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Poetry Book Review:


by Yusef Komunyakaa

warhorses by yusef komunyakaaMost war poetry is self consumed and full of confessional heroics or reflections upon battlefield exploits with anecdotes of relationships between the warriors scattered between. Not so with Pulitzer Prize-winner Yusef Komunyakaa's Warhorses. That's not to say there aren't personal tidbits to be found in the work, but that's not the focus. Rather, Komunyakaa begins with a striking, blunt line of verse that demands reflection:
     “The jawbone of an ass. A shank”
From there, Warhorses picks up speed and doesn't let up.

Organized into three sections, this could become Komunyakaa's seminal work, replacing the book - Neon Vernacular - for which he won the most coveted writing prize of all.

The first section of Warhorses, titled “Love In The Time Of War”, deals with myth and legend through lyrical lenses clear as a crystal talisman. Each 14-line poem could aptly be described as a free verse sonnet, full of descriptive images and exercising all the brevity of the classics with control and vivid language. From Gilgamesh to the Navy Seal training his dolphin in the weaponry of kamikaze, Komunyakaa pinpoints a line of history through war that is traceable only through his unique eyes, weaving love and war into a tapestry of narrative song such that, at times, one is indistinguishable from another.

In “Heavy Metal”, the lines get looser. Written in traditional free verse form, these could be the weakest lines in Warhorses, but Komunyakaa's insight and attention to detail is still insurmountable. Dealing with the hardness of war, each poem sheds new light on the battlefields of yesterday and today as illustrated by these lines from “Heavy Metal Soliloquy”:
After a nightlong white-hot hellfire
of blue steel, we rolled into Baghdad,
plugged into government-issued earphones,
hearing hard rock. The drum machines
& revved-up guitars roared in our heads.
All their gods were crawling on all fours.
Komunyakaa doesn't sugarcoat the downside of war, but he doesn't belabor it either. There are no angry diatribes, only thoughtful recollections and reminiscences of deeds that can't be undone. Always subtle, rarely judgmental, and hard as nails, Warhorses is solid verse written by one of today's greatest masters.

That's not to say there aren't little annoyances. For instance, in “The Towers”, a poem written to resemble the Twin Towers and which is about the event that now sears the conscience of the most powerful nation on earth licking its wounds, Komunyakaa makes too good an effort to sentimentalize a national disaster. I wished he had just left well enough alone. The prose is too jaunty and the narrative a bit too predictable. Komunyakaa does a better job in the prose poem “Grenade”.

Still, in the title poem Yusef Komunyakaa proves his ability to take a conceit all the way to its logical extreme and carry it through to completion. His knowledge of myth and history is woven into the poem's lines with a gentleman's panache such that the poem's weaknesses fall off and are forgotten.

Komunyakaa finally makes the page come alive in the final section of Warhorses with one long poem titled “Autobiography Of My Alter Ego”. The poem is written in narrative fragments, each from a page to three pages in length, and divided into jagged alternating lines to give the impression of an ego and its alter in bifurcated expression. Very effective. The poem retells the personal story of guilt, of a soldier involved in the dirty atrocities of war – again in grandiloquent fashion after the great historic war epics of the past – recounting the part that race plays in human relationships – on and off the battlefield. “Please, America,” he pleads, “let's forget the old warfare of skin color & hair.”

The language of war and peace embodied in the mind of Komunyakaa asking for heart and penis to be forgiven, but not his hands, is some of the most beautiful words about war to hit the page in English in a long while. And it starts like this:
You see these eyes?
		You see this tongue?
You see these ears?
		They may detect a quiver
in the grass, an octave
			higher or lower –
a little different, an iota,
			     but they're no different
than your eyes & ears.
			I can't say I don't know
how Lady Liberty's
		 tilted in my favor or yours,
that I don't hear what I hear
			          & don't see what I see
in the cocksure night
			from Jefferson & Washington
to terrorists in hoods & sheets
			               in a black man's head.
As he feels what's happening
			     you can also see & hear
what's happening to him.
			You see these hands?
They know enough to save us
			     I'm trying to say this: True,
I'm a cover artists son,
		born to read between the lines,
but I also know that you know
			     a whispered shadow in the trees
is the collective mind
		of insects, birds, & animals
witnessing what we do to each other.
It's been a long time since we've seen a book so full of nuanced and beautiful prose and verse about war, a book that doesn't preach. Warhorses is a book to read and reread, a book to cherish for generations.

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by Yusef Komunyakaa


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