Thinking about Komunyakaa again, the way his line seems tied to the tectonic plates, the way his narrative is married to an invisible-but-ever-present-rhythm–not purely jazz or blues or music, but an actual, bodily rhythm, which I guess is what music taps into in the first place. He said this in BOMB magazine in 1998:
“My sense of poetry has a lot to do with Louisiana where I grew up, my rituals. I was very tuned into the beauty and violence in the people and the landscape. It’s a great, scary irony that the KKK call themselves the “Knights of the White Camellia”—as if language is used to pervert nature, to tinge the camellia with blood. I wanted a dialogue with the things around me, to understand them. Eels, mud puppies, cattails, Venus flytraps, fish-looking creatures with legs called Congo snakes, everything. I wanted to know the names of trees, plants, flowers. Naming became a type of inquiry. Poetry was also what I liked to read. The idea of coming back and forth to a poem became important. When a poem doesn’t necessarily have a linear narrative, but invites one in to become a participant. Consequently, I found myself desiring to write poems. I volunteered to write a poem for my high-school graduating class, a hundred lines long, written with much agony. I still don’t know why I raised my hand, because I had never written a poem before.”
This has little to do with Louisiana, but it has to do with the landscape, with naming things: In “Quatrains for Ishi,” Komunyakaa writes about the last man of the Yahi tribe, who surrendered himself to the modern world in 1911 in Oroville, CA,
Here, in this ancient dust
on artifacts pillaged from Egypt
& Peru, I know why a man like you
laughs with one hand over his mouth.
Also, I know if I think of you
as me, you’ll disappear.
Then, of course, Komunyakaa does just that, puts himself in Ishi’s shoes. What a thing, to be the last living member of your tribe, to live the last five years of your life in a museum (Museum of Anthropology, San Fran) making “artifacts” for tourists, being studied, and doing light janitorial work. Ishi isn’t even a word in his language. It means man in another language. Where did he sleep? That’s what my next poem is going to ask: Where was Ishi’s bed.