Reviewed by Philip Belcher
On occasion, an eager and adept reader happens upon a poetry collection that satisfies immediately. The lyric intensity of individual poems may carry the volume, or the narrative arc may be so compelling and taut that the reader shelves the collection knowing where the journey has taken her and that she’s been accompanied by a reliable guide. The Chameleon Couch is not one of those collections. In this, his eighteenth volume of poems, Yusef Komunyakaa employs a nearly overpowering display of erudition, a seemingly boundless range of historical and cultural referents, and a facility for metaphor and image, all of which combine both to dazzle and befuddle the reader. Only a very small audience should approach The Chameleon Couch without a powerful search engine and adequate time for more than one reading. The poems, however, ultimately justify the effort required to comprehend Komunyakaa’s purpose and how he goes about achieving it.
Frost suggested that a volume of poetry should be constructed well enough to serve as its own concluding poem. Most collections fall short on that count, but The Chameleon Couch is an exception. Recurring images link the three untitled sections, but the second section exhibits a thematic unity not evidenced in the first and third portions of the book. Of the sixteen poems in the middle section, at least ten allude to, or explicitly refer to, war or combat. This is not a re-tilling of ground already plowed in Dien Cai Dau, although readers familiar with Komunyakaa’s biography and poems about his Viet Nam experiences may not be able to avoid making a connection. What is striking in these war poems is Komunyakaa’s ability and willingness to focus relentlessly on the topic and yet do so in ways that remain fresh and surprising.
In the ekphrastic “Three Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion,” Komunyakaa explores a triptych painted by Francis Bacon. War is never mentioned explicitly, but other horrors are:
Did the painter ascend a dogwood
or crawl into the hold of a slave ship
to get a good view of the thing
turning itself inside out beneath
a century of interrogation lamps?
The references to the crucifixion of Jesus (the dogwood legend), the slave trade, and torture convey with abundant clarity a tone of dread. The poem requires no further investigation; but, as is the case often in The Chameleon Couch, a little mining yields treasure. Here, a few clicks of the mouse will reveal that Bacon painted this bizarre and troubling work in 1944 at the height of World War II. The poem’s images suddenly bear additional weight. Komunyakaa then ends the poem with three of the most memorable lines in the entire collection, exhibiting both this poet’s mastery of image and his view that alienation, estrangement, and struggle are the critical markers of humankind’s existential situation—a perspective that permeates The Chameleon Couch:
A twisted globe of flesh
is held together by what
it pushes against.
The second section displays also Komunyakaa’s familiarity with Greek mythology and his ability to employ it in a way that, for the curious, motivated reader, adds additional texture to the poems. In “Orpheus at the Second Gate of Hades,” the speaker is determined to make his second visit to the underworld despite unsettling recollections of the first visit – Furies, Tantalus, Tityus, Ixion, Sisyphus, Proserpine, and King Pluto. Readers may be tempted to acknowledge Komunyakaa’s erudition and move on, shamed briefly by their familiarity only with the poet’s more contemporary allusions. But that would be a mistake. Poems like this one—and there are plenty here – require deliberate and resourceful reading. The reader who is acquainted, or willing to become acquainted, with Greek mythology will be rewarded when the poem turns at line 41 to the speaker’s compulsion to speak of what he had seen:
I saw a stall filled with human things, an endless
list of names, a hill of shoes, a room of suitcases
tagged to nowhere, eyeglasses, toothbrushes,
baby shoes, dentures, ads for holiday spas,
& a wide roll of thick cloth woven of living hair.
The interlocking of mythical suffering with the list of the spoils of a Nazi death camp demands the reader’s attention and genuine appreciation not only for the poet’s virtuosity but also for his deep humanity. Making this poem—one of the collection’s most emotionally compelling—even more notable is Komunyakaa’s insertion of one of the few overtly humorous notes in the entire book. Immediately prior to the speaker’s gruesome inventory, he hints at trouble getting through the gate:
. . . I don’t remember
exactly what I said at the ticket office
my first visit here, but I do know it grew
ugly. The classical allusions didn’t
make it any easier. . . .
