Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5916
SOURCE: Gotera, Vincente 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, Jr., and Lorrie Smith, pp. 282-300. New York: Garland Publishing, 1990.
[In the following essay, Gotera asserts that, unlike much of the poetry that emerged from the Vietnam War, Komunyakaa's poems collected in Dien Cai Dau offer some hope of solace and self-renewal for the Vietnam veteran. Gotera further comments on Komunyakaa's use of surrealist technique to express the experiences of American soldiers in the Vietnam War.]
One of the dominant impulses informing war literature is the documentary urge: the drive to make the horrors, the senselessness of war concrete to the uninitiated. Not surprisingly, in the course of this documentation, the writer often discovers the self, grappling with the realities of war; Jeffrey Walsh has pointed to “uniquely American visions of self-renewal and discovery through the exigencies of warfare, and [how] most of them draw upon the literary reworking of the writer's own experience” (5). Typical examples are Whitman, Dos Passos, cummings, Mailer, Jarrell—writers who were close to the fighting, if not literally combat veterans themselves.
American involvement in Vietnam, however, has fostered a consciousness of war which is radically different from our visions of earlier wars, especially because the Vietnam War has dramatized the moral ambivalence of American military power and the shortcomings of military technology. The use by the military of what writers on Vietnam have called the “jargon stream”—such terms as “pacification,” “kill ratio,” and “defoliation”—has become a specific challenge to the writer, since this use of semantics is a deliberate obfuscation. In addition, the cultural and geographical remoteness of Vietnam (as brought home by television), the public backlash and national controversy, the rejection of the returning soldier—all these have contributed to what Philip Caputo has labelled the “ethical wilderness” of the Vietnam War. A wilderness in which the soldier-poet is lost.
Traditionally, poetry has been a source of solace to the beleaguered poet. The locus classicus, of course, is the elegy; we do not doubt that Shelley, for example, in writing “Adonais,” sought and found surcease for his sorrow at Keats' death. The important question here is whether the “self-renewal” to which Walsh points in war literature implies that the Vietnam-veteran poet finds solace in lyric poetry. Since the anthologies of the early 1970s, veteran poets—Receveur, Paquet, Casey, Berry, Ehrhart, Weigl, among others—have been assiduously documenting the war: depicting the strangeness of Vietnam, recording the language of that war, and reporting the alienation of the returning soldier. The optimist would suggest that these poems result not only in personal growth but also in the opportunity for national renewal. In a 1987 essay, however, W. D. Ehrhart (one of the most outspoken veteran poets) writes:
[O]ne might venture to say that the act of writing these poems—even the worst of them—is an act of cleansing. One would like to think that the soul of the nation might somehow be cleansed thereby, but that is hardly likely. More realistically, one hopes that in writing these poems, the poets might at least have begun to cleanse their own souls of the torment that was and is Vietnam.
Clearly, Ehrhart's language reveals his reluctance to believe that the Vietnam-veteran poet has been consoled by his own lyric impulse and the writing of poetry. I propose that Yusef Komunyakaa's Dien Cai Dau, through its devotion to a lyric rapaciousness, through its insistence on human connections, offers hope for such consolation.
Literary critics have cited the difficulty of depicting Vietnam and the war in poetry; Jeffrey Walsh, for example, has echoed John Felstiner in arguing that “poetry of a traditional kind has proved inappropriate to communicate the character of the Vietnam war, its remoteness, its jargonised recapitulations, its seeming imperviousness to aesthetics” (Walsh 204). As the Vietnam War wound down, the first poems to be published by veterans relied on violent imagery coupled with the absurdity of Vietnam in the eyes of youthful Americans. Don Receveur's “night fear” is typical:
i heard my meatless bones clunk together saw the ants drink from my eyes like red ponies at brown pools of water and the worms in my belly moved sluggishly delighted.
(Winning Hearts & Minds 15)
This poem teeters on the verge of triteness and overstatement, but what rescues it is the projection in the reader's mind of the actual experience which certainly lies behind this poem, prompted by Receveur's insistent concreteness. One critic has noted that in Receveur's work “the war seem[s] actualized, made urgent through its particularity” (Walsh 204).
Even when an early Vietnam-veteran poem is more cerebral, there is still a strong flavor of the unbelievability of Vietnam. A good example is Basil T. Paquet's “They Do Not Go Gentle”:
The half-dead comatose Paw the air like cats do when they dream, They perform isometrics tirelessly. They flail the air with a vengeance You know they cannot have. After all, their multiplication tables, Memories of momma, and half their id Lies in some shell hole Or plop! splatter! on your jungle boots. It must be some atavistic angst Of their muscle and bones, Some ancient ritual of their sea water self, Some blood stream monsoon, Some sinew storm that makes Their bodies rage on tastelessly Without their shattered brains.
(Winning Hearts & Minds 3)
Of course, the title is a reference to Dylan Thomas' famous exhortation affirming life and the pursuit of it. In Paquet's Vietnam, however, this primal urge is reduced to the body's momentary life after a shell hits, mere corporeal inertia. Diction here implies an intellectualized rationality: “comatose,” “isometrics,” “id,” “atavistic angst.” But the lasting impression is of “multiplication tables, / Memories of Momma” smeared “pop! splatter!”—American intangibles concretized by onomatopoeia. The point is that Paquet, whom Ehrhart has called “[l]iterate without being literary” (“Soldier-Poets” 248), sets up a tension between the quotidian realities of “the world” (everywhere outside Vietnam) with the incredible commonplaces of “the Nam.”
Another preoccupation of Vietnam-veteran poetry has been language—both the jargonized as well as the colloquial. Michael Casey, whose collection Obscenities won the Yale Younger Poets Prize in 1972, “works exclusively with the truncated matter-of-fact speech rhythms [of the] Vietnamese grunt[s]” or infantrymen, as Ehrhart has noted (“Soldier-Poets” 248). Casey's “The LZ Gator Body Collector” is a revelatory example:
See Her back is arched Like something's under it That's why I thought It was booby trapped But it's not It just must have been Over this rock here And somebody moved it After corpus morta stiffened it I didn't know it was A woman at first I couldn't tell But then I grabbed Down there It's a woman or was It's all right I didn't mind I had gloves on then
According to Casey's book, the “language is so simple and open, so plausible, that one scarcely notices the artfulness of the compression, the understatement” (xii). Gracefully ensconced within the clipped language of this poem is a parody of romance and pornography: “Her back is arched,” “stiffened,” “I grabbed / Down there”; the neologism “corpus morta” not only replaces “rigor mortis” but also emphasizes the connotations of body here. John Felstiner asserts that Casey, in “merely reassuring us that his death encounter was sanitary, … lets the war's full insanity come in on us with everything he does not say” (11). Such artful omission is what allows Casey's delimited language, finally, to carry a charged eloquence.
D. C. Berry, whose saigon cemetery was also published in 1972, creatively uses the unique military language of the Vietnam War. Casey uses Army slang for plausibility, to make his characters' speech sound genuine. Berry, in contrast, orchestrates language to oppose the “jargon stream” which Walsh suggests “can hide the reality of moral outrage” (206). Felstiner proposes that “Washington's need was to sanitize reality and quarantine the fact from the word—precisely what much poetry avoids” (10); Berry's poetry is an deliberate act against such linguistic conditioning. Note Berry's meticulous attention to language in this untitled poem:
The way popcorn pops is the way punji sticks snap into your skin and stab pricking urine into cardiovascular systems and apparatus apparently unorganizing then demonstrating it.
then you die either from the spike, the p, or the
sun gone to grain expanding
in your eye.
Berry uses sound adroitly in this poem: the onomatopoeic “pop” and the labial explosion of the plosive consonant “p.” And the “p” sounds are not only initial or terminal (as in “snap”), but also medial (“apparatus,” “spike,” and “expanding”). In fact, Berry is even more clever when he uses the letter “p” separated from the rest of the line by white space rather than the slang “pee” which a poet more concerned with reportage might have used. The “jargon-stream”-like lines—“cardiovascular / systems and apparatus / apparently / unorganizing then demonstrating”—are deflated by the next line, a hard monosyllable, “it.” As does Paquet, Berry contrasts “the Nam” and “the world” in this poem through the conflict between militaristic jargon and basic Anglo-Saxon language.
A third focus of this body of poetry has been the veteran's return to America, dramatizing political activism and personal commitment within the poems themselves. W. D. Ehrhart's 1984 volume To Those Who Have Gone Home Tired, as Lorrie Smith has pointed out, “traces one representative veteran's growth from naiveté to disillusionment, anger, and political activism” (24). The title poem dramatizes the interlacing of Vietnam with myriad political and humanitarian issues:
After the streets fall silent After the bruises and the tear-gassed eyes are healed After the consensus has returned After the memories of Kent and My Lai and Hiroshima lose their power and their connections with each other and the sweaters labeled Made in Taiwan After the last American dies in Canada and the last Korean in prison and the last Indian at Pine Ridge After the last whale is emptied from the sea and the last leopard emptied from its skin and the last drop of blood refined by Exxon After the last iron door clangs shut behind the last conscience and the last loaf of bread is hammered into bullets and the bullets scattered among the hungry
What answers will you find What armor will protect you when your children ask you Why?
(Carrying the Darkness 97-98)
Again the ubiquitous contrast of America and Vietnam, but here it has come home to roost in the home, in the child's question “Why?” Ultimately, Vietnam becomes only one of many fronts for the political activist: American aggression, the environment, animal rights, the depatriation of Native Americans, and more. And the discovery of this range of political issues is both mirrored and complemented by the poet's own recovery of self; “Ehrhart,” asserts Smith, “connects two converging continuums: his personal coming of age and the destructive flow of history” (24).
For Bruce Weigl, the commitment is not so much to historical or political concerns as to personal responsibility; the poems in his 1985 collection The Monkey Wars chart a private rather than a public landscape. It is this personal testimony, however, that gives these poems their immediacy and, in our inevitable identification and participation, their social and collective force. The book opens with “Amnesia,” an unrhymed sonnet whose octave and sestet contrast Vietnam and America:
If there was a world more disturbing than this Where black clouds bowed down and swallowed you whole And overgrown tropical plants Rotted, effervescent in the muggy twilight and monkeys Screamed something That came to sound like words to each other Across the triple-canopy jungle you shared, You don't remember it.
You tell yourself no and cry a thousand days. You imagine the crows calling autumn into place Are your brothers and you could If only the strength and will were there Fly up to them to be black And useful to the wind.
(Carrying the Darkness 274-75)
In this poem, Vietnam is depicted concretely but not with explicit violence; instead, a paralyzing ambivalence dramatizes the speaker's wish to forget. But at the same time, there is a drive to remember, to become “useful to the wind,” and The Monkey Wars is Weigl's heroic attempt to gather “strength and will,” in order to resurrect and finally confront Vietnam, that “world more disturbing.”
In these six poets, the documentary urge comes to encompass more than mere telling; the last three poems are set in second person, reflecting the polemical bent of much Vietnam-veteran poetry. Using “you” as the voice of a poem, however, also enforces the immediate and personal participation of the audience. Clearly, the implication, especially in a poem such as Weigl's “Amnesia,” is that Vietnam can only be understood and appreciated by the civilian through a direct, if only imagined, taking part. But this device does not enjoin the “self-renewal” of the poet. In Weigl's “Amnesia,” the speaker is enervated—he wants to transcend Vietnam, but “strength and will” are only imagined, not actual at the moment. Smith has argued that, in the work of Ehrhart and Weigl, “the lyric imagination utterly fails to ameliorate or transform the memory of Vietnam” (17). I propose that Yusef Komunyakaa's welding of an idiosyncratic ferocity to what we usually envision as “lyric imagination” in Dien Cai Dau affords the opportunity for such transformation and eventual amelioration.
Dien Cai Dau is Komunyakaa's fourth book of poems. In his earlier three books, he has not included a single poem on Vietnam, because he has been waiting for emotional distance—objective and journalistic-from his 1969-70 Army tour there. George Garrett, in his introduction to Berry's saigon cemetery, proposes that “ordinary judgment [of Berry's poems] must be suspended. We are too close, and the wounds and scars, literal and metaphorical, are too fresh” (viii). It is just such a suspension of judgment that Komunyakaa does not want; he wishes his work to be tested with the full rigor applied to all serious poetry.
