Talking Dirty to the Gods

Talking Dirty to the Gods

by Yusef Komunyakaa

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A daredevil poetic achievement nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award

. . . A god isn't worth
A drop of water in the hell of his good

Imagination, if we can't curse
Sunsets & threaten to forsake him
In his storehouse of belladonna,
Tiger hornets, & snakebites.
--from "Meditations in a Swine Yard"

No turn in any life cycle


A daredevil poetic achievement nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award

. . . A god isn't worth
A drop of water in the hell of his good

Imagination, if we can't curse
Sunsets & threaten to forsake him
In his storehouse of belladonna,
Tiger hornets, & snakebites.
--from "Meditations in a Swine Yard"

No turn in any life cycle is taboo as Yusef Komunyakaa examines the primal rituals shared by insects, animals, human beings, and deities in Talking Dirty to the Gods. From "Hearsay" to "Heresy," these 132 poems, each consisting of four quatrains, are framed by innuendo and lively satire. Komunyakaa looks to nature and configures his own paradigm, in which an event as commonplace as the jewel wasp laying an egg in a cockroach becomes every bit as grand as Zeus's infidelity. The formally rigorous collection is itself a design for a systematic cosmos, a world compressed but abundant in surprise and delight.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Komunyakaa's mournful surrealism seems to have found a perfect mathematical embodiment in [Talking Dirty to the Gods]...Komunyakaa's lexical and historical range is large, and his improvisations move effortlessly.” —The New Yorker
Our Review
Talking Dirty to the Gods
Acclaimed poet Yusef Komunyakaa takes his brash rantings into a new historical fantasyland with his 11th book of poetry, Talking Dirty to the Gods. In this new work, Komunyakaa creates not only a fusion of new and ancient but an entire confusion of time from the days of Eden to the everyday blare of MTV.

The modus operandi of Komunyakaa's poetry is sheer movement in all directions. It does not linger on quiet moments but constantly shifts from insects to rollerbladers to Zeus with a vocabulary half-Princetonian and half-downtown Manhattan. The words do not ease into your head but create bold images that are just as quickly undermined by a change of geography or an allusion to some ancient kingdom.

All of the poems in this collection take the symmetrical form of four stanzas of four unrhymed quatrains. This tight form sharply contrasts with the junkyard-like world of fragments where Goya, sex toys, and old summer days all crowd into the imagination. Postmodernists will certainly be shaking this book joyfully in the air, with enough recycling of historical periods, surface-level shine, and flattening of values to spark a thesis or two. The poet has a love of names -- from Barnes & Noble to the Temple of Karnak -- that populate the intimacy of a scene as media-centered cultural icons are apt to do.

Komunyakaa finds his best material in the strange potpourri of contemporary culture where things familiar suddenly move from "Odysseus's dreamt map to a country/Of lotus-eaters, E-mail, & goof-off." It's a sort of creativity from the outside-in rather than from the inside-out. The poet is the commentator and artificial-world creator: "She believes a polka-dot bikini/Will resurrect Adonis."

The genius of Komunyakaa's poetry lies in the distant lives that come together on the same line and in the same imagination. Beneath the what-you-see-is-it entropy of contemporary life is a yearning to bring classical history, the natural world, street grit, and anything else into a many-as-one conception of existence. The most disparate elements come together again and again: "Joy, use me like a whore./Turn me inside out like Donne/Desired God to do with him." "I was young & black, with a heart/Dumb as Apollinaire's, daydreaming/My sperm inside her all afternoon." "Today, somewhere, a man/In his early seventies is lost/In a cluster of hills at dusk,/Kneeling beside a huckleberry bush."

Through all the varied beats, this new collection is further proof that Komunyakaa's rawness and schooled intelligence is a new language for the old pleasures and pains that now invade our lives all at once.