One of the poems in the second section that does not address warfare explicitly offers another glimpse of the array of Komunyakaa’s cultural resources. The immediate setting of “Blackbirding On the Hudson” is Czestochowa, Poland, where the speaker is reminded of the Hudson River when he pulls from the shelf a volume of poetry and opens it to Robert Lowell’s “The Mouth of the Hudson.” The speaker recalls specific images from the Lowell poem, the “coke fumes & the chemical air of / New Jersey.” The Hudson’s flow and Lowell’s solitary figure, standing as if admiring the birds, calls to the speaker’s mind “another phrase—I think it is ‘blackbirding’— / pecking fiercely / at my gut.” Besides echoing the vulture poised to tear at Tityus’s liver in “Orpheus at the Second Gate of Hades,” these lines mark a turn toward a complex reflection on the slave trade, the river’s permanent indifference in the face of its own despoliation, and the mood set by Thelonius Monk’s rendition of “Coming on the Hudson.” As jarringly impressive as this plenitude of resources is, the reader will at some point in her reading ask whether Komunyakaa’s willingness to display his virtuosity with such abandon is a distraction and, if it is, whether that effect is intentional. Before engaging that larger question, however, a brief look at poems in the first and third sections of the book is in order.
Although the first section of The Chameleon Couch is a looser thematic unit than section two, the poems here do share images and concerns that both permeate the entire collection and organize this portion of the book. As with much of Komunyakaa’s poetry, music is a constant. Expected allusions and explicit references to blues and jazz music and personalities appear in “Black Figs” and “Ignis Fatuus.” More unusual is the poet’s meditation on a Japanese bamboo flute in “Ode to the Shakuhachi.” That poem exemplifies the demands this collection places on the reader. Komunyakaa’s reference to a famous piece composed for Shakuhachi, “The Sound of Deer Calling to One Another,” is not essential to the poem but invites the curious reader to investigate. Perhaps it deepens subsequent approaches to the poem, but sometimes a distraction is just a distraction.
The volume’s opening poem, “Canticle,” forecasts the musical theme and puts the reader on notice that, although the poet will provide points of access, the trail will not always be well-marked. Before shifting abruptly to a present tense East Village scene, one finds this:
. . . Seasons sprouted
& went to seed as we circled the dance with silver cat bells
tied to our feet. Now, kissing you, I am the archheir of second
Because I know twelve ways to be wrong
& two to be good, I was wounded by the final question in the cave,
left side of the spirit level’s quiver. I didn’t want to hug you
into a cross, but I’m here to be measured down to each numbered
A trembling runs through what pulls us to the blood knot.
More hospitable—and thematically indicative of the collection as a whole—is another poem ostensibly related to Komunyakaa’s musical interests, “The One-Handed Concerto.” The poet uses Ravel’s commissioned composition of the “Piano Concerto for the Left Hand” for Paul Wittgenstein, Ludwig’s older brother, to discuss absence, loss, and alienation. Present at the same time is an instant of humor which, unfortunately, occurs too infrequently in this volume. Both are at play when the poet reflects on the pianist’s war injury:
Perhaps he could even forget & snap
the fingers of his lost hand to call his dog home,
& it would come running full trot, wagging its tail.
But he didn’t know if he’d ever learn to play absence,
because he could cover only one ear.
