Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

For the American soldier fighting to survive in an alien jungle, even the familiar could be turned on its head. In “Hanoi Hannah,” even Ray Charles’s voice echoing in the darkness becomes a tool of propaganda for the Vietcong, reminding the soldier that nothing exists in isolation. Even in remote Southeast Asia, the realities of American racial and cultural history intervene. When the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., is also used as a propaganda weapon, it is directly linked for the black soldier with the deaths of comrades in arms.

Komunyakaa portrays the absurd sense of chaos in a world that nothing can be pinned to, a world where those in control remake the rules daily for their own good, where even the leaders are adrift in currents they cannot understand, where the results of actions can only be seen in retrospect. In “Re-creating the Scene,” when a Vietnamese woman is raped by three soldiers, “she floats on their rage/ like a torn water flower,/ defining night inside a machine/ where men are gods.” When authorities intervene, the woman is killed, the story is confused by counterstories, and nothing is settled; as for the baby that survives, its future is as uncertain as the men, the country, and the war itself.

When chaos dispenses with civilized “rules,” when fear overwhelms love, present desires take precedence over long-term goals. In “One More Loss to Count,” an American soldier and a Vietnamese woman, each with lovers elsewhere, slide into the arms of the moment. Even as he acts, the soldier recognizes that a line has been crossed and that there is no pretending that anything of worth can be preserved. Vietnam itself, the poems suggest, has crossed the line, both for soldiers and for those left at home, and thus has tainted the delicate balance of “civilized” morality for some time to...

(The entire section is 755 words.)