Julia Ponder

Quantum Poetics[1] will be defined for this essay as “the simultaneous presentation of what we typically know as past, present, and future, time and space, and their role as literary devices in postmodern literature and poetry.”

When Yusef Komunyakaa employs these quantum stylistic choices in his poetry, what arises is a metanarrative that comments on history, identity, race, and violence. His lyrical poems tell stories in the past with lyrical analepsis (flashback) and anticipate future consequences beyond the present moment of the poem with lyrical prolepsis (flashforward). What results is an integration of history and its impact on the individual self and society. Various time periods and voices co-exist in quantum poetics to create multitudinous valid layers of meaning. By blurring the lines of moment and identity, Komunyakaa can express the ineffable suffering that follows violence across time. His poems “Facing It,” from Neon Vernacular and initially published in the collection, Dien Cau Dao, and the newer “Ghazal After Ferguson” from Emperor of Water Clocks are two keen examples.

Komunyakaa has described the “voyage inward and the odyssey outward” as a distinct mark of his verse. While there is not always an introspective “I” in his work, even in the most seemingly objective poems, a shadow looms and inhabits the imagery with personal reflection. Multiple histories and identities arise by comparing his own experiences to those of others or by exploring the role he occupies in relation to the subject in the scene. Comparably, the poems that employ personal pronouns in abundance are never strictly about one person’s experience.

At the center of one of his most well-known poems, “Facing It,” the personal pronoun becomes the jumping-off point for the odyssey outward and inward. Memory’s pull on the speaker creates the poem’s quantum flux in time. At first, the poem centers on the speaker’s reaction to the Vietnam War memorial, but then the speaker’s gaze shifts between time, space, and multiple perspectives. In addition, the speaker not only reflects on their suffering connected to the Vietnam war but on the suffering of others. In “Facing It,” Komunyakaa crystallizes the effects of war by juxtaposing the imagery of violence and peace. The view shifts between the present scene of the memorial to lyrical analeptic moments in the remembered imagery of napalm and fighter jets. Then, the poem ends within lyrical prolepsis by focusing on the blurred image of a young boy who becomes a symbol of the future.

The voyage inward arises from the physicality of the memorial. It acts as a mirror that the poet sees himself “fading into” (1). Throughout the poem, looking at the memorial, the speaker reflects on their traumatic experience in Vietnam. Because of the highly reflective marble memorial is made of, the monument acts as a mirror. The poet can also see the shapes and figures behind them while gazing into their own face. While reading the names on the monument, they see themselves in the fallen soldiers’ names, and their image is superimposed by flashbacks of the war. Each movement in the present world around them and by other individuals looking at the memorial causes a flashback. Thus, two time periods exist at once in the speaker’s eyes.

Enjambment in various lines throughout the poem emphasizes this shifting place and ambiguity of time for the speaker. Different identities and perspectives enter the poem through the reflection of the stone surface. The speaker becomes a window for others to look through and relive their own experiences and memories of the war. While they all stand in front of the memorial they engage in shared experiences and the shifting of space. In lines 26 and 27, the poet writes, “A white vet’s image floats/ closer to me, then his pale eyes/ look through mine. I’m a window.” The speaker’s identity as a person of color plays a part in how the scene unfolds. Part of the mirage of the war and his particular racially-specific experiences there depend on his blackness, “My black face fades, hiding inside the black granite,” he says in the opening lines of the poem.

Further, the speaker emphasizes the impact of racial constructs in the poem; his blackness contrasts with the white vet’s race designation. The speaker’s racial identity and experiences throughout the war would be much different from the white vet’s. In addition to the traumatic memories of combat-related violence, the speaker would have also been the target of racism during the war, which the poet explores in other poems in the collection. But, here, Komunyakaa decides to highlight their shared trauma and similarities instead of their differences. Rather than existing in contrast with another, in the memorial’s image, the two veterans blend.

The white vet has figuratively “lost his right arm” (28). Again, enjambment creates ambiguity because in the following line, the speaker states, “in the stone” (29), making it unclear whether the vet has physically lost his arm in the war. In the alternative reading, his image is shifting in the reflective mirror of the names, and he has metaphorically lost a piece of himself as his image blurs. Both the speaker and the other vet have been scarred by what has happened, and their experiences intermingle.

