About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Horse-headed clouds, flags
& pennants tied to black Smokestacks in swamp mist.
From the quick green calm Some nocturnal bird calls
Ship ahoy, ship ahoy!
I press against the taxicab Window. I'm back here, interfaced With a dead phosphorescence;
The whole town smells Like the world's oldest anger.
Scabrous residue hunkers down under Sulfur & dioxide, waiting For sunrise, like cargo On a phantom ship outside Gaul.
Cool glass against my cheek Pulls me from the black schooner On a timeless sea — everything Dwarfed beneath the papermill Lights blinking behind the cloudy Commerce of wheels, of chemicals That turn workers into pulp When they fall into vats Of steamy serenity.
At the Screen Door
Just before sunlight Burns off morning fog.
Is it her, will she know What I've seen & done,
How my boots leave little grave-stone Shapes in the wet dirt,
That I'm no longer light On my feet, there's a rock In my belly? It weighs As much as the story Paul told me, moving ahead Like it knows my heart.
Is this the same story That sent him to a padded cell?
After all the men he'd killed in Korea
& on his first tour in Vietnam,
Someone tracked him down.
The Spec 4 he ordered Into a tunnel in Cu Chi Now waited for him behind The screen door, a sunset In his eyes, a dead man Wearing his teenage son's face.
The scream that leaped Out of Paul's mouth Wasn't his, not this decorated Hero. The figure standing there Wasn't his son. Who is it Waiting for me, a tall shadow Unlit in the doorway, no more Than an outline of the past?
I drop the duffle bag
& run before I know it,
Running toward her, the only one I couldn't have surprised,
Who'd be here at daybreak Watching a new day stumble Through a whiplash of grass Like a man drunk on the rage Of being alive.
Drunken laughter escapes Behind the fence woven With honeysuckle, up to where I stand. Daddy's running-buddy,
Carson, is beside him. In the time It takes to turn & watch a woman Tiptoe & pull a sheer blouse off The clothesline, to see her sun-lit Dress ride up peasant legs Like the last image of mercy, three Are drinking from the Mason jar.
That's the oak we planted The day before I left town,
As if father & son Needed staking down to earth.
If anything could now plumb Distance, that tree comes close,
Recounting lost friends As they turn into mist.
The woman stands in a kitchen Folding a man's trousers —
Her chin tucked to hold The cuffs straight.
I'm lonely as those storytellers In my father's backyard I shall join soon. Alone As they are, tilting back heads To let the burning ease down.
The names of women melt In their mouths like hot mints,
As if we didn't know Old Man Pagget's Stoopdown is doctored with Slivers of Red Devil Lye.
Lisa, Leona, Loretta?
She's sipping a milkshake In Woolworths, dressed in Chiffon & fat pearls.
She looks up at me,
Grabs her purse
& pulls at the hem Of her skirt. I want to say
I'm just here to buy A box of Epsom salt For my grandmama's feet.
Lena, Lois? I feel her Strain to not see me.
Lines are now etched At the corners of her thin,
Pale mouth. Does she know I know her grandfather Rode a white horse Through Poplas Quarters Searching for black women,
How he killed Indians
& stole land with bribes
& fake deeds? I remember She was seven & I was five When she ran up to me like a cat With a gypsy moth in its mouth
& we played doctor & house Under the low branches of a raintree Encircled with red rhododendrons.
We could pull back the leaves
& see grandmama ironing At their wide window. Once Her mother moved so close To the yardman we thought they'd kiss.
What the children of housekeepers
& handymen knew was enough To stop biological clocks,
& it's hard now not to walk over
& mention how her grandmother Killed her idiot son
& salted him down In a wooden barrel.
Joe, Gus, Sham ...
Even George Edward Done gone. Done Gone to Jesus, honey.
Doncha mean the devil,
Mary? Those Johnson boys Were only sweet talkers
& long, tall bootleggers.
Child, now you can count The men we usedta know On one hand. They done Dropped like mayflies —
Cancer, heart trouble,
Blood pressure, sugar,
You name it, Eva Mae.
