Warhorses

Warhorses

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by Yusef Komunyakaa
     
 

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This powerful collection of Yusef Komunyakaa's poetry delves, with his characteristic allusiveness, intelligence, and intensity, into an age of war and conflict, both global and internal, racial and sexual. "Sweetheart, was I talking war in my sleep / again?" he asks, and the question is hardly moot: "Sometimes I hold you like Achilles' / shield," and indeed… See more details below

Overview


This powerful collection of Yusef Komunyakaa's poetry delves, with his characteristic allusiveness, intelligence, and intensity, into an age of war and conflict, both global and internal, racial and sexual. "Sweetheart, was I talking war in my sleep / again?" he asks, and the question is hardly moot: "Sometimes I hold you like Achilles' / shield," and indeed all relationships, in this telling, are sites of violence and battle. His line is longer and looser than in Taboo or Talking Dirty to the Gods, and in long poems like "Autobiography of My Alter Ego" he sounds almost breathless, an exhausted but desperate prophet. With the leaps and improvisational flourishes of a jazz soloist, Komunyakaa imagines "the old masters of Shock & Awe" daydreaming of "lovely Penelope / like a trophy." Warhorses is the stunning work of a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who never ceases to challenge and delight his readers.

Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post Book World Darryl Lorenzo Wellington
[Komunyakaa] call[s] to mind Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman— the private gaze and the civic drum, purifying language, purifying history.
The Philadelphia Inquirer John Freeman
Verses that practically sizzle and spark with intelligence . . . Komunyakaa thinks like a scholar and writes like a jazz musician. His poems wail and swing to the backbeat of African-American history, dropping knowledge with a wink and a nod to let you know, yes, this man knows a thing or two about what he's talking about.
Poetry David Wojahn
Yusef Komunyakaa is . . . one of our period's most significant and individual voices . . . He has a near-revelatory capacity to give himself over to his subject matter and to the taut concision of his free verse . . . Dazzling.
Booklist Donna Seaman
[Warhorses ] is galvanizing in its fury and decisive in its rare power . . . Komunyakaa crafts metaphors and images of shocking precision and startling intensity.
Publishers Weekly

Komunyakaa (Taboo) achieved his genuine national eminence with poems about his service in the Vietnam War and about the African-American culture of the rural South; his recent work has turned his spare, bluesy inflections to subjects from world history and myth. This strong, often harrowing 14th collection brings his own memories and his global aspirations together through the grim lens of current events, especially the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Pulitzer-winner Komunyakaa opens with sonnets about conquests ancient and modern, fought on horseback or with "bullets & grenades." Poems in the center of the volume continue the sad look at warriors, victims and international conflict throughout history, from "the Cossack gunner// trying to light the cannon fuse" to a careful poem whose shape imitates the twin towers. The most ambitious, longest and least guarded poem comes last: "Autobiography of my Alter Ego" is a "confessional" poem spoken by a fictional Vietnam veteran: a bartender "at the Chimera Club/ for twenty-some-odd years," this "alter ego" delivers, in syncopated two-part lines, a clutch of profound statements about America, history, memory, guilt and experience that are at once personal and national. Late in the sequence, the poem considers Abu Ghraib: "here's the skin/ growing over a wound,/ & this is flesh interrogating a stone." (Oct.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

The author of numerous volumes and recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, Komunyakaa (Neon Vernacular) is among the most prominent contemporary poets writing in English. The poems that comprise his new collection provide an astonishingly panoramic view of the totality of war. Its first section is a series of loose sonnets written about battles and conflicts, which take on an added note of irony when we consider that many of the earliest sonnets were love poems. Poems of the second section treat the very implements of war, those things that rely on human agency to animate them. Here we find poems about helmets and catapults (the tools of combat), poems on opium poppies (which finance armed conflict), and even a poem that considers Picasso's famous painting Guernica. But it is the final section, in which Vietnam veteran Komunyakaa writes the story of his alter ego, a split self who was born, grew up, went to war and emerged, that is perhaps this book's finest achievement. Strongly recommended for public and academic libraries.-Chris Pusateri, Jefferson Cty. P.L., Lakewood, CO