In the end, the poem superimposes not only the past on the speaker but also the future. The last two lines of the poem emphasize the ambiguity of memory and time: “In the black mirror/ a woman’s trying to erase names:/ No, she’s brushing a boy’s hair” (29-31). By noting his blurred understanding, the speaker cues to the melding of time and memory with experience. The action of the woman trying to erase the names from the memorial (a counterpart to the practice of making a tombstone rubbing) implies that she could bring those lost back from the dead, reversing time. Instead, the speaker clarifies, she is brushing a boy’s hair. These converging gestural images, the erasure of the names, and the brushing of the boy’s hair imitate the speaker’s experience by overlapping two distinct images, the images of the dead and a boy who has his life ahead of him. Further, the lines are enjambed, connoting a sense of continuation with each line until the last one. Two different readings arise at this moment that merge and shift like the images in the mirror. The “woman” erasing the names of those who died is unsuccessful; the names stick: one cannot undo the dead. In the same image, there is life and promise in the vision of the young boy. These two innocent people are also part of the war, which floats before the speaker’s eyes.

Komunyakaa is consciously aware of how his poetry works to explore the interactions of time and identity to produce a sense of ambiguity and, thereby, distinguish it from ordinary language. Further, he employs various techniques such as enjambment to invite ambiguity into his verse to blur the limits of the present moment. In a 1990 interview with Vicente F. Gotera for Callaloo, the poet notes that, with enjambment, “there’s a completeness about a line, a completeness and yet a continuation. It’s the whole thing of enjambment, what I like to call ‘extended possibilities.’ The line grows. It’s not a linguistic labyrinth; it’s in logical segments, and yet it grows. It’s a whole process of becoming” (224). Komunyakaa’s poetic techniques are reminiscent of how many postmodern novels deal with time. In Samuel Coale’s Quirks of the Quantum, he explains how the science of the early 21st century had an impact on shaping the themes and techniques of postmodern writers. Thematically, memory and time as malleable pieces reverberate in postmodern work to produce effects of ambiguity. He describes this process as “a present moment entirely in flux, suspended between a past that is out of reach, the ‘no longer,’ and a future that forever recedes from our grasp, the ‘not yet” (37). In the mind of the 21st-century writer and poet, time is at the forefront of consciousness. Komunyakaa’s experiments with time and place across the corpus of his work speak to this postmodern idea at various levels, not only in the use of lyrical prolepsis and analepsis but also through his attention to ambiguity, which helps us imagine multiple possibilities in a single poem.

From his newest collection, The Emperor of Water Clocks, “Ghazal after Ferguson” plays into the ambiguity of quantum poetics by mixing high and low culture and directly addressing the implications of intermingled identity and time in its quick and pithy verse. The poem focuses on an even more contemporary issue than the Vietnam War: the slaying of Michael Brown by a white police officer and the protests and riots that followed in Ferguson, MO. Quantum techniques and terminology in this poem draw attention to the history of police brutality toward people of color in the U.S. and the implications of the ineffable suffering of racism, which the speaker struggles to come to terms with by ruminating on who will be responsible for standing up against these atrocities and how.

By returning to the word “streets” at the end of each couplet, as dictated by the ghazal form, the “streets” themselves and all those who live and participate there become the addressees of the apostrophic poem. This rhetorical choice centers the poem and frames the multiple interactions between the subject matter and the speaker, who then directly addresses the poet at the end as the axis. The continuous return to “streets” increases the rhythm and embodies the passion of the locale. In the penultimate stanza, the poet slows this rhythm and asks a rhetorical question that evokes the physics of time and space, “Who will go out there & speak laws/ of motion & relativity in the streets?” (19-20). To speak the laws of motion and relativity is to question whether the violence will ever end or if it is inescapable. This analeptic moment allows Komunyakaa to ask who will be the one to change the future, but he is also commenting on how violence and racism have a long and terrible history in the United States.

Police brutality is not a new issue, and it continues to be a subject of controversy, a manifestation of institutional racism. Ferguson is just one example. The poem never directly discusses the events of Ferguson or Michael Brown because it addresses, more figuratively, the violence taking place in the streets. To extend this multiplicity, Komunyakaa also switches between prepositions when ending the couplets in the poem. “Around,” “beyond,” and “miles from” in addition to “in,” “on,” “of,” and “to” are all used to expand the focus of police brutality and racism beyond the vision of Michael Brown and Ferguson. The shifting of worlds and time is not only taking place in the physical world but also in the digital one: “Twitter stays lockstep in the frontal lobe/ as we hope for a bypass beyond the streets” (5-6). Komunyakaa’s personification of Twitter is one example in the poem of how he mixes high and low culture. The poet offers the digital space as another way to go beyond the streets and find answers.

