A Review of Yusef Komunyakaa’s Magic City
by Erika Lutzner
Magic City, by Yusef Komunyakaa begins with a five year old questioning his existence and what it means to be born into a family where he was a mistake in the poem “Venus’s fly-traps.” This collection is filled with tales of a boy growing up in Bogalusa, Louisiana, and how racism, sexual awakening, economics, and death affect the people in this Magic City. Though first published in 1992, Komunyakaa’s book withstands the test of time because his subject matter; his boyhood growing up in the rural south, is as pertinent today as it when he was a child in Louisiana. Komunyakaa is a gifted writer, but what stands out, is his ability to portray and record history.
The title is ironic because Bogalusa, at the time Komunyakaa was growing up was not a great place to live. The book, however, is full of magic with his usage of metaphor, language, and referrals to black magic.
Komunyakaa accomplishes something with this book that is difficult. The speaker in the poems is able to bring us into childhood with ease. We move through each poem to the next with an awareness of what it was like to live in Bogalusa during Komunyakaa’s youth. Awareness of self, sexual awaking and learning about death, desire and destruction are all portrayed in a manner that leaves the reader full of grief and hope at the same time.
The opening poem “Venus’s fly-traps” is one of the best in the collection. The speaker, a five year old, says; “I can hurt/You with questions/Like silver bullets./The tall flowers in my dreams are/Big as the First State Bank,/& they eat all the people/Except the ones I love.”(1-2) He goes on to say later in the piece; “I wonder what death tastes like..../I wish I knew why/The music in my head/Makes me scared.” The poem is powerful because it allows the reader to enter into the world and mind of a precocious five year old filled with questions. The title starts the poem off at a fast pace immediately. A Venus Flytrap has many meanings just as Komunyakaa’s use of enjambment allows for a number of intimations throughout his work. A Venus Flytrap is carnivorous though it is a plant. Venus is also the goddess of love. The title juxtaposes the speaker’s issues with self. He is trapped in the Deep South, a mother that says he was a mistake and made her a bad girl, and yet, there is love. His defiance; “I can hurt/you with questions...” show us how articulate and gifted this boy is. The tall flowers of his dreams eat everyone but those he loves is such a haunting image. The language that Komunyakaa uses work perfectly. We believe in what the five year old says, though he is more articulate and intelligent than many adults. He ends the poem with an image of hiding under the playhouse and secrets. This is a theme he comes back to again and again in his work.
Komunyakaa’s father was an uneducated carpenter. He instilled preciseness and patience in his son, which shows up in poem after poem. Komunyakaa’s poem, “My Father’s Love Letters” is a good example of this. The poem on the surface, is about a father, mother and son’s relationship, but there is much more to it.
Although the father is violent, he teaches his son about life. His tools, that is the literal tools of carpentry, are also the tools that his son will use as he grows into a man.
“Words rolled from under the pressure/Of my ballpoint...” and “We sat in the quiet brutality/Of voltage meters & pipe threaders,/Lost between sentences...”(43) are lines in the poem that introduce how important language is. Komunyakaa’s metaphors in this piece are genius. He uses tools of carpentry as well as instruments for writing as a means of explaining the lack of communication yet closeness of the father and son. We enter the poem without knowing we are doing so. “Laboring over a simple word, almost/Redeemed by what he tried to say” is the most haunting part of the poem. The father wants to atone for what he has done; the son’s role model is far from perfect, but human.
“The Smokehouse” is an important poem because it exemplifies a child’s first awareness of death. “The goodness/No longer true to each bone./I was a wizard/In that hazy world,/& knew I could cut/Slivers of meat till my heart/Grew more human and flawed.” (21)
“Nude Tango” and “Sugar” take us on a journey of a boy becoming sexually aware. Sex and violence are often set up side by side in Komunyakaa’s work. In “Nude Tango” he says; I tangoed one naked reflection/Toward another, creating a third,/As he sprung across the years/& pulled me into the woods:/If you say anything/I’ll kill your mama.” He says later in the poem; “Milkweed surrounded us,/Spraying puffs of seeds,/& I already knew the word cock.”(35) This poem tells the story of the boy’s awareness of his sexuality at the same time it portrays his involvement in violence within self. As a boy moves into manhood, sexuality is tantamount to growth. It can be confusing as well. Komunyakaa details these ideas succefully in “Nude Tango”, which is an apt title because it has several meanings. Tango refers to dance and music, as well as having a particular rhythm.
“Sugar” begins with violence; “I watched men at Angola,/How every swing of the machete/Swelled the day black with muscles,/” and follows with “Who cradled pump shotguns like lovers.” (37) The poem ends with; “She looked up & smiled/& waved./Lost in what hurts,/In what tastes good, could she/Ever learn there’s no love/In sugar? These lines seem contradictory from one another, yet, they are telling the story of what first love and sexual awakening feels like. The lines “We fed stalks into metal jaws/That locked in Sweetness” and “Leaving only a few horseflies/To buzz & drive the day beyond/Leadbelly” are examples of how well Komunyakaa uses metaphors that are not based in reality, but are visceral, bringing us into this all too authentic passage of adulthood and the ensuing independence it brings.
