Leaves are changing colour and tumbling to the ground. The days are getting shorter. Frost warnings are increasing with alarming frequency. To help ferry our readers through this transitional season, we here at The Fiddlehead are offering a stellar selection of poetry, fiction, and reviews.
Continuing a tradition of special sections that has previously brought Fiddlehead readers a retrospective look at an international poet's career along with new work, our autumn issue features a generous selection of poems from Pulitzer Prize winning American poet Yusef Komunyakaa. (Previous sections have included Jorie Graham, Simon Armitage, and Charles Wright, to name just a few.) Our fall lineup also boasts new poems from Governor General Award winners Anne Compton and George Elliott Clarke, poems from the 2012 CBC Poetry Prize winner Sadiqa de Meijer, and the 2013 Commonwealth Short Story prize winner “We Walked on Water” by Eliza Robertson.
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Contents, No. 257 Autumn 2013
5 Nick Thran: An Introduction to Yusef Komunyakaa
34 Eliza Robertson: We Walked on Water
44 Sheila McClarty: The Pool Game
61 Sean Johnston: Leave Her Alone
71 Michael Dunwoody: The Cub Master
87 Michelle Butler Hallett: Bush-Hammer Finish
8 Yusef Komunyakaa: Twenty Poems
39 Anne Compton: Two Poems
41 Sue Sinclair: Three Poems
58 Allison LaSorda: Two Poems
60 Linda Frank: Cage
67 Sadiqa de Meijer: Three Poems
80 George Elliott Clarke: Dante Divines the Dead
103 Sue Sinclair: Orienteerinig
Message Sticks, Joséphine Bacon
106 Susan Haley: More Historical than Hornblower
Master and Madman: The Surprising Rise and Disastrous
Fall of Hon Anthony Lockwood RN, Peter Thomas
and Nicholas Tracy
109 Shane Neilson: Hold on to Your Hat
The Crimes of Hector Tomas, Ian Colford
111 M. Travis Lane: The Necessity of Re-Vision
The New Measures, A.F. Moritz
Notes on Contributors 117
Oil on Canvas
40 x 30 in.
An Introduction to Yusef Komunyakaa by Nick Thran
The American novelist and essayist Ralph Ellison famously wrote this description of his ideal elected official for America’s highest office: "A great president is one through whom the essential conflicts of democracy — the struggle between past and present, class and class, race and race, region and region — are brought into the most intense and creative focus." Replace “president” with “poet” here and you have a convenient and not entirely false description of Yusef Komunyakaa’s oeuvre, and perhaps a tangential sketch of the author himself. Komunyakaa is an African American from a working class background in Bogalusa, Louisiana. He is a Vietnam War veteran. He’s won a Pulitzer. He’s a noted academic, having taught for years at Princeton and now New York University. The National Book Critic’s circle, on the occasion of the nomination of his latest book, The Chameleon Couch, made a press release pitch on his behalf to The Nobel Committee. This sort of biographical detail is irresistible, and it is a problem, as the rubric of any evaluation of his work can easily slide into that of a campaign commercial. It’s been too easy for American critics over the years to say scholar and jazzman, Dickinson and Whitman, Apollo and Dionysus — play some Springsteen, wipe their hands, pledge allegiance to the flag, and call it a good day’s work.
At odds with this gloss is the cosmology of tiny hooks that, word by word and line by line, make his work so memorable. Komunyakaa’s own professorial maxim, “the ear is a great editor,” only gestures towards the degree of craftsmanship on display in his work. Here are four lines from a poem called “Moonshine,” ostensibly about planting an oak tree with his father and then leaving the backyard in Louisiana for a long, long journey: “If anything could now plumb / Distance, that tree comes close, / Recounting lost friends / As they turn into mist.” The first line break is straightforward. In the second line the clause after “Distance” is effective in accordance to its proximity to the aforementioned noun, but also because of the spectrum of horror that an oak tree in a southern state is invariably going to conjure (particularly in a clause with a rope-like comma dangling at the end of a line). The third line is even more nuanced: nostalgia’s long vowels, but also the “rie” of “friends” looping back on the “Re” of “Recounting.” Finally, four of the five words in that last line are one syllable (the fifth a two-syllable compound), as if to enact the friends’ disappearance, that breaking apart. The ear is a great editor, yes. But every part of the human body will need to be evoked in describing these kinds of poetic effects.
