I won’t lie to you — the day I started reading this book, I was tripping. In Book IV of The Odyssey, as Menelaus and Telemachus weep over their fallen comrades, Helen slips into their wine a drug that undoes “every grief and rage” and dries a man’s tears though his brother or son be slain before his eyes. Called nepenthe by poets, it’s known as oxycodone to us moderns. Helen got hers from Egypt, but I got mine from Walgreen’s. I’d just had dental surgery, so naturally I reached for two things that always make me happy, an opium derivative and poetry. They work even better in combination; just ask E. A. Poe. Not that, in this instance, a pharmaceutical boost was needed. I liked Yusef Komunyakaa immediately when I read Dien Cai Dau (1988), fell hard for him with Neon Vernacular (1993), and decided I wanted to be him when I grew up after Talking Dirty to the Gods (2001). So, naturally I swam, through ebbing pain and growing bliss, toward The Chameleon Couch, his thirteenth book of poems. As I read, though, I thought, dang, this is hard. And beautiful as well, and often funny.
more from David Kirby at the LA Review of Books here.