“Looking for Choctaw” is a poem that talks about race without ever mentioning it. It’s multi-layered because Choctaw refers to Native American Indians, who had very few rights in the forties, fifties, and sixties, back dropped against the black population of rural Louisiana and how racism touches everyone. “We couldn’t trick him/Out. He’d walk in our footprints...He remained unblinking/Stillness, years after toy guns/became real one tucked into belts...we dared him to fight,/But he only left his breath/On windshields, as if nothing/Could hold him in this world...Mama Mary/Was baking molasses tea cake/Or stirring sugar into lemonade,/Deep in thought, when she turned/&I saw his face carved/Into hers.” (25)
The boys in this poem are searching for Choctaw, an illusive figure. The metaphors in this piece are symbolic and while about reality, Komunyakaa uses imagery that is surreal to explain the hierarchy of race. They could not trick him out, yet he walked in their footprints. This is an evocative image. Followed by toys guns becoming real and daring this still man/myth to fight. The word stillness not only refers to silence but calm and tranquility. Yet, the story is about conflict and unjustness. Choctaw symbolizes peace. They dared him to fight; he left only his breath as if nothing could hold him in this world. Again, referring to elusiveness, calm, and that war is not necessary. Choctaw can be seen as a Jesus figure. The world cannot contain him. The ending is the pen ultimate moment. Mama Mary may be The Virgin Mary, and the image of stirring sugar into lemonade is a common theme with Komunyakaa’s work. Sweet becomes sour at the same time as being nourishing and familiar. “...when she turned/& I saw his face carved/Into hers” is a reminder that we are all the same.
“Sex Magnolias, & Speed” is also about racism, as well as self-awareness, and coming of age. “No begging forgiveness.../Could the girls/Strapped into bucket seats/Make those boys into men?...But I walked straight ahead/Into the biography of light,/&dark, even after they took me/Out to the graveyard/& used their rubber hoses.” (53) This poem is full of images that are jarring and thought-provoking. “The window shield glared like a helmet/On wheels, as chrome fins/Gutted the night/& circled back./That spring I’d learned/ A pivot, beginning in the guts/Behind the spleen.” Gutted and guts are both used here; Komunyakaa repeats the word as a way of letting them take on several meanings. He is intuitive as well as acutely aware of the world. He uses enjambment and music as forms for telling his stories that move them along at whatever pace he deems appropriate for the piece. Pivot, as a verb means to rotate but it when used as a noun, it refers to a turning point, or essential person or thing. He uses the word spring leading into pivot, which is also multi-layered. Spring is a similar word to pivot, but slightly different. Spring means to move quickly and it also in the context of the poem, refers to the season spring. Spring links winter to summer. Spring makes people think of birth, of flowers blossoming, and a turning point. Yet, in many places in the word, spring is the time of hurricanes and destruction. So the lines “That spring I’d learned/A pivot, beginning in the guts/Behind the spleen” become a metaphor for a boy becoming a man; learning of pain and being able to articulate his emotions in the language of music.
“Butterfly-Toed Shoes” tells the tale of sexuality and murder. This poem is especially musical and as with the other poems in the collection, full of opposing images. “....& somehow I had the prettiest woman/In the room. Her dress whirled/A surge of blue, & my butterfly-toes/Were copacetic and demonic.” (56) Copacetic and demonic might refer to heaven and hell. He uses a lot of color in this piece as well. His shoes take on flight; Butter-fly toed shoes turn into “Cream-colored leather/& black suede––my lucky shoes––/I could spin on those radiant heels,/No longer in that country town.” Butterfly and spinning on radiant heels no longer in that country town (Bogalusa?) allow the young man to take flight out of the world he is part of. Dancing with this unknown woman brings him to a place where he is simply a man dancing in the night. “When some joker cut in/& pulled her into his arms...I didn’t see/The flash when her husband burst in...I’m still backing away/From the scene, a scintilla/Of love & murder.” An evening that began with a boy dancing with a beautiful woman turns into murder. Yet, what the poem brings forth is the boy’s shedding himself from child to man.
“Mismatched Shoes” is an appropriate title for a poem about the history of a family. “My grandfather came from Trinidad/Smuggled in like a sack of papaya/On a banana boat, to a preacher’s/Bowl of gumbo & jambalaya jazz;/The name Brown fitted him like trouble,” (42) The grandfather being smuggled in like a sack of papaya is a simile that fits well here. Food and music are used in this poem as a way of portraying history. “He wore a boy’s shoe/& a girl’s shoe, with the taste of mango on his lips.../I picked up those mismatched shoes/& slipped into his skin. Komunyakaa./His blues, African fruit on my tongue.” The boy slipping into the grandfather’s skin symbolizes the change from one culture to another. Brown becomes Komunyakaa; a circular move because the boy wants to take back the heritage that belongs to him. Blues and African fruit speak about jazz and history. The word mismatched is great because it speaks of the difference in cultures between his grandfather and himself as well as referring to the mismatch of his father’s and mother’s world. Konumyakaa uses vernacular perfectly. While there is always music in his work, it is full of metaphors that are rooted in both the world of his mother and father. Books versus carpentry. Intellect and desire dance in a marriage that somehow works well together.
War is a common theme in much of Komunyakaa’s work. Magic City is full of imagery of conflicts and battles of many types. Bogalusa was a place where one had to struggle to survive. Komunyakaa illustrates the ugliness of the Deep South; hatred, violence, even murder at the same time he paints an image of a place where community, love, and in his case, a deep awareness of life prevails.
Magic City is a gift that Komunyakaa gives to us because we are left with an awareness of a world that not only existed in the near past, but still occurs today.
The microcosm that forms humanity in this book is full of taboo subjects that seem genuine. It is a book that will leave you more conscious of the world, and stay with you for a very long time.