Yusef Komunyakaa won the Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for Neon Vernacular, a collection of “new and selected poems” that included the work that had established his reputation as a master of several themes. Perhaps he was best known for his book of Vietnam poems, Dien Cai Dau (I’m told the phrase means “crazy” and was used by some Vietnamese to identify American GIs in that war). The poems in that collection were spare and direct, often reflecting Komunyakaa’s experience as a soldier, moving into metaphor or even surrealist associations when the reality the soldier experienced became overwhelming. It remains the best book of poems about the American experience of the Vietnam War.

Before that, Komunyakaa had written about his childhood in the Jim Crow South as well as poems that were both about jazz and used jazz techniques. That American form and its method of allowing wild riffs off an established line offer a useful way of understanding the kinds of imaginative jumps that have characterized American poetry for the last few decades, and Komunyakaa uses jazz as well as anybody.

A lesser writer would have been content with these large historical themes and a method that garnered national awards. But Komunyakaa, who reads at the U-M Museum of Art on Monday, October 25, has a more restless intelligence and an imagination that never seems to be satisfied. A decade ago he published Talking Dirty to the Gods, a collection of poems all in a very rigid form that allowed him to use history, classical references, observation of nature, and personal experience in a way that suggested an almost prophetic vision of the individual in history.

That vision has continued and expanded in later work. Komunyakaa has assumed the prophetic mantle of a Whitman or a Ginsberg, but his tone is more personal, more fragile. In Warhorses, his most recent collection, he balances his experience of colonial war against the wars our country has been fighting during the last decade. In “Clouds” he describes a moment of turbulence in an airplane about to land. The woman next to him is frightened, and he notices the cover of the magazine she is reading, one that shows a picture of contemporary soldiers:

I see my face among their boyish poses

reflected in the airplane window,

& then I hear bloody tom-toms

in a deep valley, as my mind

runs along with an ancestor’s,

three steps into a moonless interior

before he’s captured & sold

for swatches of bright cloth

& a few glass beads. A spear dance

awakens the daydreamer’s blue hour.

What tribal scrimmage centuries ago

brought me here to this moment

where Georgia O’Keeffe’s clouds

are flat-white against an ocean, before

the plane touches down at LaGuardia

this morning? The boy soldiers

huddle around someone shot

on the ground, the raised dust

coloring their faces, clothes,

& memory the pigment of dust.

The personal becomes a vision of history which becomes a picture of the contemporary moment which moves back to the personal. It seems so easy when done with Komunyakaa’s masterful touch.