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 not be based on the knowledge of danger, for no one is primarily afraid of what a ghost may do to him, but of the mere fact that it is a ghost.
That's not to say that Komunyakaa has shamanistic or priestly powers or even ambitions. But he is a shapeshifter. In London once, I went to hear Anne Carson read her poetry, and as I left, I saw Mr. Komunyakaa but didn't say anything to him, just as he recounts in one of these poems an encounter with James Dean in which he, too, is silent. ("I don't know why.") But just as the cluster of poems above deals with striving, this one is part of a group that deals with changing identities: The poem that follows the one about James Dean has the deliciously slippery title "Ten or Eleven Disguises" (there are actually six), and the one after that is an "Ode to the Chameleon," the "little shape shifter" who is "neither this / nor that." Yes, I could have waylaid Yusef Komunyakaa, but who would I have been talking to?
Born James William Brown, he later took his grandfather's name. An artist may take a nom de plume for all sorts of reasons, one of which may be to acquire power; presumably Mark Twain could do things Samuel Clemens couldn't, just as 50 Cent has more mojo than Curtis James Jackson III. To take a pseudonym is to try for something different, and indeed, early in The Chameleon Couch, there's a cluster of poems that deal with striving, as silkworms do in "A Translation of Silk," mutilated pianist Paul Wittgenstein does in "The One-Handed Concerto," and the fishermen in "Dead Reckoning" do as they "follow a dream of the biggest / catch, out among the tall waves where / freshwater meets a salty calmness."
As one might guess from earlier hints, the best poems in The Chameleon Couch deal with music of all kinds. Roots music figures hugely, though Komunyakaa has a special affinity for jazz, which, more than any other art form, does a better job of conjuring the will-o'-the-wisps that flit across the swamp of the mind, especially when it's late at night and you're hurting.
Music's supreme here: In "Dangerousness," the poet says "I'll take the Buena Vista Social Club / over your damn blogosphere any day." In "Ode to a Guitar," moving fingers caress a guitar neck till it becomes "a phantom limb / of hope." And you can have your Tristan and Isolde, your Romeo and Juliet, he says in "Togetherness," and he'll take instead "a midnight horn / & a voice with a moody angel / inside, the two married rib / to rib."
In A Few Good Voices in My Head, writer and critic Ted Solotaroff says that a piece of writing is often a writer's "only way to organize and to some extent comprehend life's fullness and perplexity." I love that phrase "to some extent." A piece of writing that led to complete comprehension would turn us all into mute mystics. Isn't being organized and partly enlightened enough — isn't it plenty?
One way to make that happen is to reach for poems like the ones in The Chameleon Couch. They might not end your pain, but they'll damned sure take your mind off of it. They're too hard, too beautiful not to.