Pushcart 2014: Yusef Komunyakaa, “Islands” (Poetry) from Poetry, April 2012

An island is one great eye
       gazing out, a beckoning lighthouse,
searchlight, a wishbone compass,
       or counterweight to the stars.
When it comes to outlook & point
       of view, a figure stands on a rocky ledge
peering out toward an archipelago
       of glass on the mainland,…

The poem (available online as text or video) is dedicated to Saint Lucian poet and Nobel laureate Derek Walcott; I’m guessing Komunyakaa sees Walcott as those things, and endeavors to become them himself: An island/eyeland/I-land: an eye/I gazing out, beckoning in, casting light out to search, offering a tool for navigation: the stars above in the sky, the island here on earth. So much right off the bat – even the tiny waves, lapping along the shore of the left margin.

Is this the metaphorical story of the writing of poetry?

But when a mind climbs down
       from its high craggy lookout
we know it is truly a stubborn thing,
       & has to leaf through pages of dust
& light, through pre-memory & folklore,…

Isn’t that what a poet, a writer, does: takes inspiration, then figures out how to render it on the page through human experience and language (at least, in what we now call “poetry,” though sound and sight are beginning to emerge as media) so others can receive it as well.

Island and sea-faring imagery fills the poem: bougainvillea, sea urchin, sailors’ parrots, even a reference to the Flood story; even a whiff of the pan-human experience in “Someone could stand here/contemplating the future, leafing/through torn pages of St. Augustine/or the prophecies by fishermen….”

We long to be sea people; we crave the sea, look towards the sea, use it, gravitate towards it, conquer it – but in the end, we return to land:

To lie down in remembrance
       is to know each of us is a prodigal
son or daughter, looking out beyond land
       & sky…

                               …After conquering
frontiers, the mind comes back to rest,
       stretching out over the white sand.

So it is with poetry, or whatever the art is that chooses us. We live in the moments of inspiration and creation, but we still have to make dinner and get up in the morning for work. It’s a matter of which we allow to subordinate the other.