Book Review: The Emperor of Water Clocks
by Yusef Komunyakaa
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015
The Emperor of Water Clocks, Yusef Komunyakaa’s fifteenth book of poetry, reads very little like any of his earlier work, except for the stylistic language this poet has spoken so fluently since his debut nearly forty years ago. That poetic style runs all through this latest volume, jumping from association to association, subtly riffing on expected echoes and predictable word-orders, always seemingly free-form and yet taut with control. And it isn’t just that The Emperor of Water Clocks feels like a more mature work, since we hope for that with every successive volume from any worthwhile poet; this volume feels much more grounded than, for instance, 1993’s Neon Vernacular, which won its author a Pulitzer Prize; and it feels more hammered-fine than 2011’s The Chameleon Couch, which was shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize.
But in addition to such factors and layered on top of that signature style, there’s a quiet and an ease of grandeur to The Emperor of Water Clocks that doesn’t feel quite like any previous work by this poet. There’s a bright Mediterranean light washing through some of these works, like the dreamy-precise “Omens”:
Her eyelids were painted blue.
When she closed her eyes the sea
rolled in like a hundred fiery chariots,
leaving behind silence above & below
a thousand years old. He stood beneath
a high arched window, gazing out
at fishing boats beyond the dikes, their nets
unfurled, their offshore gestures
a dance of living in bluish entourage.
He was only the court’s chief jester.
What he said & did made them laugh,
but lately what he thought he knew
could cost his polished tongue & royal wig.
He was the masked fool unmasking the emperor.
Forget the revelation. Forget the briny sea.
He had seen the ravishing empress naked
in a forbidden pose. Her blue eye shadow.
Aquamarine shells crusted with wormy mud.
Anyway, if he said half of what was foretold,
the great one would become a weeping boy
slumped beneath the Pillars of Hercules.
But the collection is equally comfortable employing a very intimate focus, with the poet shifting from Olympian narrator of gods and emperors to the quiet observer at the back of a noisy room, missing no details, alive to both unintended irony and pitch-perfect innuendo, as in the delightfully sharp “Caffe Reggio”:
They clink glasses of Merlot & joke
in a meta-language among friends
about early autumn in a gulag
of lonely washes. Then one says,
Ivan the Terrible was a teenage vampire
who fell in love with art & soothsayers,
& another says, If he had only ridden
a gondola through the canals of Venice
once or twice, they could have civilized
the madman dreaming of the Baltics.
Then, one of them says something
about sentimentality being the death
of imagination, metaphor, & foreplay.
They are one small republic of ideas,
three good friends & almost one mind
when the lift their eyes to greet
a woman walking in from the day’s
blinding array of disorder & chance.
She finds a table at the corner window,
orders a bowl of fruit & cappuccino,
opens a copy of Watermark, presses
down the pages, breaking the spine.
The three sit, smiling at each other,
& Derek says, I wonder if she knows
Joseph still picks up his mail here.
The collection can also brush up against topicality, but even in those rare instances, the tone is tellingly mythologized – or even Whitmanized, as in an excerpt from “The Day I Saw Barack Obama Reading Derek Walcott’s Collected Poems”:
The President of the United States of America
thumbs the pages slowly, moving from reverie
to reverie, learning why one envies the octopus
for its ink, how a man’s skin becomes the final page.
The Emperor of Water Clocks is very much a movement from reverie to reverie, and an impressive work of lyric wisdom as well. It rather pointedly asks no questions, but it expects its readers to, and it hints at hard-won answers.