Amen. Tell the truth,
Girl. I don't know.
Maybe the world's heavy On their shoulders. Maybe Too much bed hopping
& skirt chasing Caught up with them.
God don't like ugly.
Look at my grandson In there, just dragged in From God only knows where,
He high tails it home Inbetween women troubles.
He's nice as a new piece Of silk. It's a wonder Women don't stick to him Like white on rice.
It's a fast world Out there, honey.
They go all kinda ways.
Just buried John Henry With that old guitar Cradled in his arms.
Over on Fourth Street Singing 'bout hell hounds When he dropped dead.
You heard 'bout Jack Right? He just tilted over In prayer meeting.
The good & the bad go Into the same song.
How's Hattie? She Still uppity & half Trying to be white?
The man went off to war
& got one of his legs Shot off & she wanted To divorce him for that.
Crazy as a bessy bug.
Jack wasn't cold In his grave before She done up & gave all The insurance money To some young pigeon Who never hit a lick At work in his life.
He cleaned her out & left With Donna Faye's girl.
Honey, hush. You don't Say. Her sister,
Charlene, was silly Too. Jump into bed With anything that wore Pants. White, black,
Chinese, crazy, or old.
Some woman in Chicago hooked a blade into her.
Remember? Now don't say You done forgot Charlene.
Her face a little blurred But she coming back now.
Loud & clear. With those Real big, sad, gray eyes.
A natural-born hellraiser,
& loose as persimmon pie.
You said it, honey.
Miss High Yellow.
I heard she's the reason Frank shot down Otis Lee Like a dog in The Blue Moon. She was a blood-
Sucker. I hate to say this,
But she had Arthur On a short leash too.
Your Arthur, Mary.
She was only a girl When Arthur closed his eyes.
Thirteen at the most.
She was doing what women do Even then. I saw them With my own two eyes,
& promised God Almighty I wouldn't mention it.
But it don't hurt To mention it now, not After all these years.
Heat lightning jumpstarts the slow afternoon & a syncopated rainfall peppers the tinroof like Philly Joe Jones' brushes reaching for a dusky backbeat across the high hat. Rhythm like cells multiplying ... language &
notes made flesh. Accents & stresses,
almost sexual. Pleasure's knot; to wrestle the mind down to unrelenting white space,
to fill each room with spring's contagious changes. Words & music. "Ruby, My Dear"
turned down on the cassette player,
pulsates underneath rustic voices waltzing out the kitchen — my grandmama
& an old friend of hers from childhood talking B-flat blues. Time & space,
painful notes, the whole thing wrung out of silence. Changes. Caesuras.
Nina Simone's downhome cry echoes theirs — Mister Backlash, Mister Backlash —
as a southern breeze herds wild, bloodred roses along the barbed-wire fence.
There's something in this house, maybe those two voices & Satchmo's gold horn,
refracting time & making the Harlem Renaissance live inside my head.
I can hear Hughes like a river of fingers over Willie "The Lion" Smith's piano, & some naked spiritual releases a shadow in a reverie of robes & crosses.
Oriflamme & Judgment Day ... undulant waves bring in cries from Sharpeville & Soweto,
dragging up moans from shark-infested seas as a blood moon rises. A shock of sunlight breaks the mood & I hear my father's voice growing young again,
as he says, "The devil's beating his wife": One side of the road's rainy
& the other side's sunny. Imagination —
driftwood from a spring flood, stockpiled by Furies. Changes. Pinetop's boogiewoogie keys stack against each other like syllables in tongue-tripped elegies for Lady Day
& Duke. Don't try to make any sense out of this; just let it take you like Pres's tenor & keep you human.
Voices of school girls rush & surge through the windows, returning with the late March wind; the same need pushing my pen across the page.
Their dresses lyrical against the day's sharp edges. Dark harmonies. Bright as lamentations behind a spasm band from New Orleans. A throng of boys are throwing at a bloodhound barking near a blaze of witch hazel at the corner of the fence. Mister Backlash.
