from Autobiography of My Alter Ego

January 27, 2007 at 12:52 pm 1 comment

Yusef Komunyakaa


I did what I did. To see
friends turn into ghosts
among the reeds, to do
deeds that packed the heart
with brine and saltpeter
was to sing like a bone
for dust. All the questions
were backed up
inside my brain. Questions
I didn’t know I had –
as if I had stopped
at the bloody breach –
the stopgap between
animal and human being.
I did what I did.
I called the Vietnamese
gooks and dinks
so I could kill them. But one night
I had to bash in the skull
of a dying GI.
I was the squad leader,
but I didn’t order
PFC MacHenry to do
what I couldn’t do.
Or Private Ortega.
I used the butt
of my MI6
& stars bled on the grass.
Was the soldier black?
Was he white?
I can only say
I did what I did
because he sounded like a pigeon
tied to a hunter’s stool,
cooing with eyes sewn shut.

No collection of poems about war from this century would be complete without Yusef Komunyakaa. Komunyakaa’s poems about Vietnam (most notably those collected in Dien Cai Dau) are essential reading – combining a stark, almost brutal realism with an intensely lyrical quality. Komunyakaa’s gift is for authenticity combined with song, for an almost journalistic veracity that is transformed to poetry by the one line, the one detail, the one image that breaks your heart. In a poem I wrote to a friend a while back I talked about how reading Komunyakaa “always reminds me / how poetry / is a butcher’s trade / this hacking of raw meat / to keep only / the most tender parts”.

Today’s poem comes from an extract from Autobiography of My Alter Ego which appeared in the American Poetry Review this past November. It’s a quintessential Komunyakaa poem, marrying the unflinching voice of experience (“I called the Vietnamese / gooks and dinks / so I could kill them.”) to some exquisite lines (“to sing like a bone in the dust”; “stars bled on the grass”). What makes the whole thing work though, is undoubtably those three last lines – it’s not just the allegorical power of the vision – it’s that the picture they create is so helpless, so tremblingly beautiful, that it’s only with a shock of pure horror that you realise that it may, as the description of a sound made by a dying human being, be entirely accurate.


Notes: See also Komunyakaa’s Facing It

Entry filed under: English, Falstaff, War Poetry, Yusef Komunyakaa.

Two Sides of War (All Wars) A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Revealed  |  January 27, 2007 at 4:39 pm

    Loved it! Loved the butcher’s trade bit as well. Most depressing really.


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