The fact that Komunyakaa has waited almost two decades to publish poems on Vietnam differentiates his work significantly from that of other veteran poets, especially those who published in the early 70s. The difference is not so much that he has achieved a distance from his Vietnam experience but rather that the development of his craft has not been inextricably bound up with Vietnam, as Ehrhart's, for example, has been. Komunyakaa comes to the material with an academic grounding in modernist and contemporary poetics as well as classic surrealism, and his work registers an esthetic advance not only of poetry about the Vietnam War but also of war literature in general.
From his first chapbook, Dedications and Other Darkhorses (1977), through his most recent book, I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head (1986), Komunyakaa's forte has been the counterbalancing of seeming oppositions and incongruities. Critics of Surrealism have pointed to “The poet Isidore Ducasse, the ‘comte de Lautréamont,’ who … had provided the classic example in writing of ‘the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissection table’” (Rubin 19), a serendipitous yoking in whose interstices an immanent, wholly startling signification can well. Komunyakaa has inherited this mode of juxtaposition from the Surrealists, specifically through the poet Aimé Cesaire. A typical example is “2527th Birthday of the Buddha”:
When the motorcade rolled to a halt, Quang Duc climbed out & sat down in the street. He crossed his legs, & the other monks & nuns grew around him like petals. He challenged the morning sun, debating with the air he leafed through-visions brought down to earth. Could his eyes burn the devil out of men? A breath of peppermint oil soothed someone's cry. Beyond terror made flesh- he burned like a bundle of black joss sticks. A high wind that started in California fanned flames, turned each blue page, leaving only his heart intact. Waves of saffron robes bowed to the gasoline can.
This poem takes as its base a kind of journalistic language, and of course the seed of the piece is the rumor that the heart of a self-immolated monk literally had not burned, a rumor perhaps gleaned from an actual news story. But the poem quickly moves into the contrapuntal surrealistic plane with “the other monks & nuns … like petals,” setting up a group of images: petals, leaves, and finally pages, reminding us of Holy Writ. (And the phrase “terror made flesh” of course vibrates for Christian readers.) But the Komunyakaa wrinkle here is how the political situation is mystically manifested—American collusion made evident by the “high wind that started in California.” The astonishing final image juxtaposes “saffron robes” with “the gasoline can,” succinctly summing up the Vietnam War which arises from this volatile situation: “the gasoline can,” a harbinger of technology which emblemizes violence and death, becomes a new deity, and all the saffron robes will be ultimately consumed.
Komunyakaa's surrealism varies from that of the other veteran poets because he does not depict Vietnam itself or the Vietnam experience as literally surreal, as do many of the other poets. Surrealism has been defined as “the attempt to actualize le merveilleux, the wonderland of revelation and dream, and by so doing to permit chance to run rampant in a wasteland of bleak reality” (Gershman 1); in other words, the exploration of the strange, through fortuitous juxtaposition, allows revelation to occur in the midst of the real. Through surrealism, Komunyakaa discovers—or perhaps more appropriately, reveals—Vietnam and does not only document its apparent surreality for an incredulous audience. “Camouflaging the Chimera” enacts this process of revelation:
We tied branches to our helmets. We painted our faces & rifles with mud from a riverbank,
blades of grass hung from the pockets of our tiger suits. We wove ourselves into the terrain, content to be a hummingbird's target.
We hugged grass & leaned against a breeze off the river, slowdragging with ghosts
from Saigon to Bangkok, with women left in doorways reaching in from America. We aimed at dark-hearted songbirds.
In our way station of shadows rock apes tried to blow our cover, throwing stones at the sunset. Chameleons
crawled our spines, changing from day to night: green to gold, gold to black. But we waited till the moon touched metal,
till something almost broke inside us. VC struggled with the hillside, like black silk
wrestling iron through grass. We weren't there. The river ran through our bones. Small animals took refuge against our bodies: we held our breath,
ready to spring the L-shaped ambush, as a world revolved under each man's eyelid.
Surrealism in this poem does not function to present Vietnam to the reader as exotica, but rather to underline the existential reality of ambush: the internal psychic state of each combatant. The wish-fulfillment of camouflage involves becoming the landscape, abdicating one's memories and anything else which might disrupt the illusion. The angst of the situation, the impending firefight, is focused by “a world revolved / under each man's eyelid,” a revamping of the cliché “my life passed before my eyes.” Of course, the phrase also refers to “the world” or everything not Vietnam, delineating each soldier's acute realization that he does not belong in this place, that his death here would be literally senseless. The dramatic situation of this poem also acts certainly as a signifier for the entire war, and thus the word “Chimera” in the title serves as a political statement.
The poem “‘You and I Are Disappearing’” (a quote from Björn Håkansson) is a bravura performance highlighting Komunyakaa's technique of juxtaposed images:
The cry I bring down from the hills belongs to a girl still burning inside my head. At daybreak she burns like a piece of paper. She burns like foxfire in a thigh-shaped valley. A skirt of flames dances around her at dusk. We stand with our hands hanging at our sides, while she burns like a sack of dry ice. She burns like oil on water. 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. She burns like a shot glass of vodka. She burns like a field of poppies at the edge of a rain forest. She rises like dragonsmoke to my nostrils. She burns like a burning bush driven by a godawful wind.
In this poem, Komunyakaa is performing “the kind of intellectual wrestling that moves and weaves us through human language,” as he told me in an interview. According to Komunyakaa, “language is what can liberate or imprison the human psyche,” and this poem dramatizes a speaker who is simultaneously liberated and imprisoned. The speaker here is at a loss to describe this scene fittingly. The charged language grapples with a view that is both unimaginably beautiful and incredibly horrible, all at the same time. The speaker, again and again, tries to find a metaphor that will convey both the beauty and the horror—the dilemma of speaking the Sublime, in Edmund Burke's terms. And the speaker comes enticingly, asymptotically close without finding the ideal phrase. Finally, he simply has to stop. And the final image points a biblical finger: the girl will always burn in the speaker's mind in the same way that the burning bush could have burned forever unconsumed. What really nails this image is the phrase “godawful wind” which puns on “awful God,” straight out of the Old Testament, while it resurrects the root meaning full of awe, or more properly here, filling with awe.
“‘You and I Are Disappearing’” also demonstrates Komunyakaa's poetic ancestry in English, specifically William Carlos Williams and his use of the image. Just as Komunyakaa has been influenced by the Surrealists, Williams has been influenced by Cubist art; Marjorie Perloff notes that Williams' “Spring and All lyrics … provide verbal analogues of … Cubist fragmentation and superposition of ambiguously located planes” (182). In many of these poems, Williams' “images do not carry symbolic weight; they point to no external sphere of reality outside themselves,” writes Perloff. “Rather, items are related along the axis of contiguity. … In a larger sense, the whole book constitutes just such a field of contiguities. Williams' recurrent images—wind, flower, star, white, dark—are perfectly ordinary, but it is their relationships that matter” (186-87). If we ignore for a moment that the signified is “she”—a human being—Komunyakaa's images here are similarly ordinary: “a piece of paper,” “oil on water,” a “cigar,” “a shot glass of vodka,” “a field of poppies”; others are lexically more interesting but still reasonably innocent: “foxfire,” “a sack of dry ice,” “a rainbow,” “dragonsmoke.” What drives this poem is the anaphoric repetition of “she burns”—the accretion of which underlines the intrinsic horror of the poem and, by extension, the war itself. The ultimate focus is on humanity and on humaneness.
Many of the poems in Dien Cai Dau deal with human response and connection in combat. “Nude Pictures” begins at the end, only implying the story which comes before:
I slapped him a third time. The song caught in his throat for a second, & the morning came back together like after a stone has been dropped through a man's reflection hiding in a river. I slapped him again, but he wouldn't stop
laughing. As we searched for the squad, he drew us to him like a marsh loon tied to its half-gone song echoing over rice fields & through wet elephant grass smelling of gunpowder & fear. I slapped him once more.
Booby-trapped pages floated through dust. His laughter broke off into a silence early insects touched with a tinge of lost music. He grabbed my hand & wouldn't let go. Lifted by a breeze, a face danced in the treetops.
In “2527th Birthday of the Buddha,” the typical Komunyakaa opposition is the documentary vs. the figurative; here the conflict is between nature and human intrusion. The morning shattered by a firefight “came back together like after / a stone has been dropped through a man's reflection / hiding in a river.” The “stone,” a semaphore for gunfire, intrudes upon the harmony between humans and nature—here, the squad and the morning. Now the hysterical soldier intrudes upon the reassembled morning, “like a marsh loon / tied to its half- gone song” (i.e., nature gone mad).
The final human intrusion occurs in the arresting close: “Lifted by a breeze, / a face danced in the treetops.” Literally, of course, this is a wafting scrap of girlie magazine, with the face coincidentally framed. On a figurative level, however, the image finally rescues humanity: the lexical territory of “Lifted” and “danced” argues for an upbeat ending here. Just as the speaker and the sole surviving soldier hold hands (“only connect,” as Forster tells us) so too are humans and nature harmoniously reunited, if only metaphorically.
Komunyakaa's devotion to a highly textured language is clearly evident in the poems already discussed. There are arresting turns of phrase throughout Dien Cai Dau: a tunnel rat moves “Through silver / lice, shit, maggots, & vapor of pestilence” (5); the Viet Cong are “lords over loneliness / winding like coralvine through / sandalwood & lotus” (8); conspirators plan a fragging, “their bowed heads / filled with splintered starlight” (16); an armored personnel carrier is “droning like a constellation / of locusts eating through bamboo” (19). For the most part, however, the language of Dien Cai Dau is a spoken language, in the Wordsworthian sense—it is the extraordinary way in which these everyday words are combined which makes the poems significant.
As Casey does in Obscenities, Komunyakaa uses the “grunt's” language and speech for credibility. In “Hanoi Hannah,” however, he places the argot in the mouth of the enemy, to demonstrate the ambivalent ambience of Vietnam:
Ray Charles! His voice calls from waist-high grass, & we duck behind gray sandbags. “Hello, Soul Brothers. Yeah, Georgia's also on my mind.” Flares bloom over the trees. “Here's Hannah again. Let's see if we can't light her goddamn fuse this time.” Artillery shells carve a white arc against dusk. Her voice rises from a hedgerow on our left. “It's Saturday night in the States. Guess what your woman's doing tonight. I think I'll let Tina Turner tell you, you homesick GIs.” Howitzers buck like a herd of horses behind concertina. “You know you're dead men don't you? You're dead as King today in Memphis. Boys, you're surrounded by General Tran Do's division.” Her knife-edge song cuts deep as a sniper's bullet. “Soul Brothers, what you dying for?” We lay down a white-klieg trail of tracers. Phantom jets fan out over the trees. Artillery fire zeros in. Her voice grows flesh & we can see her falling into words, a bleeding flower no one knows the true name for. “You're lousy shots, GIs.” Her laughter floats up as though the airways are buried under our feet.
It is interesting to note here that Hannah speaks not just colloquial English, but fluent black English; her speech is so well tuned as to be virtually indistinguishable from the American voice who says “Let's see if we can't / light her goddamn fuse / this time.” That Komunyakaa is black generally makes no difference in many of the poems in Dien Cai Dau, but here it is significant because blacks (and hence the poet) are being directly addressed here by the Viet Cong; Hannah plays Ray Charles and Tina Turner, speaks to “Soul Brothers,” and taunts them with Martin Luther King's assassination—it may well be the speaker's first realization of that event. As this poem shuttles between reported speech and narrative passages, it displays a seamlessness of diction, unlike that of earlier Vietnam—veteran poets like Paquet, who deliberately embattles one set of connotations against another for tension. Here, the everyday diction—“duck behind,” “light her … fuse,” “buck like a herd / of horses”—is allowed to rest easy with slightly more elevated phrases—“carve a white arc,” “knife-edge song,” “white-klieg / trail of tracers.” But the salient point here is Hannah's intimate command of English and the social nuances conveyed by language.
