Talking Dirty to the Gods

Yusef Komunyakaa, Editor Scribner Book Company $23 (144p) ISBN 978-0-374-27255-5
Komunyakaa's bodily frankness, his appealingly clipped rhythms and his darting intelligence all remain on display in his 11th book of poetry, a serious but always entertaining tour de force. All the poems take the same external form: four unrhymed quatrains each, in syncopated four-beat lines. These four by four by four-or-so verbal performances stick together to form an oblique and psychologically intricate antihistory of the human world, from Homo erectus to MTV. The poems keep up particular interests in sculpture; craft objects, from thumbscrews to valentines; sex; insects; and classical and comparative mythography. Polyphemus the Cyclops, Godzilla the movie, a full bill of Greek gods and ancient personages, the Renaissance artist Pollaiuolo, Rodin, W.E.B. DuBois, the minor Modernist martyr Harry Crosby, and (as Komunyakaa's devotees might expect) a team of jazz musicians stand among the large cast of characters. The star of most poems, though, is Komunyakaa as commentator, bringing his off-kilter attitudes and his considerable experience to bear wherever his focus falls. He tells a centaur how ""Unholy/ Need & desire divide the season,/ As you eat sugar from a nymph's palm,/ Before she mounts & rides you into a man."" The Venus of Willendorf displays ""two fat gladiolus bulbs,"" ""a hunk of limestone/ Shaped into a blues singer."" Bedazzled by clashing consonants, ""The Ides of March"" asks ""Which oak rafter/ Did this wasp nest cling to?"" One of Darwin's finches ""prances like God's little/ Torquemada on the highest rotten branch."" A folk healer explains ""I can't think ugly/ Since I deal in cosmic stuff."" And Komunyakaa's ""Castrato"" asks himself ""how to stop women/ From crying when I open my mouth."" Scattered throughout the work are seven poems about, or anyway named for, the seven deadly sins (""Sloth"" turns out to describe the animal). Komunyakaa (Dien Cai Dau; Thieves of Paradise), who teaches at Princeton, garnered a Pulitzer Prize in 1994 with Neon Vernacular; since then he's managed to stay both hip and difficult, oblique in his meanings and populist in his sounds. His latest work, which finds him jumping from longtime publisher Wesleyan to FSG, may be some of his best, and most various: it certainly will keep his readers on their toes. (Sept.)
Reviewed on: 09/04/2000
Release date: 09/01/2000
Paperback - 144 pages - 978-0-374-52793-8
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