Monday, February 9, 2009

A poem by Yusef Komunyakaa

Work

I won't look at her.
My body's been one
Solid motion from sunrise,
Leaning into the lawnmower's
Roar through pine needles
& crabgrass. Tiger-colored
Bumblebees nudge pale blossoms
Till they sway like silent bells
Calling. But I won't look.
Her husband's outside Oxford,
Mississippi, bidding on miles
of timber. I wonder if he's buying
Faulkner's ghost, if he might run
Into Colonel Sartoris
Along some dusty road.
Their teenage daughter & son sped off
An hour ago in a red Corvette
For the tennis courts,
& the cook, Roberta,
Only works a half day
Saturdays. This antebellum house
Looms behind oak & pine
Like a secret, as quail
Flash through branches.
I won't look at her. Nude
On a hammock among elephant ears
& ferns, a pitcher of lemonade
Sweating like our skin.
Afternoon burns on the pool
Till everything's blue,
Till I hear Johnny Mathis
Beside her like a whisper.
I work all the quick hooks
Of light, the same unbroken
Rhythm my father taught me
Years ago: Always give
A man a good day's labor.
I won't look. The engine
Pulls me like a dare.
Scent of honeysuckle
Sings black sap through mystery,
Taboo, law, creed, what kills
A fire that is its own heart
Burning open the mouth.
But I won't look
At the insinuation of buds
Tipped with cinnabar.
I'm here, as if I never left,
Stopped in this garden,
Drawn to some Lotus-eater. Pollen
Explodes, but I only smell
Gasoline & oil on my hands,
& can't say why there's this bed
Of crushed narcissus
As if gods wrestled here.

--from Neon Vernacular (University Press of New England, 1993)

9 comments:

Rethabile said...

Komunyakaa is the dude. I noticed you're from NC. I went to school on the other side, in Maryville, TN. Awesome place.

David Wayne Hampton: said...

Thanks for commenting. He's a great speaker, too, a very distinct southern voice. I went to one of his readings at Appalachian State in Boone when I was a student there. He's very approachable and unassuming in person.

Sojourner The Poet said...

I, too, am a Carolinian - Western Piedmont Community College, UNC-Charlotte - long gone to California. I came across your blog while searching for current info on Komunyakaa. Thanks for putting up this post. Its quite helpful. I find the poem interesting in that it alludes to so much about the sexual politics of our upbringing. The crux of a centuries-old conundrum is just below the surface. The nuances and subtleties could inspire at least a term paper. I won't write it here but look forward to postings from others that might reflect on the genius of this poem. I also read your musing on why you write. I hope to check out some of your other posts as time permits. Its very nostalgic for me. I have tried to connect with North Carolina Writers before without success.
STP

David Hampton: said...

Thank you, STP, for the very astute commentary on Komunyakaa's poem. I've been teaching high school English for almost 10 years now, and try to incorporate contemporary poetry into my lessons whenever I can. I don't post as often as many bloggers (family and work take up much of my time)but try to do so whenever the notion strikes me. I appreciate your audience.

Stef said...

Thank you for teaching such great poetry to your students! I am a school librarian and a poet so I know how important it is to get kids off to a great introduction to well-written poems.

I also had the chance to meet Mr. Komunyakaa when he visited my MFA program. He really was very approachable and kind. Check out the link w/ his picture - if any of your readers are in the NYC area, we have some great guest writers.

http://queenscollegemfa.blogspot.com/2009/11/scenes-from-new-salon-in-queens.html

Anonymous said...

What exactly is this poem about? Is it about a man having a taboo attraction?

David Wayne Hampton: said...

It is definitely about a taboo attraction. The way I interpret it, it is not just about class differences (the hired help and the wealthy property owner)but could be about race differences as well -- "Scent of honeysuckle/ Sings black sap through mystery". If you can insinuate that the narrator is black, it's not clear, but likely in the south, then there is taboo of a black, working man resisting the urge to look at the naked, sunbathing, rich, white woman. It is a fallacy in the south during Jim Crow that black men were more sexually excited and that the "more attractive" white women were in danger of being ravaged. Look at Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird." White Trash Bob Ewell accuses Tom Robinson of raping his white daughter simply because he was black and an easy target. Despite Atticus Finch's compelling defense, society condemns Tom Robinson on that fallacy, that notion. In truth, the narrator of Komunyakaa's poem "Work" is simply a man, though trying to keep his mind on his work, is sidetracked by the nude sunbather and his own imagination.

Marilyn Kallet said...

A great poem by a great teacher. He is not only brilliant and brave, but he is generous to other writers as well. I feel lucky to know him.

I direct the creative writing program at the University of Tennessee. David, you should come over for some of our readings!
Marilyn

David Hampton: said...

Thanks, Marilyn, for your post, and for the invitation! Knoxville's not that far from me -- I'll have to check UT's website to see who's doing a reading this coming spring.