sperm oil :: yusef komunyakaa

Housed in a boom of blubber
& bone, harpooned six times,
the giant grew into a dynamo
hitched to six taut rope-lines
skipping the boat across waves
toward the blurry lighthouse.

It bled out a long silence
but men in oilskins labored
with hydraulics of light
on water, walked its flank,
& tore it down to a storeroom
of Nantucket scrimshaw.

Ballast stone or sledge?
They bashed in the skull
& lowered down the boy
to haul up buckets of oil
for candles that burned
a slow, clean, white glow.

At ten, he was almost a man
whose feet sank into the waxy
muck of ambergris. His sweat
dripped into a long hour.
Big as a barrel, the head
echoed a temple nave.

english :: yusef komunyakaa

When I was a boy, he says, the sky began burning,
& someone ran knocking on our door
one night. The house became birds
in the eaves too low for a boy’s ears.

I heard a girl talking, but they weren’t words.
I knew one good thing: a girl
was somewhere in our house,
speaking slow as a sailor’s parrot.

I glimpsed Alice in Wonderland.
Her voice smelled like an orange,
though I’d never peeled an orange.
I knocked on the walls, in a circle.

The voice was almost America.
My ears plucked a word out of the air.
She said, Friend. I eased open the door
hidden behind overcoats in a closet.

The young woman was smiling at me.
She was teaching herself a language
to take her far, far away,
& she taught me a word each day to keep secret.

But one night I woke to other voices in the house.
A commotion downstairs & a pleading.
There are promises made at night
that turn into stones at daybreak.

From my window, I saw the stars
burning in the river brighter than a big
celebration. I waited for her return,
with my hands over my mouth.

I can’t say her name, because it was
dangerous in our house so close to the water.
Was she a boy’s make-believe friend
or a beehive breathing inside the walls?

Years later my aunts said two German soldiers
shot the girl one night beside the Vistula.
This is how I learned your language.
It was long ago. It was springtime.

kindness :: yusef komunyakaa

For Carol Rigolot

          When deeds splay before us
precious as gold & unused chances
stripped from the whine-bone,
we know the moment kindheartedness
walks in. Each praise be
echoes us back as the years uncount
themselves, eating salt. Though blood
first shaped us on the climbing wheel,
the human mind lit by the savanna’s
ice star & thistle rose,
your knowing gaze enters a room
& opens the day,
saying we were made for fun.
Even the bedazzled brute knows
when sunlight falls through leaves
across honed knives on the table.
If we can see it push shadows
aside, growing closer, are we less
broken? A barometer, temperature
gauge, a ruler in minus fractions
& pedigrees, a thingmajig,
a probe with an all-seeing eye,
what do we need to measure
kindness, every unheld breath,
every unkind leapyear?
Sometimes a sober voice is enough
to calm the waters & drive away
the false witnesses, saying, Look,
here are the broken treaties Beauty
brought to us earthbound sentinels.

please :: yusef komunyakaa

Forgive me, soldier.
Forgive my right hand
for pointing you
to the flawless
tree line now
outlined in my brain.
There was so much
bloodsky at daybreak
in Pleiku, but I won’t say
those infernal guns
blinded me on that hill.

Mistakes piled up men like clouds
pushed to the dark side.
Sometimes I try to retrace
them, running
fingers down the map
telling less than a woman’s body—
we followed the grid coordinates
in some battalion commander’s mind.
If I could make my mouth
unsay those orders,
I’d holler: Don’t
move a muscle. Stay put,
keep your fucking head
down, soldier.