--Justin Frimmer

New Yorker
Komunyakaa’s mournful surrealism seems to have found a perfect mathematical embodiment in [Talking Dirty to the Gods] . . . His improvisations move effortlessly.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Komunyakaa's bodily frankness, his appealingly clipped rhythms and his darting intelligence all remain on display in his 11th book of poetry, a serious but always entertaining tour de force. All the poems take the same external form: four unrhymed quatrains each, in syncopated four-beat lines. These four by four by four-or-so verbal performances stick together to form an oblique and psychologically intricate antihistory of the human world, from Homo erectus to MTV. The poems keep up particular interests in sculpture; craft objects, from thumbscrews to valentines; sex; insects; and classical and comparative mythography. Polyphemus the Cyclops, Godzilla the movie, a full bill of Greek gods and ancient personages, the Renaissance artist Pollaiuolo, Rodin, W.E.B. DuBois, the minor Modernist martyr Harry Crosby, and (as Komunyakaa's devotees might expect) a team of jazz musicians stand among the large cast of characters. The star of most poems, though, is Komunyakaa as commentator, bringing his off-kilter attitudes and his considerable experience to bear wherever his focus falls. He tells a centaur how "Unholy/ Need & desire divide the season,/ As you eat sugar from a nymph's palm,/ Before she mounts & rides you into a man." The Venus of Willendorf displays "two fat gladiolus bulbs," "a hunk of limestone/ Shaped into a blues singer." Bedazzled by clashing consonants, "The Ides of March" asks "Which oak rafter/ Did this wasp nest cling to?" One of Darwin's finches "prances like God's little/ Torquemada on the highest rotten branch." A folk healer explains "I can't think ugly/ Since I deal in cosmic stuff." And Komunyakaa's "Castrato" asks himself "how to stop women/ From crying when I open my mouth." Scattered throughout the work are seven poems about, or anyway named for, the seven deadly sins ("Sloth" turns out to describe the animal). Komunyakaa (Dien Cai Dau; Thieves of Paradise), who teaches at Princeton, garnered a Pulitzer Prize in 1994 with Neon Vernacular; since then he's managed to stay both hip and difficult, oblique in his meanings and populist in his sounds. His latest work, which finds him jumping from longtime publisher Wesleyan to FSG, may be some of his best, and most various: it certainly will keep his readers on their toes. (Sept.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Prize winner Komunyakaa attempts to filter a wide range of subjects through a single poetic form, lyric meditations built from four quatrains with individual lines of three to four stresses. Most showcase the wry, lightly acidic wit tinged with surrealism that has become his trademark, whether revealed in the monolog of a castrato ("I wish I knew how to stop women/ From crying when I open my mouth") or in the postmortem thoughts of Sylvia Plath ("I never wanted to be famous,/ But couldn't lift my head off/ The oven door"). Though ambitious, working in this constrained form over the course of 132 poems, creates pressure for terse resolution in the final quatrain, thus producing a number of stress fractures: poems that appear to end "in medias res" or that rush to hasty conclusions. The many Classical allusions and a relatively flat diction recall English editions of The Greek Anthology, and whether or not the effect is conscious, the poems often seem like translations: reserved, dispassionate, a little too careful. There are many virtues here, but they are best enjoyed in small doses.--Fred Muratori, Cornell Univ. Lib., Ithaca, NY Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
April Bernard
Despite his delicate touch, there has not hitherto been much evidence of the quick, jokey self-mockery that characterizes these new poems . . . He refuses to be trivial; and he even dares beauty.
New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
Komunyakaa, although known for his wide-ranging experiments in open and closed verse forms, restricts his field here to a long cycle of verses of four quatrains each. Such a structure, even in the hands of a master, can become monotonous, but Komunyakaa pulls it off, expertly varying the prosody to achieve a fluid, fresh movement among ideas and rhythms. In keeping with his title, Komunyakaa sets out to create what amounts to a book-length meditation on the undersides of myth: sin, sex, putrefaction, stupidity, violence. The book hangs grinning between the titles of its first and last poems, "Hearsay" and "Heresy." As one of the oldest forms of lyric, the quatrain is thus a deliberate choice; the poet exploits its archaic power, balancing mythological sonorities with modern discoveries. Komunyakaa isn't afraid of poking a little fun at his own vast knowledge of Greek and Roman myth in the process. "Phocylides of Miletus," for example, begins: "Phocylides said this also: Please / Come back to bed, Love. / I didn't mean to blab / On & on, to bring into the bedroom those wormy / Epigrams." The best poems leave specific mythological references behind for a new myth woven out of contemporary horrors, as in "The God of Land Mines": "His face is a mouthless smile. / He can't stop loving steel. / He's oblong and smooth as a watermelon. / The contracts have already been signed. / Lately, he feels like seeds in a jar, / Swollen with something missing."

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.38(h) x 0.33(d)

Read an Excerpt



Yes, they say if you shave a monkey
You'll find a pragmatist, the president
Of a munitions plant, a tobacco tycoon,
Or a manufacturer of silicone breasts

Who owns a medieval château
Decorated with Picasso's Weeping Women
& Madonna's underwear. Disguised
In silver-winged motorcycle boots,

He plucks a guitar with his teeth
& teaches the peacock songs to draw the hawk
To its nest. Injected with enough steroids
To supernova into an overnight

Star, he's the sperm bank's
Most valuable donor. But contrary
To what you may have heard, this
Bellerophon, he isn't a great lover.

Homo Erectus

After pissing around his gut-level
Kingdom, he builds a fire & hugs
A totem against his chest.
Cheetahs pace the horizon

To silence a grassy cosmos
Where carrion birds sing
Darkness back from the hills.
Something in the air, quintessence or rancor,

Makes a langur bash the skull
Of another male's progeny.
The mother tries to fight him off,
But this choreographer for Jacob

& the Angel knows defeat
Arrives in an old slam dance
& applied leverage—the Evening Star
In both eyes, something less than grace.

Utetheisa Ornatrix
the First Goddess

Mottled with eyes, she's a snag
Of silk from a blood orange
Kimono. This moth, a proto-
Goddess, flits about as if grafted

To an uneasy moment. A little machine
Inside, she coaxes every male to deposit
Sperm, & weighs each with an unholy
Exactitude. She can correct

A mistake with metabolic
Absolution. Only the biggest is
Fertilized, & all the others grow
Into nutrients for her. Food

Defines them. Otherwise,
They depend on promiscuous
Wings to beat till their world
Turns into light & sap.

The Centaur

Shape-changer caught in the middle
Of rehearsal, here between beast
& man, like a young Chiron,
You pretend birthright,

Hoping Atalanta's arrow
Finds you on a lost path
In bloom. Yes, sometimes,
You can be loony as a drunken

Stunt man in Paradise, a bit
Of Theocritus's sad metaphysics
In your bones. One half tortures
The other for the romantic songs

Crooned at sunset. Unholy
Need & desire divide the season,
As you eat sugar from a nymph's palm,
Before she mounts & rides you into a man.

Meet the Author

Yusef Komunyakaa was born in Bogalusa, Louisiana, in 1947. His eleven books of poems include Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems, for which he received the Pulitzer Prize. He is a professor in the Creative Writing Program at Princeton University.

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