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Poetry: Back on the Warhorse

Yusef Komunyakaa, Warhorses (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008)

In his new collection of poems, Warhorses, Yusef Komunyakaa explores familiar themes with idiosyncratic grace and musical intensity. Organized into three sections—“Love in the Time of War,” “Heavy Metal,” and “Autobiography of My Alter Ego”—Warhorses examines how war encapsulates and mutates human experience and the world.

“Love in the Time of War” uses the sonnet, a form associated with some of the oldest love poems in the English language, to create an expansive, complex vision of the inextricable connection between war and affairs of the heart. “Heavy Metal” explores the products of war, from the helmet and the catapult to Picasso’s “Guernica” and the terracotta warriors in the tomb of the Chinese Emperor Qin. The poems in “Heavy Metal” attempt to embody a type of skull-thumping, anger-infused music while simultaneously relating to the products of war.

While “Love in the Time of War” and “Heavy Metal” contain a substantial amount of the book’s more beautiful, poignant moments, the third section of Warhorses, a long poem titled “Autobiography of My Alter Ego,” is a subdued tour de force. “Autobiography of My Alter Ego” showcases many of the characteristic nuances of Komunyakaa’s verse by culminating the fictitious and the factual in an eerily precise alternate reality. In an email interview, Mr. Komunyakaa had this to say about the process of writing “Autobiography of My Alter Ego”:

“Autobiography of My Alter Ego” was composed over the past ten years, off and on, mainly because the voice in the poem recurred until it grew into an extended tableau... I never tried to second-guess the poem’s direction, but allowed myself to follow the music of the narrative, the trajectory of the showing and telling. I feel that it is a monologue of inquiry that is internal and external, that the character is addressing one or two persons seated at the bar in the Chimera Club, but it is also delving into the speaker’s own psyche. He seems to have been shaped by his acute observations and multitude of experiences. And, in this sense, he is an imagined character who’s a composite of people I’ve known. Perhaps the father, a professional cover artist before the Civil Rights era and rock music, unconsciously prompted the speaker’s insistent inquiry. This raconteur feels and knows the shaped density of the world, and he believes that others also know what he knows. Perhaps he’s compelled to speak against their denial. That is, he has been condemned to know the American psyche, but he refuses to view the quest for self knowledge as a risk.”

One of the unique aspects of “Autobiography of My Alter Ego” is the way in which individual sections suddenly open into broad, unexpected contexts of the “American psyche.” Here, a father addresses his son, a Vietnam veteran and the poem’s central persona:

Big hero, with your Silver Star,

flesh of my flesh, your eyes

say you know all my secrets

along this road,

& the least a son can do

is to help his father

nail his shadow to a pink dogwood.

These lines subtly address the perennial conflict between father and son, and the disjunction between veterans and their loved ones. Perhaps the most poignant moment occurs with the final image, which combines a muted allusion to lynching with the colors of a flowering dogwood tree. The result is a confluence that reaches into contexts of race, mortality and nature’s indifferent beauty. The moment is troubling, beautiful, and idiomatic of Komunyakaa’s abilities. Throughout “Autobiography of My Alter Ego,” there is a similar tendency for lines to swerve away from pithy summation into moments of subtle epiphany. As in previous collections, Komunyakaa’s musicality allows him to move into these areas of potentiality: 

The voice in the poem created the structure. The voice is emotional and analytical, propelled by a halting pace that seems driven by an internal rhythm. Perhaps the rhythm is what keeps this speaker honest. Although he knows some troubling aspects of American culture and history with damnable certainty, he refuses to be brutal in his assessment. The action is in the language and imagery. I can see this character on stage speaking his monologue. There are pauses, stops and starts... Perhaps “Autobiography of My Alter Ego” is a necessary rendition of a personal and public fractured blues.

Komunyakaa’s statement about the narrator of “Autobiography of My Alter Ego” describes his authorial presence throughout Warhorses. Although Komunyakaa “...knows some troubling aspects of American culture and history with damnable certainty,” he also “refuses to be brutal in his assessment.” In Warhorses we are fortunate to find that one of America’s most experienced poets is again, “finally saying what he has been thinking.”


Ben Mirov

Mirov is editor of pax americana. He is also poetry editor of LIT Magazine.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2008

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