Yusef Komunyakaa 'Down Under'; or, Rereading February in Sydney

February in Sydney (Matchbooks, 1969), a small (and it is small, 10,7cm x 13,7 cm) but important chapbook of 14 poems by Yusef Komunyakaa (1947-), is a testimony to this major African American poet’s deep interest in jazz, Australia, and Australian Aboriginal culture.

The title poem, February in Sydney, memorably invokes Dexter Gordon’s tenor sax playing April in Paris, bebob greats Bud Powell, Prez (Lester Young), Ben Webster & The Hawk (Coleman Hawkins), Charlie Parker's 1944 classic Round Midnight, the ‘50s and “a boundless dream in French,” where “music is an anesthetic.” Bird (Parker) also appears, with Thelonius Monk, in The Plea, there is Gerry’s Jazz, and Blue Light Lounge Sutra for the Performance Poets at Harold Park Hotel, (“… if you wanna dance/ this boogie be ready/ to let the devil use your head/ for a drum”).  

On the last page of the book Komunyakaa lists Six Facts About the Author, among them: 3. “He has recently spent more time at the piano than the typewriter, but can’t wait to get back to his didjeridoo in Sydney”, and: 6. “He has often been mistaken for an Australian Aborigine on George Street.”

And in poems like The Man Who Carries the Desert Around Inside Himself: For Wally and Protection of Moveable Cultural Heritage (on Yagan & Pemulwy, two indigenous Australian warriors who fought British colonial settlement), and Frank’s Poem (“you can’t say your other name/ because you were born running/ between three worlds like an unfinished man/ ..), Yusef Komunyakaa celebrates Aboriginal history and endangered culture.

Sitting with this small volume of poems suddenly available at a reasonable price on the internet 50 years after publication, you are sent back to maps of Australia and Sydney and environs, and place names, a number of them referring to jazz venues like the above mentioned Harold Park Hotel. And all 14 poems are somehow linked to Sydney and Australia, like Boxing Day on the 1908 world championship bout between Tommy Burns and Jack Johnson at Sydney Stadium, Johnson out-boxing Burns to become the first African American world heavyweight boxing champion. 

The copyright page informs us that The Plea was first performed with pianist Judy Bailey at Sydney Town Hall’s From Bach to Bebob Concert, Friday, 17 July, 1987.

And in 1995 Yusef Komunyakaa was commissioned by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation to write the subsequently much praised libretto for an opera about Charlie Parker, with music by Australian composer and saxophonist Sandy Evans, first aired on ABC, in 2002 adopted for live performances at the Sydney Opera House (designed by Danish architect Jørn Utzon) and in Melbourne, Komunyakaa’s 14 sonnet/stanzas reprinted in Testimony, A Tribute to Charlie Parker, With New and Selected Jazz Poems, including two CDs  (Wesleyan University Press, 2013).

February in Sydney being ‘a very scarce title’, you may look instead for Pleasure Dome: New and Collected Poems (Wesleyan University Press, 2001), reprinting all 14 poems.