Sunstone is an exploration of the meaning of existence. Humans are alone, lonely, but able to come together through love and community. Based on the Aztec reverence for the morning and evening star, the poem mimics the 584-day synodic cycle of Venus. A synodic cycle is the amount of time it takes for an object in the sky to return to the position it originally held relative to the sun. In the original Spanish, Piedra de sol comprises 584 eleven-syllable lines (with half-lines visually combining to make full eleven-syllable lines). The final six lines of the poem, which are not part of the 584-line count, repeat the first six lines to make a cyclical whole. Eliot Weinberger’s English translation, Sunstone, is 586 lines long, including the six-line repetition at the end.
In Aztec mythology, the planet Venus is symbolized by two fiery serpents merging into a single being: duality and unity. Venus is also known to many cultures as the morning star and evening star because . . . Read More
The poems of Komunyakaa’s Magic City are often discussed in relationship to the poet’s life and to the historical context of the 1950s and 1960s. Angela M. Salas, for example, argues in an article in College Literature, ‘‘In Magic City Komunyakaa makes an imaginative return to his childhood home of Bogalusa, Louisiana.’’ She adds that the volume is ‘‘marked by the time and place Komunyakaa reflects upon: the pre-Civil Rights, Jim Crow South.’’ Salas also locates Komunyakaa’s themes within this framework, calling the collection ‘‘an extended meditation upon race, class, and gender, and how these things mark, indeed, vex, the lives of those with whom Komunyakaa grew up.’’
There is little doubt that the poems of Magic City, including ‘‘Slam, Dunk, & Hook,’’ can be read in just such a manner. At the same time, however, it is possible to overlook Komunyakaa’s supreme artistry by concentrating solely on historical and . . . Read More
Jim Crow was originally a character in a nineteenth-century minstrel show, played by a white man performing a caricature of a black man, dancing and singing silly songs. The character became standard during that century, and came to represent a stereotypical image of black inferiority. Ultimately, the term became connected to racist laws that not only deprived African Americans of their rights but also defined them as a subordinate and inferior group of people.
In 1896, the Supreme Court of the United States, in a landmark decision called Plessy v. Ferguson, upheld the concept of ‘‘separate but equal.’’ That is, the decision stated that states could segregate facilities by race so long as both African Americans and whites had equal facilities. In reality, while facilities were indeed separated, they were scarcely equal, with African Americans forced to attend inferior schools with few resources, to use restroom . . . Read More
In poetry, when critics speak of a motif, they mean a recurring image, subject, symbol, or detail that unifies a creative work. Readers at times confuse theme and motif, although the two can be distinguished easily if one remembers that the theme of an artistic work is not the same as the subject. That is, the theme is an abstract statement about the subject. A motif, on the other hand, is the device that a writer uses to develop his thematic concerns. In the case of ‘‘Slam, Dunk, & Hook,’’ Komunyakaa uses the motif of basketball. Readers can easily identify that this poem is, on the surface, about basketball. In addition, readers can bring to the poem everything that they know about basketball; for example, anyone who has watched a basketball game knows that it is a fast, powerful, highly competitive game in which players attempt to disguise their movements toward the basket. At the same time, basketball, while the ostensible . . . Read More
Although ‘‘Slam, Dunk, & Hook’’ appears to be a poem about a group of young men playing basketball, it is also a poem about power, both physical and cultural power. The young men described in this poem are at the peak of their physical prowess. The narrator describes difficult maneuvers that the young men accomplish easily. Indeed, they seem to exist on some higher plane than the rest of humanity in this poem, accomplishing remarkable feats of physical grace while shooting hoops. Their strength is in their muscles, sinews, and bones.
Cultural power in this poem is not named but referenced obliquely. In line 29, Komunyakaa inserts the image of someone wielding a hand weapon. The weapon Komunyakaa refers to, sometimes called a truncheon, nightstick, or slap, is a rubber baton with a handle grip, weighted at one end. This weapon is often used by police to break up fights, riots, or other incidents in which they do not . . . Read More
‘‘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 . . . Read More
In 1980, Robert Bly, a leading American poet, compiled an unusual poetry anthology titled News of the Universe: Poems of Twofold Consciousness. It is a substantial book comprising over one hundred and fifty poems, ranging from the eighteenth century to the present day and over a number of different cultural traditions. One of the poems Bly selected was Wendell Berry’s ‘‘The Peace of Wild Things.’’ The premise of the anthology is that there had been a development in poetry over the previous two hundred years that reflected a profound change in how people viewed nature and their relationship to it. In what Bly calls the ‘‘Old Position,’’ which was well established in European culture in the eighteenth century, human reason was held to be the highest quality, and humans believed that because they possessed reason and nature did not, they were therefore superior to everything else in nature. They were of the view that ‘‘nature is defective because it lacks . . . Read More
Social Upheaval and War in the 1960s
It is not difficult to understand why someone writing in the late 1960s might express despair about the state of the world. For Americans, this period was fraught with social upheaval and the horror of war. In April 1968, the civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, where he had been campaigning on behalf of striking sanitation workers. In June of the same year, Senator Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles after winning the California primary for the Democratic Party presidential nomination. In Vietnam, the Viet Cong, the forces of the communist North Vietnamese, launched the Tet Offensive in February 1968, attacking the South Vietnamese capital, Saigon, and other South Vietnamese cities. Although the Viet Cong suffered heavy casualties, the Tet Offensive showed that the United States, despite having nearly half a million troops in Vietnam, was not even . . . Read More
An allusion in a work of literature is a reference to another literary work. It can be a reference to a person, an event, or simply a phrase that occurs in another work. When the poet writes in line 8 about his awareness of the body of water that is nearby, he uses words that echo a well-known phrase in the Bible, from Psalm 23: ‘‘He leads me beside still waters.’’ The pronoun ‘‘he’’ refers to God. The psalm presents God as a shepherd who ‘‘makes me lie down in green pastures,’’ which is echoed in ‘‘The Peace of Wild Things,’’ as the poet also lies down in nature. Allusions may simply give a wider frame of reference to the work in which they occur, or they may serve a more complex, ironic function, serving to contrast or otherwise distinguish between the way the common words or phrases are used in the two works. In ‘‘The Peace of Wild Things,’’ although the Biblical allusion in the poem is clear, . . . Read More
The Human World versus the Natural World
The poem contrasts the turbulence of the human world, and the workings of the human mind, with the peace of the natural world. Human life is chaotic and dangerous. People are unable to live at peace with one another, and the news always seems to be bad. The poem was published in 1968 when the Vietnam conflict was at its height, and in the United States, Senator Robert Kennedy and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. were assassinated. It is perhaps not surprising that someone writing during those turbulent times should sink into despair regarding the human condition. The poet cannot separate himself from the larger fate of the world, which he fears may eventually touch him and his children personally. It is notable that he seems most worried about something that has not yet happened but may happen in the future, and this is why he cannot sleep at night, or is frequently awakened and immediately starts to . . . Read More