When one acquires and reads a Yusef Komunyakaa collection, expectations range from the philosophical to the spiritual, from the musical to the political. In Komunyakaa’s beautifully collated Night Animals, readers receive not only the usual Komunyakaa fare, but also visual treats from artist Rachel Bliss, which add a Bosch-like bent to the collection. And while Night Animals, only 33 pages, might seem small, one must read the book once, twice, three times to access all this delightful chapbook has to offer—conversations about otherness, creation, destruction, evolution, as well as subtle critiques of humanity’s behavior.
Night Animals opens with “The Blue Hour,” a poem revisiting Creation as both an artistic and physical event. With its incorporation of Old World-themed images of horse-drawn buggies and Old Testament-informed images of “red-eyed seventeen-year locust,” the poem weaves an impression of creation from chaos, communicated in the first stanza’s alternating indentations. In the second and third stanzas, however, the universe aligns itself, literally left, and the second stanza opens with “A flicker of wings & eyes” from mockingbirds arriving with “stolen songs / & cries, their unspeakable lies & omens” that are significantly more translatable than humanity’s slang-laden answers of “uh-huh & yeah” stammered in the third stanza. These minimal responses communicate that humans do not, and perhaps cannot, appreciate the intricacies of the natural processes unfolding around them.
The collection’s second poem, “Night,” portrays Night as a creature who “crawls to the edge / on bright paws.” Readers can interpret the “bright paws” as stars. Night then becomes a time of recognition “where humans come/ to argue with gods.” Night becomes a contradiction, owning both light and dark, and this contradiction takes form in the poem itself. The first three stanzas, with their analytical and terse tone, convey a philosopher’s seriousness, a biologist’s analysis of a predatory creature. This contrasts with the final stanza, in which Night “edges so close / her skin is metaphysical.” Night becomes not a threatening state or environment, but a celebrated creature, her “brain a hive, / a hum, / a lantern with eyes / printed on wings.”
In the poem “Night Song,” the narrator’s tone grows more serious with the poem’s address of “Black cricket.” In order to understand the poem’s addressee, one must consider a few of the addressee’s unique characteristics. Biologically, black crickets are meatier, stronger, yet they move slower and more aggressively than brown crickets. Their shell is harder, and they predominately dwell on the ground. The narrator describes the black cricket as being “caught in one gear on the cusp” and “nibbling at an edge of the firmament.” These lines convey a sense of ostracism, one that continues in the poem’s third line: “you are an afterthought of hunger & belief / at twilight, driving the stars ad nauseam.” Here, the narrator recognizes the black cricket’s power, its individualism, and also its oppression by the outside world, and the narrator asks the black cricket, “So, you think you know loneliness, huh?” The author’s use of the word “huh” once again conveys that humans lack the understanding, and even the vocabulary, to comprehend nature’s grandeur. Nonetheless, the poem’s narrator possesses a minute inkling and affirms the black cricket by stating, “Your song is the only / evidence you’re here, a loop of postmodern jive, / the keening of a lonely string across bridge & limbo.” In other words, the cricket is solitary, the voice crying in the wilderness in a poem that possesses the power of The Beatles’s classic White Album track “Blackbird.”
In poems like “Several Mysteries of the Platypus,” Komunyakaa’s collection continues in its celebration of the individual. The platypus, a creature not under immediate threat but still vulnerable to pollution’s effects, was so baffling that British scientists believed the pelts sent to them were the devious joke of someone who’d sewn a duckbill onto a beaver. In Komunyakaa’s poem, the platypus possesses a level of compassion and self-understanding that most humans wish they could possess. The poem opens with the platypus hiding “in a swish of wet grass / because she remembers the first man / like a wound, an old scar, a howl.” These lines express humanity’s imposition on the natural world, and the repetition of the pronoun “She” at the beginning of lines 1, 6, and 14, as well as internally in lines 2, 7, and 14, establishes the platypus’s authority—despite line 9’s claim that a “prankish god” pieced the animal together. The poem becomes a celebratory reaffirmation of otherness, but it also serves as a stark insight into humanity’s violence, particularly in how it deems creatures useful only if their pelts serve a market-driven purpose.
