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.

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(The entire section is 844 words.)