A Bluesy Opening To Poetry Festival

PoetryArts and CultureRobert JohnsonPulitzer Prize AwardsBob Dylan

Rain forced the opening night of the 11th Annual Sunken Garden Poetry Festival from the eponymous confines of the Hill-Stead Museum's Sunken Garden to the gothic Asylum Hill Congregational Church.

But poetry, being poetry, adapts. It's not just flowers and ``nay-chur,'' as the late poet Agha Shahid Ali liked to sneer. A church is just as appropriate a venue for poetry as a garden, for poetry is a religion like any other: You have the devout, the occasional and the skeptical. Each group was present Wednesday night in Hartford to hear the blues of both Guy Davis and Yusef Komunyakaa.

Guy Davis played a rousing set to kick off the evening. Starting with an instrumental on a didgeridoo, which he jokingly referred to as an ``Australian flute,'' he rolled and tumbled into scorching covers of Sleepy John Estes (``What You Doin''') and Robert Johnson (``Walkin' Blues''). Most of the crowd stomped along, but held themselves back from clapping to the beat. Claiming Bob Dylan for his own, Davis said, ``I believe he was reincarnated from a large, black Southern preacher,'' then launched into a cover of Dylan's ``Sweetheart Like You,'' complete with harmonica, played better than Dylan could ever dream.

And then the poetry thundered in.

``This is quite a place,'' Yusef Komunyakaa said after a couple of poems from the pulpit. ``Talk about intimidation.'' This from a poet who makes country blues and surrealist visions seem a surprisingly natural combination. His verse is complex, dense and, like any worthwhile song, cannot be wholly consumed on the first listen. Such is the compact imagery in a poem like ``Anodyne,'' the closing lines going:

I love this body, this

solo & ragtime jubilee

behind the left nipple

because I know I was born

to wear out at least

one hundred angels.

Komunyakaa, editor of jazz anthologies in addition to being a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, built on the bluesy opening to the night, with a syncopated rhythm to his reading style and echoed references to the proverbial train traveling through.

Befitting the setting, his poems like ``Once the Dream Begins,'' ``Tenebrae,'' ```You and I Are Disappearing,''' deserve a hallelujah. Meditations like ``Ode to the Maggot'' from his 2000 collection ``Talking Dirty to the Gods'' are prayers that illustrate how poetry keeps reminding us of us, reminding us of what we know and keep forgetting. Again, the closing lines, a midnight moan:

No decree or creed can outlaw you

As you take every living thing apart. Little

Master of the earth, no one gets to heaven

Without going through you first.

As he proved on the first night of the 2002 Sunken Garden Poetry Festival, no one gets to contemporary American poetry without going through Yusef Komunyakaa first.

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