Night Animals moves forward, celebrating otherness, individuality, and nocturnality. The poem “From a Distance” opens yet another conversation about otherness by portraying two drunken men dancing. The poem establishes a sense of intimacy between the dance partners, and the repetition of the word “two” forces readers to make deeper inferences about the dancers’ relationship by establishing their partnership. The repetition invites the reader to observe the dancers—not voyeuristically, but admiringly. Of course, as with any celebration of otherness and individualism, impending conflict overshadows the happy, dancing partners. The writer establishes this potential conflict in the second stanza with the dependent clause, “If they were fighting.” The stanza then fills with provocative color-phrases and -words: “blues and grays” implies the brother-against-brother conflict of the United States Civil War; “red” suggests the draconian Soviet Union and its totalitarian laws against homosexuality; and “green” signals nonviolence, social justice, and grassroots movements. Then, the poem ends with a simple image: “The two big men in their cowboy boots / two-step to the sound of things falling.” The final clause might remind readers of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, in which a few seemingly simple and innocent actions produce much larger, more dire consequences.
By the time readers reach the collection’s end, they’ll notice that oddly fascinating creatures become esteemed citizens of the natural world—citizens that experience, without their own instigation, the harmful consequences of humanity’s influence. The celebration of otherness not only continues in Night Animals, but also descends into the political in poems like “A Note on Tasmania.” In this poem, readers encounter a creature that one might interpret as the infamous Tasmanian Devil, the carnivorous marsupial distantly related to the now-extinct thylacine, who now faces threat not only from humanity but also from the ravaging Devil Facial Tumor Disease. The author establishes the Tasmanian Devil’s authority in the poem by repeating the pronoun “He.” Lines like “He yawns to show his teeth / to remind them of his story” solidify the animal’s power. The animal also possesses a brute will to survive: “He fought since the first / gangplank raised & fell in sea fog.” The poem captures confusion in stanza three when the narrator poses the question, “Can’t they see he’s the only angel / stranded this side of the equator?” Readers might fumble at these lines because the “they” doesn’t refer to an established noun, and though the “he” implies the Tasmanian Devil, readers might interpret the “he” as a representative of the many sailors, explorers, and scientists who bombarded Australia, New Zealand, and Tasmania throughout the 1700s. In spite of them all, the Tasmanian Devil shows his defiant stripe, literally: “Though there’s a little white flag / of surrender stamped on his chests / he’s still here.”
In the spirit of celebrating rugged individualism and survivalism, Komunyakaa’s collection ends with the thought-provoking poem “Night Gigging.” The poem opens with the image of “A three-pronged spear waits for a bullfrog.” The author reduces the spear or the gig to its basic parts—its three prongs. By not naming it specifically, the author has reduced the weapon’s power, thus reducing the threat without eliminating it completely. In lines 3 and 4, the poem segues into images of a silhouette rising from a praying or dying man, and a sense of cyclical completion permeates the lines. In line 7, another ghost appears, this time “poised between free will & the gig.” While some readers might interpret the ghost literally, it might also represent a human devoid of a higher conscious and emptied of compassion, one that it will hurt other living creatures in order to better itself. In Line 11, the commands “Hold. Oh. Now, go” appear, a verbal three-pronged spear of fragmented thoughts displaying humanity’s indecisive manner. The author reinforces this spear by using terse words like “knot,” “cinching,” and “bloated” in lines 13 and 14, and this terseness serves as a quickness, one that brings an abrupt end. However, all cycles must be completed, and “Night Gigging” returns to humanity’s base language exhibited in “The Blue Hour.” In Line 13, the narrator states “& yeah,” reiterating the point that humans cannot appreciate or articulate the intricacies of the natural world, nor do they possess the consciousness to understand how one simple action against a creature in one realm might produce dire consequences in another.
Yusef Komunyakaa’s Night Animals—with its otherworldly celebrations of creatures that both humans and evolution seem to have forgotten, with its quiet rallies in support of an otherness often exploited or demeaned by traditional societies—is a must-read for anyone seeking encouragement in the face of overt or subtle adversity. Readers with an interest in the biological world will find the collection’s reverent portrayals of misunderstood and manipulated creatures a refreshing feature, while readers looking for political subtext will appreciate the collection’s cheerleading for the underdog. Once again, Komunyakaa proves that his work is both timely and timeless, especially in a suffering world.
Nicole Yurcaba is a Ukrainian-American poet and essayist who teaches at Bridgewater College and serves as co-director for the Bridgewater International Poetry Festival. Her poems and essays have appeared in The Atlanta Review, The Lindenwood Review, Whiskey Island, Raven Chronicles, Appalachian Heritage, North of Oxford, and many other online and print journals. Nicole holds an MFA in Writing from Lindenwood University, is the recipient of a July 2020 Writing Residency at Gullkistan, Creative Center for the Arts in Iceland, and is a Tupelo Press June 2020 30 for 30 featured poet. Her poetry collection Triskaidekaphobia is forthcoming from the UK press Black Spring Eye Group in 2022.