The Story of a Coat

by Yusef Komunyakaa

copyright ©2011 by Yusef Komunyakaa

We talked about Baroness Pannonica
driving her Silver Pigeon to the Five Spot
to chauffeur Monk home. I was happy
not to talk football, the inventory of skulls
in a cave in Somalia, the democratic vistas
of the Cedar Tavern, or about Spinoza.
We were saying how the legs go first
& then from the eyes mystery is stolen.
I said how much I miss Bill Matthews,
that sometimes at the Village Vanguard,
Fez, or Small’s, especially when some cat
steals a riff out of Prez’s left back pocket,
I hear his Cincinnati laugh. Then our gaze
snagged on a green dress shifting the light.
If you’d asked me, I couldn’t have said why
I knew jasmine from the silence of Egypt,
or how water lives only to remember fire.
As we walked out of the sanctuary of garlic,
chive, onion, mushroom, & peppery dough,
we agreed Rahsaan could see rhythm
when he blew wounded cries of night hawks
at daybreak. The heat of the pizza parlor
followed us to the corner, & two steps later
I remembered the scent of loneliness
in my coat left draped over the chair.
I had fallen in love with its cut,
how it made me walk straighter.
When I passed the young James Dean
coming out the door with my blue-gray coat
balled up in his arms, I didn’t stop him.
I don’t know why. I just stood there
at the table. But, David, years after
I circled the globe, I’m still ashamed
of memories that make me American
as music made of harmony & malice.

Notes on the Poem

Yusef Komunyakaa's poem "The Story of a Coat" from his 2012 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection The Chameleon Couch exemplifies much for which his work is noted and lauded, not least of which is its vital connections, in form and subject matter, to jazz. As he mines that rich musical vein, he takes the reader in many intriguing directions. In 2004, the Academy of American Poets offered the piece Yusef Komunyakaa: An Argument Against Simplicity, an interview that explored how the influence of jazz was interwoven with Komunyakaa's work as both a poet and a librettist. The interview ranges from the musical qualities and textures of his work as things beautiful unto themselves, but also as "a means to explore complex issues of race and human relationships". Komunyakaa espouses the great promise of jazz's improvisational attributes, and reveals "But the surprises happen in the moment of improvisation." And isn't that precisely what happens in this poem? To improvise is, in part, "to produce or make (something) from whatever is available". "The Story of a Coat" seems to do that by piecing together vivid fragments that run the sensory gamut. You can see "the democratic vistas / of the Cedar Tavern" (take a look here) and have your gaze "snagged on a green dress shifting the light." You can hear "when some cat / steals a riff out of Prez's left back pocket". You can almost feel "how water lives only to remember fire", not to mention the "heat of the pizza parlor" ... and oh, you can surely taste and smell the mouthwatering inventory of that sanctuary's menu and ingredients. More obscure but still potent is "the scent of loneliness" in the ostensible subject of the poem. This poem's sensory explosion is both surprising and revelatory.

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