The plight of the “grunt” home from the war is handled by Komunyakaa differently from other veteran poets, and this variance arises partly from questions of race. The black soldier remembers a different Vietnam: Viet Cong leaflets saying, “VC didn't kill / Dr. Martin Luther King”(47); the white bars and the black bars on “Tu Do Street” in Saigon (29); the black POW remembering “those rednecks” in Georgia, ‘“Bama,” and Mississippi to help him through VC torture (42). But other poems focus more universally on the generic returnee. The poem “Combat Pay for Jody” focuses on a soldier and his inevitable encounter with Jody, the folkloric figure back home who steals every combat soldier's wife or girlfriend:
I counted tripflares the first night at Cam Ranh Bay, & the molten whistle of a rocket made me sing her name into my hands. I needed to forget the sea between us, the other men. Her perfume still crawled my brain like a fire moth, & it took closing a dead man's eyes to bring the war's real smell into my head. The quick fire danced with her nude reflection, & I licked an envelope each month to send blood money, kissing her lipstick mouthprints clustering the perfumed paper, as men's voices collected in the gray weather I inhaled. Her lies saved me that year. I rushed to the word Love at the bottom of a page. One day, knowing a letter waited, I took the last chopper back to Chu Lai, an hour before the firebase was overrun by NVA. Satchel charges blew away the commander's bunker, & his men tried to swim the air. A week later when I returned to Phoenix, the city hid her shadow & I couldn't face myself in the mirror. I asked her used-to-be if it was just my imagination, since I'd heard a man could be boiled down to his deeds. He smiled over his wine glass & said, “It's more, man. Your money bought my new Chevy.”
This poem literally brings clichés to life. The testimony of a “grunt” for whom the thought of his lover functioned as a chivalric favor preserving him from harm is so common that it becomes apocryphal. Ditto for the stories of Jody's legendary exploits. In “Combat Pay for Jody,” Komunyakaa has composed a vividly lyrical narrative which encompasses the thousand days of the speaker's Vietnam tour and his eventual return to “the world.” More importantly, he has created a realistic voice which re-enlivens the overworked clichés of military life and which points up the returning soldier's inability to navigate in what used to be his personal landscape.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial has become an emblem of the difficulties of the Vietnam veteran, and Komunyakaa's poem “Facing It” (the closing poem in the book) does exactly what its title says—face the monument and what it signifies:
My black face fades, hiding inside the black granite. I said I wouldn't, dammit: No tears. I'm stone. I'm flesh. My clouded reflection eyes me like a bird of prey, the profile of night slanted against morning. I turn this way—the stone lets me go. I turn this way—I'm inside the Vietnam Veterans Memorial again, depending on the light to make a difference. I go down the 58,022 names, half-expecting to find my own in letters like smoke. I touch the name Andrew Johnson; I see the booby trap's white flash. Names shimmer on a woman's blouse but when she walks away the names stay on the wall. Brushstrokes flash, a red bird's wings cutting across my stare. The sky. A plane in the sky. A white vet's image floats closer to me, then his pale eyes look through mine. I'm a window. He's lost his right arm inside the stone. In the black mirror a woman's trying to erase names: No, she's brushing a boy's hair.
This poem is literally a reflection about reflections; it is a “facing” of the dualities that govern this everyday life: there and here, America and Vietnam, living and dead, night and day, old and young, white and black (i.e., Caucasian and Negro). Komunyakaa does not declaim, does not decry; instead he presents, practically unmediated, a series of images. Like the speaker of “‘You and I Are Disappearing’”—the poem about the burning girl—the poet here is faced with an ineffable scene, but instead of searching for apt metaphors to voice his feeling, he reverts to a reportorial mode. Everything ultimately is point of view, and we are always “depending on the light / to make a difference.” This is what Vietnam poetry (and all poetry in essence) must do—enlighten, give light, illuminate, the better for all to see and see well.
Dien Cai Dau is a breathtakingly original work of art because of the believable, down-to-earth language which speaks the thoughts and feelings of authentic characters, filtered through Komunyakaa's atypical vision. In the last line of Dien Cai Dau—a book whose title, after all, means “crazy”—a woman is “brushing a boy's hair,” an action which affirms sanity and life in the face of the insanity of the war: the love between a mother and child, between two human beings. Writing about Weigl's The Monkey Wars, Smith proposes the potential of a “salvific poetic vision which might unify past and present, anguish and affirmation” (17); Komunyakaa fulfills this promise in Dien Cai Dau.
Komunyakaa's achievement points to the possibility and actuality of self-renewal and solace in poetry by Vietnam veterans. As the body of poetry by veterans moves from mere documentary to self-discovery and personal commitment, from a gratuitous surrealism to a conscientious use of French surrealistic technique, future work by Vietnam-veteran poets becomes increasingly able to transcend the paralyzing horror of the Vietnam War. Bruce Weigl's new book, Song of Napalm, which collects his previous Vietnam poetry and showcases new work, already demonstrates this potential; the new poems begin to ameliorate Weigl's despair in The Monkey Wars. The transcendental possibilities in poetry by Vietnam veterans, therefore, can make possible a more accurate national vision of the Vietnam War—both in documentary and spiritual terms-allowing us, as a nation, to confront fully the moral consequences of our presence in Vietnam. Perhaps, in some near future, it may not be too optimistic to wish, with Ehrhart, that “the soul of the nation might somehow be cleansed” by poetry.
Berry, D. C. saigon cemetery. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1972.
Casey, Michael. Obscenities. Yale Series of Younger Poets, v. 67. New Haven: Yale UP, 1972.
Ehrhart, W. D., ed. To Those Who Have Gone Home Tired. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 1984.
———. “Soldier-Poets of the Vietnam War.” Virginia Quarterly Review 63.2 (Spring 1987): 246-265.
Felstiner, John. “American Poetry and the War in Vietnam.” Stand, 19.2 (1978): 4-11.
Gershman, Herbert S. The Surrealist Revolution in France. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1969.
Komunyakaa, Yusef. Dien Cai Dau. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 1988.
———. Personal interview. 21 Feb. 1986.
Perloff, Marjorie. “William Carlos Williams.” In Voices and Visions: The Poet in America. Ed. Helen Vendler. New York: Random, 1987.
Rottmann, Larry, Jan Barry, and Basil T. Paquet, eds. Winning Hearts and Minds: War Poems by Vietnam Veterans. Brooklyn: First Casualty Press, 1972.
Rubin, William S. Dada, Surrealism, and Their Heritage. New York: Museum of Modern Art, .
Smith, Lorrie. “A Sense-Making Perspective in Recent Poetry by Vietnam Veterans.” American Poetry Review 15.6 (Nov./Dec. 1986): 13-18.
Walsh, Jeffrey. American War Literature: 1914 to Vietnam. New York: St. Martin's, 1982.
Weigh, Bruce. The Monkey Wars. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1055
Yusef Komunyakaa 1947-
American poet and author of essays, interviews, and commentaries.
The following entry presents information from 1989 through 2001 on the life and career of Komunyakaa. See also Yusef Komunyakaa Literary Criticism (Volume 86) and Yusef Komunyakaa Literary Criticism (Volume 94).
Yusef Komunyakaa (pronounced “koh-mun-yah-kuh”) gained widespread recognition when he received the 1994 Pulitzer Prize in poetry for his volume Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems (1993). Komunyakaa's style shows the influence of jazz music, Beat poetry, and surrealism. He draws from both his childhood in Louisiana and his experiences in the Vietnam War as the subject matter of his poetry. Dien Cai Dau (1988), his volume of poetry about the Vietnam War, has been highly praised both as an expression of the experiences of African-American soldiers in Vietnam and as a work that acknowledges the common humanity shared by white and black soldiers as well as the Vietnamese people. Magic City (1992) chronicles Komunyakaa's childhood in Louisiana, addressing the racial tensions and the legacy of slavery in the South, as well as his childhood memories and personal family history.
Komunyakaa was born on April 29, 1947, in Bogalusa, Louisiana, where his father was a carpenter. In 1965, soon after graduating from high school, Komunyakaa entered the army, serving in Vietnam as editor of the military newspaper Southern Cross and as an information specialist. After returning from Vietnam in 1967, Komunyakaa graduated with a B.A. from the University of Colorado in 1975. He subsequently earned two Master's degrees, from Colorado State University, in 1979, and from the University of California at Irvine, in 1980. Komunyakaa has taught English literature, composition, African-American studies, and creative writing in several universities throughout the United States, including University of New Orleans, Colorado State University, University of California at Irvine and at Berkeley, and Indiana University at Bloomington. Komunyakaa is married to fiction writer Mandy Sayer. He currently holds a position as Humanities Professor of Creative Writing at Princeton University.
Komunyakaa's poetry is generally divided into two categories, poems focused on his experiences in the Vietnam War, and those focused on his childhood in Louisiana. His poems are characterized by short lines, powerful imagery, and vernacular speech patterns. Drawing from both his African-American and his Euro-American cultural heritage, Komunyakaa makes use of an array of intertextual references to literature, music, folk culture, and the mass media. His poetry collections focused primarily on his childhood and adolescence in Louisiana include Copacetic (1984), I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head (1986), and Magic City. The subject matter of these poems is drawn from African-American folk culture, jazz music, the legacy of slavery in the Deep South, and Komunyakaa's personal family history. These poems cover a broad range of subjects, from neighborhood basketball games in “Slam, Dunk, and Hook,” to a child's mediation on his parents' fractured marriage in “My Father's Love Letters,” to the presence of the Ku Klux Klan in “Knights of the White Camellia and Deacons of Defense.” Much of Komunyakaa's poetry in Copacetic and I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head is inflected with the rhythms of jazz music. A number of these poems, such as “Copacetic Mingus,” include references to such jazz legends as Charles Mingus, Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, Thelonius Monk, and Ray Charles. Komunyakaa commented in an interview with Robert Kelly, “For me, the poem doesn't have to have an overt jazz theme as such in order to have a relationship to jazz. But it should embrace the whole improvisational spirit of jazz.” He further noted, “jazz has been the one thing that gives some symmetry to my poetry, gives it shape and tonal equilibrium.” Many of Komunyakaa's Vietnam War poems are collected in Dien Cai Dau. Dien Cai Dau is an expression, meaning “crazy,” that the Vietnamese used to describe American soldiers fighting in Vietnam. Komunyakaa's Vietnam War poems are usually narrated from the first-person, and sometimes in the first-person plural “we,” which expresses the collective experience of soldiers in the war. His fleeting, concentrated imagery juxtaposes the natural landscape of Vietnam with the brutality of war. These poems chronicle the experiences of an African-American soldier in Vietnam, examining both the unique experiences of African-Americans in the war and the shared humanity of white and black soldiers with the Vietnamese people. “Tu do Street” describes the experience of an African-American soldier entering a bar in Vietnam that serves only white soldiers. “Hanoi Hanna” presents the radio monologue of a Vietnamese woman pleading with African-American soldiers to stop fighting for an America that does not represent their interests. In several poems, such as “2527th Birthday of the Buddha” and “Camouflaging the Chimera,” Komunyakaa utilizes surrealist literary techniques to explore the psychological terrain of the Vietnam War. As Vincente F. Gotera noted, the surrealism of Komunyakaa's Vietnam War poetry functions to express “the internal psychic state” of the soldier in combat. Other poems in Dien Cai Dau express the difficulties of the Vietnam vet upon returning home from war. “At the Screen Door” expresses a returning vet's hesitation to enter his home after the horrors he has experienced in the war. “Facing It” and “The Wall” are set at the Vietnam Veteran's memorial wall in Washington, D.C., and express the feelings of a Vietnam vet upon contemplating the names of those who did not survive the war. Komunyakaa's more recent poetry volumes include collections of both his Louisiana poetry and his Vietnam War poetry. Among these later volumes are Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems, Thieves of Paradise (1998), Talking Dirty to the Gods: Poems (2000), and Pleasure Dome: New and Collected Poems (2001).