I close my eyes & feel castanetted fingers on the spine, slow as Monk's
"Mysterioso"; a man can hurt for years before words flow into a pattern so woman-smooth, soft as a pine-scented breeze off the river Lethe. Satori-blue changes. Syntax. Each naked string tied to eternity — the backbone strung like a bass. Magnolia blossoms fall in the thick tremble of Mingus's "Love Chant"; extended bars natural as birds in trees & on powerlines singing between the cuts — Yardbird in the soul & soil. Boplicity takes me to Django's gypsy guitar
& Dunbar's "broken tongue," beyond god-headed jive of the apocalypse,
& back to the old sorrow songs where boisterous flowers still nod on their half-broken stems. The deep rosewood of the piano says, "Holler if it feels good." Perfect tension.
The mainspring of notes & extended possibility — what falls on either side of a word — the beat between & underneath.
Organic, cellular space. Each riff & word a part of the whole. A groove. New changes created. "In the Land of Obladee"
burns out the bell with flatted fifths,
a matrix of blood & language improvised on a bebop heart that could stop any moment on a dime, before going back to Hughes at the Five Spot.
Twelve bars. Coltrane leafs through the voluminous air for some note to save us from ourselves.
The limbo & bridge of a solo ...
trying to get beyond the tragedy of always knowing what the right hand will do ... ready to let life play me like Candido's drum.
I won't look at her.
My body's been one Solid motion from sunrise,
Leaning into the lawnmower's Roar through pine needles
& crabgrass. Tiger-colored Bumblebees nudge pale blossoms Till they sway like silent bells Calling. But I won't look.
Her husband's outside Oxford,
Mississippi, bidding on miles Of timber. I wonder if he's buying Faulkner's ghost, if he might run Into Colonel Sartoris Along some dusty road.
Their teenage daughter & son sped off An hour ago in a red Corvette For the tennis courts,
& the cook, Roberta,
Only works a half day Saturdays. This antebellum house Looms behind oak & pine Like a secret, as quail Flash through branches.
I won't look at her. Nude On a hammock among elephant ears
& ferns, a pitcher of lemonade Sweating like our skin.
Afternoon burns on the pool Till everything's blue,
Till I hear Johnny Mathis Beside her like a whisper.
I work all the quick hooks Of light, the same unbroken Rhythm my father taught me Years ago: Always give A man a good day's labor.
I won't look. The engine Pulls me like a dare.
Scent of honeysuckle Sings black sap through mystery,
Taboo, law, creed, what kills A fire that is its own heart Burning open the mouth.
But I won't look At the insinuation of buds Tipped with cinnabar.
I'm here, as if I never left,
Stopped in this garden,
Drawn to some Lotus-eater. Pollen Explodes, but I only smell Gasoline & oil on my hands,
& can't say why there's this bed Of crushed narcissus As if gods wrestled here.
Praising Dark Places
If an old board laid out in a field Or backyard for a week,
I'd lift it up with a finger,
A tip of a stick.
Once I found a scorpion Crimson as a hibernating crawfish As if a rainbow edged underneath;
Centipedes & unnameable Insects sank into loam With a flutter. My first lesson:
Beauty can bite. I wanted To touch scarlet pincers —
Warriors that never zapped Their own kind, crowded into A city cut off from the penalty Of sunlight. The whole rotting Determinism just an inch beneath The soil. Into the darkness Of opposites, like those racial Fears of the night, I am drawn again,
To conception & birth. Roots of ivy
& farkleberry can hold a board down To the ground. In this cellular dirt
& calligraphy of excrement,
Light is a god-headed Law & weapon.
A Good Memory
1 Wild Fruit
I came to a bounty of black lustre One July afternoon, & didn't Call my brothers. A silence Coaxed me up into oak branches Woodpeckers had weakened.
But they held there, braced By a hundred years of vines Strong & thick Enough to hang a man.
The pulpy, sweet musk Exploded in my mouth As each indigo skin collapsed.
