Yusef Komunyakaa and Laren McClung
Trading Riffs to Slay Monsters

Give & take is how the great sun sets

& the moon rises, how beloved Venus

glows there as if she never came too close


to the sun, & as if Mercury is not a hunk

of metal fused by indescribable brightness.

Indeed, give & take is how our planet


moves & breathes, & we at the top

of the food chain hardly even notice,

waiting for horses to tell us about a wave.


Those who love the winds of time

know one another the way horses know

first by smell, or by the same way trees


breathe pheromones in the air to signal

rain or a pest arriving from a distance.

We have forgotten how to listen


to planetary clues—water blooms

with algae, or, you’re forgetting, Mercury

in the horizon is first to carry news.


I sit here, thinking like a poet, asking,

Why is there water & oil under earth,

& does nature always have a reason?


Liquid tonnage balances the planet.

Tectonic plates glide over each other

or buckle, raising earth. I stand here,


promising ghosts who came before,

who know weight of a sledgehammer

anchoring one’s shadow to the floor. 


Remember those days we stood together

in Washington Square by the fountain

where the Lakota taught us the true


spirit of water? The medicine man

held a prayer stick made of antlers

& plumes of goose & raven feathers,


months before the pipeline leaked oil

into wetlands, mucking up Dakota’s

wildlife & threatening tributaries.


It hurts me to say, but I feel Flint,

Michigan, where water flows yellow

& old lead pipes leach bitter residue


continuing to steal true hard futures

of those not yet born, where my cousin

Beatrice died years ago of breast cancer.


I wonder if she revisited Bogalusa’s

twilit days when we were teenagers,

& I read “No, no, not night” to her.   


Do all poet’s love a Beatrice, I wonder,

we sing to even after she’s gone?

Somehow, it’s true, the green is worn down,


even as spring turns to summer & oaks

are all leaving & cardinals are singing

but I know what terrible beauty’s to come.


Last night I walked in the dark under Venus

past woods on the right & the left,

where something was watching me think.


Fear rides the eluding hippocampus,

& dare comes as mountain lion, viper,

malady unknown to humans, as polio,


which came for the poor & the rich—

for beauty, hobo, merchant, or future

president of these United States of


America, as FDR, held tall at a podium

by an iron brace, a big smile, & witty

silver tongue on early fireside radio.


I miss those bygone days I never knew,

this melancholia for an America buried deep

in the gut, an idea my father taught me.


Wasn’t it Baudelaire who suggested a poet

has no allegiance but to the work of art?

No country besides the heart? It’s hard


to shake the feeling of place you carry

inside you, even when the truth comes clear

as looking in a room of mirrors of the mind.


My face is in a chrome rearview mirror,

& I see the road ahead & behind too.

I’m still on my way to Warm Springs,


Georgia, where FDR built a retreat

for those afflicted by polio—no blacks

allowed—before our soldiers fought


under the same flag. Now, how far is it

from where they shot Ahmaud Arbery                       

in early light? I smell Christmas pines.


True, not much has changed, maybe,

when we shed light on those deep southern

minds, when two grab rifles as if to chase


a deer paused for a drink of water. Look,

the clay has gone red. How do we restore

justice at a time like this when men in masks


wait in a line that wraps around a gun shop?

The future looks grim. In today’s NY Times

I read a letter to the left—a call to arms.


I am blessed not be angry at some hot-

blooded fortuneteller still half-lost,

gazing up toward the cosmos, dumb-


struck by this monstrous hourglass.

One stares up like a large red rooster

as a hawk circles overhead, swirling down,


& the prey cannot take its eyes off

the bloody circling hawk. Forgive me

for this damn red rose in my lapel.


I’ve never been one for red roses, but

Hitler would paint their heads lilting up

& down from the stems. Imagine the world


had Vienna not told him to give up

on true art. Instead, think of Lee Miller’s

photograph as she bathes in the dictator’s tub,


taken while he burned in a garden outside a bunker.

She staged his portrait behind her, a white marble

nude on the vanity, her muddy boots on the mat.


No, I do not come with a beaten suitcase

stuffed with outdated medical journals

to later cut & paste into fantastic animals


& creatures longing for an anti-world

after WWI. Love, go & ask the new Kiki

on our city block. This isn’t my suitcase.


Look at all the unusual paraphernalia.

Here’s a treasure, but these pictures

are scary. I think this is Max Ernst’s.