Komunyakaa has been widely celebrated and critically acclaimed for his striking, original, and well-crafted poetry. Many critics have favorably evaluated his Vietnam War poetry in comparison with other poetry that emerged from the American experience in Vietnam. Vincente F. Gotera commented, “Dien Cai Dau is a breathtakingly original work of art because of the believable, down-to-earth language which speaks the thoughts and feelings of authentic characters, filtered through Komunyakaa's atypical vision.” Several have observed that Komunyakaa's war poetry offers hope for redemption in the aftermath of war, while painting an unflinching, sometimes-journalistic picture of the brutality and moral quagmire of combat. Critics further praise Komunyakaa's portrayal of a collective African-American experience in Vietnam, as well as in the American South, while broadening his scope to include universal concerns common to humanity.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6233
SOURCE: Komunyakaa, Yusef with Robert Kelly and William Matthews. “Jazz and Poetry: A Conversation.” Georgia Review 46, no. 4 (winter 1992): 645-61.
[In the following interview, conducted in April 1989, Kelly simultaneously interviews Komunyakaa and William Matthews regarding the influence of jazz music on their poetry.]
[Kelly]: Jazz has been present in literature at least since the twenties and thirties when James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes translated the emotion in the music into their poetry. The Beats used jazz to explore more open forms and to create new rhythms. Recently, Al Young and Michael Harper have written openly of their affection for jazz musicians. And James Baldwin reminds us in “Sonny's Blues” that such music has contributed both form and content to literature when he says that jazz helps us to tell “the tale of how we suffer and how we are delighted and how we may triumph.” Why is jazz important to the two of you in your work?1
[Komunyakaa]: For me, jazz works primarily as a kind of discovery, as a way for me to discover that emotional mystery behind things. It helps me to get to a place I thought I had forgotten. What I mean by that is a closer spiritual connection to the land and the place I came from. For me, the poem doesn't have to have an overt jazz theme as such in order to have a relationship to jazz. But it should embrace the whole improvisational spirit of jazz.
Historically, the African American has had to survive by his or her sheer nerve and wit, and it often seems as if we have been forced to create everything out of nothing. Music kept us closer to the essence of ourselves. Thus, there is little wonder that the drum was outlawed in certain slave-owning locales. The drum was a threat because it articulated cultural unity and communication. But we of course began to clap our hands and stomp our feet to maintain that connection to who we are. Music is serious business in the African-American community because it is so intricately interwoven with our identity. Most of us don't have to strain to see those graceful, swaying shadows of contemporary America in cahoots with the night in Congo Square—committing an act of sabotage merely by dancing to keep forbidden gods alive.
This is almost Hegelian. We refused to become only an antithesis—lost and incomplete. So music was the main thread that linked us to the future, was a process of reclaiming ourselves. Being in motion—improvisation, becoming—this was the root of our creativity, our accentuation of the positive even when the negative pervaded. Our music became an argument with the odds, a nonverbal articulation of our pathos. In this sense, even the blues dirge is an affirmation—the theft of possibility, words made flesh. Music has always been the bridge to what Houston Baker calls “the journey back,” this needful voyage back to the source, the spawning bed of our cultural existence.
[Matthews]: Yusef's comments seem to me very astute, and I endorse them almost entirely. But I'd like to make one variation on his comment about connection to land and place. There are many Americans, including me, for whom jazz and the best poetry are ways to describe their relationship to rootlessness.
I live in New York City, perhaps our ultimate haven for homeless people. I mean not only those poor souls sleeping on sewer grates and in subway stations, but also the many people who uprooted themselves to come to New York. Some came to work on Wall Street as arbitragers and grow fat, but I'm not thinking of them. I'm thinking of people like my sister, who came to New York because she's a dancer and could most fully pursue that passion in the city, or of a gay friend who left a small town in Oklahoma because he had no emotional or social home there. To find an emotional home, they had to leave a geographical home. This is a very American theme. That's why so much of the blues and jazz—and of American poetry—is full of place names, geography, travel. These songs and poems are set on planes and boats and trains. Perhaps they offer the other side of Whitman's great empathetic ideal that if you can make a home wherever you go, no place is really more a home than any other.
Yusef has stressed the emotional sources of jazz and poetry, and that raises a perplexing question. If the ultimate sources for poetry and jazz are the life of the emotions, the extreme difficulty of describing that life, and the great spiritual cost of not trying to describe it, then poetry and jazz are rooted at the very center of what it's like to be human. They ought to be of wide interest, therefore, and yet both poetry and jazz find themselves existing in tenuous relation to a comparatively small audience. Their vitality is honored in largely sanctuarial settings—colleges, art institutes, community centers, and so on. Outside the sanctuaries, the situation reminds me of Yogi Berra's comment about baseball fans not coming out to the stadium: “If they want to stay away in droves, you can't stop them.”
The contrast between the centrality of the enterprise and the size of the audience is not something we should necessarily feel guilty about, as if we had ourselves caused it. But there is a danger that despite deep and powerful emotional bases, poetry and jazz can turn into museum arts, losing the nourishment that more direct access to an audience can provide. We couldn't—and shouldn't—have asked John Coltrane to back off and play a lot of four-four stuff in order to enlarge his audience. The artist's job is not to solve the problem—but the problem exists.
[Komunyakaa]: What I meant by discovery, or rediscovery, is that jazz can link us to surprises in content. I wanted to write a poem that dealt with childhood, so I put on Louis Armstrong. What I'm going to do is just read you “Venus's Flytraps,” and see if it has anything to do with jazz and syncopated rhythms:
I am five, Wading out into deep Sunny grass, Unmindful of snakes & yellowjackets, out To the yellow flowers Quivering in sluggish heat. Don't mess with me 'Cause I have my Lone Ranger Six-shooter. I can hurt You with questions Like silver bullets. The tall flowers in my dreams are Big as the First State Bank, & they eat all the people Except the ones I love. They have women's names, With mouths like where Babies come from. I am five. I'll dance for you If you close your eyes. No Peeping through your fingers. I don't supposed to be This close to the tracks. One afternoon I saw What a train did to a cow. Sometimes I stand so close I can see the eyes Of men hiding in boxcars. Sometimes they wave & holler for me to get back. I laugh When trains make the dogs Howl. Their ears hurt. I also know bees Can't live without flowers. I wonder why Daddy Calls Mama honey. All the bees in the world Live in little white houses Except the ones in these flowers. All sticky & sweet inside. I wonder what death tastes like. Sometimes I toss the butterflies Back into the air. I wish I knew why The music in my head Makes me scared. But I know things I don't supposed to know. I could start walking & never stop. These yellow flowers Go on forever. Almost to Detroit. Almost to the sea. My mama says I'm a mistake. That I made her a bad girl. My playhouse is underneath Our house, & I hear people Telling each other secrets.
Essentially, what I was hearing were the secrets coming out of Louis Armstrong's trumpet, and I tried to relate to those and let the music take me back to that time when I was five years old—to those memories. The music becomes a place in which to recapture, to reexperience, certain things.
As a black American poet, however, I don't want to be stereotyped into a convenient slot—merely a jazz poet. I write about whatever captures my imagination. Anything that touches me significantly: philosophy, psychology, nature, cultural concerns, folklore, world history, sex, science, from the gut-level to the arcane, whatever. Yes, for me, jazz moves underneath many of these topics. It is often a necessary balm. We now refer to jazz as America's classical music. Unfortunately, until recently, many middle-class African Americans saw jazz as the devil's music that evolved from the whorehouses of Storyville. It wasn't sacred. Second-class citizens can be awfully puritanical, and this is especially true when they're striving for acceptance by the dominant culture.
Look at the Harlem Renaissance—the cultural straitjacket—the whole movement defined by European standards, except Langston Hughes, Helene Johnson, and Zora Neale Hurston. In fact, only Hughes whole-heartedly embraces jazz and blues as major influences. Most of these poets, including Claude McKay, Anne Spencer, and Countee Cullen, gravitated toward British Romantics such as Keats and Wordsworth. Many found more interest in New England transcendentalism than in the folk tradition of blues and jazz. Or, they connected to the flight motifs of the spirituals that had informed early black poetry. The two voices that are associated with the postrenaissance period of the 1950's are Sterling Brown and Frank Marshall Davis—both wrote jazz-and-blues-influenced poems. Gwendolyn Brooks also has a few. But the real synthesis of jazz and poetry happened in the 1960's and 1970's with Larry Neal and Amiri Baraka—the two jazz/blues philosophers. And we get someone like Jayne Cortez whose whole body of work is tied completely to jazz.
In the early 1970's, when I was listening to Miles, Coltrane, Elvin Jones, and a lot of other progressive players, I didn't know they were influencing my poetry. I just loved the sound. The music helped me free up my mind for more vivid extrusions. Jazz was just a part of my life, a continuous score to the images inside my head. It helped to expand my creative universe. It taught me I could do anything in a poem—more so than what Villon or Ginsberg taught me. The music took me back to the importance of irony, to how the dynamics of insinuation work, particularly in African-American poetry. Jazz is tonal insinuation, and it showed me how to make writing fun.
[Kelly]: William, can you speak to the point about the “recaptured past”? Some of your poems refer to Ben Webster, Bud Powell, and other jazz figures from the thirties and forties. Why is that period important for you?
[Matthews]: Actually the period of jazz I love most is the one that took place in my teens and twenties, when I made my personal discovery of it. I think this may be true for many jazz buffs. Orwell said—I think it was Orwell—“What is patriotism but the love of the food one ate in one's childhood?” Essential jazz for me was Thelonious Monk, the Miles Davis quintet with Coltrane and Red Garland, and the Mingus workshop bands with Danny Richmond on drums. I must have logged a hundred hours listening to those Mingus groups in a little bar called The Showplace, long defunct now, on West 4th Street. I went to school in Massachusetts and Connecticut, and I would come down to New York on weekends to sit in various jazz bars and sip slow beers and spend my small money to rent a place so I could listen to the music.
But I learned that to listen to Mingus more alertly, I needed to know a lot more about Ellington. I started working backwards in order to learn where the musicians I loved had come from, almost in the way that at a certain age people get interested in their parents' youth and their grandparents' lives. The evidence of this is all over the poems—my interest in Webster and Lester Young and the history of the saxophone as a solo instrument. This was all music I was driven to because, I realize now, I was knocked out by a Sonny Rollins solo I heard when I was seventeen. The presence of older musicians in my poems reflects this sort of personal archaeological exploration: those earlier figures are important in the poems, but the crucial years for me were the ones I spent as a weird white be-bop groupie hanging around the Village and trying to figure out what I was listening to and why I loved it so much. The music I heard then helped me to forge an introduction to my emotional life and not to be terrified of it, and my love and gratitude for that help are undying. Also, of course, it's a very great body of music.
[Kelly]: Yusef, growing up in Louisiana you must have heard about and listened to Louis Armstrong early on, and you've written a poem about Charlie Mingus. What other kind of jazz is important to you?
[Komunyakaa]: I suppose the whole spectrum of jazz would be important. When I think of be-bop—well, listening to be-bop released me from that whole lineal connection to everything. I could skip around. I could improvise with words and sound—not necessarily to imitate what the musicians were actually doing, but to discover, again, a direction I could take. I think sound is very important—rhythm—a new kind of meter that can approximate our contemporary landscape. And also, you have to realize that there is a kind of internal and psychological landscape that one gets to. This is not necessarily thought out, but is something that is achieved improvisationally.
[Matthews]: I think it would be wrong not to talk about—though it's very difficult to talk about—the fact that rhythm is crucial in poetry and rhythm is crucial in jazz. It's not possible to make exact correlations between the two kinds of rhythm, but the complex and beautiful rhythmic patterns of the best jazz allow variation a larger role than is usual in poetry, and the lure of this can be powerful to a young poet.
When I was a student, for example, I might go to sleep with whole passages from Dryden running through my head. They were very beautiful passages, though not in the rhythm of the talk in my classes or the chatter of the guys in the gym I played ball with or the banter of the folks I worked with for beer money while I was in college. I knew all kinds of people who didn't even know who Dryden was, but who were every bit as interesting. Their rhythms, too, were in my head when I lay down to sleep. If it weren't for something I learned listening to jazz, the gap between the two kinds of English would have seemed vast to me, but it didn't because jazz gave me permission to begin composing a poetic language based on the rhythms of the speaking voice: the voice rationalizing to itself, jiving other people, trying to seduce a comparative stranger, explaining why a paper is not ready on time, doing puns and jokes and imitations—in sum, doing the real emotional business of daily life, full of weird quirks and odd lilts. To pay attention to everything I wanted to hear, I needed as many useful models as I could get my hands on, and jazz helped me at least as much as Dryden.
