Poets, I guarantee you, never spring fully formed into their craft. We are all deeply in debt to the writers, thinkers, artists who lend us shape, structure, language; who make our own work possible by broadening our idea of what poetry, and art, is capable of. In this space, I’ll be exploring texts from writers that I consider foundational or important to my own practice. No matter what craft or path we are in pursuit of, I believe one of the strongest acts of community is to talk openly about who you’ve been influenced by, who has helped to carve out the territory that your practice now inhabits. This space will be my attempt to do just that.
While reading through Thieves of Paradise for the first time, years ago, I couldn’t shake the idea that Yusef Komunyakaa was gleefully slapping me upside the head and calling me stupid—in a way that a poet hadn’t happily slapped me upside the head and called me stupid since Hart Crane, the very first poet I read as a fledgling graduate student. It was quite the task then to cut my teeth on such an obscure and dense poet as Crane, and trying to find my way up the (often) slick and steep inclines of Komunyakaa’s poems was also profoundly difficult. Most of Crane’s verse was impenetrable to me in many ways, yet still enjoyable because of the rich sonic principles that undergird Crane’s verse and the intimacy he can foster through his speakers. The well-wrought craft let me know that even if I didn’t know precisely what was going on in the poem, Crane most certainly did, and being enveloped in that proved pleasurable enough. But, ultimately, it was the language that drove me crazy. Crane’s use of language was singular and daunting and somewhat absurd. It seemed like every other line had a word that would’ve been archaic even in the 1930s. It was maddening. Every twenty seconds I had to pause and look up the word(s) I didn’t understand in the vain hope of “understanding” the poem (putting aside the perhaps pointless task of “understanding” a poem in the first place). I could deal with one or two obscure words, one or two images or allusions over my head, deduce enough of a meaning from the context to push on, but they often would keep collecting and collecting and eventually they were the context and I’d scream a little and flip the book across the room while I tried to figure out what Crane was saying to me. It was an awfully difficult way to read poetry, and succeeded mostly in making me feel rather stupid. It, of course, also stoked my sense of awe because they were incredible poems, beautifully crafted things that I could barely see the outline of—which is what frustrated me, not that I was too unlearned to share Crane’s vocabulary, but that it was a privation depriving me of the full experience of his work.
My first reading of Thieves followed a similar pattern to my experiences with Crane. I was outside at lovely Volunteer Park on a rare day of winter sunshine and decided to pull the collection out of my backpack and sort through it. I was already a touch wary because my earlier forays into Komunyakaa’s work weren’t very successful—though I mostly rationalized that as a function of youth (I was around 19 at the time)—and as soon as “flambeau” made an appearance in the fifth line of the first poem, I knew I was in a bit of trouble; I teased the meaning from the context, but it was still a rather obscure choice. By the second poem, “Out There There Be Dragons,” I was just trying to get to the end without losing my mind. I was alone with my limited knowledge, away from a dictionary and the internet, so I had to pace through Thieves as best I could, focusing on the sound, the delicate turns, and alighting on the slender branches of clarity when they came. Eventually, after the first two sections, things slowed down, became less opaque, and I was able to read “normally” (that is, taking in most of a poem’s shape on the first read-through). It was halfway through the first section (“Way Stations“) that Hart Crane’s name jumped into my skull. I was experiencing a similar level of exasperation and disenfranchisement with Thieves that I remembered feeling toward Crane’s collection. Slightly different from Crane, though, was the heart present in the work. It wasn’t an unenjoyable slog to get through Komunyakaa’s verse. It was difficult, but there was enough of a reward from the raw spirit and power that inhabited his words that I felt urged on; Komunyakaa wields an authoritative intimacy that generates a large amount of interest. Even if I didn’t know quite what I was inside of with a poem, I knew I was inside of something important, something worth my time.