Ambush. Gutsmoke.
Last night while making love
I cried out, Hit the dirt!
I’ve tried to swallow my tongue.
You were a greenhorn, so fearless,
even foolish, & when I said go,
Henry, you went dancing on a red string
of bullets from that tree line
as it moved from a low cloud.

instructions for building straw huts :: yusef komunyakaa

First you must have
unbelievable faith in water,
in women dancing like hands playing harps
for straw to grow stalks of fire.
You must understand the year
that begins with your hands tied
behind your back,
worship of dark totems
weighed down with night birds that shift their weight
& leave holes in the sky. You must know
what’s behind the shadow of a treadmill—
its window the moon’s reflection
& silent season reaching
into red sunlight hills.
You must know the hard science
of building walls that sway with summer storms.
Locking arms to a frame of air, frame of oak
rooted to ancient ground
where the door’s constructed last,
just wide enough for two lovers
to enter on hands & knees.
You must dance
the weaverbird’s song
for mending water & light
with straw, earth, mind, bright loom of grain
untortured by bushels of thorns.

blue dementia :: yusef komunyakaa

In the days when a man
would hold a swarm of words
inside his belly, nestled
against his spleen, singing.

In the days of night riders
when life tongued a reed
till blues & sorrow song
called out of the deep night:
Another man done gone.
Another man done gone.

In the days when one could lose oneself
all up inside love that way,
& then moan on the bone
till the gods cried out in someone’s sleep.

already I’ve seen three dark-skinned men
discussing the weather with demons
& angels, gazing up at the clouds
& squinting down into iron grates
along the fast streets of luminous encounters.

I double-check my reflection in plate glass
& wonder, Am I passing another
Lucky Thompson or Marion Brown
cornered by a blue dementia,
another dark-skinned man
who woke up dreaming one morning
& then walked out of himself
dreaming? Did this one dare
to step on a crack in the sidewalk,
to turn a midnight corner & never come back
whole, or did he try to stare down a look
that shoved a blade into his heart?
I mean, I also know something
about night riders & catgut. Yeah,
honey, I know something about talking with ghosts.

believing in iron :: yusef komunyakaa

The hills my brothers & I created
Never balanced, & it took years
To discover how the world worked.
We could look at a tree of blackbirds
& tell you how many were there,
But with the scrap dealer
Our math was always off.
Weeks of lifting & grunting
Never added up to much,
But we couldn’t stop
Believing in iron.
Abandoned trucks & cars
Were held to the ground
By thick, nostalgic fingers of vines
Strong as a dozen sharecroppers.
We’d return with our wheelbarrow
Groaning under a new load,
Yet tiger lilies lived better
In their languid, August domain.
Among paper & Coke bottles
Foundry smoke erased sunsets,
& we couldn’t believe iron
Left men bent so close to the earth
As if the ore under their breath
Weighed down the gray sky.
Sometimes I dreamt how our hills
Washed into a sea of metal,
How it all became an anchor
For a warship or bomber
Out over trees with blooms
Too red to look at.

islands :: yusef komunyakaa

An island is one great eye
    gazing out, a beckoning lighthouse,
searchlight, a wishbone compass,
    or counterweight to the stars.
When it comes to outlook & point
    of view, a figure stands on a rocky ledge
peering out toward an archipelago
    of glass on the mainland, a seagull’s
wings touching the tip of a high wave,
    out to where the brain may stumble.

But when a mind climbs down
    from its high craggy lookout
we know it is truly a stubborn thing,
    & has to leaf through pages of dust
& light, through pre-memory & folklore,
    remembering fires roared down there
till they pushed up through the seafloor
    & plumes of ash covered the dead
shaken awake worlds away, & silence
    filled up with centuries of waiting.

Sea urchin, turtle, & crab
    came with earthly know-how,
& one bird arrived with a sprig in its beak,
    before everything clouded with cries,
a millennium of small deaths now topsoil
    & seasons of blossoms in a single seed.
Light edged along salt-crusted stones,
    across a cataract of blue water,
& lost sailors’ parrots spoke of sirens,
    the last words of men buried at sea.

Someone could stand here
    contemplating the future, leafing
through torn pages of St. Augustine
    or the prophecies by fishermen,
translating spore & folly down to taproot.
    The dreamy-eyed boy still in the man,
the girl in the woman, a sunny forecast
    behind today, but tomorrow’s beyond
words. To behold a body of water
    is to know pig iron & mother wit.

