The Lucky One
By Bria Holthe ’23
ENGL 318: Literature of Peace and Social Justice
The goal of this project was to display how poetry can be used as a tool for peace. In her paper analyzing poetry through a both an environmental and social justice lens, Bria sharpened the focus in a second draft to “dive into some of the references to the experiences of Black Americans in this poem that I didn’t notice on my first draft. This allowed me to discuss how Komunyaaka compares the plight of the coyote to the plight of African Americans.”
-Dr. Mary Stark
Dance, dance, as the hive collapses
Dance, dance, while the colony disassembles
Dance the occasion
Dance the gorgeous design
Tiffany Higgins, “Dance, Dance, While the Hive Collapses”
We exist in an environment under severe threat. We are swiftly approaching the point of no return in the climate crisis. Eventually, we will be forced to figure out not how to stop it, but how to live through it. Scientists already know some of what we can expect: increased severe weather events, rising sea levels, severe flooding, droughts, famines, and a myriad of other disasters, but what society will look like through these events is less clear. By creating works that attempt to draw pictures of both the ways that humanity is currently harming our earth and what earth may look like if these actions continue, writers can illustrate the true effects of the actions of their readers. In the case of Yusef Komunyaaka’s “Crossing the City Highway”, these impacts are also compared to the ways that African Americans have been treated in the US, adding new depth to the conversation. In this paper, I will examine “Crossing the City Highway” by Yusef Komunyaaka to explore the intersections between environmentalism and racial justice.
Yusef Komunyaaka is a poet I became familiar with for his work writing about the Vietnam War. Outside of speaking about war and the consequences it wrought, Komunyaaka also has an interest in writing about the intersections between industrialization and the wild. In “Crossing a City Highway” Komunyaaka examines the effects our modern industrialization has had on the life of a coyote. Komunyaaka sets the stage by describing “The city at 3 a.m.” as “an ungodly mask” ( line 1). The phrase “ungodly mask” suggests both that something is being hidden by the city and that the action of hiding is a sin. What is hidden is nature beneath industrialization, as Komunyaaka describes throughout the rest of the poem. The next part of the city that Komunyaaka describes focuses on the way that “a fiery blaze of eighteen-wheelers / zoom out of the curved night trees,” (lines 5-6). Here we see him juxtaposing the man-made “eighteen-wheelers” with the “night trees”. The image of a crowd of trucks bursting out of a grove of trees is a perfect metaphor for how humans have altered the natural environment. The trucks are a bright “fiery blaze” representing the zeal with which humanity has come to dominate the world while the trees are forced to curve and bend under our will. These two opposing images shine a light on the degree to which humankind has altered our natural environment.
Komunyaaka then shifts to focusing more on his description of the coyote and her perspective. Our narrating coyote knows that her male counterpart will still be able to “follow her scent / left in the poisoned grass & buzz / of chainsaws,” (lines 9-11), but only “if he can unweave / a circle of traps around the subdivision” (lines 11-12). Here Komunyaaka is making an argument for how the products of our industrial efforts – “poisoned grass” and the “buzz / of chainsaws” – are not enough to counter the keen senses of a coyote. The male coyote will be able to overcome these man-made obstacles and track his mate. However, despite the coyote’s ability to ignore these sensory distractions, he is still threatened by the cars that roam the subdivision. Komunyaaka is illustrating that despite the array of difficulties that nature has been able to overcome, our progress still represents a major threat.
This major threat is explained perfectly in Komunyaaka’s next stanza, where he outlines the coyote’s narrow escape from becoming roadkill. The coyote “stops / on the world’s edge” (lines 13-14) and the image of this wild creature standing on the edge of the void is created. She is standing on the precipice between two worlds, her world of trees and carefully ordered chaos, and this encroaching world of cold steel and speed. Here Komunyaaka uses a carefully placed comma in the middle of a line to force his audience to pause and hold their breath; to wait with the coyote until she makes her move and “quick as that / masters the stars & again slips the noose / & darts straight between sedans & SUVs” (lines 14-16). As she moves into this foreign environment she “masters the stars”, drawing the audience back to that void imagery and also reminding them of navigating by the stars. By mastering the stars the coyote has followed their path and “slips the noose”, narrowly escaping a certain death sentence. Typically speaking, death by a noose was a state-endorsed method of execution, but within this poem, it takes on a double meaning. It refers to the fact that there are no legal consequences for striking and killing a coyote with your vehicle, so in that way, it is a state-allowed manner of killing, but also alludes to this country’s troubling history of lynching. Yusef Komunyaaka is a black man who lives in Louisiana, it is unlikely that this word choice was made without the racial history lynching has in mind. As shown in the CBS News interview with Bryan Stevenson, “Confronting history, to heal a nation”, a memorial has even been constructed to remind Americans of our country’s sordid history with lynchings. With that underscoring the use of the word “noose” it takes on an additional meaning, comparing the lack of care people show for the death of a coyote to the lack of care America has expressed towards the murder of African Americans.