As a kid I spoke a rather special dialect, the patois of the well-educated, bookish kid in the culture. It's the American equivalent, perhaps, of the dialect BBC announcers speak in England. There are a limited number of occasions in life where it's really the dialect that's spoken; in that sense it's just slightly more of a lingua franca than Esperanto. I came to want to be able to speak more like my countrymen and countrywomen; there's no reason to order a cheese danish at the corner deli in the words of Samuel Johnson. So, for me, linguistic improvisation meant not staying trapped in the dialect of my upbringing and education, meant moving out and experiencing as a ventriloquist the lives of my fellow citizens. That's what it means to be American, I thought.
I could listen to the weirdest music before I could read Whitman. When I first heard Yusef Lateef or Eric Dolphy, let's say, I had no idea what they were up to, but I knew I was interested by it. That experience taught me to trust my intuition and ignorance, something I couldn't do as easily in front of a text. In a way, I learned to read Whitman by listening to Don Cherry play his pocket trumpet.
[Komunyakaa]: Jazz also worked for me as a way of reestablishing a kind of trust. A trust in what I had known earlier. For some reason, I think it directed me back to my need to say something.
What do I mean by that? Whatever it is, maybe I'm trying to say it in these words, in a poem called “Blue Light Lounge Sutra for the Performance Poets at Harold Park Hotel”:
the need gotta be so deep words can't answer simple questions all night long notes stumble off the tongue & color the air indigo so deep fragments of gut & flesh cling to the song you gotta get into it so deep salt crystallizes on eyelashes the need gotta be so deep you can vomit up ghosts & not feel broken till you are no more than a half ounce of gold in painful brightness you gotta get into it blow that saxophone so deep all the sex & dope in this world can't erase your need to howl against the sky the need gotta be so deep you can't just wiggle your hips & rise up out of it chaos in the cosmos modern man in the pepperpot you gotta get hooked into every hungry groove so deep the bomb locked in rust opens like a fist into it into it so deep rhythm is pre-memory the need gotta be basic animal need to see & know the terror we are made of honey cause if you wanna dance this boogie be ready to let the devil use your head for a drum
Risk: essentially, that's what I'm talking about. You have to have that need to take risks, and they come to us in varied patterns and intensities. McKay's protest sonnet “If We Must Die” took a risk in content. Why else was it read into the Congressional Record by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge? But McKay took few risks structurally. Poetry has always been associated with the elite, the leisure class, with “high” culture of Europe, and the African-American poet of the 1920's was still in almost the same dilemma as Phillis Wheatley when her work was defined by Thomas Jefferson as beneath a critical response. That is, well into this century the black poet was still aspiring to acceptance by whites, still biding for the wand of approval and recognition as a mere human being.
Consequently, few black poets were willing to admit the influence of jazz because it was defined as “low” culture; it had been created by the descendants of Africa. Only during the 1960's did we begin to rediscover that which was ours, redefining ourselves with Africa as an emotional backdrop. Young black poets began to accept Langston Hughes and Frank Horne and those white poets associated with modernism—an American tongue and ear. Indeed, jazz shaped the Beat aesthetic, but that movement seemed a privilege only whites could afford. Blacks, fighting for inclusion, didn't have to ostracize themselves voluntarily. Of course, this was a cultural paradox. To many the Beat Movement was nothing more than the latest minstrel show in town with the new Jim Crows and Zip Coons, another social club that admitted hardly any women or blacks. Yet they said that Charlie Parker was their Buddha.
The whole thing seemed like a love-hate complex magnified. Only the spirit of improvisation held it together like a jam session. This was the element of excitement—the same kind of energy that we poets often try to capture in our jazz-related poems—what we see in the work of Michael Harper, Jay Wright, and many others.
[Kelly]: I think I see how, to both of you, jazz is crucial for freeing you from having to listen to voices in just one way and for allowing you to appreciate different rhythms of speech and language. Jonathan Holden has written about how contemporary poets borrow from more familiar kinds of discourse (e.g., letters, confessions, patterned conversations) to inform poetry. Do the formal elements in jazz composition (the improvisational component of a piece, predictable chord changes, refrain, contrapuntal harmony) work themselves into the structure of your poems?
[Matthews]: I think what Holden is talking about has to do with occasions for speech. If you abandon the sonnet and other inherited stanza forms, why not work with rhetorical forms—the letter, the anecdote, etc.? As Mingus once said, “Can't improvise on nothing, man; you gotta improvise on something.” Holden, in a way, is talking about getting started.
What I'd like to talk about is not only the discovery of the occasion for how a poem might begin, but the discovery of the whole process of a poem, a way of thinking and feeling at the same time, as if it were all one activity—and it is. Writing is a way of being in the world as if the famous mind/body problem didn't exist. And it doesn't. It's only a poor invention of philosophy, one of those road signs rational intelligence puts up to mark the farthest its powers can carry it. To confuse that road sign with the limits of human intelligence is to shrink the word “intelligence” to a mere synonym for “rationality.”
Jazz and poetry are about what it feels like to be whole.
[Komunyakaa]: Often we hear about the emotional thread holding poems together. But, as in jazz, we also have to think about a tonal thread holding the poem together, whereby we are able to make leaps not necessarily through logic, but through feeling.
[Kelly]: Yusef, which poem of yours is it that has the refrain, “hard love, it's hard love”?
[Komunyakaa]: That's “Copacetic Mingus.” It has an epigraph from the man himself—“Mingus One, Two and Three. / Which is the image you want the world to see?”—and then I carry it on this way:
Heartstring. Blessed wood & every moment the thing's made of: ball of fatback licked by fingers of fire. Hard love, it's hard love. Running big hands down the upright's wide hips, rocking his moon-eyed mistress with gold in her teeth. Art & life bleed into each other as he works the bow. But tonight we're both a long ways from the Mile High City, 1973. Here in New Orleans years below sea level, I listen to Pithecanthropus erectus: Up & down, under & over, every which way— thump, thump, dada—ah, yes. Wood heavy with tenderness, Mingus fingers the loom gone on Segovia, dogging the raw strings unwaxed with rosin. Hyperbolic bass line. Oh, no! Hard love, it's hard love.
[Kelly]: The poem itself seems to be an instrument, one expressing your feeling about Mingus.
[Komunyakaa]: I think so. It's the whole thing of putting words together to create tension within the context of the poem. What I'm talking about, I think, has to do with language itself, though subject matter creates a poem's tone, also. In writing the Vietnam poems for my collection Dien Cai Dau, I questioned if I could stay close to the jazz motif, and it was very difficult. I don't think those poems were influenced by jazz as much as the ones in I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head or Copacetic. However, I know that there is at least one poem informed by jazz in the Vietnam book, “You and I Are Disappearing,” which has a rhythm that came out of listening to Thelonious Monk. Monk would give you enough space to fit your heart into: repetition with slight variations, playing with pauses and silences, an unspoken call-and-response. Monk knew how to be his own Amen Corner. He had listened closely to those gospel singers he'd accompanied as a teenager; his sound is one that always takes me back home to the foundation of my creative impulse. I love his jagged tonality, how he was able to leave a piece unresolved—a door left ajar that invited you in as a participant. I try to write poems like that.
[Kelly]: What you just said about “heart” returns me to “Copacetic Mingus” and in particular its lines “Art & life bleed / into each other.” They say much about the melding of poetry and jazz.
[Matthews]: The art/life problem is rather like the mind/body problem. At our best we like them bleeding into one another, and we like to oppose the ease with which we can set up borders between them. Of course, music draws from the history of music, and in that way music is “about” music. In a similar way all art is partially about art. Any music resembles any other music more than it resembles an insurance policy, let's say. Thus, while one of jazz's functions is to be in benign and loving opposition to less improvisational forms of music, it has more in common with them than it does with silence, and perhaps even more than it does with speech. But finally, jazz is not separable from life. Jazz is what life would sound like if the only expressive form it could find were jazz.
[Komunyakaa]: John Cage composed pieces that used silence as music, and many of the Black Mountain poets were aware of silence on the page, how the white space contributes to the poem's rhythm. Olson and Creeley come to mind. Perhaps this is what first drew Baraka to them. I can definitely see that influence in The Dead Lecturer, but I'm sure that his attraction to jazz was always there. His whole demeanor seems to be informed by jazz, and he also knows the sophisticated nuance of silence in poetry. The jazz-influenced poet is quite aware of silence. Not just how it's broken up or accented on the page, but many times silence as an implied element.
[Matthews]: The spaces between words are a form of structured silence. The silence that's terrifying is the one that just goes. … That's the one that is the enemy of love and joy. It's a whole other matter.
[Kelly]: When you talk about improvisation, I think of the be-bop period and how a lot of improvisational pieces were convoluted re-creations of standard melodies, redefinitions of jazz by a new generation of musicians. To the casual listener, these pieces sounded completely original, but they were built on familiar tunes. When you improvise in a poem, what gives it shape other than your improvisation?
[Komunyakaa]: I mentioned the whole thing about tonal thread. Many times, if you notice, in the jazz-related poem there's a refrain. Sometimes I will use a refrain during composition—something that I return to—but I'll go back later and remove it. Essentially, the refrain keeps me going—moving on with the same tone pretty much throughout the poem.
[Matthews]: I've already referred to learnable structures that help you save yourself from getting lost in improvising—Mingus saying, “Can't improvise on nothing, man; you gotta improvise on something.” About half the be-bop classics are based on the chord changes of “I Got Rhythm.” There are “fake books,” so called, that give musicians the changes to numerous songs. There's even a fake book called The Real Book. As to improvisation ex nihilo, it just doesn't happen.
An interesting question is, “What in the writing of a poem provides something similar?” There are certain devices—repetition, diminuendo and crescendo—that can be described in musical terms. But, naturally, something happens in the course of a poem that doesn't happen in a piece of music. Words have conventional meaning, and so something's being proposed—to the reader at least, and in many poems to an implied listener, some second character of the poem beside the one we usually call “the speaker.” Is it believable or not? Interesting or not? There are issues of persuasion and consent raised by any given poem that I believe are important sources of improvisation in the writing of poetry.
Here's a piece of mine with some jazz subject matter. As Yusef said so wisely at the beginning, it's a sense of procedure rather than subject matter that is the deep link between jazz and poetry. I happen to write frequently about jazz because I write about what I love, but it's the procedural link that interests me most.
This is a poem called “The Accompanist.” It's spoken by an old guy who made a career as an accompanist to a famous singer, and who has been asked what it was like to be around her. He also knows a few things to say to people who may be interested in what the skills of a good accompanist are. I had no particular singer or accompanist in mind. The poem's written to discourage identification.
The poem may well be about erotic life, and how hard it is to maintain in erotic life that equilibrium between the parties we rather grandly call “equality.” But I choose to quote the poem here partly because it lives, if it does, by raising some of the issues of persuasion and consent and credibility I was just talking about.
Of course, there's an important difference between the kind of improvisation in poetry I was mentioning and improvising on the bandstand. At home, if I get lost, there's always the friendly wastebasket, and then I can make another try at it. Get lost on the bandstand, and you have a bunch of half-drunk people pointing and laughing from the audience—or at least that's how it could feel.
Don't play too much, don't play too loud, don't play the melody. You have to anticipate her and to subdue yourself. She used to give me her smoky eye when I got boisterous, so I learned to play on tip- toe and to play the better half of what I might. I don't like to complain, though I notice that I get around to it somehow. We made a living and good music, both, night after night; the blue curlicues of smoke rubbing their staling and wispy backs against the ceilings, the flat drinks and scarce taxis, the jazz life we bitch about the way Army pals complain about the food and then re-up. Some people like to say with smut in their voices how playing the way we did at our best is partly sexual. OK, I could tell them a tale or two, and I've heard the records Lester cut with Lady Day and all that rap, and it's partly sexual but it's mostly practice and music. As for partly sexual, I'll take wholly sexual any day, but that's a duet and we're talking accompaniment. Remember “Reckless Blues”? Bessie Smith sings out “Daddy” and Louis Armstrong plays back “Daddy” as clear through his horn as if he'd spoken it. But it's her daddy and her story. When you play it you become your part in it, one of her beautiful troubles, and then, however much music can do this, part of her consolation, the way pain and joy eat off each other's plates, but mostly you play to drunks, to the night, to the way you judge and pardon yourself, to all that goes not unsung, but unrecorded.