—Chris Pusateri

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780374531911
Publisher:
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
10/13/2009
Edition description:
First Edition
Pages:
96
Sales rank:
964,941
Product dimensions:
5.30(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.40(d)

Read an Excerpt



Love in the Time of War

The jawbone of an ass. A shank braided with shark teeth. A garrote. A shepherd’s sling. A jagged stone that catches light & makes warriors dance to a bull-roarer’s lamentation. An obsidian ax. A lion-skin drum & reed flute. A nightlong prayer to gods stopped at the mouth of a cave.

The warrior-king summons one goddess after another to his bloodstained pallet. If these dear ones live inside his head they still dress his wounds with balms & sacred leaves, & kiss him back to strength, back to a boy.

Gilgamesh’s Humbaba was a distant drum pulsing among the trees, a slave to the gods, a foreign tongue guarding the sacred cedars down to a pale grubworm in the tower before Babel. Invisible & otherworldly, he was naked in the king’s heart, & his cry turned flies into maggots & blood reddened the singing leaves.

When Gilgamesh said Shiduri, a foreplay of light was on the statues going to the river between them & the blinding underworld. She cleansed his wounds & bandaged his eyes at the edge of reason, & made him forget birthright, the virgins in their bridal beds.

Here, the old masters of Shock & Awe huddle in the war room, talking iron, fire & sand, alloy & nomenclature. Their hearts lag against the bowstring as they daydream of Odysseus’s bed. But to shoot an arrow through the bull’s-eye of twelve axes lined up in a row is to sleep with one’s eyes open. Yes, of course, there stands lovely Penelope like a trophy, still holding the brass key against her breast. How did the evening star fall into that room? Lost between plot & loot, the plucked string turns into a lyre humming praises &curses to the unborn.

The Mameluke—slave & warrior—springs out of dust & chance, astride his horse at sunrise, one with its rage & gallop, wedded to its flanks & the sound of hooves striking clay & stone, carried into the sway of desert grass. His double-edged saber bloodies valleys & hills, a mirage, till he arrives at a gate of truth in myth: for a woman to conceive in this place & time, she must be in the arms of a warrior riding down through the bloody ages, over bones of the enemy in the sand & along the river in a sultan’s dream, till their child is born on horseback.

They swarmed down over the town & left bodies floating in the ditches & moats. Bloated with silence, blue with flies on the rooftops.

They gave the children candy made of honey & nuts, scented with belladonna to weed out the weak. Bundles of silk rolled out like a rainbow for the women.

On the wild forgetful straw beds they created a race, a new tongue to sing occidental prayers & regrets.

Their camphor lanterns mastered darkness. All the taboos of lovemaking were broken. Soon, laughter rose again from the fields.

My wide hips raised two warriors from sweat & clay, blood sonata & birth cry. I said anger & avarice, & they called themselves Cain & Abel. I said gold, & they opened up the earth. I said love, & they ventured east & west, south & north. I said evil, & they lost themselves in reflected rivers.

After scrimmages across Asia Minor & guarding kingly ransom in the Horn of Africa, my sons journeyed home to peasant bread & salt meat, to whorish doubts & wonder, but when I flung my arms open at the threshold they came to me as unseasoned boys.

Hand-to-hand: the two hugged each other into a naked tussle, one riding the other’s back, locked in a double embrace. One forced the other to kiss the ground, as he cursed & bit into an earlobe. They shook beads of dew off the grass. One worked his fingers into the black soil, & could feel a wing easing out of his scapula.

