Everyday Mojo Songs of Earth by Yusef Komunyakaa

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa’s new book, Everyday Mojo Songs of Earth: New and Selected Poems, 2001-2021 (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 288 pp. $35, hardcover; $16.99 (Kindle), contains a dozen new poems and more than a hundred from his five previous volumes with the same publisher. It does not include any of his classic work published by Wesleyan University Press, such as Dien Cai Dau (1988), his book of Vietnam War poetry, or Neon Vernacular, which received the Pulitzer Prize in 1993.

Komunyakaa is an Army veteran of the Vietnam War. He received an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of California, Irvine, and teaches at New York University. War as part of the human experience continues to be a major theme in his poetry. But Komunyakaa is no longer writing about the Vietnam War; he is now considering war throughout all of time, from the prehistoric years to the present—and beyond.

He dedicates this new collection to his daughters and granddaughter, who receive a reference in the first poem. When that poem mentions “Lucy,” we realize we’ve been taken back to the Australopithecus beginnings of human existence.

In the early poems Komunyakaa writes about working in the fields, “unearthing what we live to eat.” There are “Lessons of earth,” a mention of “the first tongue,” and “storytellers drunk on grog.” Then, quickly, there are blues to be played and highways to be walked.

We were young as condom-balloons

flowering crab apple trees in double bloom

& had a world of baleful hopes & breath

A reoccurring theme is the sense that life is a race to try and get as much done as possible before the end comes and we meet the maggots. In “Ode to the Maggot,” for example, we read: “no one gets to heaven/Without going through you first.” We encounter the use of torture in the human experience, but there also is desire—and nymphs and sex organs, real and manufactured.

The line “I deal in cosmic stuff” follows others about jazz greats sniffing gasoline and Sylvia Plath’s head going into her oven. Those and other tragedies abound in these verses—including the failings of the human body, mutilations, and massacres.

There are lines clearly aimed at engaging with the reader, such as: “The day opened like a/geisha’s pearl fan”, “How did the evening star/fall into that room?” and “Her skin is now a lost map.”

Komunyakaa

In “The Towers” the words are printed on the page in such a way as to resemble the actual Twin Towers on that fateful day in 2001. The poem mentions people writing e-mails, dead cellphones, exploding windows and, finally, search dogs.

He also writes of “flirtatious mermaids,” people who are “born to teach horses to dance,” and “late April kisses.”

Yusef Komunyakaa is known for his use of the ampersand in his poetry instead of the word “and” as a stylistic decision to move a poem ahead at a slightly faster pace. Its use is a point of minor controversy among contemporary poets.

Some of Komunyakaa’s work is considered to be difficult to understand, but I’ve found that it’s best to relax and read every word and, subliminally, you’ll understand more than you think.

It’s poetry you feel in your bones before it gets to your heart or brain. It goes deep and stays with you. Komunyakaa is a master.

–Bill McCloud

The Emperor of Water Clocks by Yusef Komunyakaa

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The Emperor of Water Clocks (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 128 pp., $23, hardcover; $15, paper), Yusef Komunyakaa’s new book of poetry, contains no mention of the poet’s service in the Vietnam War. The only clue that Komunyakaa is a Vietnam veteran is that his book  of Vietnam War-themed poetry, Dien Cai Dau, is mentioned in the front of this book.

I have a copy of Dien Cai Dau (“dinky dau”) on my shelf. Yusef Komunyakaa signed it for me back in 1990. He dedicates that book to his brother Glenn, “who saw The Nam before I did.”

There are many allusions to war in The Emperor of Water Clocks’ almost sixty poems. But only one long poem confronts and dwells on the Vietnam War, and it’s buried under the title “Torsion.”  The poems in Dien Cai Dau don’t have to be ferreted out—they have straightforward titles such as “Tunnels,” “Sappers,” “Tu Do Street,” and “Saigon Bar Girls.”

nov-banner_03Some of the titles in the book under review are also straightforward. For instance, “The Day I Saw Barack Obama Reading Derek Walcott’s Collected Poems” is precisely about that. Even “the haze of Wall Street” gets a mention in this two-page poem. From Pussy Riot to Grand Master Flash, to the Great Ooga-Booga, Komunyakaa ranges through high, low, and popular culture to forge fine poems dealing with all aspects of life.

Komunyakaa has long since moved on from being the Vietnam War poet of Dien Cai Dau. He received a Pulitzer Prize of his book, Neon Vernacular. His fellow Vietnam veterans must resist trying to contain a poet who “soars to dizzying intellectual and poetic strata.”