[Kelly]: “When you play it, you become a part in it.” Improvisation is participating in something that is already ongoing?
[Matthews]: Contributing or giving something that is already ongoing, to be sure. Also, for me, the almost theatrical or dramatic meaning of your “part” in it, your role in it. This refers to what I said earlier about experiencing the lives of your countrymen and countrywomen.
There are two responses that people can make to pieces of writing they like. One is “I can really relate to that because my grandmother died, too.” But that's not really what reading and writing are about. All our grandmothers are going to die. What that person means is “I looked into your book and lo, it was a mirror, and in it I saw myself.” The connection that I love, both as reader and writer, is the other one: “I would never have thought or felt such a thing without this text.” It takes you outside your narrowest self. You're other, larger, different and more strange than you knew. So in that way “your part in it” is to be somebody a little different from yourself, to play that role and know what it's like.
[Kelly]: Which means creating the voices.
[Komunyakaa]: Those are the extended possibilities. I mentioned the Vietnam poems, and the one informed by Thelonious Monk. If you listen to Monk, you hear all of his repetition constantly, and I tried to capture that repetition, that “other role” Bill noted, in the very short space of “You and I Are Disappearing”:
The cry I bring down from the hills belongs to a girl still burning inside my head. At daybreak she burns like a piece of paper. She burns like foxfire in a thigh-shaped valley. A skirt of flames dances around her at dusk. We stand with our hands hanging at our sides, while she burns like a sack of dry ice. She burns like oil on water. 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. She burns like a shot glass of vodka. She burns like a field of poppies at the edge of a rain forest. She rises like dragonsmoke to my nostrils. She burns like a burning bush driven by a godawful wind.
The poem pretty much ended itself when Thelonious ended the record. What I'm saying is that there is a kind of accidental closure, a kind of completion that happens that you cannot plot. Jazz helps you to discover this, too.
[Matthews]: You may have taken on certain formal housekeeping duties—a twelve or thirty-two bar structure, let's say—and knowing that can help you discover accidental closure, but only a little. You've still got to find your way from the middle to the end, even if you have a notion when the end's coming up. So far as you can manage it, a good place to stop is when you've said what you can find to say—as I will stop right now.
[Komunyakaa]: I'd like to believe that jazz could parallel the act of demanding a spiritual and cultural freedom, that it can connect us to who we are as well as to others. And I hope it keeps me connected to what I have to do as a poet. I love surprises. As I listen to Dolphy or Dexter, I think their music works like a refrain underneath my life keeping it all together and in focus. If I'm having a writer's block, a couple of days of Coltrane or Miles does the trick. It seems that all my muses are tangled up in music, that they are hip enough to connect me to Soyinka or Robbe-Grillet. I don't have to torture my imagination to put Miles side by side with Sartre in a poolroom. Anything is possible; this is what jazz had taught me about life. My creative universe is always in a flux. Active. Anything and everything inform my work. It is my nature to embrace whatever is out there, and jazz has been the one thing that gives some symmetry to my poetry, gives it shape and tonal equilibrium. This is something that I only realized recently, and I don't want to be overly conscious of it. I like the implied freedom jazz brings to my work; a soloist can go to hell or heaven and back, bending a tune into an extended possibility, and bringing it all around together as if his life depended on it.
For some, jazz-influenced poetry might appear as a threat to the canon. This isn't new. Jazz has always been somewhat of a threat, and not only in America or England. Look at the stir it created in 1938 at that “Entartete Musik” exhibition in Dusseldorf, Germany, with Ernst Krenek's Jonny spielt auf. But it has also survived the cultural critics and the accountant's calculator at the record companies. I feel blessed that something pulled jazz and poetry together inside me.
Editor's Note: The conversation published here evolved from a public one conducted on 14 April 1989 in Macon, Georgia, as part of the “Southern Jazz and Poetry Experience,” a four-day program that included music, readings, photography exhibits, and critical lectures.
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Dedications and Other Dark Horses: Poems 1977
Lost in the Bonewheel Factory: Poems 1979
I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head 1986
Toys in a Field 1986
Dien Cai Dau 1988
February in Sydney 1989
Magic City 1992
Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems 1993
Thieves of Paradise 1998
Talking Dirty to the Gods: Poems 2000
Pleasure Dome: New and Collected Poems 2001
The Jazz Poetry Anthology [editor; with Sascha Feinstein] (poems) 1991
The Second Set: The Jazz Poetry Anthology, Volume 2 [editor; with Sascha Feinstein] (poems) 1996
Blue Notes: Essays, Interviews, and Commentaries [edited by Radiclani Clytus] (prose) 2000
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SOURCE: Aubert, Alvin. “Yusef Komunyakaa: The Unified Vision—Canonization and Humanity.” African American Review 27, no. 1 (spring 1993): 119-23.
[In the following essay, Aubert argues that Komunyakaa successfully combines his African-American and Euro-American cultural heritage to express a unified vision in his poetry. Aubert observes that Komunyakaa's Vietnam War poetry expresses the shared humanity of the black and white soldiers who fought in Vietnam.]
In an interview in the journal Callaloo, Yusef Komunyakaa, author of seven collections of poems, expresses his admiration for poets whom he considers to have achieved a “unified vision” in their poetry, an achievement he apparently strives for in his own work. A closely associated, if not identical, goal and a source of tension in Komunyakaa's poetry is his desire to gain admittance into the American literary canon, but not at the expense of surrendering his African American cultural identity.
At the core of Komunyakaa's pursuit of a unified vision and literary canonization is his stern resistance, textualized formalistically as well as thematically in his poems, to those forces in the hegemonous counterculture aimed at excluding him as an African American from the ranks of humanity. Indeed, in the singularity of his perseverance and in both the high quality and quantity of his poetic output, Komunyakaa approaches the intensity of no less a figure than prototypical canonization quester Ralph Ellison in his bid for mainstream American literary status. Komunyakaa, however, lacks the irritability Ellison sometimes displays in his attitude toward other African American writers, in particular the young black writers of the culturally insurrectionary 1970s.
The unified vision Komunyakaa seeks involves the integration and aesthetic instillation in his poetry of cultural material from both his African American and his European American sources. A useful sampling of Komunyakaa's artistry at work—including his quest for a unified vision, his bid for literary canonization, and his push for the completion of his humanity—can be found in two poems from his ironically titled fourth collection, I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head (1986): “When in Rome—Apologia,” the last two lines of which supply the title of the book, and “I Apologize.” I will also refer briefly to “The Music That Hurts.”
A particularly illustrative passage appears in “I Apologize,” a dramatic monologue that intertextualizes Robert Browning's prototypical dramatic monologue “My Last Duchess”: “I'm just like the rest of the world: / No comment; no way, Jose …” (37). After staking his claim for unqualified status in the human race and issuing his somewhat tongue-in-cheek declaration of no comment (ironically noting the extent to which further comment might implicate him in the negatives as well as the positives of the humanity he holds in common with his white auditor), the persona comments anyway. Addressing the person designated as “sir,” who occupies the position of the implicit, silent auditor of the traditional dramatic monologue, the persona observes that he “want[s] spring always / dancing with the pepper trees,” etc. (37).
Like most of Komunyakaa's poems, “I Apologize” is markedly obscure. On first reading, the persona might be the typical, racially or ethnically unspecified, Peeping Tom, but we soon realize that he is the archetypal reckless eyeballer, the fated African American male in the U.S. South of not too many years ago who is accused of looking too long, and by implication with sexual intent, at some white woman, a tabooistic infringement for which he is likely to be lynched. The accused's only defense, his only recourse in such a predicament, is a desperate and futile excuse. This is typified in the poem's opening lines, which also encapsulate the kind of redemptive humor black people engage in among themselves: “My mind wasn't even there. / Mirage, sir. I didn't see / what I thought I saw. / … I was miles away, I saw nothing!” (37). Then there is the sheer desperation of the poem's concluding line and a half—“This morning / I can't even remember who I am” (37)—an apparent plea of insanity.
“When in Rome—Apologia” aptly intertextualizes Browning's monologue as well. Both of Komunyakaa's poems allude to the fate of the wife of Browning's jealous persona, the Duke who had his spouse killed for smiling excessively at other men. In Komunyakaa's poems, however, an ironic readjustment of roles takes place, for it is the would-be suitor whose life is at stake, prompting his desperate plea:
Please forgive me, sir, for getting involved
in the music— it's my innate weakness
for the cello: so human. Please forgive me for the attention
I've given your wife tonight, sir.
We note the gap posited by the interstanzaic enjambment between “involved” and its complement “in the music,” suggesting a deliberate, playful withholding of the right information from the “sir” of the poem—the sense being I won't say it but it's not music I'm talking about, it's life: Excuse me, just a dumb nigger, for insisting on being involved on an equal basis with you in life. Ironically, the speaker's “innate weakness” is the humanity he has in common with his auditor, as expressed in the phrase “so human.” And the use of a highly prized wife to epitomize the cultural exclusion that diminishes the persona's human status is an appropriate choice in view of the idea that enjoys considerable currency among African American artists and intellectuals that, not only are women co-creators with men of culture, they are singularly carriers and dispensers of it as well. Furthermore, the irony informing the speaker's plea borders on sarcasm, thus implying that irony may be too exalted a sentiment to spend on the insensitive “sirs” of this world.
The petitioner's final, desperate plea evidences a loss of control which is due to intoxication: “I don't know / what came over me, sir. / After three Jack Daniel's / you must overlook / my candor, my lack of / sequitur” (23). In a statement that engenders the title of the book, the poem concludes: “I apologize for / the eyes in my head” (24), an ambiguously metonymical reference to the outer (physical) and inner (intuitive) facilities of sight that interact in the process of creating poems. Forgive me, the implication goes, not only for insisting on seeing all that there is humanly possible to see in the world but also for being so presumptuous in my reputed inhumanity as a person of African descent to aspire to write poetry of a quality and comprehensiveness equal to your own.
Who is the forbidden woman in these poems? Is she the same as the “white wife” of the surrealistic poem “The Music That Hurts,” personified there as “Silence”? Although Komunyakaa's poems incline toward non-referentiality, they are not characterized by the non-figurativeness non-referential poetry reputedly strives for. Thus, viewed in the context of Komunyakaa's work as a whole, music in these three poems is metaphorical of life; its opposite, “Silence,” signifies outsiderness, comprehending an absence of humanity. Add to this the act of seeing as literally and figuratively a means for fulfilling one's humanity, and Komunyakaa's ironic apology may be stated as Sorry, but have I not eyes to see all that there is to be seen in the world, which accords with my right as an American citizen and, preeminently, as a human being? In the very act of laying claim to and pursuing canonical status in his poems, Komunyakaa demonstrates his “qualification” for it in rhetorical and aesthetic maneuvers that include a repudiation of racial or ethnically based limitations or boundaries. He comes across as a person who is well-versed in the poetic traditions of Anglo-Europe and Anglo-America, and who is also aware of the abundant technical and material properties that are available for the advancement of the art of poetry in America, especially the rich resources that abound in African American life and culture.
Not all of Komunyakaa's poems contain African American cultural material, and in some of those that do, the material is not always easily recognizable, possibly identifying these poems as exemplary achievements of Komunyakaa's unified vision. These are among the numerous poems by Komunyakaa that occupy the right end of an accessibility continuum that ranges from obscure on the right to clear on the left, and they provide a unique glimpse into Komunyakaa's artistry, especially in the extraordinary challenge the poems present to the reader who must work to discover, process, and integrate the works' African American cultural material into the fabric of meaning of the poems. The poem “I Apologize” is a case in point, with its subtle inscription of the persona's African Americanness in a poem not easily identifiable as the work of an African American author. Clues to the persona's identity appear in one of a sequence of desperate alibis he concocts in his apologetic response to the person he addresses as “sir,” who implicitly has accused him of reckless eyeballing. “I was in my woman's bedroom / removing her red shoes & dress” (37), he pleads, adding in cadences reminiscent of Browning's poem and in mildly contradictory terms as he attempts to extricate himself, that he could not have committed the “crime” because
I was miles away, I saw nothing! Did I say their diamond rings blinded me & I nearly lost my head? I think it was how the North Star fell through plate glass. I don't remember what they wore.
