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Words Are Bigger than Yusef Komunyakaa

by Dario DiBattista

Yusef Komunyakaa doesn’t return my emails. This confuses me. When I met the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet two years ago at a small house at the tiny Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, I thought I had made a positive impression. At the conclusion of his speaker’s engagement there, Yusef had even stopped me on the way out the door to shake my hand. When I queried him recently, he remembered this encounter and agreed to an interview. I am unsure why he doesn’t respond. But thinking about it now, I can piece together why.

On the day that I met Yusef, the rain fell intensely. Everyone was soaked from the short trip from the parking lot to the building. Most of the attendees were veterans; almost none of them brought umbrellas. Considering that many of them had survived monsoon seasons in ‘Nam, why should they get worried about a little rain? Yusef’s College appointed handler took a long time to introduce him — there was a lot to introduce: a Bronze Star for service in the Army as an information specialist in Southeast Asia; three degrees, including an MA and MFA at respectable universities; a collection of eight published poetry books that boasts the Pulitzer Prize-winning Neon Vernacular; and all sorts of teaching accolades, most notably, English Professor at Princeton University.

Like a resting lion, Yusef sat hunched over while she spoke. He leaned on the large, square table, using his folded arms as a brace. Although he let his head droop, he arched his neck upward. For the next four hours, he never deviated much from this position. Even despite this odd posture, his eyes seemed to rise above the others around the table. When he finally did speak, his voice was magnetic and bold yet almost inaudible — like a distant explosion. He didn’t want to say much; he didn’t want to be the center of attention. “All literature is about creating dialogue,” he told the group after just a couple of open questions. Implicitly he was saying, “So let us talk then.”

Fifteen years ago when he won the Pulitzer Prize, Yusef didn’t have much to say then, either. In one of two New York Times profiles from the time, he didn’t even expect to become a household name, a prediction he expressed no concerns about. “I’m uncomfortable with the focus on the poet and not on the poem,” he was quoted as saying. He didn’t even want to accept praise from colleagues and students at Indiana State University where he taught at the time. He would bow timidly or gesture mild acceptance with his hand. “I’m happier about the process of writing,” he told the paper.

Yusef started that writing process for the group of us at Trinity College by recalling a vivid memory from his childhood in Louisiana. At semi-annual family engagements, his great uncle -– a professional gambler and World War One veteran -– would not be allowed inside until he obliged a certain tradition. Yusef’s grandmother would block the entrance, a cloth unfurled in her outstretched hands. When the great uncle would step up and hand over his pistol to her, she would wrap it up, put it in a box, and only then would he be allowed to enter. Inside the house, whiskey would be passed around. Intrigued by this man, a young Yusef asked him one night, ignoring the family taboo, “what he did in the war?” His great uncle, drunk from the celebration, replied with no inflection that he was responsible for burying and then exhuming the bodies of dead GIs.

“Are we responsible for what we saw?” Yusef then asked the group of veterans, his words reverberating back to World War II and forward to the Iraq War. This question ignited fierce conversation in the group. Suddenly, just like he desired, everyone had started to talk. At one point, a former Army Sergeant hugged an Army Medic. “I never got to thank one of you guys for saving my life,” he said through tears. We were all abuzz about sharing our wars, unwittingly inspired by Yusef’s stories and aura.

Today, I know that he was right. All literature is about dialogue; it’s about recollecting the past and proceeding confidently into the future. There were mistakes — there will be mistakes — we must learn and move on.

In July 2003, Yusef’s wife at the time, poet Reetika Vazirani, killed herself and murdered their two-year-old child. At the funeral, Yusef just sat while a friend of his read a poem that Yusef had wrote for his son. The poem began, “I am five,” an age his son would never reach. With poetry, only the words are what should be important, not the person behind them.

Despite this overwhelming loss, Yusef still teaches poetry. He still writes poems, and he has even written a play about Hurricane Katrina called “The Deacons.” I think he doesn’t respond to my questions and queries for follow up interviews, because the world is huge, and when discovered through language, it is much bigger than the nuances of his life.

I think he would prefer it, if instead of writing this article, I just wrote some poetry, too.

Dario DiBattista is a former Marine who served two tours in Iraq. His memoir Go Now You Are Forgiven is forthcoming from BCG Books in 2013. Visit his website here.

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