A Big Round Machine".

Many of the poems in part III of the collection were more story than poem, steeped in history, but they are further proof of the way Komunyakaa brings moments to life. In "The Hedonist", much of which seems like a story in poetic form, he still manages to include his own sharp brand of imagery, writing:
"I am flesh
born to another dream of flesh. If I am clay,
  it is the same merciless clay you are made of,
with a red vein of iron running through it, the same
  naked prayer in the dark holding the song together." 
Still, even in Komunyakaa's darkest poems he brings a little bit of light to the surface. "Kindness" and "Goodness" are perfect examples of this. In "Goodness" he combines the imagery, the storytelling, and the bleak hope that seems to define his poetry, writing: 
"I’d love to believe nature
is never truly unkind, that she
only wills the tiger bee its stinger
to guard the rally of honeysuckle
climbing the rusty iron-spiked gate
where mercy pulled all the fruit
down to the lowest branches."
Overall, this is a collection filled with images and stories, and though I didn't grasp them all, there were plenty contained within it that left a lasting impression. The poet doesn't play with form, most of the poems appear the same stylistically, rather it is the images and rhythm of the poetry that makes it so unique. Ultimately, The Chameleon Couch was a wonderful introduction to Yusef Komunyakaa and was a lovely reminder to myself to pick up some more poetry before the rest of the 2012 is gone.

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