More Than a State of Mind

By Komunyakaa, Yusef | Studies in the Literary Imagination, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

More Than a State of Mind


Komunyakaa, Yusef, Studies in the Literary Imagination


They who so gravely taught me to split my body from my mind and both from my "soul," taught me also to split my conscience from my acts and Christianity from southern tradition.

--Lillian Smith, Killers of the Dream

I believe that each of us internalizes a landscape composite of myths and stories, and we carry that psychological terrain within us as we make our way through the world, whether we are facing that green divan that Anna Akhmatova slept on in St. Petersburg or gazing out at Stone Mountain in Georgia, an overlay by which the future is often colored and through which it is often perceived. However, like Lillian Smith--"Miss Lil"--some of us attempt to refashion that inherited landscape through consciousness. That is, we attempt to bring ourselves to an awareness of what has shaped us. Since landscape is both regional and emotional, I learned to meditate on everything around me, people and nature.

Like the word made flesh, the South has been woven through my bones. My collection of poetry, Magic City (1992), is an attempt to capture my early years of growing up in Bogalusa, Louisiana. Coming of age there, I was fully aware of both the natural beauty and the social terror surrounding me. The challenge became to acknowledge and resist this terror. My early emotional life grew into the kind of questions that lead men to ponder philosophy and psychology, eventually guiding me to poetry. I became aware of the troublesome contradictions in my town.

James Baldwin says a black boy can't survive if he doesn't know the score by fourteen. Of course, this is doubly true in the South I knew in the '50s. This was near the time Emmett Till was murdered in Mississippi.

But the South was also a mecca of language and images. I learned about the naming of things there. The wrong word could get a man killed. The South taught me how to look at things, to see into the shape and design of reality. I began to take things apart. My first ventures alone were into nature, then into my imagination, which allowed me to exit Bogalusa. I saw things when I didn't, when I wasn't supposed to.

I don't view myself primarily as a southern writer; however, what I depict in my poetry is connected to rural Louisiana. …

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