The Divine in the Details
A Review of
Talking Dirty to the Gods
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000
I never much liked Auden’s description
of a poem as a “verbal contraption”. Such a definition felt too facile and
emotionally barren for a poem. But the word “contraption” does imply a poem’s
unwieldy nature and its challenge. No poet ever referred to a poem as a
well-oiled machine. Its replacement parts are expensive and hard to find. And
if you change one part, you’re liable to break something else.
One way poets have dealt with such an unwieldy bit of business as a poem is through the use
of forms. In his latest book, Talking Dirty to the Gods, Yusef Komunyakaa
has continued this tradition. His book contains over 100 poems, all 16 lines
in length, all composed of four quatrains.
In some hands, the quatrain can be
that most turgid of stanzas—solid, four-sided and square. Fortunately,
Komunyakaa’s wit and verve allow him to play with his chosen form rather than
simply conform to it.
The subject matter of the book confirms Komunyakaa to
be a metaphysical poet. He savors paradox; his passion is intelligent and his
intelligence passionate. In a way these poems are like sacred sonnets, if
you’re willing to expand your notion of what is sacred to include almost
every religious tradition: Hindu, Christian, Buddhist, pantheistic and
others, and various life forms, from “lowest” (slime mold) to “highest”
But these poems do not merely praise a faultless divinity,
they take issue with the sacred. Again, to quote Auden:
How many poems have
been written, for example, upon one of these themes:
This was sacred
but now it is profane. Alas,
or thank goodness!
This is sacred but ought it
This is sacred but is that so important?
Komunyakaa asks all three of
these questions in this book, which is part of why it is so satisfying.
I enjoyed the re-telling of stories about old gods, I was most intrigued by
Komunyakaa’s new pantheon. These post-modern deities include “The God of
Broken Things”, “The God of Variables” and “The Goddess of Quotas”.
passage from “The God of Variables Laments”:
The other day I was dining out
With You Know Who, saying
Don’t worry if they call you PC
Lady, because they only want
To question your heart till it’s nothing
But a pinch of rock salt.
It’s great to see Komunyakaa buck the anti-PC trend, and with a wicked sense of humor to boot.
Other subtle and effective swipes at politics and the
status quo include “Scapegoat” and the “White Hat”.
In the tradition of the
psalms and other divine meditations, Komunyakaa is not afraid to confront the
divine. These lines are from “Meditations in a Swine Yard”:
. . .A god isn’t
A drop of water in the hell of his good
Imagination, if we can’t curse
Sunsets & threaten to forsake him
In his storehouse of belladonna,
Tiger hornets & snakebites.
Like many of the gods depicted in these poems, this
book’s vices are directly related to its virtues. While the adherence to a
standard form gives the book a dense quality of formal beauty, at times the
rhythm of specific poems and even their tone can feel repetitive.
Yorker’s brief review used the word “quintessence” in describing Mr.
Komunyakaa’s most recent efforts, a word that is sometimes used to imply
heights that cannot be sustained. Fortunately, every few poems, Komunyakaa
does what he does to us in “Ode to the Maggot”--puts our noses an inch from
the dirt and holds it there until we get that smell deep inside us, a smell
both rancid and sweet.
When he reminds us of our humble beginnings as a species (in “Homo Erectus”) the story and the language are quintessential
Komunyakaa. And that is about as good as it gets.
After pissing around his gut-level
Kingdom, he builds a fire & hugs
A totem against his chest.
Cheetahs pace the horizon
To silence a grassy cosmos
Where carrion birds sing
Darkness back from the hills,
Something in the air, quintessence or rancor
Makes a langur bash the skull
Of another male’s progeny.
The mother tries to fight him off,
But this choreographer for Jacob
& the Angel knows defeat
Arrives in an old slam dance
& applied leverage—The Evening Star
In both eyes, something less than grace.
Johnson has studied with several poets in the Boston area, including Lucie
Brock-Broido and Henri Cole. She completed her undergraduate studies at the
University of Georgia and has an M.A. in Psychology from the University of
Connecticut. She recently won the University of Nevada's annual Black Rock
Press Broadside Competition and has poems in the Green Mountain Review
and Web Del Sol's Editor's Picks. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband and two daughters and works as a programmer.