‘Venus’-fly traps’ by Yusef Komunyakaa is a sixty line semi-autobiographical poem which focuses on the poet’s youth and upbringing. The poem speaks on the adventures and tragedies of childhood as well as the influence of one’s heritage. The poem does not conform to a specific pattern of rhyme, but the poet has kept the text unified through the similarities of line lengths and the alternating patterns of indention.
While making ones way through this poem, one should take note of the fact that the entire narrative is being told from the perspective of a five-year old. The questions come from the probing mind of a child and reflect the curiosity of the age.
Finally, there is the title of the poem to consider. Komunyakaa has selected this title so that it may exist, as many lines of the poem do, with a dual meaning. The words refer both to the meat-eating plant and to the goddess of love, Venus. The combination leads one to an image of violent, or at least dangerous, love.
Read the full poem here.
Summary of Venus’-fly traps
‘Venus’-fly traps’ by Yusef Komunyakaa describes the life of a young boy, the secrets he hears and the worlds he creates as escape mechanisms.
The poem begins with the speaker stating that he is a five-year old boy. He is remembering a time in which he was not bogged down by concern for the future and charged into any situation without thinking too hard about it. The poem continues to describe how the child played make-believe and fought off enemies with his “six-shooter.”
The next lines move to a description of the train tracks and the danger and entertainment they present. He has seen funny and terrible things there. The next lines describe the speaker’s wish to travel to a place that is not his home. He thinks he could follow his “yellow flowers” all the way to the sea.
The last lines darken and state that he overheard his mother saying he was a mistake. He has heard this secret and others while playing underneath his house.
Analysis of Venus’-fly traps
The speaker begins this piece by stating that he is “five” at the time of his narration. Everything will be described from the perspective of a very young but intelligent child.
The speaker remembers how when he was young he used to “Wade” into the “deep / Sunny grass.” This was a time in his life when he did not consider the consequences of his actions. He did not fear the snakes, nor did he think of the “yellow jackets” which lived amongst the “yellow flowers.” This whole scene that the speaker relays is one of pastoral peace and happiness. It is a pure and innocent childhood memory.
The next set of lines dive deeper into the adventures the child—who is based in the poet’s own history. The boy sees himself as being courageous and powerful. He states that no one should think about messing with him…
‘Cause [he has his] Lone Ranger
The boy carries around a gun suited to his age and pretends that the world is at his command. He plays make-believe as all children do. The land around him becomes a land all his own. He speaks of the “tall flowers” which…
…eat all the people
Except the ones I love.
These flowers, like the ones he sees in the field, are vital to his imaginings. They have grown “tall…as the First State Bank.”
In the next set of lines the speaker continues to describe the flowers from the field. They begin to take on a whole other meaning in relation to the speaker’s life. Not only are they tall and in a position of power, “They have women’s names.” They have taken on the personas of women in his life and have…
…mouths like where
Babies come from.
This entertaining and strange phrase makes one wonder in what way the young speaker means this and what understanding he really has of what he’s saying. After this phrase the speaker turns to his listener and says that he is willing to “dance for you / If you close your eyes.” This is the first time he has acknowledged having a listener since the first lines in which he introduced himself. He is once more playing a game, making sure the reader knows how interesting and entertaining he is. The child is wracked with a normal boy’s self consciousness though and asks that the listener keeps their eyes closed.
He is making clear he is willing to perform but does not want to be seen doing it.
The last line of this particular section states that the boys is not…
…supposed to be
This close to the tracks.
He is reminding himself to be careful as well as letting the listener know his time here is limited. Perhaps this also plays into his idea of himself as a brave and daring fighter.
In the next lines the speaker moves into narrating a story. He is recalling a time when he…
What a train did to a cow.
This is a moment which stands out in his memory. The reader does not know when or exactly where, but while standing close to the tracks he saw a train hit a cow. This could be part of the reason he is no longer allowed near the trains. The memory could be something which continues to bother him, as it would anyone.
The trains are also described as having “men hiding in boxcars.” These are likely vagrants attempting to move from one location another. They see the boy and “holler” at him “to get back.” Even they, who have no reason to think about this child, see that he is in danger where he is. The train tracks are a central part of the community. They are also an area of clear danger which runs throw the community.
In an effort to lighten the mood, but stay on the topic of the train, the speaker mentions how entertaining it is to hear how the…
…trains make the dogs
The sound is said to “hurt” their ears and the speaker finds this amusing.
In the next section of lines the speaker moves away from the train to describe a higher and more peaceful scene. Even though these two things are true, there are still “bees” in the landscape.
The contrast which exists in the title of this piece (see introduction) is utilized again at this time. The speaker says he knows “bees / Can’t live without flowers.” A beautiful thing cannot exist without something a little dangerous to care for it.
This thought leads the speaker to another, regarding his parents. He associates the honey the bees make with the fact his father calls his mother “honey.” His thoughts then travel to the idea that all bees, “Expect the ones in these flowers” are living “in little white houses.” This is a representative his ideal life.
The poem begins to conclude in these lines and the speaker’s thoughts become somewhat deeper. He muses on what it would be like to “taste” death. The speaker has tried in the past to overcome it, by tossing “butterflies / Back into the air” that have died.
The next lines are darker. They hint at the childhood the speaker is living and the fact that not everything is as it should be. He has a “music” in his head, perhaps a reference to circular thoughts, that “Makes [him] scared.” The speaker knows he has heard things he is not supposed to know and should not have been told, at such a young age.
The speaker tries, in his childish way, to describe his desire to escape from his world. He sees the flowers as a place of peace away from his home and believes if he could “never stop” walking the flowers would go on forever. They would lead him…
Almost to Detroit.
Almost to the sea.
The next lines reference one of the things the speaker overheard. His mother once said he was a “mistake” and that he made her a “bad girl.” These things have been overheard and interpreted from his “playhouse…underneath / Our house.” It is a place below his family world he can escape to. He is still a part of his home, but nothing can touch him.