Warhorses by Yusef Komunyakaa and The Porcine Canticles by David Lee

Warhorses by Yusef Komunyakaa (2008)

Yusef Komunyakaa is, as previously mentioned, one of my all-time favorite poets. He’s a very deft writer, who can amaze, and blaze images and words into your head. Or sometimes he can be just deft. This isn’t my favorite of Komunyakaa’s work, but it’s not like he’s become a terrible writer here. It is and isn’t a criticism of Warhorses to say that it’s a collection that does something together (it’s a lyric meditation on war (so of course love too), touching on conflicts historic through present-day (it was published in 2008)), but it’s not a collection of individually great poems. (The third section is the exception — “Autobiography of my Alter Ego,” a long how-true-or-not-who-cares monologue, has that extra quality I think of when I think of Komunyakaa’s greatest poems, that blaze. It’s hard, and engrossing.)

The first section, Love in the Time of War, is all sonnets, and some have fine moments but mostly they feel safe and perhaps a little churned out, making the same kind of moves lots of his other poems make, but without the unexpected originality of image that usually marks his work. That feeling continues in the second section, Heavy Metal; the poem “Heavy Metal Soliloquy” is the only real standout. However, taken all together, the collection is an interesting look at war and violence. Hardly any of these poems stick in my head afterwards, and some, for instance “The Clay Army,” are merely description. A description of those life-sized terracotta soldiers feels needed in a book that’s all about war, but as a poem by itself it doesn’t say anything.

The Porcine Canticles by David Lee (1984)

Many of the poems in The Porcine Cantciles are really, really wonderful, a great slice of a certain Americana character. This book is primarily narrative poems centering around epic tales of pigs and people, featuring John, his funny and uneducated-but-pretty-wise friend, with a few Utah landscape still-lifes thrown in there. Lee’s simultaneous respect for and bemusement regarding the people he’s featuring is a fine line the poems walk well. And his handling of vernacular, and of quotations nested inside quotations inside a line, is deft and engrossing. Take this section from “For Jan, With Love,”

Dave John sez Dave my red sow
she got pigs stuck and my big hands they won’t go
and I gotta get them pigs out
or that fucker she’s gonna die
and I sez John goddam
we’ll be right down and John sez Jan
he yells JAN where’s Jan she’s got little hands
she can get in there and pull them pigs
and I sez Jan and he sez Jan and Jan comes
what? Jan sez and John sez tell Jan Dave
and I sez Jan John’s red sow’s got pigs
stuck and his hands too big and won’t go
and he’s gotta get them pigs out
or that fucker’s gonna die (John he turns
his head and lights a cigarette)
(he don’t say fuck to no woman)
and Jan she sez well let’s go
and we get in John’s beat up damn truck […]

That should give you a good idea of the flavor (though they’re not all so hyper). Lee is excellent when he’s telling tales, or letting someone else tell a tale. The occasional poems about landscapes, though, fall deep into the sentimentality trap and should mostly be skipped. They just don’t fly the way his people-centric poems do.

Taken in all at once, John and all the vernacular can start to be tedious after a while, so I don’t necessarily recommend reading this collection cover to cover in one gulp. But the following poems from The Porcine Canticles are particularly fine: “Loading a Boar,” “Jubilate Agno” (after Christopher Smart’s poem about his cat Joffrey), “Behold,” “Mean,” “Friday Afternoon, Feeding Pigs,” “Baalam,” and “Epilogue.” “The Chain Letter” and “The Muffler and the Law” are also memorable.