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Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems (Wesleyan Poetry Series) Paperback – March 15, 1993

4.9 out of 5 stars 12 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

In addition to 12 moving new poems, Neon Vernacular (winner of the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry) samples broadly from Yusef Komunyakaa's acclaimed collections Dien Cai Dau, Copacetic, and I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head. Poems from Komunyakaa's earlier books show that while his style has evolved from a soul-bare blues to an intellectually syncopated jazz, his core obsessions remain. His poems provide gritty testimony of the Vietnam War, a history of community and loneliness in African America, and, elusively, a complex document of human consciousness. Like his predecessor in this uncertain territory, Robert Hayden--who asked, "What did I know, what did I know/ of love's austere and lonely offices"--Komunyakaa's speakers are constantly being attacked by doubt, as in "Black String of Days:"

Tonight I feel the stars are out
to use me for target practice.
I don't know why they zero in like old
business, each a moment of blood
unraveling forgotten names...
On the black string of days
there's an unlucky number
undeniably ours.

Although his poems of the Vietnam War belong to the battle-weary tradition of Siegfried Sassoon, Louis Simpson, and Bruce Weigl, they gain an added complexity from the tense absence of battle. The idea of being a soldier in an unpopular war, as Komunyakaa was, attains in such poems as "Monsoon Season" and "Water Buffalo" a metaphysical air. In these poems, ponchos feel like body bags and one speaker realizes, "I'm nothing but a target," but the bullet never comes. As in his poems about growing up in Bogalusa, Louisiana, Komunyakaa's voices have prepared themselves for pain, and they celebrate the confusion of the lifetime before it strikes, or the clarity of the moment just after. This is a rich collection from one of our most rewarding poets. --Edward Skoog

From Library Journal

This collection is comprised of poems from seven of Komunyakaa's previous collections. A master at interweaving memory and history to shape his experiences into narratives, Komunyakaa enriches his poems with details: "His fingernails are black/ & torn from blows,/ as if the hammer/ declares its own angle of reference." Music has its special force with a rhythm that seems to enforce meaning: "Heartstring. Blessed wood/ and every moment the thing's made of:/ ball of fatback/ licked by fingers of fire." As an African American, Komunyakaa defines a culture with striking imagery that is often misunderstood by mainstream readers. Highly recommended for public and academic libraries. --Lenard D. Moore, United Arts Council of Raleigh & Wake Cty., N.C.
Copyright 1993 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Series: Wesleyan Poetry Series
  • Paperback: 188 pages
  • Publisher: Wesleyan; 1st edition (March 15, 1993)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0819512117
  • ISBN-13: 978-0819512116
  • Product Dimensions: 5.6 x 0.6 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #236,892 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
After I saw the movie "Il Postino" ("The Postman"), I was so moved and intrigued I had to go check out the poetry of Pablo Neruda. And after I heard Yusef Komunyakaa read from his own work, I immediately had to buy this collection of his poetry, NEON VERNACULAR, a book I have singularly cherished ever since.
Long ago, a friend defined poetry for me as "the marriage of meaning and music." I remember the late Etheridge Knight bemoaning in one of his haiku poems that "making words swing . . . ain't no square poet's job." Over the years, I've heard a number of poets read poetry, mostly their own; only a handful, such as Amiri Baraka, with any kind of groove and insight.
Komunyakaa and his work were both unknown quantities when I heard him read at Boston University some years ago. Never forget it! His voice was resonant as a cello. His presence was serene, eloquent as burnished mahogany. His casual elegance reminded me of singer "Big Joe" Williams, who fronted Count Basie's band for so many years. Combine that majesty with the power and grace of his reading, the pulse and insight of his poems . . . He finished to a standing ovation, while I, practically doubled over and in tears, as if just kicked in the solar plexus (literally knocked out by the beauty and the passion of what I'd just witnessed) cried in awe and joy. His performance had touched me, as someone else I knew once said, "down here where the soul begins . . ."
What about his poetry moves me so much? His wordsmithing in a distinct blues & jazz-inflected voice.
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Format: Paperback
I use this book of poetry in a creative writing class for high school students. While the language can be sometimes tough for them to follow (they're almost always afraid of poetry), the rhythms are so easy for them to follow. You may find yourself tapping your feet to the poems. This is a poet who knows sound, who knows rhythm, who knows the ways to marry those two ideas to words. And he teaches my students to do the same.
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While I can't agree with the clinical nature of the previous review, I do agree that this book is truly great. However, I would not put Komunyakaa on my list of best African-American Poets, he is simply one of the best poets writing today. As good as Frank Stanford ever was. Truth be told I am wondering when it will be his turn to be names U.S. Poet Laureate. I fully expect him to receive the Nobel Prize.
Now about the book: I have been actively searching out Komunyakaa ever since I saw his poem, "Troubling the Waters." When I bought Neon Vernacular some years ago I put everything else away because Neon Vernacular was the only thing worth looking at for months. Now, I find myself reading "Songs for My Father" over and over. I even wroe a poem based upon "Starlight Scope Myopia" from Dien Cai Dau. Simply put, Yusef Komunyakaa is the one living writer I most want to meet with and talk poetry.
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Neon Vernacular left me stunned. It won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1994 and the genius of the poet is evident throughout the book. I personally related to so much of his subject material. I was a college student in the late 1960s and part of the anti-war movement, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). I had friends killed in View Nam. I have seen the permanent damage this war has left on so many of the youth of my generation. It continues to be heartbreaking to this day.
"He danced with tall grass
for a moment, like he was swaying
with a woman. Our gun barrels
glowed white-hot.
When I got to him,
a blue halo
of flies had already claimed him"

Komunyakaa’s work covers a broad landscape. He sits in the jungles and cities of Viet Nam, twirls back to two women talking in a kitchen, a musical chat between neighbors, to transforming himself into a young girl, abused and raped repeatedly and indifferently by her father -- “Stepfather: A Girl’s Song” (p. 45). This breadth is astonishing. How does he get these settings, the feelings, so wildly divergent, so right? His poetic voice roams through musical blues and jazz expressions, “Copacetic Mingus” (p. 72) or “Untitled Blues” (p. 64); stark and vital statements of fact, as seen in “April Fools’ Day (p. 62), or “Monsoon Season (p. 130); some are epic in nature, “A Good Memory” (pp. 14-44); others present themselves as newspaper columns, “Changes; or, Reveries at a Window Overlooking a Country Road with Two Women Talking the Blues in the Kitchen” (p. 8-10). He make a grim monolog in “A Break From the Bush” (p.146), compelling in its blinding darkness. A eulogy for the not-yet-dead.

His words are delicious (“Praising Dark Palaces” p.
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Format: Paperback
This Pulitzer Prize winning collection of poetry is a document to the power diversity of the best African-American poet to come along in the post-modern (after WWII) period. Komunyakaa, who appeared this past fall as part of the Lenoir-Rhyne College Writers Series, is at his best when writing about jazz, his relationships with other family members and his Vietnam experience. The passages are often chilling and direct, unadorned yet filled with perfect word choices.
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