“The jawbone of an ass. A shank/braided with shark teeth. A garrote.” So begins Yusef Komunyakaa’s new book of poems, simply called Warhorses. The slim volume confronts uncomfortable topics like wars, death, and atrocity. Written in a stripped-down primal language, it subverts the violence of its subject matter. Komunyakaa’s mastery and precision has been rewarded with a Pulitzer Prize for his earlier volume, Neon Vernacular (1994).
Before the reader has opened the book, Paul Cadmus’s 1935 watercolor “To the Lynching!” forces the reader to confront some hard realities. The image, like the poems inside the book, takes a gruesome topic, re-imagines it, and infuses it with mythic and sacred overtones. In this case, the lynching victim and his persecutors are reminiscent of a martyr being crucified, faces contorted in evil sneers while the victim lays stretched and bleeding.
The book is divided into three sections. Two collections of shorter poems are entitled “Love in the Time of War” and “Heavy Metal.” The book ends with the long form poem, “Autobiography of My Alter Ego.” “Love in the Time of War” offers an easy entryway into Komunyakaa’s poetic vision. This section focuses on various myths and re-imagines them. Gilgamesh and Odysseus and common soldiers wage battles both on the battlefield and in the bedroom, their heroic and erotic deeds mingling together. “She cleansed his wounds & bandages his eyes / at the edge of reason, & made him forget / birthright, the virgins in their bridal beds.”
The next section, “Heavy Metal,” collects meditative poems on objects (“The Helmet”, “Warhorses”, “The Towers”). “There’s no rehearsal to turn flesh into dust so quickly.” So begins the poem “Grenade.” “The Warlord’s Garden” recounts the trials and tribulations of a warlord’s poppy garden. Told in a dream-like fugue of images, it is cut through with a ferocious commentary about a war-ravaged country reduced to selling heroin just to survive. “Before the needle’s bright tip / holds a drop of woeful bliss, / before the fifth horseman of the Apocalypse / gallops again the night streets of Europe.” The economy of these lines would do far more good in a classroom than subjecting students to government propaganda that has militarized their lives and made pot more easily accessible than cigarettes and alcohol.
“Autobiography of My Alter Ego” collapses these disparate themes and random tragedies, expanding them into an individual narrative. Komunyakaa's long poem is autobiographical, but not, weaving fact and fiction together. His childhood, time in Vietnam, and present circumstances get rigorously examined and creatively reconfigured. The poem ties all the previous poems together and provides an unsentimental vision of humanity. It is unsentimental and bleak, but honest, something in short supply today. These poems make you hope, even if it is hoping for a return to blunt honesty, like the blunt honesty of Homer and other storytellers.