Best War Painter

It's a shame that Barack Obama didn't select Yusef Komunyakaa to deliver the invocation poem at the Inauguration ceremonies in January. The Princeton professor is not only this nation's supreme stylist -- conjuring poems that fairly crackle with palpably lavish imagery -- but he has more profoundly intuitive things to say than Elizabeth Alexander, the overmatched and earnestly prosaic writer who was given the honor. Komunyakaa's masterwork, 1993's Neon Vernacular, draws upon his childhood in Louisiana and his experience as a soldier in the Vietnam War to paint vivid pictures "through a hallucination of blues/& deep purples that set the day on fire." His poetry is simultaneously down to earth and lushly evocative, whether he's describing butterflies ("Incandescent anthologies/semi-zoological alphabets of fire") or nervous soldiers waiting in ambush ("A tiger circles us, in his broken cage/between sky & what's human . . . & then a sound that makes you jump/in your sleep years later/the cough of a mortar tube"). His poems about music are literally musical, snapping with a bluesy beat and soaring with a jazzy expansiveness. Komunyakaa's recent work, as collected in the African-American travelogue/revisionist history lesson Taboo (2004), is just as feverishly enchanting and richly detailed. His latest book, Warhorses, came out in October. Komunyakaa reads with fellow Kingsley & Kate Tufts Award winners Rodney Jones and Deborah Digges.
Mon., March 9, 7 p.m., 2009