That night, the lucky one who gripped a stone like Mercury weighing the planet in his palm, who knew windfall & downfall, he fell against his sweetheart again & again, as if holding that warrior in his arms, & couldn’t stop himself from rising off the earth. Tribe. Clan. Valley & riverbank. Country. Continent. Interstellar aborigines. Squad. Platoon. Company. Battalion. Regiment. Hive & swarm. Colony. Legend. Laws. Ordinances. Statutes. Grid coordinates. Maps. Longitude. Latitude. Property lines drawn in unconsecrated dust. Sextant & compass. Ledger. Loyalty oath. Therefore. Hereinbefore. Esprit de corps. Lock & load. Bull’s-eye. Maggie’s drawers. Little Boy. Fat Man. Circle in the eye. Bayonet. Skull & Bone. Them. Body count. Thou & I. Us. Honey. Darling. Sweetheart, was I talking war in my sleep again? Come closer. Yes, place your head against my chest. The moon on a windowsill. I want to stitch up all your wounds with kisses, but I also know that sometimes the seed is hurting for red in the soil. Sometimes. Sometimes I hold you like Achilles’ shield, your mouth on mine, my trembling inside your heart & sex.

The drummer’s hands were bloody. The players of billowy bagpipes marched straight into the unblinking muzzle flash. The fife player conjured a way to disappear inside himself: The bullets zinged overhead & raised dust devils around his feet. He crossed a river.

Bloodstained reeds quivered in the dark. He rounded a hedgerow thick with blooms & thorns. Some lone, nameless bird fell in tune with his fife, somewhere in the future, & he saw a blue nightgown fall to the floor of an eye-lit room.

Tonight, the old hard work of love has given up. I can’t unbutton promises or sing secrets into your left ear tuned to quivering plucked strings.

No, please. I can’t face the reflection of metal on your skin & in your eyes, can’t risk weaving new breath into war fog. The anger of the trees is rooted in the soil.

Let me drink in your newly found river of sighs, your way with incantations. Let me see if I can’t string this guitar & take down your effigy of moonlight from the cross, the dogwood in bloom printed on memory’s see-through cloth.

When our hands caress bullets & grenades, or linger on the turrets & luminous wings of reconnaissance planes, we leave glimpses of ourselves on the polished hardness. We surrender skin, hair, sweat, & fingerprints. The assembly lines hum to our touch, & the grinding wheels record our laments & laughter into the bright metal.

I touch your face, your breasts, the flower holding a world in focus. We give ourselves to each other, letting the workday slide away. Afterwards, lying there facing the sky, I touch the crescent-shaped war wound. Yes, the oldest prayer is still in my fingertips.

A bottle-nosed dolphin swims midnight water with plastic explosives strapped to her body. A black clock ticks in her half-lit brain. Brighter than some water-headed boy in a dream, she calls from the depths. The voice of her trainer, a Navy Seal, becomes a radio wave guiding her to the target. One eye is asleep & the other is the bright side of the moon.

The trainer & his wife sway to the rise & fall of their water bed, locked in each other’s arms. They’re taken down into a breathless country where Neptune wrestles the first & last siren, to where a shadow from that other world torpedoes along like a fat, long bullet.

Someone’s beating a prisoner. Someone’s counting red leaves falling outside a clouded window in a secret country. Someone holds back a river, but the next rabbit jab makes him piss on the stone floor. The interrogator orders the man to dig his grave with a teaspoon.

The one he loves, her name died last night on his tongue. To revive it, to take his mind off the electric wire, he almost said, There’s a parrot in a blue house that knows the password, a woman’s name.

His name is called. A son’s lost voice hovers near a fishing hole in August. His name is called. A lover’s hand disturbs a breath of summer cloth. His name is called a third time, but his propped-up boots & helmet refuse to answer. The photo remains silent, & his name hangs in the high rafters.

She tenderly hugs the pillow, whispering his name. The dog rises beside the bedroom door & wanders to the front door, & stands with its head cocked, listening for a name in a dead language.

Excerpted from Warehouses by Yusef Komunyakaa.

Copyright © 2008 by Yusef Komunyakaa.

Published in 2008 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

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