Never miss a post
Your email address:*
Please enter all required fields
Correct invalid entries



"Trading Riffs to Slay Monsters" [new poems by Yusef Komunyakaa and Laren McClung]

Laren McClung

Yusef K
"At the start of the pandemic, I wrote nine lines (three tercets) and asked Laren to write a response in three tercets. This back and forth correspondence has continued as an improvisation throughout this strange time and perhaps the poetic dialogue has been led by the sway of language, the movement of two minds at play, and the nature of this unfolding moment. The excerpt here begins with my nine lines, and then Laren's, and so forth."   —Yusef Komunyakaa 

from Trading Riffs to Slay Monsters

I met Greg from north Louisiana, both of us
graduate students in Colorado, & one night
he said, I got something weird to show you.

We went to his small, spic & span apartment,
& he pulled from the closet iron shackles,
& said, This ugly thing’s from back home

at my plantation I’m turning into a tree farm.
He handed the shackles to me & said, Please
hold ‘em. It took me a night to get out of ‘em.

There’s irony in a man who drags shackles
around to remind him of sins of the past—
the ghost of Jacob Marley hauling chains,

condemned to eternally roam as penance.
Maybe shackles are a form of redemption
for one with a conscience who might think

a way to undo karma is to keep going back
in time, unearth a grave, & lock yourself
in the box, then strike ‘til the shackle drops.

When Robert Johnson went to Hazlehurst
he sought out an old guitarist named Ike
Zimmerman, & they’d go out at midnight

into the graveyard & play for long hours,
singing verses etched on stone by acid rain,
going inside, & coming out the backdoor,

smelling of moonshine. A lusty knot
tied when a hoodoo woman dared him
to clench his guitar with a seventh string.

Sometimes a hellhound on the trail can set
you back, or a woman’s dare dream you
two steps forward when you’re caught up

in syzygy of a great exchange. Sometimes
one occults while the third makes transit.
But, man, think of Johnson’s large hands

gliding on the neck of his Gibson, the devil
in the right fingerpicking with all digits & thumb.
Yeah, he slayed beauty ‘til it sung like two.

Brother John says, Good trouble. I hear you.
Yeah, another black Southerner who stood up,
squared his shoulders, & faced off scalawags,

die-hards, & a den of humbug, today,
we lay you to rest in Trueblood’s Atlanta.
Yes, springtime’s cut an unruly pathway.

Ah, life, I danced you up & down a windy road,
& wore out nine pairs of work boots, almost
there, my heart prodded up high stone steps.

Be cool,’Sef, & take high steps slow. Sarsens
at Stonehenge align with the Sun, like Temple
of Kukulcán. See, even three snowy pyramids

in the polar desert were mistaken for mountains.
We all yearn to build toward heaven or design
worlds that rise from a distance into clouds.

Colossal heads unearthed on Easter Island
reveal torsos, & below tombs. Or in the Sphinx
head, a labyrinth. Alien codes are writ in DNA.

Well, I’m not ready to see a crazy doctor’s jitterbug
behind the podium, talking about alien sperm, hoax,
& black magic. Just come back down slowly

to Earth. We have been in lockdown for over four
months, but you nor I have changed into a starry-eyed
siren, alien, or deadly hag-maiden in the fiery mirror.

Nor are we now Donne, Mary Shelley, & Percy,
creating ghosts & monsters, the sun hidden behind
volcanic ash, each day a candle-flicker all summer.

Flaming ash, & three hours of ground shaking
bones of the dead, sea turned stone in eighteen hundred
& froze to death, or Year of the Beggar

as Germans called it. Here locals lived on rats,
boiled nettles, raccoon & pigeon, or by sucking red clay.
But we’re lucky—skies so clear we study star

for clues, even in the halo of city lights, no smog
blows in this shutdown. We’ve grown fat here,
yet there’s phantom taste of hunger in plumes of ash.

I doubt it, yet there are children fending off hunger
in overfed America, while parents drink & gamble
in high rises & basement hovels with barb-tail devils,

sitting in director chairs, behind their Saks Fifth
skeleton masks. Yes, our phantoms are twelve feet,
& each has mastered the freeway’s chase scene.

But Shelley’s Frankenstein was pieced together
slow as a Gees Bend quilt, saying, Please love me,
or you’re responsible for the bad I think, say, & do.

Seamstresses wove tenderness into fine scraps
of kaleidoscopic praise, freedom quilts
reviving a world from pain, birthed by divine

Shakti in women’s hands, not by obsession
of a doctor who comes tragically aware, saying:
I tortured a living animal to animate lifeless clay.

My first loves were monsters, shadowy figures
hocussing in doorways, vampires stalking halls
of sleep, but before the fateful bite, I’d beg, Wait.

Yusef Komunyakaa

Yusef Komunyakaa’s books of poetry include Dien Cai Dau, Neon Vernacular, for which he received the Pulitzer Prize, Emperor of Water Clocks, and Everyday Mojo Songs of Earth (FSG). His most recent honors in 2021 include the Griffin Prize Lifetime Recognition Award, the Zbigniew Herbert International Literary Award, and the Lannan Literary Award for Lifetime Achievement. His plays, performance art and libretti have been performed internationally and include Saturnalia, Wakonda’s Dream, Testimony, and Gilgamesh. He was guest editor of The Best American Poetry 2003.


Laren McClung_PhotoLaren McClung is the author of a collection of poems, Between Here and Monkey Mountain (Sheep Meadow Press), and editor of the anthology Inheriting the War: Poetry and Prose by Descendants of Vietnam Veterans and Refugees (W.W. Norton). Her poems have appeared in Harvard Review, Poetry, Yale Review, Boston Review, and elsewhere. She has held fellowships and residencies from Teachers & Writers Collaborative; Virginia Center for the Creative Arts; and the Oberpfälzer Künstlerhaus in Schwandorf, Germany. She served as the 40th Poet Laureate of Bucks County and currently teaches at New York University.

April 26, 2020

March 29, 2020

March 17, 2020

January 02, 2020

October 09, 2019

August 09, 2019

July 14, 2019

July 07, 2019

May 03, 2019

March 01, 2019

July 11, 2018

December 18, 2017

November 15, 2017

November 10, 2017

November 09, 2017

November 08, 2017

September 05, 2017

June 28, 2017

March 31, 2017

March 28, 2017

Best American Poetry Web ad3
click image to order your copy
"Lively and affectionate" Publishers Weekly


I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman

Click image to order


A creative communications, branding, and resources consultancy founded by Victoria C. Rowan


Reach a Wide International Audience

Advertise on the Best American Poetry Blog


  • StatCounter