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On "Work"

Amanda Zink (2007)

Yusef Komunyakaa’s poem “Work” begins with the speaker’s negative resolution, “I won’t look at her,” a resolution that he repeats throughout the poem.  The reader does not know what his eyes are avoiding until almost half-way through the 55-line poem when one realizes that the speaker, presumably a black groundskeeper on an American Southern estate (ex-plantation), is narrating his forbidden attraction for the white lady of the house who is lounging, nude, in a hammock amidst a lush, tropical garden.  Inanimate objects like the lawnmower, the radio, the pitcher of lemonade and organic items such as the bumblebee and the exotic plant species play various roles in the poem: they are metonymic for taboo interracial human desire (as the desiring and the desired), they pull the speaker toward his object of desire, and they obfuscate the consummation of this desire.

Komunyakaa brilliantly employs the classical trope of sexualized flora in this poem.  After the speaker’s initial claim that he won’t act on this desire that he possesses from the outset of the poem, he begins to describe his body in terms of the landscape.  He has been “one solid motion from sunrise, / leaning into the lawnmower’s roar / through pine needles and crabgrass.” Mowing pine needles and crabgrass seems as unnecessary labor; the speaker is obviously distracted by the sexual act of the “Tiger-colored / Bumblebees [that] nudge pale blossoms /till they sway like silent bells / Calling” (l. 2-9).  This observation of natural reproduction is immediately followed by another statement of resolve – “But I won’t look” – making the preceding sexual act less entomological and more human.  The black and yellow bumblebee is a stand-in for the groundskeeper himself – a black man, perhaps with the “yellow” tinge of miscegenation in his blood – who imagines nudging the “pale blossoms” of the white woman whose sensuality is calling to him.

The groundskeeper and the lady of the house are alone on the property, as the next lines tell us; the husband is “outside Oxford, Mississippi,” “the teenage daughter & son sped off / an hour ago in a red Corvette/for the tennis courts, / & the cook, Roberta / only works a half day / Saturdays” (l. 16-21).  However, in the middle of this inventory of whereabouts and in relation to his report of the husband’s location, the speaker unexpectedly alludes to famed Southern author William Faulkner and his equally famous character, Colonel John Sartoris.  Faulkner, of course, wrote about all kinds of Southern psychoses; a fatal attraction between a black servant and a white plantation-owner’s wife, though mortally scandalous, would not be out of place in Yoknapatawpha County.  Komunyakaa’s speaker says, “Her husband’s outside Oxford, / Mississippi, bidding on miles / of timber. I wonder if he’s buying / Faulkner’s ghost, if he might run / Into Colonel Sartoris / along some dusty road” (l.10-15).  In these lines, the speaker insinuates that the husband could actually be Faulkner’s ghost or Sartoris himself.  Colonel Sartoris and his progeny appear in numerous Faulkner stories, and he figures largely as a Confederate army officer, a wealth plantation owner, and the builder of the county’s railroad.  Perhaps the husband is not a military man, but he is a plantation owner (with at least two “slaves” – Roberta and the speaker) and his plans to buy a large amount of woodland, presumably for industrialization, liken him to Sartoris’ acquisition of land for the railroad.  The husband might also be “Faulkner’s ghost,” assuming that this is not the spirit of the departed Faulkner himself, but the ghost that haunted Faulkner and his writings: his own great-grandfather, William Clark Faulkner, whose racist, proprietary personality haunted all of his writings and is the real-life progenitor of Colonel Sartoris.  The husband is linked by the speaker to all of the racist conflictions that characterize Faulkner’s writings, who is himself a modern-day “slave” on the husband’s “plantation.”  The husband’s house itself strengthens this connection, as the speaker describes “This antebellum house [that] / looms behind oak & pine /like a secret, as quail flash through the branches” (l.21-24).  The brooding quality of this house further recalls Faulkner’s world; the dark house on “Sutpen’s Hundred” in Absalom, Absalom! is also shrouded in vegetation and mystery, haunted by ghosts of a racist past and animated by murderous secrets both inherited and reenacted.

Immediately following the speaker’s narrative departure to Yoknapatawpha County is another statement of his crumbling resolve; “I won’t look at her.”  But at this point he does look at her, and the reader finally sees her, too:  “Nude / on a hammock among elephant ears / & ferns, a pitcher of lemonade / sweating like our skin” (l.25-28).  The sweating pitcher of lemonade is a simile for both sweating bodies: sweaty from the heat, sweaty from lust.  The woman now shares in the desire of the speaker as indicated by his use of the pronoun “our;” the sexual fantasy of the wealthy white woman and the working-class black man is playing out in the events of the poem.  He is drawn nearer by the soft sounds of Johnny Mathis on the radio and recalls the advice of his father: “Always give / a man a good day’s labor” (l.36-37).  An ironic recollection, since the speaker is indeed giving the woman’s husband a full day of work, working both his land and his wife.  Despite two more insistences that he won’t look, the speaker is pulled toward the woman by the self-propelling lawnmower engine, by the alluring aroma of honeysuckle, and by the sight of the woman’s breasts, which he describes metaphorically as “the insinuation of buds / tipped with cinnabar” (l. 46-47).

The climax of the poem is veiled by plant imagery and a narrative shift to free indirect discourse; the speaker cannot directly narrate this event that violates every “taboo, law, creed” of a racist Southern culture (l. 42).  The speaker is intoxicated on the heady scents of the flowers and the sight of the woman’s body; he is “drawn to some Lotus-eater,” so that the consummation of this desire is described after-the-fact as one coming down from a drug high: “Pollen/explodes, but I only smell / gasoline & oil on my hands, / & can’t say why there’s this bed / of crushed narcissus / as if gods wrestled here” (l. 50-55).  The speaker is once again the sexually aggressive bumblebee as the “pollen explodes” orgasmically, but without any fragrant trace of having lain with a flowering bud.  The narrator now employs mythical tropes in addition to botanical metaphors to tell his story; human senses betray and speech fails in the face of such a cultural atrocity.  By laying with his wife in the flower bed, the black groundskeeper has “crushed” the narcissistic white man’s code of Southern sexuality so that the “Work” of the poem, ironically, is to reinscribe the humanity of interracial sexuality in such stolen moments of intimacy.

Copyright © 2007 by Amanda Zink

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