Presenter of the National Book Awards

2011 National Book Award Finalist,

Yusef Komunyakaa

The Chameleon Couch

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Yusef Komunyakaa


The latest collection from one of our preeminent poets, The Chameleon Couch is also one of Yusef Komunyakaa's most personal to date. As in his breakthrough work, Copacetic, Komunyakaa writes again of music as muse—from a blues club in the East Village to the shakuhachi of Basho. Beginning with “Canticle,” this varied new collection often returns to the idea of poem as hymn, ethereal and haunting, as Komunyakaa reveals glimpses of memory, myth, and violence. With contemplations that spring up along walks or memories conjured by the rhythms of New York, Komunyakaa pays tribute more than ever before to those who came before him.


Yusef Komunyakaa is the author of thirteen volumes of poetry, including Warhorses (2008), Taboo (2004), Thieves of Paradise (1998), which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and Neon Vernacular (1994), for which he received the Pulitzer Prize and the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. He is the recipient of the 2011 Wallace Stevens Award as well as the William Faulkner Prize from the Université de Rennes, the Thomas Forcade Award, and the Hanes Poetry Prize. He teaches at New York University and is a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.


When Eyes Are On Me

I am a scrappy old lion

who’s wandered into a Christian square

quavering with centuries of forged bells.

The cobblestones make my feet ache.

I walk big-shouldered, my head raised

proudly. I smell the blood of a king.

The citizens can only see a minotaur in a maze.

I know more than a lion should know.

My roar goes back to the Serengeti,

to when a savanna was craggy ice,

but now it frightens only pigeons from a city stoop.

They believe they know my brain’s contours & grammar.

Don’t ask me how I know the signs engraved

on a sundial, the secret icons behind a gaze.

I wish their crimes hadn’t followed me here.

I can hear their applause in the dusty citadel.


I know what it took to master the serpent

& wheel, the crossbow & spinal tap.

Once I was a leopard beside a stone gate.

I am a riddle to be unraveled. I am not


& I am. When their eyes are on me

I become whatever is judged badly.

I circle the park. Hunger shapes

my keen sense of smell, a lifetime ahead.


They will follow my pawprints

till they’re lost in snow at dusk.

If I walk in circles, I hide from my shadow.

They plot stars to know where to find me.


I am a prodigal bird perched on the peak

of a guardhouse. I have a message

for fate. The sunlight has shown me

the guns, & their beautiful sons are deadly.


Author photo: Tom Wallace