The “sir,” as indicated earlier, is a white man; the “they” of the last line quoted above are white women, the reputed objects of the defensively comedic African American male persona's reckless eyeballing. The white women, whom he denies having seen at all, yet whose attire he contradictorily indicates he cannot “remember,” are identified with diamonds and refined attire, in contrast with the “red shoes & dress” worn by the person whom we justifiably assume to be the persona's African American woman, with whom he was supposedly, and perhaps actually, too preoccupied in her bedroom to be paying attention to anyone else. The red shoes and dress allude ironically to the reputed fondness of black women for the color red and to the disparagement to which they were subjected in white society's stereotyping of them as sexually promiscuous, as scarlet women.
Another, possibly less obscure, allusion is to the North Star, a symbol of freedom derived from its use as a guide by fugitive slaves on their journeys out of slavery. The persona claims he was more concerned with the star than the white women's diamond rings. Throughout the poem the persona is portrayed as a ludicrously bumbling trickster figure, offering one lame excuse after another in his effort to escape the lynching he is likely to receive for his reckless eyeballing. For all its comedic trappings, however, “I Apologize” is a serious dramatization of the obstacles confronting the African American poet who wants his humanity acknowledged—and a rightful place in the American literary canon.
Also of particular interest are some of Komunyakaa's Vietnam war poems, which appear in the chapbook Toys in a Field (1987) and the full-length Dien Cai Dau (1988). In my review of the latter work for Epoch magazine, I noted the appropriateness of Komunyakaa's use of surrealism for depicting the absurdity of Vietnam combat experiences, especially as they involved black and white American GIs together in situations where, despite the combat survival value of camaraderie, the African American soldier had to contend with the differential burden of racial, and ofttimes racist, inequities (which is not to say that one should overlook the absurdity that frequently surfaces in relations between whites and blacks generally).
Especially relevant to the present discussion is the poem “Tu Do Street,” from Dien Cai Dau, with its titular punning on “two door.” The persona is an African American GI and is immediately identifiable as such, but he also has a penchant for invisibility. He is a quester of sorts for whom invisibility, or at least a certain neutrality, is prerequisite, since he is intent on testing out the waters of racial interfacing along a Saigon bar strip frequented by black and white GIs who enter the area, as it were, through separate doors as they seek relief from the stress and strain of combat among the mama-sans and their attendant bar girls.
An implicit distinction is drawn in the poem between the GIs' quest for sexless or pre-sexual socialization in the bars and their quest for sex in other rooms, for although the black GIs are shunned by the mama-sans and bar girls in the bars frequented by the white GIs, “deeper into alleys” (29), in off-limits areas, the black soldiers have access to prostitutes whose services are available on a nondiscriminatory basis. These assignations take place in “rooms” that invoke a transformational combat landscape: They “run into each other like tunnels / leading to the underworld” (29). Implicit in these conduits is a common humanity, linked to a common death, figuratively in sex and literally in war, for black and white GIs alike:
There's more than a nation inside us, as black & white soldiers touch the same lovers minutes apart, tasting each other's breath …
What's “more than a nation / inside” the GIs, black and white, is of course their shared humanity.
The persona knows about the two doors, but impelled by purposes of the persona behind the persona—the poet in quest of a poem and, consequently, of his equalization and literary canonization—he goes in through the opposite door anyway, purposefully and perhaps ritualistically subjecting himself to the rejection on racial grounds he knows he is sure to get. When he enters the bar frequented by the white GIs, where the music is different from that in the bars where the black GIs go, the bar girls “fade like tropical birds” in their evasiveness (29). The experience triggers a memory involving an ironic representation of music that separates rather than unites by virtue of its inherent harmony:
Music divides the evening. I close my eyes & can see men drawing lines in the dust. America pushes through the membrane of mist & smoke, & I'm a small boy again in Bogalusa. White Only signs & Hank Snow.
The impulse that motivated Komunyakaa as a small boy in his Louisiana hometown of Bogalusa impels him now as a GI in Vietnam, both personae laying claim to their humanity. And as it was at home, so it is on the war front—at least in the rear echelon in Saigon where the soldiers go for rest and recuperation. In the combat zone, where “only machine gun fire brings us / together,” where interracial camaraderie has immediate survival value, a different code of behavior prevails:
Back in the bush at Dak To & Khe Sanh, we fought the brothers of these women we now run to hold in our arms.
The surface implications of the last two lines quoted are apparent, but just as we should not miss their function in expressing the common humanity that is the object of the persona's quest, we should not overlook the note of respect the passage affords women in its emphasis on the humanistic aspect of the embrace, virtually annulling the sexual import of the situation and betokening the generally humanistic portrayal of women we find in Komunyakaa's work as a whole.
The bar girls and prostitutes of Saigon are metonymically depicted in “Tu Do Street” as victims, their “voices / wounded by their beauty and war” (29). These women are also a part of the “nation / inside us” quoted and commented on above, for it is they—“the same lovers” touched by black GIs and white GIs alike, implicitly by virtue of their capacity for motherhood, for bringing life into the world, and as the primary sources of nurturing—who are the conferers and common denominators of the universal, of the common humanity that populates Komunyakaa's projected socio-literary commonwealth and makes material his “unified vision.”
Aubert, Alvin. “Rare Instances of Reconciliation.” Rev. of Dien Cai Dau, by Yusef Komunyakaa. Epoch 38.1 (1989): 67-72.
Gotera, Vincente F. “‘Lines of Tempered Steel’: An Interview with Yusef Komunyakaa.” Callaloo 13.2 (1991): 215-28.
Komunyakaa, Yusef. Dien Cai Dau. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 1988.
—. I Apologize for the Eyes In My Head. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 1986.
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Asali, Muna, and Yusef Komunyakaa. “An Interview with Yusef Komunyakaa.” New England Review 16, no. 1 (winter 1994): 141-7.
An interview, conducted in 1992, in which Komunyakaa discusses the themes of personal and collective identity in his poetry.
Aubert, Alvin. “Rare Instances of Reconciliation.” Epoch 38, no. 1 (spring 1989): 67-72.
A review of Dien Cai Dau.
Baer, William, and Yusef Komunyakaa. “Still Negotiating with the Images: An Interview with Yusef Komunyakaa.” Kenyon Review 20, nos. 3-4 (summer-fall 1998): 5-29.
An interview in which Komunyakaa discusses the significance of his childhood in Louisiana and his experiences in the Vietnam War on his poetry.
Derricotte, Toi. “The Tension between Memory and Forgetting in the Poetry of Yusef Komunyakaa.” Kenyon Review 15 (fall 1993): 217-22.
Discussion of central themes in the poetry of Komunyakaa.
Gotera, Vincente F. “Killer Imagination.” Callaloo 13 (spring 1990): 364-71.
Review of Dien Cai Dau.
Jones, Kirkland C. “Folk Idiom in the Literary Expression of Two African American Authors: Rita Dove and Yusef Komunyakaa.” In Language and Literature in the African American Imagination, edited by Carol Aisha Blackshire-Belay, pp. 149-65. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1992.
Discussion of the elements of African American folk culture in the poetry of Komunyakaa.
Waniek, Marilyn Nelson. “The Gender of Grief.” Southern Review 29 (1993): 405-19.
Review of Magic City.
Additional coverage of Komunyakaa's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: African American Writers, Ed. 2; Black Literary Criticism Supplement; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 147; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 83; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 86, 94; Contemporary Poets, Ed. 7; Contemporary Southern Writers; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 120; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Literature Resource Center; Poetry for Students, Vol. 5; and Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4.
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SOURCE: Friebert, Stuart. “The Truth of the Matter.” Field, no. 48 (spring 1993): 64-71.
[In the following review of Magic City, by Komunyakaa, and Sleeping Preacher, by Julia Kasdorf, Friebert asserts that both volumes address the “facts” of human existence. Friebert observes that Magic City is a sort of extended autobiography of Komunyakaa's childhood in Louisiana.]
These two books, Kasdorf's first (and winner of the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize) [Sleeping Preacher], and Komunyakaa's mid-career volume [Magic City] are measured and sober books that settle within the lines of their subjects and stories, and do not fool around with things the poets don't know. Though they celebrate very different cultures, lives and landscapes, both pursue the “facts” of human existence, often in similar ways and strategies.
There's something of Rita Dove's strategy with Thomas and Beulah in Kasdorf's ways with her relatives, her past—she was born into Mennonite and Amish communities in Pennsylvania—and her early experiences; she keeps the focus on the grown-ups and stays mainly out of the way except to record and denote. She almost never chooses to judge, which is welcome in any writer, especially one hoping to speak for so many; the reader is left to make the emotional calls, though sometimes that can be exasperating when complex situations aren't always fully sketched in. “Clear Night at the End of the Twentieth Century” is a case in point. It's an ambitious poem, and attempts to deal with a devastatingly ironic situation: “Jews rode in cattle cars east to their deaths, / and the wives and children of Mennonites / rode west in those cars, bound for Berlin, / delivered from Stalin. …” The narrator's mate in the poem is a Jew who would have trouble saving a German in a life-threatening situation, we are pretty much told as the poem ends; the narrator provides none of the reaction I feel is necessary at that point. Far more attention is paid along the way to the narrator's Mennonite ancestors, so I complain of a disturbing imbalance that does not reflect the complex nature of the “children” of such a past.
Quite a few of the poems laze along, seeming at times to be aimless, and don't follow up on emerging themes sufficiently for my taste, while losing themselves at times in unnecessary details. “Sunday Night Supper for a Mennonite, 1991” is especially diffuse and laggardly. A few other, stronger poems probably require half their length to get launched (see especially “Freindschaft,” which would be quite arresting if quickened). But why dwell on these shortcomings? All books have them, first or not. Who is it who said, “Often a poem is worth its own best line?” Let's look at two of the handful of fine poems, poems that convince me that Kasdorf will get stronger as she moves on:
“ALONG OCEAN PARKWAY IN BROOKLYN”
Three Hasidic boys talk like Amishmen, hands in their long black coats that flap open at the knees, heads nodding under hats.
They do not raise their pale, Prague cheeks as I walk by. I am the world to them, as I would have been to my father,
who once stood like this speaking low German in a knot of boys at the edge of an auction lot. Which of these will be the one to leave
our neighborhood of lavish bakeries closed up tight for Passover, as though leavening might leak into the streets
and keep the Children of Israel in Egypt? I bless the one who leaves in anger or hurt, bless the memory of his first cheeseburger
and the mind that returns for the rest of his life to this corner, to the Hebrew storefronts where old men drink dark tea in tumblers.
I praise equally the ones who stay clustered like Amish farms in the dusk, no phone lines running in, no circle
of light in the farmyards— house, barn, coop, and crib on the edge of the fields.
We all carry our own “cubic inch of ground” with us, even as we tread new earth, and what could at first glance be farther from Kasdorf's roots than this Brooklyn neighborhood? I like her determination to connect with what she does know, even as she struggles to ponder the otherness of the Hasidim. She might perhaps have stayed with the “boys” on their terms more, and not assumed so central a stance (“I am the world to them …”), but genuine regard and even affection arise for the foreign culture, while she plumbs her own, in the sketch-pad details of the closing stanza with their uncanny Hopper-like tone and mood, and the quiet force of the unrhymed tercets, in which the voice is (sometimes bleakly) under control. Note too the humor in the blessing of the memory of that first cheeseburger! But underneath all this is Kasdorf's expansive sense of what it means to leave one's familiar part of the world, as well as to stay rooted (or “behind,” as it were).
Here's the poem that most haunted me in the collection:
“WHEN OUR WOMEN GO CRAZY”
When our women go crazy, they're scared there won't be enough meat in the house. They keep asking but how will we eat? Who will cook? Will there be enough? Mother to daughter, it's always the same questions. The sisters and aunts recognize symptoms: she thinks there's no food, same as Mommy before they sent her away to that place, and she thinks if she goes, the men will eat whatever they find right out of the saucepans. When our women are sane, they can tomatoes and simmer big pots of soup for the freezer. They are satisfied arranging spice tins on cupboard shelves lined with clean paper. They save all the leftovers under tight lids and only throw them away when they're rotten. Their refrigerators are always immaculate and full, which is also the case when our women are crazy.
