Crossing a City Highway by Yusef Komunyakaa explores the divide between nature and humanity, with humans having forgotten the beautiful ways of nature. Komunyakaa uses the image of a ‘coyote’ crossing a city into Central Park during a Sunday in New York to suggest how although nature still exists in cities, it is hidden and hunted. The coyote has an appreciation of history, looking for ‘Seneca village’ and the ‘nomads’ that used to roam these parts. The poem comments on history, how humanity has forgotten their wild past on the constant steam engine of progress.
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Crossing a City Highway by Yusef Komunyakaa begins by introducing a new day, the early morning soon arriving past the 3a.m. mark. Within this scene is a coyote, moving and dodging her way into Central Park, leaving a trail for her lover. Yet, there is so much pollution around that every scent she leaves is bathed in ‘oil’, ‘potion’ and ‘traps’, humanity prosecuting nature and causing them to become hunted. The coyote runs into Central Park, considering the history of the location and emphasizing how humanity has forgotten the age-old importance of nature. The beauty of nature has been destroyed by progress, ‘eighteen-wheelers’ plowing through where once ‘nomads’ walked their ‘trails’. Humanity has lost touch with nature, and therefore has lost touch with their own history. Nature is the only thing that is still in touch with the past, ‘she hasn’t forgotten’ and will never do so.
You can read the full poem here.
Crossing a City Highway by Yusef Komunyakaa is written in 7 quatrain stanzas, each measuring four lines. The regularity of the poem is polysemous. On one hand, the consistent structure could represent the journey of the coyote, padding effortlessly in measured strides across the city. Yet, the equal quatrain structure could also represent the enduring quality of nature, still remembering the historic past that humanity has forgotten and continuing to do so – the regularity of structure reflecting the quality of remembering the world as it once was.
One technique that Komunyakaa employs when writing Crossing a City Highway is perspective. Indeed, Komunyakaa tells this poem from the eyes of a coyote, putting himself into the body of the animal to explore the importance of history and nature. In doing this, Komunyakaa is literally making a connection with nature, trying to recapture a part of what humanity has lost.
Another technique that Komunyakaa uses when writing Crossing a City Highway is enjambment. Using in both cases of the animal that ‘jig[s]’ home and in the ‘eighteen-wheelers’ that plow through the freeways, enjambement gives a sense of movement to the poem. Indeed, Komunyakaa creates a sense of the meter flowing from one line to another to reflect this process of movement, the poet representing movement through his freeform structure.
Crossing a City Highway Analysis
Stanzas One and Two
The city at 3 a.m. is an ungodly mask(…)A question hangs in the oily air.
The poem begins by setting the scene, ‘The city as 3 a.m.’ instantly giving a location and a quality of darkness. The description of ‘ungodly mask’ perhaps suggests that the city is disgusting to Komunyakaa, the poet believing that the large town blocks hide something sinister.
The quality of the ‘day’ that ‘hides’ furthers this element of mystery, the voice of the poem, a coyote, does not completely understand the city and the life within.
It is in this opening stanza that the reader is introduced to the speaker of the poem, ‘the coyote noising forth’, instantly suggesting the sense of secrecy and precise within the careful verb ‘noising’.
Compared to the stealth of the coyote, the ‘fiery blaze of eighteen-wheelers’ is unnerving, the enormous machinery seeming barbaric next to the subtle ‘muscle’ of the coyote. This contrast instantly villainizes humanity from the eyes of the coyote, the voice of the poem using ‘fiery blaze’ to possibly connect with the ideas of hell and the evil represented by that idea. The ‘eighteen-wheelers/zoom out’, seemingly coming out of nowhere and startling the coyote. The use of enjambment across these lines furthers the sense of movement, with coyote being shocked by the sudden appearance of the ‘zoom[ing] trucks.
The quality of air within the city is described as ‘oily’, this being the first revealing factor to the pollution within the city. Nature, represented by ‘air’, has been contaminated by humanity, giving the air an ‘oily’ atmosphere which verges on disgusting. Komunyakaa is pointing to the pollution humanity creates, scorning the repulsive quality of human cities.
Stanzas Three and Four
She knows he will follow her scent(…)& darts straight between sedans & SUVs.
The third stanza of Crossing a City Highway furthers the sense of pollution. Komunyakaa writes that as the coyote leaves her ‘scent’, an ancient practise of nature, she can only leave it in ‘the poisoned grass & buzz/ of chainsaws’. Everything humanity has touched is framed through the semantics of destruction and pollution, the ‘grass’ being ‘poisoned’ and trees being chopped down by ‘chainsaws’ – humanity actively destroying nature. The male coyote that ‘she’ is leaving ‘her scent’ for will have to ‘unweave/circle of traps’, evading the weapons humanity has left out to kill them. Humanity is instantly vilified by these descriptions, humans seeking to destroy the natural beauty of the planet with constant pollution and extermination of animals.
The grace of nature, her movements ‘quick as that/masters the stars & again slips’, is directly contrasted to the bulky driving of ‘SUVs’, humanity seeming uneducated and clumsy against the ‘quick’ moments of the natural world.
Stanzas Five to Seven
Don’t try to hide from her kind of blues(…)& kill her way home.
Humanity has lost connection with the past, ignoring nature and the ‘nomads who walked trails’ in that beauty. Those ‘trails’ are ‘now paved’, covered in stone and forgotten. Komunyakaa argues that humanity has forgotten that it was once ‘somewhere between tamed & wild’, distancing itself from this historic unity between man and nature.
Yet, nature has not forgotten this past connection, the Coyote seemingly confused as she searches for ‘Seneca village’, a village destroyed completely in the construction of Central Park. The nature within Central Park seems fake, ‘pained stones’ suggesting the falseness of humanity, creating a man-made park.
Although humanity has lost its connection with nature, nature has not forgotten the past, being the only pure form of the ancient ways left on the planet. The final images look to the animal instinct of the coyote, the ancient practice has not been ‘forgotten’, knowing how to ‘jig/&kill her way home’ – signaling the innate animalism has not been lost. Humanity has forgotten, but nature never will.