Dien Cai Dau Summary
by James Willie Brown

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Dien Cai Dau Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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 upon the significance of the term “chimera”(a term in literature that refers to an imaginary monster or an illusion or fabrication of the mind) and its resonance in the text. Displaying his wide knowledge of history and culture, Komunyakaa makes reference to the chimera as both monster and illusion. Blending in with the jungle landscape, the American soldiers wait patiently “to spring the L-shaped ambush” against the enemy, the Viet Cong; yet, despite the apparent success of their physical efforts to become part of the “terrain,” they cannot control their interior landscape, the thoughts and fears of the “world” that “revolved under each man’s eyelid.”

The “ghosts” that haunt the soldiers’ thoughts are not only those images, real and imagined, that inhabit a war-torn land but also those often-negative memories of the life left behind in America. In the poem “Tu Do Street,” for example, readers find another “two door” or double-sided theme. The speaker of the poem seeks the comfort of Vietnamese “bar girls” while simultaneously acknowledging the fact that these women may very well be the sisters of men he fought “back in the bush.” In addition, the black speaker encounters in this Saigon establishment the color lines that he left behind in his homeland, and these segregationist practices that he finds in the bars that serve the American military transport the soldier back to the Bogalusa of his youth and “white only signs.”

Like most of Komunyakaa’s work, the poem recognizes surface differences, the barriers constructed...

(The entire section is 703 words.)