Yusef Komunyakaa

Winner of the 2004 Shelley Memorial Award


I love how it swells
into a temple where it is
held prisoner, where the god
of blame resides. I love
slopes & peaks, the secret
paths that make me selfish.
I love my crooked feet
shaped by vanity & work
shoes made to outlast
belief. The hardness
coupling milk it can't
fashion. I love the lips,
salt & honeycomb on the tongue.
The hair holding off rain
& snow. The white moons
on my fingernails. I love
how everything begs
blood into song & prayer
inside an egg. A ghost
hums through my bones
like Pan's midnight flute
shaping internal laws
beside a troubled river.
I love this body
made to weather the storm
in the brain, raised
out of the deep smell
of fish & water hyacinth,
out of rapture & the first
regret. I love my big hands.
I love it clear down to the soft
quick motor of each breath,
the liver's ten kinds of desire
& the kidney's lust for sugar.
This skin, this sac of dung
& joy, this spleen floating
like a compass needle inside
nighttime, always divining
West Africa's dusty horizon.
I love the birthmark
posed like a fighting cock
on my right shoulder blade.
I love this body, this
solo & ragtime jubilee
behind the left nipple,
because I know I was born
to wear out at least
one hundred angels.

Barbara Guest and Marilyn Chin and Shirley Geok-Lin Lim on Yusef Komunyakaa

The poetry of Yusef Komunyakaa (born in 1947) is steeped in American history, music, and voices. Born in Bogalusa, Louisiana, Komunyakaa has written out of his regional and Southern roots, deploying the jazz and blues traditions and narratives that had shaped his early years. In twelve books of poetry, he has explored black and southern aesthetics and put these jazz and blues inflected forms and idioms to some of the most compelling and historical themes that continue to occupy U.S. society. His poems have turned to blues music to confront, as he himself once put it in an interview, "one's mortality, confrontation with the essence of just being human."

In the last two decades, his poetry has developed a stronger global and also darker strain. In Toys in a Field (Black River Press, 1986) and Dien Cai Dau (Wesleyan University Press, 1988), Komunyakaa addresses the historical trauma of the Vietnam War in poems remarkable for their profound expressions of compassion and insights into the unending tragedies of human violence and for their unblinking retrospective gaze at U.S. military actions in that Asian country. In "Communique," for example, he speaks easily as a combat soldier: "Bob Hope's on stage, but we want the Gold Diggers,/ want a flash of legs"; but the final image of warriors "holding our helmets like rain-polished skulls" shocks us into recognizing what the staged triviality, the male bravado, merely conceals.

The images in his poems, like sharp picks, break through our crusted-over decencies, so that, with the poet, we may be open to "The cry I bring down from the hills/ belongs to a girl still burning/ inside my head" ("You and I Are Disappearing"). They are above all beautiful creations, with language so fresh and tight it reads like newly discovered speech.

Acclaimed as a "Southern writer," Komunyakaa has embraced urban, Asian, Australian and other international domains in his poetry. While his work is full of surprises and tensions, it also exhales celebration—arriving in the writing at the irresolutions that divide and wound yet simultaneously unite us as Americans.

Go Back to Frost & Shelley Awards Winners' Listing