by NONA BLYTH CLOUD
What’s in a name? Names are a symbol for who we are, but sometimes a birth name can feel like a once-warm coat we’ve outgrown: a little shabby, and tight in all the wrong places.
So it was for today’s poets. Both of them have taken distinctive names completely different from their original identities, new names which have meaning and power for them.
Yusef Komunyakaa (1947 – ) is a African American poet who was born as James William Brown, in Bogalusa Louisiana, the eldest of five children. He served one tour of duty in South Vietnam during the war, and worked for the military paper Southern Cross, leaving the service in 1966. He earned an M.A. in writing from Colorado State University in 1978, and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of California, Irvine, in 1980. He was awarded the 1994 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for Neon Vernacular. Currently, Komunyakaa is a professor in the Creative Writing Program at New York University.
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.
“Confluence” from Pleasure Dome: New and Collected Poems,. © 2001 by Yusef Komunyakaa – Wesleyan University Press
In Komunyakaa’s poem “Blue Dementia” you can hear musicians riffing, and voices of friends he lost in the Vietnam war. These ghosts are sometimes a comfort, and sometimes terrifying.
NOTE: Eli “Lucky” Thompson was an American jazz tenor and soprano saxophonist. Marion Brown was a jazz alto saxophonist and ethnomusicologist.
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.
Blue Dementia from The Chameleon Couch © 2011 by Yusef Komunyakaa, Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Ntozake Shange (1948 – ) was born as Paulette Williams into an upper middle-class African-American family. Her father was an Air Force surgeon, and her mother was a psychiatric social worker. Cultural icons like Dizzie Gillepsie, Miles Davis and W.E.B. DuBois were regular guests in the Williams home. Shange attended Barnard College and UCLA, earning both a bachelors and master degree in American Studies.
After overcoming a period of deep depression, she took the name Ntozake Shange, which means “She who comes with her own things” and “walks like a lion.” Shange has a triple career as an educator, a performer/director, and a writer whose work draws heavily on her experiences as black woman in America.
Best known for her play, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf (1975), which she calls a “choreopoem.” It made the leap from Off-Broadway to Broadway, and was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play in 1974.
With No Immediate Cause
every 3 minutes a woman is beaten
every five minutes a
woman is raped/every ten minutes
a lil girl is molested
yet i rode the subway today
i sat next to an old man who
may have beaten his old wife
3 minutes ago or 3 days/30 years ago
he might have sodomized his
daughter but i sat there
cuz the young men on the train
might beat some young women
later in the day or tomorrow
i might not shut my door fast
every 3 minutes it happens
some woman’s innocence
rushes to her cheeks/pours from her mouth
like the betsy wetsy dolls have been torn
menses red & split/every
three minutes a shoulder
is jammed through plaster and the oven door/
chairs push thru the rib cage/hot water or
boiling sperm decorate her body
i rode the subway today
& bought a paper from a
man who might
have held his old lady onto
a hot pressing iron/i don’t know
maybe he catches lil girls in the
park & rips open their behinds
with steel rods/i can’t decide
what he might have done i only
know every 3 minutes
every 5 minutes every 10 minutes/so
i bought the paper
looking for the announcement
the discovery/of the dismembered
victims have not all been
identified/today they are
naked and dead/refuse to
testify/one girl out of 10’s not
coherent/i took the coffee
& spit it up/i found an
announcement/not the woman’s
bloated body in the river/floating
not the child bleeding in the
59th street corridor/not the baby
broken on the floor/
there is some concern
that alleged battered women
might start to murder their
husbands & lovers with no
i spit up i vomit i am screaming
we all have immediate cause
every 3 minutes
every 5 minutes
every 10 minutes
women’s bodies are found
in alleys & bedrooms/at the top of the stairs
before i ride the subway/buy a paper/drink
coffee/i must know/
have you hurt a woman today
did you beat a woman today
throw a child across a room
are the lil girl’s panties
in yr pocket
did you hurt a woman today
i have to ask these obscene questions
the authorities require me to
every three minutes
every five minutes
every ten minutes
“With No Immediate Cause” from nappy edges © 1978 by Ntozake Shange – St. Martin’s Press
one thing i don’t need
is any more apologies
i got sorry greetin me at my front door
you can keep yrs
i don’t know what to do wit em
they dont open doors
or bring the sun back
they dont make me happy
or get a mornin paper
didnt nobody stop usin my tears to wash cars
cuz a sorry
i am simply tired
i didnt know
i was so important toyou
i’m gonna haveta throw some away
i cant get to the clothes in my closet
for alla the sorries
i’m gonna tack a sign to my door
leave a message by the phone
‘if you called
to say yr sorry
i dont use em anymore’
i let sorry/ didnt meanta/ & how cd i know abt that
take a walk down a dark & musty street in brooklyn
i’m gonna do exactly what i want to
& i wont be sorry for none of it
letta sorry soothe yr soul/ i’m gonna soothe mine
you were always inconsistent
doin somethin & then bein sorry
beatin my heart to death
talkin bout you sorry
i will not call
i’m not goin to be nice
i will raise my voice
& scream & holler
& break things & race the engine
& tell all yr secrets bout yrself to yr face
& i will list in detail everyone of my wonderful lovers
& their ways
i will play oliver lake
& i wont be sorry for none of it
i loved you on purpose
i was open on purpose
i still crave vulnerability & close talk
& i’m not even sorry bout you bein sorry
you can carry all the guilt & grime ya wanna
just dont give it to me
i cant use another sorry
you should admit
you’re mean/ low-down/ triflin/ & no count straight out
steada bein sorry alla the time
enjoy bein yrself
“Sorry” from For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf, © 1977 by Ntozake Shange – Scribner
Words have power, especially names. These two poets have used that power to transform themselves.
- Yusef Komunyakaa
- “Falling Spirits” by Michael Bollino – Columbia River Gorge, Washington State
- Jazz ghost
- Ntozake Shange
- New York Subway
- Black Woman with eyes closed
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud