Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Dying Objects/living Things: The Thingness of Poetry in Yusef Komunyakaa's Talking Dirty to the Gods

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Dying Objects/living Things: The Thingness of Poetry in Yusef Komunyakaa's Talking Dirty to the Gods

Article excerpt

Drawing on interdisciplinary work on the significance of cultural artefacts by scholars such as Bill Brown and W.J.T. Mitchell, this essay explores images of things in Komunyakaa's recent mythopoetic verse while connecting this motif to the thingness of poetry itself, the latent and insistent force of its rhythmic form.

I knew that I wanted it to take on what I thought of as small things within the context of the universe, and how those things illuminate larger ideas, larger moments of perception. Really, I wanted to write tribute poems to smaller things.

--Yusef Komunyakaa, "Remaking Myth in Yusef Komunyakaa's Talking Dirty to the Gods, Taboo, and Gilgamesh: An Interview"

Yusef Komunyakaa's poetic concern with the larger import of smaller things coincides with the emergence over the last decade of critical interest in thingness and material culture, crossing disciplines from anthropology to economics to art history to philosophy and literary criticism. Theories of thingness and objecthood centre on how extensively and intensively inanimate things can influence social relationships and even express forms of agency within and beyond cultural systems. This attention to the power of things to shape the human world is vital to Talking Dirty to the Gods, a collection of poems that departs from Komunyakaa's long concern with engaging the historical traumas of racism and combat. (1) In this volume, he creates a new mode of mythopoesis, a transcultural synthesis of ancient deities with the proliferating gods flooding modernity through contemporary mythologies of science, media, late capitalism, and politics. (2) This essay concentrates less on the daunting diversity of subject matter in Komunyakaa's volume than on its engagement with what Bill Brown has termed the "object matter" of literature, the ways in which texts invoke the physical presence of things to unveil "the phenomenal object world through which human subjects circulate" (Sense 18). What is striking yet largely unmentioned by critics is Komunyakaa's intense concentration on things themselves through poems that lay bare the means by which nonhuman things affect the individual and social experiences of human subjects. Komunyakaa's poems ask us to examine smaller things in relation to the volume's unique form of "gut-level realism," which provides a visceral transcendence through knowing confrontation with the presence and pressures of things, with the material world "in all of its fearful certainty" (Turner 343). (3)

Brown describes the crucial distinction between objects and things, explaining that an object can function as a window into human culture, for "we look through objects because there are codes by which our interpretive attention makes them meaningful, because there is a discourse of objectivity that allows us to use them as facts" ("Thing" 4). We convert the rawness of things into the relative tractability of objects when we name them and put them to use within our own networks of meaning and exchange. By contrast, we must face the lingering thingness of objects "when they stop working for us: when the drill breaks, when the car stalls, when the windows get filthy, when their flow within the circuits of production and distribution, consumption and exhibition, has been arrested, however momentarily. The story of objects asserting themselves as things, then, is the story of how the thing really names less an object than a particular subject-object relation" (4). Thingness embodies a return of the repressed, of uncontained material presence striking against abstract social modes of value. Moving beyond a Marxist critique of the fetishization of otherwise valueless and transient objects, this essay focuses on two primary manifestations of thingness in Talking Dirty to the Gods: dying objects, objects in the course of being stripped of their significance vis-a-vis human subjectivity, as their status as commodities is in the process of being interrupted and corrupted so that their resolute thingness, their fractious irreducibility to circuits of human use and exchange, seizes our attention; and living things, things of nature--plants, animals, and human/nonhuman hybrids--that take on a totemic aura, serving as unkind reminders of our kinship with other species. …

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