Criticism & Features

Year 2011: 30 Books

Eric Miles Williamson on Yusef Komunyakaa’s “The Chameleon Couch”

By Eric Miles Williamson

Each day leading up to the March 8 announcement of the 2011 NBCC award winners, Critical Mass is highlighting our thirty finalists. In a first, the NBCC is partnering with other websites to promote our finalists as well in the categories of Criticism and Poetry. Click here to read NBCC board members on our Poetry finalists on the website of Appreciations of several of our Criticism finalists can be found at The Rumpus.

Here is #26 of our series, poetry finalist Yusef Komunyakaa’s The Chameleon Couch (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), reviewed by NBCC board member Eric Miles Williamson.

In “Poppies,” in Yusef Komunyakaa’s most recent book, The Chameleon Couch, he writes,

I am a black man, a poet, a bohemian,
& there isn’t a road my mind doesn’t travel.
I also have my cheap, one-way ticket
to Auschwitz & know of no street or footpath
death hasn’t taken. The poppies rush ahead,
up to a cardinal singing on barbed wire.

Indeed, in The Chameleon Couch, there does not seem to be a road Komunyakaa’s mind hasn’t travelled. The poems in this collection encompass a global and historical expanse, from antiquity to the present, from Europe to Asia. Komunyakaa’s earlier poems were largely localized and personal, highlighting subject matter that was blatantly American and from personal experience. We in the United States have been criticized for our limited world view by none other than Horace Engdahl, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, who said American writers are “too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture.” He went on to say, “The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. That ignorance is restraining.” Had he been a reader of the works of Yusef Komunyakaa’s, he might have bit his tongue before making such a statement to the world.

Growing up in small-town Louisiana, Komunyakaa experienced the lush multi-lingual, multi-dialect grate and grind of the English language being stretched, wrenched, adapated to, and formed into something that is not the Queen’s English. His poems in The Chameleon Couch, like his earlier poetry, exude this creole of common speech, formal linguistic tropes, European influence, and nuanced American vernacular. Few living poets, or poets from any other epoch for that matter—perhaps Chaucer comes to mind—have the range of ear we find in Komunyakaa: he hears the cadences of the slave, of the aesthete, of the child, the matron, and the master. All voices are rendered in a music not expressed in the English language since Yeats and Tennyson and Browning.

But there’s more to Komunyakaa than just beauty of linguistic delivery. He’s a thinking person’s poet, and though his early poetry was geared more to common folk, in The Chameleon Couch Komunyakaa extends his considerable reach to the upper eschelon of readers. Hey: you’ll have to look up words in the dictionary to read this book. The language of beauty encompasses more than everyday vernacular, which Komunyakaa has amply delivered in his long and splendid career. Just because the common culture’s vocablulary has withered to sound bites does not mean that high culture no longer exists: it’s just muted by the hysterical drone of the hoard. Komunyakaa is a poet of language and ideas, something we yearn for. He writes,

We dream of going from one desire
to the next. But in the final analysis,
a good thought is the simplist food.

There’s plenty of food in The Chameleon Couch, a book as wise as any we’ve seen in recent years in America. Global, thoughtful, philosophical, political, personal, responsible, it is a noble addition to the oeuvre of one of the greatest living American Poets, a poet who just may eventually earn the recognition of Horace Engdahl and the Swedish Academy.