The Vietnam War poems from two earlier collections, Toys in a Field and Dien Cai Dau, are probably those for which he is still best known. We’ve included a small number of them here. Poems like “Facing It” are some of the frankest writing about combat and its aftermath that we have. Aside from their well-documented merits, they can be viewed, I think, as the culmination of the kind of short free-verse narrative/monologue form that Komunyakaa worked in right up until Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems. Other early poems draw heavily from experiences in his native Bogalusa, as well as from jazz lore, folklore, and the civil rights movement. While these all remain wellsprings for later poems, the “new” poems in Neon Vernacular appeared as harbingers of a discursive explosion, a fanning out into long poems and book-length sequences such as Talking Dirty to the Gods, Taboo and “Autobiography of My Alter Ego,” which highlight the second phase of his career. Talking Dirty is a marvelous example of this: 131 sixteen-line poems whose closest kin is perhaps the odes of Pablo Neruda. This collection was the toughest for Ross Leckie and I to select from, in large part because Komunyakaa ranges across history, the humanities, and the etymologists’ table with such a sustained, intricate and ecstatic melody, that to “choose the best” seemed to go against the very blade of the book’s great leveling.
From Thieves of Paradise onward, the speaker of the earlier poems gradually grows less visible, wearing a range of masks and travelling from culture to culture, from antiquity to modern times. In The Chameleon Couch, which was also nominated for the 2011 Griffin Prize, Komunyakaa appears to return, formally, to the kind of poem that first made him famous. But he does so in much the same way as the older, well-travelled musician abandons the full band that fleshed out his sound and returns for an encore with only his own guitar, giving hard-won new inflections to the sparest songs. Komunyakaa continues to write about the most harrowing kinds of experience, both personal and public, but with a lightness of touch that has measured each note against the wheel, and will rise and fall not according to his previous “need so deep you got to vomit up ghosts” but as “a sober voice . . . to calm the waters & drive away / the false witnesses.”
We are thrilled to be able to include a number of new poems that Komunyakaa has generously offered us here, as well as a selection of pieces spanning his career. I hope that readers who are already familiar with his work will see this as an occasion to re-read some poems and consider again our own conceptions of “the essential conflicts of democracy” in these precarious times, as well as just what “intense and creative focus” might mean for us, in our work and in our lives. These are poems that reward such considerations as they enact them.
-------Nick Thran was poetry co-editor of The Fiddlehead in 2011-12. He currently lives in Monteal.
Excerpt from Leave Her Alone by Sean Johnston
A man walks into a bank, rubbing his throat. He is dressed in a groovy coat and humming stuff into the air. What a gas! He doesn’t unwind his scarf, man, ’cause that’s working too.
What do you do? he thinks to the head of the lady in front of him. It’s a long line. He thinks questions of each of them. He thinks things like How do you do? What do you do? and Why do you do? which is just a question his old English teacher kept hammering home. Ha! Why indeed.
But the woman in front of him he really did just wonder what. What do you do? Never mind she was a kind of maid, he bet. Not a maid but maybe a nanny. He met a nanny once and the nanny was about that height, which is to say, there is a height for a nanny in this poor man’s mind.
-------Sean Johnston teaches in the Writing and Publishing Program at Okanagan College. His latest book is the western Listen All You Bullets. Visit his website.
Leaving Howe Island by Sadiqa de Meijer
Evening, a downpour blurring
river, sky — ferry a cradle of cold
metal, shelterless, crests washing
insect remains from our windshield — where
are we going? our daughter asks
and my voice says across
as if I’m unsure, here on a taut
cable under the river’s
origin, trees angled, slate waves
someone is knitting loose and furious —
remember where the channel opens to sloped
flanks of breaching granite, campsites,
osprey-haunted — at Prescott
the granary’s shadow, dark sentry, scraw
of a heron, water widened
by machines and the highways
start knotting themselves, dear lady
of the harbour, what I meant
to tell you stuttered, sank —
flat stone I wouldn’t know
from others on that silt edge of the tidal
fleuve where bees drone jagged
in wild rose, our daughter
gripping my skirt — that was
downriver, upstream in time, and further
out is what I first saw of this place,
miles high from a plastic
window, reading the languageless
figures, terrestrial woodcuts, a river
glittering with I suppose it should’ve been
potential or something and now
have I made it, the ferry
slowing, docking solid, a soaked
stranger in neon overalls
waving us on
-------Sadiqa de Meijer lives in Kingston. Her writing has appeared in various journals and magazines and is forthcoming in the anthology A Crystal Through Which Love Passes: Glosas for P.K. Page. Her poem series “Great Aunt Unmarried” won the 2012 CBC Poetry Prize. Her first collection, Leaving Howe Island, has just been released by Oolichan Books. The title poem is also newly available as a limited edition broadside.