September 21, 2007 at 1:21 pm Leave a comment

Yusuf Komunyakaa


Thanks for the tree
between me & a sniper’s bullet.
I don’t know what made the grass
sway seconds before the Viet Cong
raised his soundless rifle.
Some voice always followed,
telling me which foot
to put down first.
Thanks for deflecting the ricochet
against that anarchy of dusk.
I was back in San Francisco
wrapped up in a woman’s wild colors,
causing some dark bird’s love call
to be shattered by daylight
when my hands reached up
& pulled a branch away
from my face. Thanks
for the vague white flower
that pointed to me the gleaming metal
reflecting how it is to be broken
like mist over the grass,
as we played some deadly
game for blind gods.
What made me spot the monarch
writhing on a single thread
tied to a farmer’s gate,
holding the day together
like an unfingered guitar string,
is beyond me. Maybe the hills
grew weary & leaned a little in the heat.
Again, thanks for the dud
hand grenade tossed at my feet
outside Chu Lai. I’m still
falling through its silence.
I don’t know why the intrepid
sun touched the bayonet,
but I know that something
stood among those lost trees
& moved only when I moved. 

Anytime contemporary war poetry gets discussed, Komunyakaa’s Dien Cai Dau is bound to get mentioned, and with good reason. Direct and moving, Komunyakaa’s poems combine brutal honesty with fragile lyricism, offer us an insider’s view of the war that is stripped of all rhetoric, above and beyond all politics. Reading them, we find ourselves placed in the human center of a maelstrom of savagery, loss, courage and hope, searching for a tentative beauty that is snatched away even as we glimpse it.

Today’s poem is, I think, a good example of what makes Dien Cai Dau so powerful. With its litany of narrow escapes, ‘Thanks’ shows us how the constant awareness of death is the constant awareness of grace, how the true horror of war is the way it proves death arbitrary, “slave to Fate, Chance, kings and desperate men” (as Donne would have it) and how if we come to believe in a power that transcends us, it is because we are constantly aware of how frail the thread of our life is, and how little we have done to deserve to keep it intact.


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

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