To Komunyakaa, the poem is a mechanism for self-discovery, a means by which both the poet and the reader can probe the outer layers of any experience with the intention of arriving at some core meaning. Indeed, much of Komunyakaa’s work focuses on this desire to get at the heart of the matter, whether it is who humans are or where they find themselves at any given moment in their lives.
At the beginning of his poetic career, Komunyakaa’s vision was rooted most often in his race and gender, but even in his earliest work, there is evidence of his desire to incorporate the perspectives of other people. This tendency to seek the universal expanded over time as Komunyakaa studied and traveled. Indeed, the poet’s evolving vision became increasingly marked by a rich interplay of past and present, of the history and culture of the United States and those of other lands.
Very often Komunyakaa’s poetic inquiries into the nature of identity and experience are retrospective. His poems about his formative years in the segregated South and his young adulthood set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War are explorations in hindsight, written many years after the actual events described. Such a retrospective approach allows the blood to cool and the poet to achieve the necessary aesthetic distance and psychological space between the present moment of composition and the original inciting incident, such as the emotional trauma of racism or the violence of armed conflict.
The typical Komunyakaa poem is often marked by a juxtaposition of apparently opposite elements. For example, the more formal diction derived from the poet’s advanced education and extensive reading is often set against the regionalisms of the rural South or the jargon of soldiers and jazz musicians. What results is the “neon vernacular” that Komunyakaa refers to in the title of his first edition of collected poems, a poetic language that illuminates meaning by expanding the linguistic options, the word choices, at the poet’s disposal.
Furthermore, Komunyakaa is adept at incorporating in his generally spare poems references, especially to musical culture, that amplify meaning through rich associations. In the poem “My Father’s Love Letters,” for example, the poet confesses his desire to slip a warning into the note he writes to his mother on behalf of his illiterate father that “Mary Lou Williams’ ’Polka Dots & Moonbeams’/ Never made the swelling go down.” This 1940 ballad, written by the team of Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen but whose performance by African American jazz vocalist Mary Lou Williams is remembered by the poet, captures the euphoria of a young couple’s first dance; its romantic imagery stands in sharp contrast to the bleak reality of a marriage after the magic wears off. The line also highlights the conflict between the boy’s desire to assist his father in his quest to lure his wife back to him despite his past history of physical abuse and his simultaneous wish that his mother would keep her present distance and stay safe.
Another major feature of Komunyakaa’s style is what has been labeled his montage technique. By this means, he builds many of his poems by superimposing one image upon another in order to create a single, complex, thematically related word picture. In the second stanza of his poem “Sunday Afternoons,” for example, Komunyakaa layers simile upon simile to capture a couple’s confrontation with the unexpected consequence of their acting upon their sexual desires; one moment they “were drunk and brave as birds diving through saw vines” and the next moment they are counting “speckled eggs, blue as rage.”
Dien Cai Dau
First published: 1988
Type of work: Poetry
The soldier-poet tries to make some sense of his Vietnam experience.
Written a decade or more after the author’s wartime experience, the forty-three poems collected in the volume titled Dien Cai Dau are arranged to follow the trajectory of a single black soldier’s experience of the Vietnam conflict from the moment that he suddenly finds himself dropped in the middle of the action to his homecoming and subsequent visit to the war memorial in Washington, D.C.
Komunyakaa’s initial military assignment in Vietnam consisted of frontline reporting. In so many ways, his dual roles as eyewitness and journalist prepared him for the eventual task, long after the fact, of trying to make sense of an experience that may, in the final analysis, never be fully understood. Indeed, the title itself, the Vietnamese phrase for “crazy in the head,” signals to the reader the bewildering effect that this long war had on all participants. The Vietnamese referred to American soldiers as dien cai dau, but the war itself bred a kind of insanity in everyone involved.
The first poem in this volume, “Camouflaging the Chimera,” focuses on the soldier’s desire to blend into the landscape in order to conceal himself from the enemy and to carry out his murderous mission. So much of the poem’s meaning hinges...
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