Philip Levine – Poet Laureate

Welcome news today that Philip Levine has been appointed Poet Laureate of the United States. I enjoyed Levine’s 2010 collection News of the World with its recycled memories and working class tales as well as its plain-spoken language , something often required of American poets; see Ted Kooser but, not so much, Levine’s predecessor W.S. Merwin. I’m hoping this will result in an updated collection of the 83-year-old poets work, so we may chart his aesthetic course even as his poetry springs more and more of memory.

In the Moment With the Omniscient Poet

Poetry, in its way, seeks omniscience. And that, unless done without humbleness, is why some poetry, especially the academic sort, makes such dull company. Who wants to spend time with a know-it-all? That’s why the folksy, plain-spoken verse of Ted Kooser, Billy Collins, Mary Oliver and their comrades is so popular. They don’t pretend to know everything. Just this little bit.

Indeed, poetry may be more about breaking the small thing from the whole than about considering the big picture. The big picture, in other words, is best displayed by the small things. You know, no ideas but in things.

Pulitzer Prize winner Yusef Komunyakaa knows how to take it all in. He snaps off little pieces of experience and then tries to make it all Humpty-Dumpty again. You don’t need to part the weed (see “no ideas” above) to find the metaphor, often extended, often leading quickly to another, in his lines. And, through cleverness, multiple meaning and sheer force of will he makes them bind.  “Each bud is a nose pressed against a windowpane,/a breast gazing through thin cotton. The cold stings,/& a shiver goes from crown to feet, leaf tip and taproot.”

This new volume proves Komunyakaa a traveler with an acute eye, an aroused imagination and interests as wide as a river’s flood. His compassion is deep and sometimes floating on anger. His insight is equal parts window and mirror. His dedication to music goes beyond swing; rhythmic, yes and harmonically audible. But seldom, except for a quatrain here and there, does it follow lyric form.

And the images, like the hits on Top 40 radio, just keep on comin’. The poems in The Chameleon Couch are dense with metaphor, a dripping, fecund jungle of ideas all tying vine and blossom. There’s nothing plastic, technical or two-dimensionally digital. They create a place where the natural world meets the urban, stretching the idea of environment. What moves through this landscape is at once alive and imagined. Take the opening lines from the poem that offers a single word of its title to the book’s, “Ode To the Chameleon”:

Little shape shifter, lingering


there on your quotidian twig


of indifference, you are a glimpse


of a rainbow, your eyes and iota


of amber. If nature is mind,


it knows you are always


true, daring the human eye


to see deeper. You are envy


& solace approaching green,


no more than an eyeblink


in a corner of the Old World.

It’s as if Komunyakaa has answered the chameleon’s call to see deeper. Follow the “glimpse” and the “eyes” and the “eye” and the ”eyeblink,” the “rainbow” colors of “amber” and “green” and how the green leads so easily to “envy.” If Komunyakaa wrote about Humpty Dumpty, surely there’d be egg shell fusion.

He’s also spans time with cultural references, bringing the past and the far past together in the space of a few lines. “Surrender” drops the names of Ma Rainey, Leadbelly, Robert Johnson, Ishtar and Caliban in it first verse.(Bud Powell and Sam Cooke show up later). There’s more than musical name-dropping going on here. “Ode To the Guitar” makes the instrument — and the act of playing it — something of the flesh, the notes calling up “blame/& beauty, into the scent of a garden…”

Even in the most technological setting, he can’t escape the past or the natural world. Encased inside an MRI cylinder he sees a galloping black horse and marching trees. Billie Holiday pays a visit, Marguerite Duras beckons and Ornette Coleman buzzes in his conscious sleep.

Political and racial scenarios play out in the same litany of color and culture. “I’ve known billy club, tear gas, & cattle prod,/but not Black Sheep killing White Sheep” begins “Green.” Before long, he he travels back to hear 14th century Persian poet “Hafez’s litany balanced on Tamerlane’s saber” and then he returns, underground, to declare “no, let’s come back first to now,/to a surge of voices shouting,/Death to the government of potato!”

Komunyakaa is in the moment even when he is lost in time. He awakes to now, in his apartment, in “Gone”:

Somebody is screaming. I spring to my feet,


half stumbling out of the brain’s cloudy weather.


Where am I, what year of the Rat, Horse, Dragon,


or Snake is it. I’m out the door. In the hallway.


Damn. I’m pulling on my See No Evil T-shirt.

We can’t be sure, he seems to say. Am I here? Is someone in need? Or are they fulfilling a need? Is it sex? Or a beating?  What one hears on the other side of the wall is all things, good and bad. Eavesdropping is guilty pleasure or not pleasant at all.

…Where am I? What year of the Hare


or Ox is this? I walk through the city, hurting


for a clue, but I can’t find laughter because


I was listening to the wind when their baby


swallowed a little lead bird from China


& flew away.

It’s no surprise that Komunyakaa emphasizes listening, an act which comes of silence, and music which, in the form of language, generates its own ideas. His lines are all flow and ampersand, there’s not an “and” in the book. And that’s a musical thing, in shape and sound and image, a sign standing in for words.–Cabbage Rabbit