Photo illustration by Miki Lowe
Yusef Komunyakaa’s love for poetry began with his grandparents. They were dedicated churchgoers, and he’s said that “the Old Testament informed the cadences of their speech.” Komunyakaa spent his childhood at home in Louisiana, reading and rereading the Bible—and listening to jazz and blues on the wooden radio in his mother’s living room.
Komunyakaa’s love of music is easily detectable in the jazzy rhythm of his poems: their short, syncopated lines, rising and falling, reaching crescendo. But his search for something sacred is there too. In “Venus of Willendorf,” what begins as a mere description of the Paleolithic figurine—created more than 20,000 years ago—morphs into a prayer of reverence. “She’s pregnant with all the bloomy hosannas of love-hunger,” he writes. “Beautiful in a way that forces us to look at the ground.” And the poem itself is a hosanna, a cry of adoration. Komunyakaa makes a four-inch “hunk of limestone” feel giant—and the reader feel humbled.