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Book Review: The Chameleon Couch

The Chameleon Couch
Written by Yusef Komunyakaa
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011
ISBN 9780374533144

“I am a black man, a poet, a bohemian, / & there isn’t a road my mind doesn’t travel” (17-18 “Poppies”).  Yusef Komunyakaa’s first Whitmanesque “I am”-statement comes about midway through his latest collection of poems, The Chameleon Couch (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011).  By this point in the book, we have already read several of his eclogues, odes, and litanies, among other familiar forms the master employs.  The poem, “Poppies,” reminds us of his body of work, which, throughout the years, has consistently demonstrated his recognizable rhythmic voice and his unquestionable command of image and form.  The poppies, whose vibrant colors spill over the poem like a watercolor swath, becomes a metaphor for both beauty (tucked in a gypsy’s hair) and devastation (climbing and descending hills, swarming barbed wire fences).  Here, the poet depicts a victim on a train to Auschwitz, observing the passing fields of poppies, and noting the strange, brutal juxtaposition of beauty and terror—and also noting beauty’s inability to save the body from this inevitable terror.  But the soul—the soul of the poet passes from body to body, as if each one is a vessel, fixed in history and circumstance, but ever welcoming the poet’s fluidic, ahistoric voice.  Then comes the poet’s “I am”-statement, and we are immediately reminded of the title of this collection,Chameleon Couch–in other words, the seat from which Komunyakaa observes, identifies, and becomes.

Komunyakaa utilizes “I am”-statements throughout this collection, further suggesting the unconfined spirit of his voice.  In the poem, “Flesh,” he remarks,

… Unbelievable

as I am, I shall say this: if I am Beatrice

or Beatitude, muse or pale siren, I am flesh

born to another dream of flesh. If I am clay,

it is the same merciless clay you are made of,

with a red vein of iron running through it, (4-9)

Chameleon CouchThe “red vein of iron” connects all things; it is the portal through which the soul passes and is a part of a greater soul, which all things compose.  Here, the poet identifies with each alternating persona, recognizing and commenting on the aforementioned spiritual connection.  The poem, and by extension the collection, invokes Whitman,Neruda (whom Komunyakaa celebrates in the poem “Nighttime Begins with a Line By Pablo Neruda”), and even Borges, particularly the Argentinian’s “The Circular Ruins,” in which Borges’s protagonist seeks to conceive another human being through means of dreaming.

Komunyakaa’s The Chameleon Couch is a work of great complexity, a myriad collection of  subjects, eternally connected by a common poetic voice.  The book is proof of the Komunyakaa’s expertise, which has not waned since the start of his prolific literary career.  He acknowledges his influences, and at the same time asserts himself as influential through the power of his verse and the adaptability of his voice.

Review by Tristan Beach
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