Muscadines hung in clusters,
& I forgot about jellybeans,
Honeycomb, & chocolate kisses.
I could almost walk on air The first time I couldn't get enough Of something, & in that embrace Of branches I learned the first Secret I could keep.
Folk magic hoodooed us Till the varmints didn't taste bitter Or wild. We boys & girls Knew how to cut away musk glands Behind their legs. Good With knives, we believed We weren't poor. A raccoon Would stand on its hind legs
& fight off dogs. Rabbits Learned how to make hunters Shoot at spiders when headlighting.
A squirrel played trickster On the low branches Till we were our own targets.
We garnished the animal's Spirit with red pepper
& basil as it cooked With a halo of herbs
& sweet potatoes. Served On chipped, hand-me-down Willow-patterned plates.
We weren't poor.
If we didn't say Grace, we were slapped At the table. Sometimes We weighed the bullet In our hands, tossing it left To right, wondering if it was Worth more than the kill.
3 Breaking Ground
I told Mister Washington You couldn't find a white man With his name. But after forty years At the tung oil mill, coughing up old dust,
He only talked butter beans & okra.
He moved like a sand crab.
Born half-broken, he'd say
If I didn't have this bad leg I'd break ground to kingdom come.
He only stood erect behind The plow, grunting against The blade's slow cut.
Sometimes he'd just rock Back & forth, in one place,
Hardly moving an inch Till the dirt gave away
& he stumbled a foot forward,
Humming "Amazing Grace."
Like good & evil woven Into each other, rutabagas
& Irish potatoes came out Worm-eaten. His snow peas Melted on tender stems,
To prove that earth can heal,
He'd throw his body Against the plow each day, pushing Like a small man entering a big woman.
4 Soft Touch
Men came to her back door & knocked.
Food was the password. When switch engines Stopped & boxcars changed tracks To the sawmill, they came like Gypsies,
A red bandanna knotted at the throat,
A harmonica in the hip pocket of overalls Thin as washed-out sky. They brought rotgut Drought years, following some clear-cut Sign or icon in the ambiguous Green that led to her back porch Like The Black Snake Blues.
They paid with yellow pencils For crackling bread, molasses, & hunks Of fatback. Sometimes grits & double-yolk Eggs. Collard greens & okra. Louisianne Coffee & chicory steamed in heavy white cups.
They sat on the swing & ate from blue Flowered plates. Good-evil men who Ran from something or to someone,
A thirty-year headstart on the Chicago hawk That overtook them at Castle Rock.
She watched each one disappear over the trestle,
As if he'd turn suddenly & be her lost brother Buddy, with bouquets of yellow pencils In Mason jars on the kitchen windowsill.
The day after Christmas Blackbirds lifted like a shadow Of an oak, slow leaves Returning to bare branches.
We followed them, a hundred Small premeditated murders Clustered in us like happiness.
We had the scent of girls On our hands & in our mouths,
Moving like jackrabbits from one Dream to the next. Brandnew Barrels shone against the day
& stole wintery light From trees. In the time it took To run home & grab Daddy's gun,
The other wing-footed boys Stumbled from the woods.
Johnny Lee was all I heard,
A siren in the flesh,
The name of a fallen friend In their wild throats. Only Joe Stayed to lift Johnny's head Out of the ditch, rocking back
& forth. The first thing I did Was to toss the shotgun Into a winterberry thicket,
& didn't know I was running To guide the paramedics into The dirt-green hush. We sat In a wordless huddle outside The operating room, till a red light Over the door began pulsing Like a broken vein in a skull.
Figs. Plums. Stolen Red apples were sour When weighed against your body In the kitchen doorway Where late July Shone through your flowered dress Worn thin by a hundred washings.
Like colors & strength Boiled out of cloth,
Some deep & tall scent Made the daylilies cower.
Where did the wordless Moans come from in twilit Rooms between hunger
& panic? Those years We fought aside each other's hands.
