Yusef Komunyakaa (make a funk, you say?) writes poems that always seem rooted in his own life, but sometimes fly off into wild opacity because of his vocabulary and the daringness of his imagery. He’s therefore a good guy to have as a war poet and a chronicler of the 20th (and 21st!) century black southern experience. He was born in Louisiana, but his poems also travel the world. Since the 1980s, he’s taught at Indiana University.
This poem brought me right back home to the now, since its opening line describes the people I meet every day, and since one of the lines mentions my current home (apparently just by dropping the "New" from a more famous place). Did I forget to mention that he uses music a lot, too? It’s here, subtly and overtly. -ed.
THE AFRICAN BURIAL GROUND
They came as Congo, Guinea, & Angola,
feet tuned to rhythms of a thumb piano.
They came to work fields of barley & flax,
livestock, stone & slab, brick & mortar,
to make wooden barrels, some going
from slave to servant & half-freeman.
They built tongue & groove — wedged
into their place in New Amsterdam.
Decades of seasons changed the city
from Dutch to York, & dream-footed
hard work rattled their bones.
They danced Ashanti. They lived
& died. Shrouded in cloth, in cedar
& pine coffins, Trinity Church
owned them in six & a half acres
of sloping soil. Before speculators
arrived grass & weeds overtook
what was most easily forgotten,
& tannery shops drained there.
Did descendants & newcomers
shoulder rock & heave loose gravel
into the landfill before building crews
came, their guitars & harmonicas
chasing away ghosts at lunch break?
Soon, footsteps of lower Manhattan
strutted overhead, back & forth
between old denials & new arrivals,
going from major to minor pieties,
always on the go. The click of heels
the tap of a drum awaking the dead.