Remember the ballet of birds & sea monster

costumes by his familiar, Dorothea Tanning?

Before they met playing chess, she painted


a self-portrait partially nude, Birthday, 1942,

where she’s about to shed the chimera

of her dress, royal purple silk & gold sleeves,


her skirt made of sea grass. A winged monkey

at her feet. She gazes toward some somber room,

about to walk through many opening doors behind her.


When the circus rolled into a city or town

on greased wheels of hilarity, taboo, brag,

& the forbidden, wagons groaned, & sideshows


drew us in: a bearded lady, an armless

man who penned fancy notes with his toes

for fifty cents, a boy with angel feathers


on his chest. Now I wonder what viruses

other than the common cold marched in

as elephants & monkeys stepped to a drumbeat.


It could be the magician relies heavily

on the one he saws in half, lady in red

born from a flaming torch who floats now


before our eyes. He spins her for the crowd

who watches close to catch the slight of hand.

She laughs as he lowers her into the box.


Surely, she’s the distraction from the secrets

he performs & she keeps, a magical mystery tour,

of sorts, but, the world wants to be deceived.


The smallest circus you’ll ever see is the princess

in a tutu on a white stallion, the saddest clown

& his granddaughter, a high-wire walker,


& the mermaid in a tall glass bowl. The whole

town has to get a look, men & women pushing

boys & girls aside. The sheriff & the preacher


elbow their way in, & a throng of old sailors

pass a flask, conjuring obscene tales of sirens

sunning on rocks in sea mist, & origin of pox.


When giant battleships rolled down a river

to dock, fellas in dress blues drunk on piss

& pep pills would shake hands with gals


parading themselves on the piers,

in short dresses, their curls fashioned

with hairpins & false hope. But love


couldn’t last a week when ships pulled out,

so the trick, a two-handed handshake—

one on the elbow to check for bad blood.


Nero plays his big long yellow ivory comb

& a piece of paper stamped with tiny blue

& red stars. Look out! He has his smartphone


again, which is a hundred times smarter

than he is, clutching it like a hamburger.

Now, he looks as if in deep thought. Lord,


please help us. He’s getting ready to undercut

any decree before him, to enact a new tax break

for the rich. Ladies, he has that look in his eyes.


The Emperor fell for pueri delicati, sweet delights,

& took a eunuch bride, Poppaea’s look alike,

to atone the murder of his wife embalmed in spices,


acacia, thyme, lavender, cedar, rose & mint.

On their wedding day, the mistress of the wardrobe

dressed the Empress in delicate orange leather slippers


& a gown made of fine threads carried out of China

on the Silk Road. Upon his death, Nero’s child bride

gave him a ring depicting the Rape of Proserpina.


Eunuch or royal pony held in an emperor’s arms

he wasn’t Marco Polo returning from China

declaring more than noodles made into pasta.


Pardon me, L, for getting us on a crooked path.

But since we’re in Italy now, these hard days,

I’d rather think of Dante’s Inferno—the City


of Man. Muddy or dusty, depending on the sky,

my feet ache in these boots on this lost road, but

pain will never force fumes of hades into the gut. 


‘Sef, walk lightly there undisturbed by shades,

even if a little cockeyed now. I’ll walk beside you,

if I may. I keep a photograph I took of you standing


on a lookout of Castle Malaspina where Dante

stood in exile to think as he wrote the cantos. Below

the quarry Michelangelo mined for stone carved


into the giant slayer. Look, Dante places Moses

in the first circle. Now, Papa says there is no hell.

May this give rest to those dying, still aware.


Found In Volume 50, No. 02
Read Issue
  • doc5
Yusef Komunyakaa and Laren McClung
About the Author

Yusef Komunyakaa's books of poetry include Neon Vernacular, for which he received the Pulitzer Prize, Pleasure Dome, Taboo, Talking Dirty to the Gods,Warhorses, Testimony, The Chameleon Couch, The Emperor of Water Clocks, and Everyday Mojo Songs of Earth. His honors include the William Faulkner Prize (Université Rennes, France), the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, and the Wallace Stevens Award.


Laren McClung is the author of Between Here and Monkey Mountain (Sheep Meadow Press, 2012) and coeditor of Inheriting the War: Poetry and Prose by Descendants of Vietnam Veterans and Refugees (W.W. Norton, 2017).