I WON'T LIE TO YOU: the day I started reading this book, I was tripping. In Book IV of The Odyssey, as Menelaus and Telemachus weep over their fallen comrades, Helen slips into their wine a drug that undoes "every grief and rage" and dries a man's tears though his brother or son be slain before his eyes. Called nepenthe by poets, it's known as oxycodone to us moderns. Helen got hers from Egypt, but I got mine from Walgreen's. I'd just had dental surgery, so naturally I reached for two things that always make me happy, an opium derivative and poetry. They work even better in combination; just ask E. A. Poe.
Not that, in this instance, a pharmaceutical boost was needed. I liked Yusef Komunyakaa immediately when I read Dien Cai Dau (1988), fell hard for him with Neon Vernacular (1993), and decided I wanted to be him when I grew up after Talking Dirty to the Gods (2001). So, naturally I swam, through ebbing pain and growing bliss, toward The Chameleon Couch, his thirteenth book of poems.
As I read, though, I thought, dang, this is hard. And beautiful as well, and often funny. Thus the poem "Grunge" begins:
No, sweetheart, I said courtly love.
I was thinking of John Donne's
"Yet this enjoys before it woo,"
but my big hands were dreaming
Pinetop's boogie woogie piano
taking the ubiquitous night apart.
Ha, ha! His sweetie doesn't get it, so the poet explains himself. But somehow the explanation shades over into a boxing metaphor ("But I've been shoved up against / frayed ropes too, & I had to learn / to bob & weave, to duck & hook"), and then a show-biz one ("sometimes a man wants only a hug / when something two-steps him / toward a little makeshift stage"), and ends this way:
Somehow, between hellhounds
& a guitar solo made of gutstring
& wood, I outlived a stormy night
with snow on my eyelids.
See what I mean? Beautiful and hard, too. Hard on its shiny, crystalline surface; harder still in its depths, in a darkness that ends the devil knows where. Days later, when I was off smoothies and on solid food again, I read and reread these poems, and they remained difficult.
Then again, Komunyakaa is not dealing in easy truths. In an interview, he once said that poetry is "a kind of distilled insinuation," a way of "expanding and talking around an idea or a question," noting that "sometimes more actually gets said through such a technique than a full frontal assault." So it's not for nothing that a phrase like "ignis fatuus" (or will-o'-the-wisp) figures in one of these poems, as does "fata morgana" (a type of mirage) in another. It might be said that Yusef Komunyakaa traffics in the numinous, a word that, according to Webster's, means "filled with a sense of the presence of divinity."
This dictionary also offers "supernatural" and "mysterious" as down-market synonyms for numinous, though I like C. S. Lewis's definition better:
Suppose you were told there was a tiger in the next room: you would know that you were in danger and would probably feel fear. But if you were told 'There is a ghost in the next room' and believed it, you would feel, indeed, what is often called fear, but of a different kind. It would ...read more