Jonathan Galassi On Yusef Komunyakaa's Warhorses
This year for National Poetry Month, Farrar, Straus and Giroux Publisher Jonathan Galassi has agreed to say a few words about our upcoming poetry collections. You can expect his comments here every Tuesday and Thursday for the rest of the month.
Yusef Komunyakaa has just been elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters—a sign of the great esteem in which his work is held among his fellow writers. WARHORSES, his most recent book, has recently been issued in paperback by FSG and is one of his powerful and resonant achievements.
Yusef’s work addresses the biggest themes—life, love, and death through the lenses of history, war, and race—with a majestic breadth of gesture that in its own American way recalls the wide sweep of Derek Walcott.
Gilgamesh’s Humbaba was a distant drum
Pulsing among the trees, a slave to the gods,
A foreign tongue guarding the sacred cedars
Down to a pale grubworm in the tower
Before Babel. Invisible & otherworldly,
He was naked in the king’s heart,
& his cry turned flies into maggots
& blood reddened the singing leaves.
When Gilgamesgh said Shiduri, a foreplay
of light was on the statues going to the river
Between them & the blinding underworld.
She cleansed his wounds & bandaged his eyes
at the edge of reason, & made him forget
birthright, the virgins in their bridal beds.
But the high point of the book for me is the amazing ”Autobiography of My Alter Ego” that takes up the second half of the book. Loose limbed, musical, it takes up all of Yusef’s themes—which means all possible themes.
Forgive the brightly colored
Viper on the footpath,
guarding a forgotten shrine.
Forgive the tiger
dumbstruck beneath its own rainbow.
Forgive the spotted bitch
eating her litter underneath the house.
Forgive the boar
hiding in October’s red leaves.
Forgive the storm century
of crows calling to death. Forgive
the one who conjures a god
out of spit & clay
so she may seek redemption.
Forgive the elephant’s memory.
Forgive the saw vine
& the thorn bird’s litany.
Forgive the schizoid
gatekeeper, his logbook’s
Perfect excuse. Forgive
the crocodile’s swiftness.
Forgive the pheromones
& the idea of life on Mars.
Forgive the heat lightning
& the powder keg. Forgive the raccoon’s
Sleight of hand beside
the river. Forgive the mooncalf
& doubt’s caul-baby. Forgive
my father’s larcenous tongue.
Forgive my mother’s intoxicated
Lullaby. Forgive my sixth sense.
Forgive my heart & penis,
but don’t forgive my hands.
“Don’t forgive my hands”—that is a typically Komunyakaa formulation: powerfully direct, unsparing, and knotted with intense lyricism. There is a deep history behind that phrase, poetic, personal, historical. It demonstrates the power and resonance of this magnificent poet’s lyric gift.