Posts filed under ‘Yusef Komunyakaa’


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.


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

from Autobiography of My Alter Ego

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

January 27, 2007 at 12:52 pm 1 comment

Facing It

Yusef Komunyakaa

Listen (read by the poet)

My black face fades,
hiding inside the black granite.
I said I wouldn’t,
dammit: No tears.
I’m stone. I’m flesh.
My clouded reflection eyes me
like a bird of prey, the profile of night
slanted against morning. I turn
this way–the stone lets me go.
I turn that way–I’m inside
the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
again, depending on the light
to make a difference.
I go down the 58,022 names,
half-expecting to find
my own in letters like smoke.
I touch the name Andrew Johnson;
I see the booby trap’s white flash.
Names shimmer on a woman’s blouse
but when she walks away
the names stay on the wall.
Brushstrokes flash, a red bird’s
wings cutting across my stare.
The sky. A plane in the sky.
A white vet’s image floats
closer to me, then his pale eyes
look through mine. I’m a window.
He’s lost his right arm
inside the stone. In the black mirror
a woman’s trying to erase names:
No, she’s brushing a boy’s hair.

“Facing It” is one of Komunyakaa’s most well known poems, printed in “Dien Cai Dau” about his experiences visiting the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C., and his emotions that he experienced while he was at the memorial. Imagine what the feelings would be like to see a friend’s name etched on this wall? On October 30th, 2002 Yusef gave a phone interview. Yusef says later on, “The sky, a plane in the sky. / A white vet’s image floats closer to me, then his pale eyes / look through mine. I’m a window.”*


February 27, 2006 at 5:17 pm 2 comments