Komunyaaka then pivots and discusses how time has changed the coyote’s experience with another reference to the experience of African Americans. He points out that the coyote is “now in Central Park / searching for a Seneca village” (lines 23-24). Seneca village is the community that used to exist in the space that Central Park now inhabits. Seneca Village was an African American community that existed in the mid-1800s and “allowed residents to live away from the more built-up sections of downtown Manhattan and escape the unhealthy conditions and racial discrimination they faced there” (The Central Park Conservancy). After the city purchased the land to transform it into Central Park the residents of Seneca Village were forced to relocate and the community dissipated. By remarking that the coyote is “searching for a Seneca village”, Komunyaaka is both remarking on how quickly things change and once again reminding his audience of the ways America treats its black citizens. Humans change landscapes far faster than nature does. The natural change of landscapes occurs slowly and takes decades, but humans are able to completely change the layout of space in a matter of days. The seven blocks that were once taken up by Seneca Village were transformed into a carefully managed park far faster than animals typically adapt. Animals like the coyote would visit the area expecting Seneca Village but instead finding Central Park. Through this example, Komunyaaka compares the way that we treat
coyotes to the way that African Americans have historically been treated in the US. Just like how we typically don’t think about how alterations we make to the environment affect wildlife, the New York City higher-ups didn’t think about how forcing the residents of Seneca Village out of their homes would affect them.
To follow up on the coyote’s narrow escape from death, Komunyaaka writes arguably one of the most impactful stanzas in this poem:
Don’t try to hide from her kind of blues
or the dead nomads who walked trails
now paved by wanderlust, an epoch
somewhere between tamed & wild. (Lines 17-20)
The first line: “Don’t try to hide from her kind of blues” (line 17) is the first time Komunyaaka addresses his audience directly. As described by Pam Houston, the coyote feels “a wall of grief so huge” that it felt “honestly, unprecedented” (256). While the grief that Houston describes came after viewing a dying whale, the coyote’s “blues” are caused by what has been done to its home. The “blues” that he is referring to is the coyote’s sadness that its natural environment has been changed by humans. Komunyaaka is telling his audience not to hide from the harm they have done to the natural world by altering it. He further emphasizes this point by telling his audience not to hide from “the dead nomads who walked trails / now paved by wanderlust” (lines 18-19). Here, who Komunyaaka is referring to can be interpreted in different ways. The audience can view “the dead nomads” as referring to humans who lived in the area prior to industrialization, walking trails literally not yet paved or they can view it as referring to animals that wandered the land which has now been entirely paved. A broad-thinking reader may even think of it as referring to both. No matter what way it’s viewed, Komunyaaka is referring to a way of life long since gone before the trails were “paved by wanderlust”. The use of the word “wanderlust” is interesting here as it has connotations of adventure and travel. Here Komunyaaka shows the consequences of such a mindset as humanity’s wish to travel and experience everything has caused us to pave over the very nature we once wanted to explore. In the last part of this stanza, Komunyaaka refers to this paved environment as “an epoch / somewhere between tamed and wild” (lines 19-20). We exist at a unique moment in time where humans have dominated the natural world and the other organisms we share the planet with are forced to figure out how to survive in this new order. By describing our current moment as “somewhere between tamed and wild”, Komunyaaka perfectly describes this tension; our planet is wild and we are trying to tame it.
Within this tension between society and wildness stands the coyote. Komunyaaka explains that she is “lucky” (line 26). The use of the word lucky here stands out because it’s the first blatantly positive word used in the poem. The change in tone for that singular word emphasizes its importance. Komunyaaka wants us to meditate on the luck of the coyote, that despite how dramatically her environment has changed and all of the obstacles that stand between her and her instinctual behaviors, the coyote is still a coyote; “she hasn’t forgotten how to jig / & kill her way home (lines 27-28). Describing the coyote’s movements as a “jig” feeds into the hope that Komunyaaka wants to leave us with. A “jig” is typically thought of as a happy, joyous dance, possibly in celebration of something. Here, the coyote is doing a jig because she still knows how to survive in this modified environment. She is embodying Higgins’ suggestion to “Dance, dance, as the hive collapses” (line 70), jigging along as our world becomes something unrecognizable to her. Despite all of the alterations to the world, her instincts were adapted to, she has still managed to survive and fulfill her biological niche, as shown in how she hasn’t forgotten how to “kill her way home”; the coyote continues to adapt and overcome. I thought that it was particularly interesting that Komunyaaka chose to end the poem with the phrase: “kill her way home” because of his own history. As a veteran, Komunyaaka would have been through situations where he literally had to kill in order to make his own way home alive. This insight makes us view the coyote in a new light as well. She becomes framed as a soldier, fighting against enemies to make her way to safety. Though the enemies she is fighting may be industrialization and pollution, they are just as deadly to her as an enemy soldier would have been to Komunyaaka.
Yusef Komunyaaka uses his art to teach readers a valuable lesson: that our actions have consequences. Every time we change the face of this earth we affect the animals that call that space home. These animals either learn to adapt to us, like the coyote, or they are forced to leave their home or die. Works like “Crossing a City Highway” force their audience to view the impacts of our society from an animal perspective. Some animals, like the coyote, are able to find ways to survive in human-dominated environments, but others can’t. By sharing a story about an animal that can survive, Komunyaaka leaves us hopeful that nature can survive despite our interference while reminding us that this coyote is a lucky creature, and others aren’t so lucky.
CBS News. “Confronting History, to Heal a Nation.” CBS News, 30 Jan. 2022. www.cbsnews.com/video/confronting-history-to-heal-a-nation/. Accessed 21 Apr. 2022.
Houston, Pam. Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country. New York, W. W. Norton, 2020.
Komunyaaka, Yusef. “Crossing a City Highway.” Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/58633/crossing-a-city-highway
The Central Park Conservancy. “Before Central Park: The Story of Seneca Village.” Central Park Conservancy, 18 Jan. 2018, www.centralparknyc.org/articles/seneca-village.