A few years ago, I saw an episode of "Inside the Actors Studio" that featured Whoopi Goldberg. The host of the show, James Lipton, interviewed the actress for a while and, near the end of the show, turned to the audience and announced, "We are in the presence of greatness." I believe it about Ms. Goldberg and I believe it about Yusef Komunyakaa, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who spoke at Clowes Hall (4602 Sunset Avenue) on Thursday evening as part of Butler University's Visiting Writers Series. I can think of few other words I would use to describe the experience.
The Krannert Room was filled to capacity — in fact, people had been turned away from the reading, which is surely a poet's dream. If you are or have befriended a lesser-known poet, you know that audiences are often small and comprised of people the poet already knows. It's hard to imagine Mr. Komunyakaa starting out this way, but he must have. Probably not in a Barnes & Noble like some of us, but you never know.
The deep timbre and lilt of Komunyakaa's voice was intoxicating. In "When Eyes Are on Me," he is a lion who "smell[s] the blood of a king." “Blue Dimentia” finds "another dark-skinned man who... walked out of himself dreaming… yeah, honey, I know something about talking with ghosts.” Many of the poet's words made my breath catch in my throat, just as it did when I first spotted Komunyakaa at the front of the room. "Unnatural State of the Unicorn" was one of those works:
"Before embossed limited editions,
before fat artichoke hearts marinated
in rich sauce & served with imported wines,
before antics & Agnus Dei,
before the stars in your eyes
mean birth sign or Impression,
I am a man.
Inside my skin,
loving you, I am the space
my body believes in."
I could wax romantic about Komunyakaa's talent until the Internet runs out of space. I'll end with this, a few lines from the fast-paced, slam-style "Polite Non-Soutre for the Perfomance Poets of Herald Park Hotel" that got a nice response from the crowd:
"You gotta get into it so deep...
you gotta get hooked into every hungry groove...
'cause if you want to dance this boogie
be ready to let the devil use your head for a drum."