Komunyakaa also includes in the first section what is arguably one of his best poems addressing racial oppression. In “Cape Coast Castle,” the image of the slave trade center in Ghana before its relocation in 1877 follows the speaker and his lover from western Africa to Amsterdam and is pushed aside only by the ghost of his mother, and then only temporarily. In a passage that, oddly enough, calls to mind the speaker’s realization in James Dickey’s “Slave Quarters” “that there is no hatred / Like love in the eyes / Of a wholly owned face . . . ,” Komunyakaa describes the “governor,” his selection of a slave woman to be brought to his rooms, and his approach to subjugating a race: “There’s a whole tribe in this one, but I’ll break them / before they’re in the womb, before they’re conceived, / before they’re even thought of.” Aside from the horror so effectively conveyed in this poem, the appearance of the ghost should not be overlooked. It is one of at least seven references to ghosts in The Chameleon Couch. Along with even more frequent invocations of the mask image and repeated references to shadows and labyrinths, Komunyakaa is hinting at the collection’s estrangement motif. Images of impermanence and disguise abound in this first section. With the ephemeral swamp gas in “Ignis Fatuus,” the “shape shifter” in “Ode to the Chameleon,” and the devil fish, makeup, sunglasses, and bleaching cream in “Ten or Eleven Disguises,” the poet is laying the foundation for a construct that is only visible in its entirety after the reader reflects upon the collection.
The third section of the book, by far the longest, is the least satisfying as a thematic unit; however, the miscellany is packed not only with echoes of poems appearing earlier in the volume but also of poems from prior collections. In the concluding section, readers will note, for example, the reappearance of the Thorn Merchant in “The Thorn Merchant’s Godson.” In addition to masks (“The Hedonist”), labyrinths (“Goodness,” “Surrender”), and ghosts (“Last of the Monkey Gods” and “Adonis in the Big Apple,” among others), this section also includes two overtly political poems, “Green” and “Dangerousness,” and the collection’s sole illustration of Komunyakaa’s facility with prose poems (“A Voice on an Answering Machine”). Although traditional formal elements are not a distinguishing feature of The Chameleon Couch, Komunyakaa’s attention to sound effects in many of the poems is appropriate in a collection incorporating so many musical allusions. One example from “Ontology & Guinness” in this third section shows that, in addition to his obvious delight in manipulating theme, image, and cultural resourcefulness, the poet has not forsaken basic elements of craft:
I can taste tear gas. I hear a blur
of billy clubs when I hit the drums.
I haven’t witnessed this mug shot
in decades, but I’m facing the mirror.
I’m still the same man. Almost.
Led Zeppelin is still in my nogginbox.
The slant rhymes, assonance, and alliteration are palpable, and examples of the poet’s fine ear can be found in almost every poem.
Yet image, metaphor, and allusion comprise this collection’s dominant currency. Indeed, the volume is defined by the poet’s focus on image, the plethora of allusions, and the continual return to ideas of absence and estrangement combined with his persistent and effective efforts to deny the reader easy access while offering enough points of contact to keep the reader engaged. Respect and admiration for a poet of Komunyakaa’s brilliance and resourcefulness requires that one assume that the poet intends every word and at least anticipates every effect. He thinks about his audience and what their reaction might be. It could be, of course, that Komunyakaa intends a very small audience for The Chameleon Couch. But poems like “Grunge,” with its almost slapstick confusion of courtly love and Courtney Love, suggest otherwise. Komunyakaa knows how to make a poem accessible. He also knows how to make poems simultaneously difficult and rewarding. “Flesh,” for example, certainly requires either prior knowledge of Dante and Beatrice or determination to figure it out. Even poems like “Adonis in the Big Apple,” which will leave most readers scratching their heads about the identity of the protagonist (is it Jimmy Blanton?), invite—and then reward—curiosity and exploration. Other poems, however, tease and seem to thwart understanding intentionally. For example, there is no discernible reason, other than delight in the music, to insert into “Goodness” these lines:
. . . On how many paths
do we dare seek the spun knot
beneath the plum tree bent down
with blooms in the Middle Kingdom?
It would be sadistic to invite a reader into a poem with the sole intent of baffling her halfway in. In that case, one might interpret the third section’s “Surrender” as less of a description and more of a command. But Komunyakaa is not cruel. Therefore, these poems that run along smoothly enough until stiff-arming the reader must have another intent, and only after coming back to the collection after at least one careful reading does one discern Komunyakaa’s masterful pacing and control. Through the onslaught of mythical, musical, and historical allusions—through the back and forth of offering access and slamming the door—the poet makes a poem of the book, a poem willing to explore what is just beyond reach and the ways we hide ourselves for self-preservation, for life.