As adolescents enter adulthood, many of them start to question the truisms spoon-fed to them from their parents, teachers, ministers, and others in positions of power. Perhaps these inquiries arise following the initial breach of a social taboo, such as engaging in premarital relations with another person, trying drugs or alcohol for the first time, or breaking a minor law without censure.
These queries occasionally result in the illumination of new truths, which in turn coerce one to live according to a moral code of his or her own creation instead of the code of the previous generation. To be sure, forging one’s own moral code is an arduous and frequently depressing task, so many turn to intoxicants such as music, sex, or narcotics to soothe their rattled minds.
Yusef Komunyakaa, in a quest to tread a path to his own moral code, combines all three of these elements in his poem, “Woman, I Got the Blues,” which originally appeared in his 1994 collection Neon Vernacular, winner of the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. In the poem, Komunyakaa’s speaker struggles with how best to handle his baser desires during a modern age when religion-based morality has become passé, and in so doing, he rejects the past and the rules that accompany it before creating a new moral code of his own.
The poem’s title, “Woman, I Got the Blues,” immediately connotes music, beginning in the same way as many of the traditional blues songs of southern blacks from the late 1800s and early 1900s. Unlike the blues songs of the late 19th century, however, Komunyakaa’s song does not have a repeated refrain, yet like most blues songs, it does concern a man’s physical relationship with a woman. The speaker later pays homage to the great blues masters before him when he and his lover “slow-drag/to Little Willie John,” but he casts an eye toward the future of music when they “bebop” to Charlie Parker’s jazz, a genre formed from the roots of blues. Later, they dance to “bloodfunk,” a genre borne from jazz and blues.
As mentioned earlier, “Woman, I Got the Blues,” concerns the speaker’s physical relationship with a woman, one whom he happens to meet while at the Museum of Modern Art. This museum, as opposed to a classical art or natural history museum, foreshadows the speaker’s abandonment of the past and his embrace of modernity and a new moral code. The speaker’s “sporting” is soon rewarded when their meeting quickly leads to a tryst wherein the speaker and the woman enjoy each other’s company “with a gentleness that would crack open/ripe fruit.” Somewhat resembling a refrain, a syncopated quatrain appears at the center of the poem wherein the speaker exclaims:
Sweet Mercy, I worship
The curvature of your ass.
I build an altar in my head.
I kiss your breasts & forget my name.
With this, the speaker rejects the old “faith healer” and embraces a new (pardon the pun) “rearligion”—well, he does not quite embrace it quite yet, for he then laments to his lover, “Woman, I got the blues,” recalling the poem’s title.
Perhaps the baseness of the physical act of sex or maybe the ease with which he “forget[s] [his] name” and abandons his own past has brought shame to the speaker, who now struggles “with cold-blooded mythologies” as his shadow struggles with his lover’s on the living-room floor. A brilliant metaphor, “cold-blooded mythologies” refers both to the dominant organized religions, all of which were formed during ancient times, as well as to the evil acts carried out in the name of any of those religions, such as the Spanish Inquisition or the Crusades. By labeling them “mythologies,” the speaker implicitly rejects them for their spiritual value and instead views them the same way he may view the stories about Zeus or Gilgamesh, i.e. literature based on the oral traditions of an ancient culture.
Looking back to the first stanza, the speaker’s “floppy existential sky-blue hat” prefigures the internal dilemma of the fourth stanza. Existentialism, a philosophy that places more importance on human experience than human essence, has grown to become synonymous (somewhat unrightfully so) with the malaise of modern times. Living without belief of an afterlife can be a depressing existence, one certainly deserving of the blues. That the hat itself is “floppy” points to some ambivalence toward existentialism on the speaker’s part, however. He has not landed firmly on either side until the “stillness” in him and his lover plants him on the side of experience over essence.
This “stillness” formed at the “tip of a magenta mountain” connotes a moment of creation, much like a singularity, the moment of oneness just prior to the Big Bang. Just like the emergence of the Big Bang theory shook the foundation of the big three religions and creationist theory, so too does the speaker’s moment of singularity with his lover shake the foundation of the speaker’s former moral code, which appears symbolically as the moonlight shining on the speaker’s lover “like a rapist.” A challenging simile, Komunyakaa’s choice to liken the white moonlight to a rapist calls to mind stories of Zeus’s forceful seduction of mortal women from Greek mythology; it may also denote similar acts of violence taken out by white slave-owners on their female slaves.
Nevertheless, the moonlight only shines on the speaker’s lover. It does not overtake her in jealousy, as Zeus did Io, Europa, and a host of others. Those “cold-blooded mythologies” will not suppress the pair, but they will resonate within the two somewhat, for the breath of the speaker’s lover blooms into a “dewy flower stalk” from the moonlight shining upon her. Aside from its obvious reference to the moment of orgasm, the flower stalk represents the creation of that new moral code, borne from personal and present experience.
Depending on whom you ask, life without an afterlife can be a depressing existence because it discounts the individuality felt by most people. It can also be a liberating one, for the dismissal of commandments handed from heaven allows one to discover and try new things. Either way, uncertainty exists, so one must seek answers in the way of relationships with others as well as an appreciation of all things beautiful, regardless of whether they were created by God, Allah, Yahweh, or a Big Bang.