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The Chameleon Couch by Yusef Komunyakaa

The Chameleon Couch by Yusef Komunyakaa — broken into three sections — challenges the mind and the internal rhythm of our souls.  It challenges our preconceptions about everything from music to what it means to be an African American.  In the form of aubades and odes, Komunyakaa evokes song throughout the collection, which have readers very focused on how the rhythms of the poems impact them beyond the words spoken.  The poet is striving to reach not only the logical mind here, but something deeper, ethereal, like a soul.

There are allusions in this volume that are religious, musical, and mythological, but these do not detract from the poems’ power.  “Kindness” (page 28), is one of the most dense poems in the collection, filled with a number of allusions including the consumption of salt as a sign of friendship.  However, even if not all the references are clear at first glance, it is clear that kindness is often recognized even in the bleakest of moments and in the darkest of places even if someone has been a “stranger” to it.

There are a range of emotions and thoughts in this collection, the narrator of these poems changes like the lizard, adapting to the moment and blending into the environment he finds himself in. The cover is reminiscent of the dark jungle of our lives as we try to navigate our way sometimes in the shadows for the silence of observation, but oftentimes to hide from the actions and decisions we have made or are frightened of making.  Meanwhile, other decisions seem inevitable and natural.

Excerpt from:  Conceived in a Time of War (page 37)

Because your mother & father kissed
beneath a hail of Roman candles,
you crawled out of one thousand
tiny deaths, stubborn as aster
in stony clay.  A goddess of dawn
scooted under a zing of barbed wire
to witness your birth. . . .

Komunyakaa’s poems have a musicality equivalent to Jazz.  “Jazz has space, and space equals freedom, a place where the wheels of imagination can turn and a certain kind of meditation can take place.  It offers a meditational opportunity,” he once said.  His poems are just like this, providing moments of pause, allowing readers to interact with the lines and images.  “How many ghosts followed us/into the basement to Muniak’s bepop gig/to hear the saxophone argue with the piano?/” from “Aubade at Hotel Copernicus” (page 33-4).

Komunyakaa is paying homage to all forms of the human spirit — good or bad — in The Chameleon Couch, but the poems are never indifferent. In “A Translation of Silk” (page 17), “One can shove his face against silk/& breathe in centuries of perfume/on the edge of a war-torn morning/where men fell so hard for iron/they could taste it. Now, today,/a breeze disturbs a leafy pagoda/printed on slow cloth. A creek/begins to move. His brain trails,/lagging behind his fingers to learn/suggestion is more than radiance/” Some poems are about the legacy we leave behind, the anger about historical events like the Holocaust, and the quieter moments each of us shares with our lover or family. Another extraordinary candidate for the 2011 Indie Lit Awards and the “best of” list.

Also please check out the poem from this collection that I featured in the 117th Virtual Poetry Circle.

About the Poet:

Yusef Komunyakaa is an American poet who currently teaches at New York University and is a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers. Komunyakaa is a recipient of the 1994 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, for Neon Vernaculaand the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. He also received the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. Komunyakaa received the 2007 Louisiana Writer Award for his enduring contribution to the poetry world.

His subject matter ranges from the black general experience through rural Southern life before the Civil Rights time period and his experience as a soldier during the Vietnam War.

This is my 26th book for the Fearless Poetry Exploration Reading Challenge.

  • Dawn – She Is Too Fond of Books

    I was so happy for you, when I read that you were able to meet Yusef Komunyakaa at the Natl Book Fest!

    • It makes me smile just thinking about it. I wonder if he realizes that he makes me nervous with his imposing yet quiet presence…He really forces you to listen. 🙂

  • Beth Hoffman

    I have the feeling I will love this collection and just added The Chameleon Couch to my list (at the top). Thanks so much for introducing me to Yusef’s work!

    • Beth, I really enjoy all of his work. This is one of my favorites now besides the Dien Cai Dau, which is his Vietnam War-focused collection. I hope you’ll come back and share your thoughts about the collection more in depth.

  • I’m so happy you were finally able to meet him! I want to read this collection, but I’m afraid it won’t live up to Dien Cai Dau.

    • It’s not Vietnam…there are some war poems in it, but its not centered on that. Its a different type of collection. I really loved it though. I kept going back to it. Probably will off and on for some time

  • I think I’ve heard you speak of this poet before. For one who doesn’t read much poetry his work really appeals to me.

    • If you check him out, you’ll have to let me know what you think.

  • I have heard of Yusef for a long time. However, I’ve not paid attention; the necessary attention I mean. Thus, I’ve started a search and I hope to imbibe him into my being, beginning now.