A Magic City: The Poetry of Yusef Komunyakaa

I met Yusef Komunyakaa in April of 1996 but it wasn’t until I sat down to write this review that I realized exactly who Komunyakaa is. Yusef Komunyakka was the recipient of the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. This man is an incredibly distinguished poet, and I shook his hand having no idea just how important he was.

Experience is a funny thing that way. Sometimes simple events (and sometimes complex ones) have a way of not registering their significance with the brain right away. Childhood falls into this category. And that is what Komunyakaa’s Magic City is about: memories of events from childhood that surface later in life and reveal their importance.

Through the forty poems in this series, there are a few things that immediately strike the reader. First, is the complete unity of each individual poem. The poems are so cohesive that it is hard to pull out a single line or two to talk about. Each line is an essential part of the story. Each line is just as much a part of the whole poem as each poem is a part of the series. It is hard to explain this idea, but each word, and each line works. Each word, line, and poem depends as well as supports the other words, lines, and poems.

Another thing that stands out right away to the reader is clarity. Komunyakaa has a very skillful ability: to set an image exactly how it should be seen out in words that don’t get lost as the reader comprehends them. In the opening poem, Venus’s-flytraps, the movement is smooth through the steps of the narrator’s words: ” I am five,/ Wading out into deep/ Sunny grass,/ Unmindful of snakes/ & yellowjackets, out/ To the yellow flowers/ Quivering in sluggish heat” (1). In this example, Komunyakaa shows us exactly what it was like to be him at five without having to tell us “I was five and not afraid of anything because I didn’t know I should be.”

There is a great deal of preciseness in the wording yet nothing is forced. He maintains an easy flow and rhythm that make his poems easy to read. Take this beautiful line for an example of how each word is placed perfectly to complement the others while the line remains easy to read. “All five shades of chameleon/ Came alive on the cross-hatched/ Snakeskin, & a constellation/ Of eyes flickered in the thicket/ As quail whooped from the sagebrush” (16).

Besides the technical stuff, Komunyakaa is telling quite a story in these poems. He grew up in Bogalusa, Louisiana were he learned about life, love, racism, sex, hate, and imagination. In the poem “Sunday Afternoons,” he writes, “We were born between Oh Yeah/ & Goddammit. I knew life/ Began where I stood in the dark,/ Looking out into the light,/ & that sometimes I could see/ (stanza break) Everything through nothing.” Komunyakaa begins trying to figure out how to put his life in perspective, how his life relates to history, and how history relates to his life.

Magic City is a rite of passage story. In childhood, life is a magic city but as you grow up you have to learn to make your city magic with imagination and creativity. At one point in his story, Komunyakaa begins to set himself apart from his surroundings with an awareness of his actions. In the poem “The Smokehouse,” he writes, “The dead weight/ Of the place hung around me,/ Strung up with sweetgrass./ . . . I was a wizard/ In that hazy world, & knew I could cut/ Slivers of meat till my heart/ Grew more human & flawed” (21). He remembers knowing that he did not always agree with the things he did and/or the things going on around him that would change him.

At a pivotal point in the book, Komunyakaa makes a very mature decision to pursue knowledge about his heritage, to learn to understand it, and to become a part of it. In a wonderful poem titled “Mismatched shoes” He writes, “My grandfather came from Trinidad/ Smuggled in like a sack of papaya/. . . The island swelled in his throat/ & calypso leapt into the air,/ Only to be amputated/ By the wind’s white blade./ . . . I picked up those mismatched shoes/ & slipped into his skin. Komunyakaa./ His blues, African fruit on my tongue” (42).

Here, Komunyakaa is forging his identity and making a path for himself that will be challenging. He is picking up were his Grandfather left off and taking the spirit of his African heritage with him by choice. In later poems of this book, racism and hatred against Komunyakaa and his family as well as violence and murder are talked about. At one point, he writes “We stood like obsidian panthers/ In the corner of a white world” (49). Komunyakaa with his first hand experience with the KKK in the rural south has no problem evoking his readers with fear and pain so vivid that it is emotionally demanding and at times hard to endure.

One of the hardest poems to embrace is “Sex, Magnolias, & Speed” in which he powerfully writes , “At the end of the bridge/ Below the Dairy Queen/ Police lights splashed/ Over magnolias & oaks,/ But I walked straight ahead/ Into the biography of light/ & dark, even after they took me/ Out to the white graveyard/ & used their rubber hoses” (53). It is hard for some of us to imagine the struggle of African-Americans both pre-civil rights and post-civil rights, but Komunyakaa makes it easier for us to imagine with language both painful and beautiful. He demonstrates for us the affects of hate and the happiness that pride and courage can supply.

This is one of the most complete books of poetry I have read. There is not an emotion missing from the human heart of these poems, Komunyakaa left no room for questions about the setting or doubts about the narrator. There are no gaps that need to be filled in Magic City. From cover to cover, Komunyakaa brings the experiences of his rich life into the grace of poetry and entices the reader’s senses, intellect, and imagination.

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