Trusting that heart, the blood that beat beneath the words, I decided I had to really dig in to Thieves with my next reading. I couldn’t quite catch up to Crane but I thought that if I looked hard enough—word-by-word if necessary— I could unpack at least some of what Komunyakaa was putting across. I made sure I was at my desk, internet and dictionary at the ready, and chased down his word choice and images as best I could. I don’t think I was completely successful, but things did become more clear. I got a sense of Komunyakaa’s style and pace—where I could solidly follow most of his leaps and turns, absorb most of his images—and what he was interested in doing with a poem. The section titles started to make sense, the poetic situations took shape, and I was able to accurately place myself within the poem with much higher frequency, I felt. My experience with “Wet Nurse” is a good example of this:
The shadow of a hilltop
halves an acropolis
in the head of a serf’s
descendant. Heimdall’s horn
at the gates of Asgard
pulses beneath prayers
for wealth. April unhinges
rings in the cottonwood
till sap seethes from each slow
hour. A sliver of whalebone
slips from the mother’s satin corset
as the dark-skinned nurse
unbuttons her floral blouse
& unhooks her cheap bra.
The child swallows a lament,
& his rich father nods
to a reproduction of Da Vinci’s
Madonna Litta to answer
silence, to quieten his fear
of the primal in the wife’s
smile. But what isn’t desired
stays a hard-green or grows
too sweet for the tongue.
A cry, a wet trigger—
agog. Not enough milk
left for her own child,
each nipple’s an eyedropper
of rage & beatitude.
It’s a clear enough poem, perhaps not even particularly difficult, but the first time I read through Thieves, I was lost in it. The first six lines spun me and I kept on stumbling right to the end, not really seeing what the words were on the page—a common theme. Komunyakaa’s poetic voice is so developed it’s almost like he’s invented his own language (or if not an entire language, a particular intonation that you have to become comfortable with before the words reveal themselves). Reading through the second time I was able to parse the Heimdall reference—I’d known Heimdall was a Norse god, but not any of the myth surrounding him—because I’d learned that he’s credited with the creation of social classes; specifically the serf, the peasant, and the noble. That piece of information allowed me to tune into the slant that Komunyakaa was putting on the poem. The social class stuff is of course foregrounded in the title and evident through juxtaposition like the “cheap bra” and the “satin corset,” but understanding the Heimdall reference brought it into much sharper focus for me. There was a bit of an “aha!” moment that made the entire poem feel more rewarding because I was keyed in to the proper lens through with to view the images and the situation. Because not only was it that Heimdall created social classes, but it’s the manner in which he did so: by impregnating three wives who bore sons with the traits considered characteristic of the specific social class. That image produces an allusive glow that helped illuminate the lines: “& his rich father nods / to a reproduction of Da Vinci’s / Madonna Litta to answer / silence, to quieten his fear/ of the primal in the wife’s / smile.” There really were countless moments where I’d say: “Oh,” wondering how I missed something so obvious. But it wasn’t obvious (the first time through) because I wasn’t in the situation, at least not in the way I’m assuming that Komunyakaa wanted me to be. Not to crowd this rambling with too many poets, but it felt really similar to when I read John Donne the first time: a poem would feel completely foreign until a piece of biographical information or time-period context keyed me in to a specific reference, and then everything would fall in place, become stupidly clear, and I’d wonder how I’d ever been lost in it.
The section after “Way Stations,” “Tropic of Capricorn,” was a complete mystery to me as well. I took to reading interviews of Komunyakaa’s to see if any biographical information was relevant and he mentioned that he’d spent an important period of time in Australia, which of course is on the Tropic of Capricorn, and, armed with that information, I was able to orient myself into a position that would allow me to dig into the individual poems. A similar thing happened with the section “Quatrains for Ishi.” I knew the general thrust of the poem, but there was a huge piece of context missing when I’d read it the first time. After reading up on the (incredible) story of Ishi, all became clear. Same deal with “The Glass Ark.” There is a bit of gloss there, placing the poem in the glass cubicle at the La Brea tar pits, but seeing the actual room was important, I think (although “The Glass Ark” is where the collection slowed down for me on the first read-through, as it isn’t so dense with allusion and high language); or it could be that I was used to Komunyakaa’s style and was able to follow more closely.
