is the author
of twelve collections of poetry, including Dien Cai Dau (Wesleyan,
1988), a collection of poems chronicling his experiences in Vietnam,
and Neon Vernacular (Wesleyan, 1994). Komunyakaa has co-edited
two volumes, Jazz Poetry Anthology and Insomnia of Fire. His
prose writings are collected in Blue Notes: Essays, Interviews,
Commentaries. His new verse play adapted from Sumerian legend,
Gilgamesh: A Verse Play, was published in the fall of 2006 by
Komunyakaa won the Pulitzer Prize and the Kingsley Tufts Prize for Neon Vernacular, as well as Creative Writing Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Thomas Forcade Award, the William Faulkner Prize, the Levinson Prize from Poetry Magazine, the Hanes Poetry Prize, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, and the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He was elected Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 1999 and was awarded the Shelley Memorial Prize by the Poetry Society of America.
Born in the rural community of Bogalusa, Louisiana , Komunyakaa graduated magna cum laude from the University of Colorado in 1975, after having received a bronze star for his service as a journalist in the Vietnam War. He completed his Masters degree in 1978 at Colorado State University, and earned an MFA from The University of California at Irvine in 1980. He has taught at Indiana State University, Washington University, University of California at Berkeley, and the University of New Orleans, and is currently a professor at New York University.
We Never Know
He danced with tall grass
for a moment, like he was swaying
with a woman. Our gun barrels
When I got to him,
a blue halo
of flies had already claimed him.
I pulled the crumpled photograph
from his fingers.
There’s no other way
to say this: I fell in love.
The morning cleared again,
except for a distant mortar
& somewhere choppers taking off.
I slid the wallet into his pocket
& turned him over, so he wouldn’t be
kissing the ground.
Forgive me, soldier.
Forgive my right hand
for pointing you
to the flawless
tree line now
outlined in my brain.
There was so much
bloodsky over our heads at daybreak
in Pleiku, but I won’t say
those infernal guns
blinded me on that hill.
Mistakes piled up men like clouds
pushed to the dark side.
I try to retrace
my fingers down the map
telling less than a woman’s body—
we followed the grid coordinates
in some battalion commander’s mind.
If I could make my mouth
move a muscle.
& keep your fucking head
Hit the dirt!
I’ve tried to swallow my tongue.
You were a greenhorn, so fearless,
even foolish, & when I said go, Henry,
you went dancing on a red string
of bullets from that tree line
as it moved from a low cloud.
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 starfish
As if a rainbow edged underneath;
Centipedes and 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 and 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.
|Unnatural State of the Unicorn
Unnatural State of the Unicorn
Introduce me first as a man.
Don’t mention superficial laurels
the dead heap up on the living.
I am a man. Cut me & I bleed.
Before embossed limited editions,
before fat artichoke hearts marinated
in rich sauce & served with imported wines,
before antics & Agnus Dei,
before the stars in your eyes
mean birth sign or Impression,
I am a man. I’ve scuffled
in mudholes, broken teeth in grinning skull
like the moon behind bars. I’ve done it all
to be known as myself. No titles.
I have principals. I won’t speak
on the natural state of the unicorn
in literature or self-analysis.
I have no birthright to prove,
no insignia, no secret
password, no fleur-de-lis.
My initials aren’t on a branding iron.
I’m standing here in unpolished
shoes & faded jeans, sweating
my manly sweat. Inside my skin,
loving you, I am this space
my body believes in.