The last couplet meets the requirements of the traditional ghazal by addressing the poet in the third person, yet it might surprise those not familiar with the form: “Yusef, this morning proves a crow/ the only truth serum in the street” (21-22). Despite sticking to the traditional form for the entire poem, the intersection between the imaginary realm of the poem arrives in the last couplet when the poem deviates from the plural noun “streets” to the singular. This ending converges all the possible “streets” and the worlds they inhibit into one “street” to strive toward a progressive future through the speaker’s direct address of the poet. Ending with “street” instead of “streets” in the last couplet concludes the poem with a certain ambivalence. By using the singular noun instead of the plural, Komunyakaa implies that all violence occurring on all streets across time is the same violence.

In addition to the open vastness of “street,” “proves a crow” (21) indicates that the morning has been a waste. “Proves a crow” invokes the memory of Jim Crow laws, and again the systematic racism that ravages this country. Then the enjambment continues to blur the meaning by continuing the sentence into the next line, “the only truth serum in the streets” (22). To see the crow as the truth serum (drug) is to understand that the law still operates under Jim Crow in the streets. Again, the poet is using imagery that calls back to the past to show how much really has not changed. While the poet envisions coming together as a community, he acknowledges that the answer to violence and destruction is complicated and unending.

Using multiple times and voices, Komunyakaa can articulate how actions reverberate in the lives of multiple individuals and transpire in different cultural contexts and time periods, in addition to his own. All feel the repercussions of the Vietnam war, yet there are distinctions for individuals, and his poems have layered this various commentary. He writes about the pain and suffering of war and the effects of ideology and racism. Time travel and quantum leaps may seem far removed from the world of traditional literature, but science has long been an influencing factor on culture and society, and its impact is clear in contemporary poetry. Komunyakaa’s approach to his subject matter seems surreal, but his work proceeds according to a certain type of realism that speaks to the processes of memory and identity.

Works Cited

Aubert, Alvin. “Yusef Komunyakaa: the unified vision – canonization and humanity.” African American Review, vol. 27, no. 1, 1993, p. 119+. Literature Resource Center. Accessed 1 Nov. 2019.

Coale, Samuel Chase. Quirks of the Quantum: Postmodernism and Contemporary American Fiction. University of Virginia Press, 2012.

Dowdy, Michael C. “Working in the Space of Disaster: Yusef Komunyakaa’s Dialogues with America.” Callaloo, vol. 28, no. 3, 2005, pp. 812–823. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3805786.

Komunyakaa, Yusef. “American voices and the cakewalk of language: Yusef Komunyakaa in conversation with Terrance Hayes.” Black Renaissance/Renaissance Noire, vol. 5, no. 1, 2003, p. 113+. Literature Resource Center. Accessed 3 Nov. 2019.

—.  “‘Lines of Tempered Steel’: An Interview with Yusef Komunyakaa.” Interview by Vicente F. Gotera. Callaloo, vol. 13, no. 2, 1990, pp. 215–229. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2931676.

—. Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems. Middletown, Conn. Wesleyan University Press, 1993.

—. The Emperor of Water Clocks. New York, NY. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015.

Ogden, Benjamin H. “Quantum criticism: a poetics of simultaneity for global literature.” Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics, no. 34, 2014, p. 74+. Literature Resource Center.

Salas, Angela M. “Race, Human Empathy, and Negative Capability: The Poetry of Yusef Komunyakaa.” College Literature: A Journal of Critical Literary Studies, vol. 30, no. 4, 2003, p. iv.

Stein, Kevin. “Vietnam and the ‘Voice Within’: Public and Private History in Yusef Komunyakaa’s Dien Cai Dau.” Poetry Criticism, edited by David M. Galens, vol. 51, Gale, 2004. Literature Resource Center.


[1] An emerging concept. Discussed in the North American Review in April 2016 in the article “Poetry as a Quantum Phenomenon” by John Yu Branscum. Pot and writer Amy Catanzano is also developing poetry and scholarly work around this concept.


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Shawangunk Review Volume XXXII Copyright © 2021 by Julia Ponder is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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