poem index

sign up to receive a new poem-a-day in your inbox

Recorded for Poem-a-Day, April 8, 2016.
About this Poem 

“Over a decade ago, the poet Carrie Allen McCray told me that, as a child, she had known Ota Benga—the Congolese man and Mbuti Pygmy who had been exhibited as an oddity in a ‘human zoo’ exhibition in New York City. Ota Benga had lived with McCray’s mother in Lynchburg, Virginia. Later I learned that he had also known and trusted the poet Anne Spencer, and there the poem began in my psyche.”
—Yusef Komunyakaa

Ota Benga at Edenkraal

Maybe it was hog-killing time
     when he arrived in Lynchburg,
       Virginia, several lifetimes behind him,

the old smell of the monkey house
     at the New York Zoological Gardens
       receding, a broken memory left.

Not sure of the paths & turns
     taken, woozy in a swarm of hues,
       he stood in Anne Spencer’s garden
      
surrounding the clapboard house,
   but when she spoke he came back
     to himself. The poet had juba

in her voice, & never called him
     Artiba, Bengal, Autobank, or
       Otto Bingo. Her beds of tiger

lilies, sweet peas, & snapdragons
     disarmed him. Her fine drawl
        summoned rivers, trees, & boats,

in a distant land, & he could hear
     a drum underneath these voices
       near the forest. He never spoke

of the St. Louis World’s Fair
     or the Bronx Zoo. The boys
       crowded around him for stories

about the Congo, & he told them
     about hunting “big, big” elephants,
       & then showed them the secret

of stealing honey from the bees
     with bare hands, how to spear fish
        & snare the brown mourning dove.

One night he sat in the hayloft,
      singing, “I believe I’ll go home.
        Lordy, won’t you help me?”

A hoot owl called to the moon
     hemmed in a blackberry thicket,
       & he bowed to the shine of the gun. 

Copyright © 2016 by Yusef Komunyakaa. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on April 8, 2016, by the Academy of American Poets.

Copyright © 2016 by Yusef Komunyakaa. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on April 8, 2016, by the Academy of American Poets.

Yusef Komunyakaa

Yusef Komunyakaa

Poet Yusef Komunyakaa first received wide recognition following the 1984 publication of Copacetic, a collection of poems built from colloquial speech which demonstrated his incorporation of jazz influences.

by this poet

poem

 

Click the icon above to listen to this audio poem.

2
poem
I sit beside two women, kitty-corner 
to the stage, as Elvin's sticks blur 
the club into a blue fantasia.
I thought my body had forgotten the Deep 
South, how I'd cross the street
if a woman like these two walked 
towards me, as if a cat traversed 
my path beneath the evening star. 
Which one is wearing jasmine
poem
I made love to you, & it loomed there.
We sat on the small veranda of the cottage,
& listened hours to the sea talk.
I didn't have to look up to see if it was still there.
For days, it followed us along polluted beaches
where the boys herded cows 
& the girls danced for the boys,
to the moneychanger