Whoever this figure is,
    he will soon return to dancing
through the aroma of dagger’s log,
    ginger lily, & bougainvillea,
between chants & strings struck
    till gourds rally the healing air,
& till the church-steeple birds
    fly sweet darkness home.
Whoever this friend or lover is,
    he intones redemptive harmonies.

To lie down in remembrance
    is to know each of us is a prodigal
son or daughter, looking out beyond land
    & sky, the chemical & metaphysical
beyond falling & turning waterwheels
    in the colossal brain of damnable gods,
a Eureka held up to the sun’s blinding eye,
    born to gaze into fire. After conquering
frontiers, the mind comes back to rest,
    stretching out over the white sand.

jasmine :: yusef komunyakaa

I sit beside two women, kitty-corner
to the stage, as Elvin’s sticks blur
the club into a blue fantasia.
I thought my body had forgotten the Deep
South, how I’d cross the street
if a woman like these two walked
towards me, as if a cat traversed
my path beneath the evening star.
Which one is wearing jasmine?
If my grandmothers saw me now
they’d say, Boy, the devil never sleeps.
My mind is lost among November
cotton flowers, a soft rain on my face
as Richard Davis plucks the fat notes
of chance on his upright
leaning into the future.
The blonde, the brunette—
which one is scented with jasmine?
I can hear Duke in the right hand
& Basie in the left
as the young piano player
nudges us into the past.
The trumpet’s almost kissed
by enough pain. Give him a few more years,
a few more ghosts to embrace—Clifford’s
shadow on the edge of the stage.
The sign says, No Talking.
Elvin’s guardian angel lingers
at the top of the stairs,
counting each drop of sweat
paid in tribute. The blonde
has her eyes closed, & the brunette
is looking at me. Our bodies
sway to each riff, the jasmine
rising from a valley somewhere
in Egypt, a white moon
opening countless false mouths
of laughter. The midnight
gatherers are boys & girls
with the headlights of trucks
aimed at their backs, because
their small hands refuse to wound
the knowing scent hidden in each bloom.

confluence :: yusef komunyakaa

I’ve been here before, dreaming myself
backwards, among grappling hooks of light.

True to the seasons, I’ve lived every word
spoken. Did I walk into someone’s nightmare?

Hunger quivers on a fleshly string
at the crossroad. So deep is the lore,

there’s only tomorrow today where darkness
splinters & wounds the bird of paradise.

On paths that plunge into primordial
green, Echo’s laughter finds us together.

In the sweatshops of desire men think
if they don’t die the moon won’t rise.

All the dead-end streets run into one
moment of bliss & sleight of hand.

Beside the Euphrates, past the Tigris,
up the Mississippi. Bloodline & clockwork.

The X drawn where we stand. Trains
follow rivers that curve around us.

The distant night opens like a pearl
fan, a skirt, a heart, a drop of salt.

When we embrace, we are not an island
beyond fables & the blue exhaust of commerce.

When the sounds of River Styx punish
trees, my effigy speaks to the night owl.

Our voices break open the pink magnolia
where struggle is home to the beast in us.

All the senses tuned for the Hawkesbury,
labyrinths turning into lowland fog.

Hand in hand, feeling good, we walk
phantoms from the floating machine.

When a drowning man calls out,
his voice follows him downstream.

once the dream begins :: yusef komunyakaa

I wish the bell saved you.
“Float like a butterfly
& sting like a bee.”

Too bad you didn’t
learn to disappear
before a left jab.

Fighting your way our of a clench,
you counter-punched & bicycled
but it was already too late—

gray weather had started
shoving the sun into a corner.
“He didn’t mess up my face.”

But he was an iron hammer
against stone, as you
bobbed & weaved through hooks.

Now we strain to hear you.
Once the dream begins
to erase itself, can the

dissolve be stopped?
No more card tricks
for the TV cameras,

Ali. Please come back to us
sharp-tongued & quick-footed,
spinning out of the blurred

dance. Whoever said men
hit harder when women
are around, is right.

Word for word,
we beat the love
out of each other.