Sap pulled a song From the red-throated robin,
Drove bloodhounds mad At the edge of a cornfield,
Split the bud down to hot colors.
I began reading you Yeats
& Dunbar, hoping for a potion To draw the worm out of the heart.
Naked, unable or afraid,
We pulled each other back Into our clothes.
Excerpted from "Neon Vernacular"
Copyright © 1993 Yusef Komunyakaa.
Excerpted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Fog Galleon, 3,
At the Screen Door, 4,
Changes; or, Reveries at a Window Overlooking a Country Road, with Two Women Talking Blues in the Kitchen, 8,
Praising Dark Places, 13,
A Good Memory, 14,
Birds on a Powerline, 23,
Little Man Around the House, 27,
Songs for My Father, 28,
from Dedications & Other Darkhorses,
The Tongue Is, 37,
Chair Gallows, 38,
Translating Footsteps, 39,
from Lost in the Bonewheel Factory,
Looking a Mad Dog Dead in the Eyes, 43,
Stepfather: A Girl's Song, 45,
Light on the Subject, 47,
Beg Song, 48,
The Dog Act, 51,
For You, Sweetheart, I'll Sell Plutonium Reactors, 52,
The Nazi Doll, 53,
False Leads, 57,
Soliloquy: Man Talking to a Mirror, 58,
The Way the Cards Fall, 59,
Faith Healer, 61,
More Girl Than Boy, 62,
April Fools' Day, 63,
Untitled Blues, 64,
Back Then, 65,
Safe Subjects, 67,
Black String of Days, 69,
Villon / Leadbelly, 70,
Elegy for Thelonious, 71,
Copacetic Mingus, 72,
Letter to Bob Kaufman, 73,
Woman, I Got the Blues, 74,
Newport Beach, 1979, 75,
Gloria's Clues, 76,
The Cage Walker, 78,
Epilogue to the Opera of Dead on Arrival, 80,
Blues Chant Hoodoo Revival, 81,
from I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head Unnatural State of the Unicorn, 87,
Touch-up Man, 88,
How I See Things, 89,
The Thorn Merchant, 90,
The Thorn Merchant's Right-Hand Man, 91,
The Heart's Graveyard Shift, 92,
Boy Wearing a Dead Man's Clothes, 94,
The Music That Hurts, 96,
When in Rome — Apologia, 97,
The Thorn Merchant's Wife, 99,
The Thorn Merchant's Mistress, 100,
After Summer Fell Apart, 102,
The Brain to the Heart, 104,
Audacity of the Lower Gods, 105,
The Falling-Down Song, 106,
The Thorn Merchant's Son, 107,
I Apologize, 108,
Dreambook Bestiary, 113,
Jonestown: More Eyes for Jadwiga's Dream, 115,
Landscape for the Disappeared, 116,
Good Joe, 118,
In the Background of Silence, 120,
For the Walking Dead, 121,
Child's Play, 122,
The Beast & Burden: Seven Improvisations, 123,
from Toys in a Field,
Monsoon Season, 130,
Water Buffalo, 131,
Le Xuan, Beautiful Spring, 132,
from Dien Cai Dau,
Camouflaging the Chimera, 137,
Starlight Scope Myopia, 139,
Hanoi Hannah, 141,
"You and I Are Disappearing", 142,
Re-creating the Scene, 143,
We Never Know, 145,
A Break from the Bush, 146,
Tu Do Street, 147,
Jungle Surrender, 152,
To Have Danced with Death, 155,
Report from the Skull's Diorama, 156,
Boat People, 157,
Missing in Action, 158,
Facing It, 159,
from February in Sydney,
The Plea, 163,
The Man Who Carries the Desert Around Inside Himself: For Wally, 165,
Rocks Push, 167,
When Loneliness Is A Man, 169,
A Quality of Light, 170,
Gerry's Jazz, 171,
Boxing Day, 173,
Protection of Movable Cultural Heritage, 175,
Blue Light Lounge Sutra for the Performance Poets at Harold Park Hotel, 176,
February in Sydney, 178,