The Poems

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The forty-three poems of Dien Cai Dau focus powerfully on familiar Vietnam War-era images, nightmares, and moral dilemmas that the United States at large still mulls over. Yusef Komunyakaa’s subtle lyrical poems also provoke larger questions: When is killing right or wrong in wartime? How does one define a moral act in such chaos? How do “loving” relations (between men and women, between comrades in arms, between combatants) mutate in such conditions? What is the lasting effect on the survivors, the culture, and the land?

Komunyakaa, as a former combatant, chooses not to moralize. Though haunted by his Vietnam experience, he is not brutalized or desensitized. The poems (many of which reappear in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Neon Vernacular, 1993) show the poet remembering past battle scenes and grappling with unresolved moral questions that filter the present with ghostlike intensity. The phrase dien cai dau (loosely translatable as “crazy head”) refers to the dizzying effects of war on all participants. Komunyakaa shows soldiers as “crazy heads” reacting “logically” to the illogical chaos of war. The war between cultures (black and white, Asian and American, men and women) is mediated by the observing poet, himself one of those struggling to make sense of the strangely beautiful but horrifying events of a very peculiar war.

Komunyakaa avoids abstractions. Poem after poem provides the voice of the simple soldier, fearful yet fascinated amid killing and destruction. “You and I Are Disappearing” presents a recurring memory of a girl burning to death in a linked series of metaphorical images: “She burns like a cattail torch/ dipped in gasoline./ She glows like the fat tip/ of a banker’s cigar,/ silent as quicksilver./ A tiger under a rainbow/ at nightfall.” The end of the poem carries Komunyakaa’s emotional response: “She burns like a burning bush/ driven by a godawful wind.” The “godawful wind” is the war itself, fueled by ill-defined, largely out-of-control forces.


(The entire section is 844 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Komunyakaa, a master of the free-verse form and the editor of several volumes of jazz poetry, follows the internal rhythm of the line, “hearing” the power of the image and tailoring the meaning for effect, in terms of both style and tone. In “Please,” a poem from Toys in a Field (1986), he displays the sense of the dance as he describes a fellow soldier running to his death: “You were a greenhorn, so fearless,/ even foolish, & when I said go, Henry,/ you went dancing on a red string/ of bullets from that tree line/ as it moved from a low cloud.”

In Dien Cai Dau, Komunyakaa focuses on narratives composed of imagery-rich scenes filled with color and sensory detail. He is not afraid to intersperse action with matter-of-fact dialogue. In “Fragging,” as five men “pull straws/ under a tree on a hillside,” one says, “Hell,/ the truth is the truth.” The statement is specific to the moment at hand, yet it provokes larger questions that linger through the poem. What is the truth in war? Who counts and who does not? What acts are justifiable? When the fifth soldier “a finger/ into a metal ring, he’s married/ to his devil.” That juxtaposition of “married” to the “devil” is Komunyakaa’s comment on the scene. When the grenade explodes, “Everything/ breaks for green cover,/ like a hundred red birds/ released from a wooden box.” The colorful freshness of the metaphor contrasts with the messiness of the moral dilemmas. The metaphorical phrases function as action photographs, the moment frozen at its most significant stage. The color and beauty mesmerize, the very transparency of the language making the horror of the actions, as well as its peculiar logic, all too clear.

The metaphorical language captures the surreal immediacy of action while also suggesting that larger themes are at work. When Komunyakaa tells the reader, in “Ambush,” that “A tiger circles us, in his broken cage/ between sky & what’s human,” he describes a real creature stalking soldiers in the jungle. On another level, the broken cage functions as a metaphor for the jungled chaos itself, and the tiger stands in as the looming violence the soldiers fight against, both within themselves...

(The entire section is 917 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Aubert, Alvin. “Yusef Komunyakaa: The Unified Vision, Canonization and Humanity.” African American Review 27, no. 1 (Spring, 1993): 119-123.

Collins, Michael. “Staying Human.” Parnassas: Poetry in Review 18/19, nos. 1/2 (November 1, 1993): 126-149.

Ehrhart, W. D. “Soldier-Poets of the Vietnam War.” In America Rediscovered: Essays on Literature and Film of the Vietnam War, edited by Owen W. Gilman and Lorrie Smith. New York: Garland, 1990.

Gotera, Vicente F. “’Depending on the Light’: Yusef Komunyakaa’s Dien Cai Dau.” In America Rediscovered: Critical Essays on Literature and Film of the Vietnam War, edited by Owen W. Gilman and Lorrie Smith. New York: Garland, 1990.

Salas, Angela. “Race, Human Empathy, and Negative Capability: The Poetry of Yusef Komunyakaa.” College Literature 30, no. 4 (Fall, 2003): 32-53.

Stein, Kevin. “Vietnam and the ’Voice Within’: Public and Private History in Yusef Komunyakaa’s Dien Cai Dau.” Massachusetts Review 36, no. 4 (December 1, 1995): 541-561.