In an interesting twist, the sections that I was most connected to on my initial reading—“Debriefing Ghosts” and “Testimony”— lost a bit of their interest on the second read after the steady intensity of continuously acclimating myself to a new situation/environment in each poem. Having leapt through time and space and perspective, after blending myth with the basest realities, it was odd to be in one perspective as the Vietnam vet in “Debriefing” or dealing with one subject as in “Testimony” (Charlie Parker). Perhaps it was because I’d already been familiar with the context of those poems, but they felt a bit plain. Which is strange, because the poems are compelling and very well crafted, but they don’t require the exertion of the earlier section. It was a downshift; I went from needing to unpack and decrypt to “simply” needing to read. An example is this excerpt from “Surgery”:
Every spring, sure as the dogwood’s clockwork, someone hacksaws off Odysseus’ penis. And it lies dumbly at his feet, a doorknocker to a limestone castle, the fountain spraying out a Medusa halo. In this watery mist, with a contrary sunlight glinting the bronze, there’s only an outline of Eumaeus handing a quiver of arrows and a bow to him. Rivulets of water make the penis tremble, as if it were the final, half-alive offering to the gods.
I suppose it’s a testament to Komunyakaa’s mythmaking ability, how he can inhabit gods and the fantastical with an earthiness that prohibits the reader’s estrangement, but I honestly was only about sixty percent sure that he wasn’t talking about Odysseus’ actual genitalia. That’s how jumpy he made me, how ready I was for a poem to go absolutely anywhere. Most poets deal with a range of subjects/ideas (especially in the confines of a single collection), or one can be reasonably sure that their style will keep them within specific boundaries, but Komunyakaa doesn’t seem to have those boundaries in Thieves. It’s frustrating, overwhelming, potentially exclusively academic, but it’s also fascinating. Like anything difficult and well made, doing/solving/finishing it gives a certain rush, a sense of accomplishment, and here it’s coupled with gaining a grip on some very compelling poems—which is a singular pleasure entirely unto itself. It is balanced, though, because there are sections that you can just “pick up and read,” that don’t require attunement to Komunyakaa’s wild wavelength. I do wonder about the opportunity cost, though, in approaching poetry in this heavily allusive, obscuring manner. I think about this collection being read to an audience and I imagine the selections from “Way Stations” zooming straight up to the light fixtures and out of the windows. Even though the sounds are rich and he rarely loses that jazz rhythm, a lot of these poems feel like poems–for–the–page out of necessity. Unless you’re a genius, you’ll need the patience the page affords to chase down everything Komunyakaa has put in these poems, or at least enough to wrap your head around the general direction the poem is moving in. On the other hand, I think of the value of spending as much time and energy as Komunyakaa clearly has in developing one’s poetics and voice to the point where all of your lines and stanza carry the imprint of your specific intonation. It asks more of your reader, but it perhaps rewards them more as well. Or maybe it doesn’t.
I’ve always been torn on what to take from Thieves. I am encouraged by his success being dense and using elevated language because there’s so much heart to it, and because it can eventually be decrypted, but I am also wary of imitating such virtuosity: it was a bad idea when I was a kid to try and dunk from the free-throw line like Jordan, and it was a bad idea to try and write like Hart Crane during my first semester of grad school. I don’t have any answers, or any sweeping declarations about the Right Way to put a poem on the page. I think I’m mostly left with reading and reading and reading and absorbing as much of the intimacy/care in detail as I can, and hoping to put that level of attention to use in my own work.
Quenton Baker is a poet, educator, and Cave Canem fellow. His current focus is anti-blackness and the afterlife of slavery. He has an MFA in Poetry from the University of Southern Maine and is a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee. He is a former Jack Straw Fellow and a former Made at Hugo House fellow, as well as the recipient of the 2016 James W. Ray Venture Project Award and the 2018 Arts Innovator Award from Artist Trust. He is the author of This Glittering Republic (Willow Books, 2016).