|An Illusive Creature
A Review of
Reviewed by J. Ted Voigt.
Like a chameleon, sometimes words can blend in with their surroundings; only after taking a closer look can one identify the forms and edges that give them meaning. It is this lexical shape-shifting that is masterfully displayed in Yusef Komunyakaa’s collection of new poems, The Chameleon Couch.
You’re probably not going to understand everything that you read when you pick up The Chameleon Couch, but Komunyakaa doesn’t seem to mind. His approach to poetry is terse and direct, though not always transparent; he moves quickly through images and won’t wait for you to figure out what decade it is. Komunyakaa takes us from World War II Germany to an Ancient Rome, to the American South, the modern third world and beyond. His writing is largely elusive with just enough lucidity to allow your interest to gasp a breath before pulling you back under into a swirling, throbbing world of image, rhythm and illusion. Komunyakaa begins the mystery at the top of the page, with poems such as Fata Morgana and Ignis Fatuus , both Latin terms for types of optical illusions. This theme recurs in this collection, and also applies at times to content of his work.
In his poem Ode to the Chameleon, Komunyakaa addresses illusion directly with the chameleon as case study:
“…You are a tilt of the head
& vantage point, neither this
nor that, clearly prehistoric
& futuristic, & then you are
Two things become immediately obvious when you open The Chameleon Couch; Komunyakaa loves language and he hates the word and. It’s not found once in this work and it is instead replaced, when needed, by the ampersand. In the poem English he depicts a moving account of language-acquisition, through the narrative of young boy:
“… I heard a girl talking, but they weren’t words.
…Her voice smelled like orange,
thought I’d never peeled an orange.”
While it seems this poem could easily have been autobiographical, Komunyakaa is actually from Louisiana, and though the intimate detail with which he writes seem to suggest otherwise, this is not in fact his own story.
I refuse, however, to believe that he has never experienced the subject of his poem Black Figs. I don’t even like figs but this poem made me want to add them to the grocery list. It is the ability to find drama and beauty in a plate of fruit that makes a poet a poet.
“…I nibble each globe,
each succulent bud down to its broken-off stem
like a boy trying to make a candy bar last
the whole day…”
This volume of free-verse poetry draws the reader in with a comfortable blend of obscurity and candor, giving all but the most well read of audiences more than one occasion to Google a phrase. As one would expect from a Pulitzer-Prize winner poet, The Chameleon Couch is a gorgeous and compelling illusion.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com