‘‘Slam, Dunk, & Hook’’ is a poem of forty short, unrhymed lines. The poem is overtly about a group of young African American men playing basketball in the Deep South during the 1950s or 1960s. The narrator is a member of the group and includes himself in the descriptions.
The poem opens with two two-word phrases describing basketball moves, before quickly moving to a classical allusion to the Roman god Mercury. Mercury (called Hermes by the Greeks) was the messenger of the gods and was known for his swiftness. He wore wings on his shoes, designating speed. The word mercurial comes from Mercury and signifies quick, unpredictable, and changing movement. Thus, when Komunyakaa refers to the young men wearing Mercury’s symbol on their shoes, he is suggesting that the players move quickly and unexpectedly. In addition, because of the wings on their feet, they are able to outwit and outmove evil people who would trip them up. His reference in line 4 suggests that these people may be members of the Ku Klux Klan. In lines 4 through 6, he describes a basketball going easily through a basketball net from a distance.
In line 7, Komunyakaa makes a second classical allusion when he mentions a labyrinth, or maze. In Greek mythology, King Minos ordered the builder Daedalus to construct a large maze that would contain the ferocious monster, the Minotaur, at its heart. A maze is a place that confuses those who enter, and causes them to lose their bearings. Thus, Komunyakaa is suggesting that the players, with their swift and unpredictable moves, are creating a confusing scene for not only the opposing players but also for the white establishment as well. These lines also suggest that the players themselves are nearly mythological, performing moves and feats only possible by young gods.
In lines 11 through 17, Komunyakaa uses a series of musical terms and images, including a treble tone that lingers and the sharp rap of a drum, to further describe the players and their basketball shots. The scene is one of high energy and movement, the players twisting and turning in the air. He also references a skullcap, a particular type of headgear, often called a kufi, worn by African Americans; in the poem, the skullcap symbolically disintegrates under the sheer force of the game. In line 17, Komunyakaa references a poetic form developed in the nineteenth century by English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, who connected the rhythm to the cadences of normal speech as well as early English poetry. Komunyakaa forms a pun in this line as he depicts the players springing toward the net, and a second pun on poetic metrical feet and the appendages of the young men. (A pun is a play on words that are identical or similar in sound but have different meanings.) In line 18, the narrator suggests that the players transcend their physical bodies in response to the encouragement of the young women who watch them play. Again, in the next sentence, Komunyakaa turns to sharp descriptions of action.
The sentence, however, ends on a religious image. The basketball net is attached to a large tree with a nail. This image suggests that the young men may view the hoop as a holy object; just as Christ was nailed to a piece of wood, so is the hoop. On the other hand, the image is also troubling because of instances in which young black men in the South were lynched from trees, or in extreme cases, nailed to them.
The poem shifts suddenly in line 24, when the narrator tells the reader that one of their members has lost his mother. On the day that she expired, the young man continuously engaged in shooting baskets for a full day, finally breaking the wood behind the net. This moment, while important to the overall poem, is inserted quickly before the narrator turns once again to describing the present action. Line 29 is also troubling. In its original publication in the journal Callaloo in 1991, line 29 is a two-word line. (Later publications of the poem move a word from the end of line 28 to the beginning of line 29.) Komunyakaa ends the sentence he has begun in line 28, describing the movement of the ball, mid-line in line 29. He thus completes a section on ball handling before abruptly turning to a new image, sentence, and thought mid-line. The second word of line 29, as the first word of a sentence, is capitalized. In addition, it starts with a hard ‘‘t’’ sound, drawing attention to the sudden insertion of evil into the poem. Although unnamed, it is likely that Komunyakaa is referring to a white policeman watching the boys play ball as he smacks a weapon in his hand. This action is described in line 30, reminding the young men of the power structure of their community.
Komunyakaa completes the image of the white policeman in line 31. Then the poem once again turns to a description of the players’ movements as they fake out each other with tricky maneuvers. The narrator suggests that the players are transported beyond themselves, finding that they can move intuitively and instinctively, in ways they did not even know that they knew. In line 38, Komunyakaa asserts that the young men slip through a knot. The image is troubling because it brings to mind the lynchings of young black men. Here, however, the young men experience joy in their jumping. The poem ends as the players reach the knowledge that they are lovely to behold, but have powerful destructive potential as well.
Poetry for Students, Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 30, Yusef Komunyakaa, Gale Cengage Learning, 2009