Yusef Komunyakaa cannot be contained or stunted. He will go where he will, and his journey will always astonish the reader, yet carry him along in the momentum of music that he hears and puts down on the page with language we will never encounter elsewhere.

I highly recommend this latest volume by our finest poet.

—David Willson

The Abundance of Nothing by Bruce Weigl

Bruce Weigl served in Vietnam with the 1st Cavalry Division from 1967-68, and has written many books of poetry and prose dealing with the war. All are well worth reading. I have all but one or two on my poetry shelves, so this review of The Abundance of Nothing (Triquarterly, 88 pp., $16.95, paper) is coming from a huge fan of Weigl’s work.

I also have heard Bruce Weigl read a time or two, so when I read his poems, I hear his voice in my head.

Somehow I missed this book of poetry by Weigl when it came out in 2012. These poems deal with all of his usual subjects: the Vietnam War, the return from the war and the difficulties of that process, and of course, all the aspects of being a human on this planet.

“Thank You for Thinking of You” has the lines: “Thank you Sergeant X for leaving me/behind on the abandoned LZ,/where all night small arms fire/crackled in the trees along the river,/night of my downfall that won’t go away.”

Weigl tops that powerful memory in the very next line with: “Thank you teacher, coach,/who fondled my dick and balls,/telling me I had to be checked.”  Weigl always has the ability to shock the reader with an image.

Bruce Weigl

The poem that hit me the hardest in this book was “Response to ‘Why Don’t You Write About Something Happy?’”  I’ve been asked that question, too, and the next time I get it, I’ll refer the person who asked to this poem, which, by itself, is worth the price of admission to this fine book. 

I hope I’ve motivated readers to buy and read Bruce Weigl’s thirteenth poetry book. The blurb on the back by Yusef Komunyakaa also highly recommends the book, so you don’t have to take my word for it. 

If anyone would know a fine book of poetry, it is Yusef Komunyakaa.  While you are at it, buy his books, too. 

—David Willson

Between Here and Monkey Mountain by Laren McClung

Laren McClung is a poet from Philadelphia. Her poetry has appeared in War, Literature and the Arts and other serious journals. In Between Here and Monkey Mountain: Poems (Sheep Meadow Press, 64 pp., $14.95, paper) she thanks the William Joiner Center and the poets Yusef Komunyakaa, Vinh Long, and Bruce Weigl, among others.

McClung also thanks her family “for their conversations, which made many of these poems possible.”  These thank yous are clues to her connections to the Vietnam War.

This poetry book has a creepy-beautiful cover from a famous painting that has nothing to do with the Vietnam War, but is suitably grotesque. The back cover has a long cryptic blurb from the great poet Bruce Weigl, who has written a Vietnam War poem or two.

The title contains the clue that made me hope and suspect that this book was a book of Vietnam War poems, even though the back cover showed McClung to be a very beautiful young woman for whom the Vietnam War is likely an event that concluded long before her birth. That is surmise. I also surmise that her father is a Vietnam War veteran.

The book has a large number of fine Vietnam War poems, perhaps having their roots in the above-mentioned family conversations or perhaps coming from the same wellsprings of imagination from which Stephen Crane pulled The Red Badge of Courage.

Section three, entitled “Monkey Mountain,” is all Vietnam War poetry. It consists of thirteen pages of excellent poetry dealing with the tour of duty of a grunt. Friendly fire, bouncing betties, morning ambushes, LZ’s, the red-brown clay of Khe Sanh, the South China Sea, R&R in Bangkok, Pleiku, and Qui Nhon all make appearances.

Laren McClung

There is also plenty of the Vietnam War and fine poetry elsewhere in the book. I loved “Lined up on Their Backs” and also “A Fable of Tuy Hoa.” Here is the latter:

Someone was shot in the free zone.

He said maybe a farmer, maybe

carrying a rucksack.  As he walked up to check

He saw her wedged under the Viet Cong.

Did she know enough to play possum in the grass?

When he rolled the body from hers

he said he caught sienna of eyes opening.

This one was alive.  He carried her

from the field to the firebase, his only

prisoner.  She was four, he said.

I wouldn’t have thought that a young woman who had never been anywhere near the Vietnam War could write that poem, but what do I know?  Not just anyone can write a truly great Vietnam War poem, but Laren McClung has done it. In fact, she has written several.

“Many of the poems are mysterious, passionate love poems,” the poet Stanley Moss says on the back cover, “and there are war poems.” That’s an understatement.

Buy this book and read it and add it to that small shelf of Vietnam War poetry books that are worth reading, savoring, and saving.

—David Willson