Poetry Review: The Chameleon Couch by Yusef Komunyakaa
The Chameleon Couch by Yusef Komunyakaa Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2011. $24.00
Review by Mary Egan
Yusef Komunyakaa’s latest poetry collection, The Chameleon Couch, reads, at times, like a piece of jazz music in several movements. Each section has its own timbre and rhythm that propel the reader through poem after poem, each reading like their own miniature symphony of images and wordplay that challenge readers to reconsider the world around them. In addition, Komunyakaa is a master of weaving the past and future together in an abundance of images that make readers forget the division between what happened and what is to come.
While traveling through ancient times and recent decades, readers of The Chameleon Couch will find themselves transported around the world as well. Komunyakaa takes us from the enchanting and lush to the urban and gritty with ease. From a “leafy pagoda” in “A Translation of Silk” to “the smoke of the Chicago B.L.U.E.S. club” in “Canticle,” Komunyakaa melds setting with message. With just one line, one suggestion of an image, Komunyakaa places us where we need to be to experience his poetry with all the depth and emotional impact that he intended. When, in “Dead Reckoning,” he calls us to the sea with the lines “out among the tall waves where/freshwater meets a salty calmness” we can practically smell the salty air.
Komunyakaa’s first section opens with “Canticle,” a poem that sets the stage for the rest of the collection. “Canticle” encompasses many of the elements throughout the book such as romantic relationships, images of the natural world, and a vein of urban grit. His first section is rife with poems that force readers to consider their identity, (“The Story of a Coat”) and contemplate the world in a more whimsical way (“A Translation of Silk”). In the former, Komunyakaa says he is “American as music made of harmony and malice” and we walk away wondering about how we fit into a nation with equal parts opportunity and disappointment.
Two poems in this first section also showcase Komunyakaa’s juxtaposition of the past and present. In “The Story of a Coat,” he employs images such as “his Cincinnati laugh,” “the heat of the pizza parlor,” and “the young James Dean” to place readers in the quintessential American locale. These images will likely lead readers to the city streets of America at a time when our identity as a nation was being explored and stretched — hence the inclusion of James Dean. These images, while fitting the grit of American identity being examined in the poem, also put readers in a mindset for contemporary society
Contemporary locales are quickly melded with antiquity, though, as readers flip to “Ode to the Chameleon.” It is fitting that the color-changing reptile is mentioned in the title of this poem as well as the title of this book because the poem represents, in a way, the collection’s blending of times and ideas. The chameleon is presented as “clearly prehistoric and futuristic,” thus, the animal epitomizes the perfect poetic mascot for Komunyakaa’s book. The use of the chameleon could also be an analogy for the way in which Komunyakaa’s poetry flips between the ancient and the modern, his images shapeshifting and metaphorically changing color to dovetail with each shifting era about which he’s writing.
The second part of this book brings in intriguing elements of narrative poetry (“Memory of the Murdered Professors at the Jagiellonian”) and surprises readers by considering the correlation between Jewish persecution and African-American suffering (“Poppies”). This section accentuates oppression and the suffering that humans have endured throughout the centuries. If the first section of Komunyakaa’s book is an exploration of the relationship between past and present, the second section focuses on hardships that people have endured. This is evidenced by titled that include the concepts of war, murder, Hades, dementia, and crucifixion.
Though the second section’s theme somewhat deviates from the first section, elements of the past-present collision are still apparent. The section’s opening poem, “Aubade at Hotel Copernicus” combines many elements of history within its lines, jumping from “Chopin’s piano” to “Copernicus’s heavenly bodies,” to “Galileo’s trial.” Several poems later in “Poppies,” Komunyakaa recalls images of 1940’s Germany. He speaks of “Hungarian gypsies,” “German storm troopers,” and “Auschwitz,” again creating an unmistakable portrait of WWII Europe in this poem.
What is intriguing about these two poems is that they both have such vivid, historical settings and both focus on similar elements of danger. In “Aubade at Hotel Copernicus,” Komunyakaa tells the tale of a couple on the run in “a city/gutted by war & torn down to stone clouds.” In “Poppies,” the speaker tells of a woman on the run from the Nazis. The inclusion of these similar dangers in both poems that parallel one another, though one occurs in the 15th century and the other in the 20th century, serves to remind us how terror encroaches across centuries.
Komunyakaa’s third and final section opens itself up with a sketched image reminiscent of Greek or Roman gods and goddesses. A plump figure rests upon a throne seemingly created by the figure’s subjects. Indeed, this ancient theme bleeds into Komunyakaa’s poems in this section with the image of “the clear waters of the Arno” that remind us of ancient Rome and “the powdered faces of the rich” that call upon Victorian society. Don’t be fooled though, because the more modern themes of Komunyakaa’s poetry quickly return with the surprising cameo from “Dallas, Jeopardy,/& Falcon Crest” and “Mercury & Pan” are placed on Fifth Avenue.
The blending of past and present that is pervasive throughout The Chameleon Couch functions as a reminder of our roots, a calling for readers to look within themselves and see influences that date back to the time of Caeser. When he speaks of hardship in this time transcendent way, it’s almost comforting to realize that people throughout history have dealt with danger, feelings of uncertainty, and the loss of love.
Overall, The Chameleon Couch by Yusef Komunyakaa is an intriguing read full of historical references that create a sense of place and images that make each poem a sensory, if sometimes disturbing, experience. Komunyakaa’s work will challenge readers to think about the space they occupy, not only in their own lives, but in history.