Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” Luke 18:16-17
“Venus’s Fly Traps” by Yusef Komunyakaa takes me back to the Southern California of my childhood. I spent most of my time as a child running around the safe sunshiny neighborhood with a tribe of boys of which my brothers and I comprised the better part. I remember my own lot of sunny grass at the corner of Arlington where, once, we found a dead cat. I remember the shortcut through a backyard and over a cinder block wall into the Sears parking lot which I insisted on taking even when I had a broken arm. I remember the stillness of the backyard in the afternoon when, for some reason, I had it to myself. Silence is quite loud. Do you remember that?
The entire universe that existed in our three block kingdom echos in the bravado of the five year old in “Venus’s Fly Traps.” I had that same sort of confidence in my knowledge; that same sort of arrogance in my ignorance. I remember that for a few months “ass” meant “penis”. Yusef Komunyakaa takes me to that part of my life when the world was small enough for me to know it all.
In “Venus’s Fly Traps,” sexuality, fertility and life are juxtaposed with killing, danger and death from the title onward. The Venus Fly Trap is one of “the tall flowers in [his] dreams” that “eat all the people except the ones [he] loves.” They have “women’s names and mouths like where babies come from”—women’s names, like Venus, the fertile one herself. The five year old Komunyakaa doesn’t comprehend the sexual innuendo. His adult self inserted this expression, but I won’t say that the knowing wasn’t there.
In the Spanish language there are two verbs where English has one. Conocer means to have experienced something or someone. Saber means to have knowledge about a subject . Yusef Komunyakaa at five sabe mucho (knows/understands a lot) even if he has not yet conocido mucho (known/experienced much)—he has a knowing that is beyond words. His impressions of the world are technically incorrect in some cases. For example, all bees do not live in domesticated white bee hives. But his impressions are correct in their knowing. For example, fertility and death are inextricably linked. The adult poet who has conocido mucho gives words to the unspoken world that the child sabe. With Komunyakaa I am drawn back to that moment of knowledge and ignorance all wrapped in one. I can never repeat the purity of that mental emptiness, but I can conjure the memory to aid me in centering prayer and meditation, practices I use to perform my own tiny kenosis each day to make room for the real God that wants to fill me.
The remembering of childhood is a great pond for reflection, a collection of meaningful experience that has survived the evaporation of the years. The adult communicates with the child, gives him words, wonders what exacly each of those moments contained, and adds his own existential angst that may have, indeed, been buried in the child or may just be a projection from the adult. This is an invitation to integration, a worthy portal toward wholeness. If your heart is filled with unresolved pain of your own—full of unexamined memories and forgotten feelings—there will not be much space for others, let alone for God. The soul of a leader needs a great deal of tending. Poetry is one way to do that I recommend.
Komunyakaa transported me to an important place within me that needs healing and does not often get the attention that healing requires. Thank you, Yusef. You gave me, an awareness of my weakness, my still unhealed scars, and the simple quietness of my childhood play.
Poems like “Venus’s Fly Traps” are especially useful because they go back so explicitly to forgotten places. They get the reader to the right place in the caves of memory to discover new corridors and passageways that have yet to be explored. This is the poet’s gift. Any leader who accepts these maps and does some spelunking will be great regardless of his or her way with words because of the depth of self they conocen and saben. The union of past and present, that which you knew long before you learned it and that which you thought you knew but at some point learned to forget come together and talk it out. This union is the essence of good poetry about childhood, and a great starting point for any time of prayer—get small, get quiet, go to a place inside you that hopes and dreams better than any other, the part to which belongs the kingdom of God.