Never mind the initial uncertainty about the lineation, which reduces the import of the opening “facts” and seems little related to the last half of the piece. The crazy-sane dichotomy, implicit in the homely lives of women in this culture, who hand down with what seems like biological force their domestic duties to their children, is a chilling reminder of how baleful it is to be solely responsible for preparing the table in the presence of one's own, so to speak. There is even no relief in going crazy; the worries only multiply. In the cultures and subcultures we sometimes romanticize—I have bought bread and honey and pies from “immaculate” Amish women, while their children grouped nearby—we are damned if we do and damned if we don't. I especially respect the matter-of-fact tone that blueprints the scene.
Magic City is too simple a title for Yusef Komunyakaa's stirring auto- & biographical “tales,” that poke you to read them aloud. The many incidents and details that sometimes seem too extended on the page take on a life of their own, because the voices of the narrator and the other characters are so well heard and tracked. I'm reminded in passing that someone said at a reading by Maya Angelou, “I never heard them like that!” But even the untrained eye and ear will sense how carefully orchestrated the poems are, how they pulse along, pointed phrase to pointed phrase.
While it would be too much to claim that all the poems are parts of one long poem, they do come out of the same place, or neighborhood, and are mostly spoken the same way. At the same time, the poet has challenged himself, in the same way Kasdorf has, by trying to move out from autobiography and into a larger world. These poems make you want more, quite frankly, because they do so well what they set out to do.
Garrett Hongo's blurb overreaches, as blurbs will, but sums up the volume well, noting its celebration of “the natal world of Bogalusa, Louisiana with its lightning bugs, Mardi Gras flambeaus, pigweed, and chain-gangs …” I could add 100 other such subjects and objects that have seldom been treated in poetry. From “Banking Potatoes” to “Boys in Dresses,” the lived or imagined escapades are so comprehensive in their inclusiveness that an extended autobiography emerges, with its focus on a childhood. Not since reading Frank Conroy's Stop-Time and Harry Crews' A Childhood, the biography of a place have I been so willing to look back at the stuff that presages, through the mind's eye of these writers, what we're in for next.
Any reader will have favorite poems but the two I have time to quote here stand for quite a few more:
“SLAM, DUNK, & HOOK”
Fast breaks. Lay ups. With Mercury's Insignia on our sneakers, We outmaneuvered the footwork Of bad angels. Nothing but a hot Swish of strings like silk Ten feet out. In the roundhouse Labyrinth our bodies Created, we could almost Last forever, poised in midair Like storybook sea monsters. A high note hung there A long second. Off The rim. We'd corkscrew Up & dunk balls that exploded The skullcap of hope & good Intention. Bug-eyed, lanky, All hands & feet … sprung rhythm. We were metaphysical when girls Cheered on the sidelines. Tangled up in a falling, Muscles were a bright motor Double-flashing to the metal hoop Nailed to our oak. When Sonny Boy's mama died He played nonstop all day, so hard Our backboard splintered. Glistening with sweat, we jibed & rolled the ball off our Fingertips. Trouble Was there slapping a blackjack Against an open palm. Dribble, drive to the inside, feint, & glide like a sparrow hawk. Lay ups. Fast breaks. We had moves we didn't know We had. Our bodies spun On swivels of bone & faith Through a lyric slipknot Of joy, & we knew we were Beautiful & dangerous.
In an age of films like White Men Can't Jump, how reassuring it is to have quite a different look at the phenomenon of the neighborhood pick-up game that is such a nucleus, guided as we are here, by a poet who is both seer and thinker, to much more than we've “seen” there before. (Several sociologists I know read poetry regularly alongside their other research.) I especially like the “sidemoves” here—to such connections as “bad angels,” “the roundhouse labyrinth,” “like storybook sea monsters,” “the skullcap of hope and good intention,” “sprung rhythm” (a nice in-joke), “we were metaphysical,” “muscles were a bright motor,” “swivels of bone & faith”—that comment on the vocabulary of the game itself, on its way to that “lyric slipknot of joy” in ways the ancient Greeks would have understood.
Notice too the episode, that rightly quickly passes almost like a footnote, of Sonny Boy's mama's death. The truth of the matter is indeed that he not only played on, but that he was likely wise to do so, only harder, “so hard / Our backboard splintered.” That is both “beautiful & dangerous,” and takes us past easy rhetoric, like “black is beautiful,” even as it is sharply etched, like an epitaph.
Finally, here's a magnificent poem that recalls the humility and generosity of Hayden's Those Winter Sundays:
“MY FATHER'S LOVE LETTERS”
On Fridays he'd open a can of Jax After coming home from the mill, & ask me to write a letter to my mother Who sent postcards of desert flowers Taller than men. He would beg, Promising to never beat her Again. Somehow I was happy She had gone, & sometimes wanted To slip in a reminder, how Mary Lou Williams' “Polka Dots & Moonbeams” Never made the swelling go down. His carpenter's apron always bulged with old nails, a claw hammer Looped at his side & extension cords Coiled around his feet. Words rolled from under the pressure Of my ballpoint: Love, Baby, Honey, Please. We sat in the quiet brutality Of voltage meters & pipe threaders, Lost between sentences … The gleam of a five-pound wedge On the concrete floor Pulled a sunset Through the doorway of his toolshed. I wondered if she laughed & held them over a gas burner. My father could only sign His name, but he'd look at blueprints & say how many bricks Formed each wall. This man, Who stole roses & hyacinth For his yard, would stand there With eyes closed & fists balled, Laboring over a simple word, almost Redeemed by what he tried to say.
I can't imagine how hard it must be to render a fair, accurate, and yet searching account of everyone's role in what has become an all-too familiar story of abuse, an account that doesn't dodge the deep human issues. Very little seems forgotten or overlooked here, though only a few things are beginning to be forgiven. Even the speaker himself, who in a younger writer might have been allowed easy judgment, or, worse, victimization, is at pains to recall, “Somehow I was happy / She had gone …” The agony and ache of “Words that rolled from under the pressure / Of my ballpoint: Love, / Baby, Honey, Please” is huge, as the ballpoint becomes the one tool that might bring what has been missing between the parents.
What the poem is especially fine with and about is the ways it registers “the quiet brutality,” not only of those meters and threaders. And fine too in seeing that sunset pulled through into the toolshed, a place that rings with paradox—here the father is most alive and at home among the artifacts of his life, even as what issues from them is anything but life-building. What the narrator restores to his parent is the decency, at least and at last, of guiding him along in the struggle for the language of love, the instinct to try to say a few “magic” words that will somehow atone and be accepted for what they mean, that will “almost” get said, but not by him.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7101
SOURCE: Collins, Michael. “Staying Human.” Parnassus 18-19, nos. 1-2 (1993): 126-49.
[In the following review of Komunyakaa's Neon Vernacular and Magic City, Collins compares Komunyakaa's Vietnam War Poetry with his “peacetime” poetry. Collins observes that Komunyakaa's poetry expresses a broad conceptual and emotional range.]
I went to Vietnam as a basic naive young man of eighteen. Before I reached my nineteenth birthday, I was an animal. … They prepared us for Vietnam as a group of individuals who worked together as a unit to annihilate whatever enemy we came upon … There was this saying: “Yeah though I walk through the valley of death, I shall fear no evil, ‘cause I'm the baddest motherfucker in the valley’”. … I collected about 14 ears and fingers. With them strung on a piece of leather around my neck, I would go downtown, and you would get free drugs, free booze, free pussy because they wouldn't wanna bother you ’cause this man's a killer. It symbolized that I'm a killer. And it was, so to speak, a symbol of combat-type manhood.
—Specialist 4 Arthur E. “Gene” Woodley, Jr.
(aka Cyclops and Montagnard)
… There seems to be always some human landscape that creates a Paul Celan. …
1. KOMUNYAKAA'S WAR POEMS
Reading the Vietnam poems of Yusef Komunyakaa, one is reminded that culture is made as often on battlefields as it is in the thinker's notebook, or in the schoolroom; that heroes, those bloody-handed fellows, are the originals of our great men. There are days when the sun seems to rise for no other purpose than to illuminate some killer of genius: to make his uniform glow like a nation's stained glass windows on Sunday. True, Michelangelo is the equal of Napoleon in fame, but it is Napoleon's example that is most often followed: More men aspire to populate tombs than to carve them.
Komunyakaa is more the Michelangelesque carver than the populator of tombs. Yet though his Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems ranges far and wide in its subject matter, it turns willy-nilly round his battlefield epiphanies and traumas, round the question of survival when that question is, in Emily Dickinson's phrase, “at the white heat.” “At the Screen Door,” for instance, one of the “new” poems in Neon Vernacular, chronicles Komunyakaa's return after many years to his Louisiana home town; yet its true subject is the question of survival and survival's cost in coins of madness. In this poem, Komunyakaa, at what appears to be his mother's door—at the fountainhead of his life—wonders, as any bemused prodigal son would, “Is it her?” But in the next clause war rears its head: “will she know / What I've seen & done, / How my boots leave little grave-stone / Shapes in the wet dirt … ?” At that door he recalls a buddy who ended up in “a padded cell … After all the men he'd killed in Korea / & on his first tour in Vietnam, / Someone tracked him down. / That Spec 4 he ordered / Into a tunnel in Cu Chi / Now waited for him behind / The screen door, a sunset / in his eyes, a dead man / Wearing his teenage son's face. …” In the poem “Please,” Komunyakaa reports an occasion when he gave a similar order—an order that so haunts him that in the midst of lovemaking he cries out, “Hit the dirt!” This arduous journey into the self recalls the climbs in the Tour de France that, too difficult to rate, are called “beyond category.”
As both “Please” and “At the Screen Door” demonstrate, Komunyakaa often chooses as his subject experiences painful enough to destroy the personality, not so much to exorcise them as to connect them to insights that, like certain icons and kings of the old religions, might heal the halt and the sick. The bridges he strives to build between pain and insight are those of the jazz musician—that improviser's leaping among epiphanies on which, Komunyakaa has said, his consciousness was nurtured: “I think we internalize a kind of life rhythm,” he told an interviewer: “The music I was listening to when I was seven or eight years old and the music I listen to today are not that different. … I listen to a lot of classical jazz, as well as European classical music. I think you do all those things side by side.” Discovering rhythms that tie two moments or two traditions of music together, Komunyakaa pulls the one thread of pleasure in the valley of death and unravels, one poem at a time, that dour place woven from suffering. This unraveling can disorient and blind those grown accustomed to the Valley of the Shadow, and it is something like the disorientation and still earthly rage that salvation brings that one finds in the last image of “At the Screen Door,” where Komunyakaa writes of “Watching a new day stumble / Through a whiplash of grass / Like a man drunk on the rage / Of being alive.”
The “rage” of being alive but limited—whether by society, by the other army's bullets, by your bloodguilt, or by the borders of the human itself—can make even the dawn's light harsh, as if not a new day, but flakes of brimstone were sifting down upon all human effort. The rage to live beyond limitation is nowhere more compelling than in the heart of a warrior. From Alexander and Hannibal to Powell and Schwarzkopf, the man who spills blood has been loved, looked upon as a shaman who knows death by heart, who can recite it or swallow it like a secret code. Not without reason, people assume that the man of blood is the best protector: General de Gaulle and General Eisenhower led their nations after World War II. America's last President reached the heights of public approval as a warlord; its current Vice President is a Vietnam veteran, and President Clinton's Achilles heel is his ignorance of warfare. The generals can talk back to him, and their talk carries weight.
The talk of the man of action always carries weight. It fascinates, for who doesn't want to know the workings of the mind of war, from whose every detail spring whole trees of language and metaphor? General Schwarzkopf's memoirs conquered the best seller list. Homosexuals and many women have begun to clamor for their right to validate themselves in battle: In modern (and ancient) culture, it often seems that killing is the one royal route to proving oneself human and noble. All this makes the best poetry of Yusef Komunyakaa—the poetry in which he directly describes his Vietnam experiences, and the poetry for which that experience acts as a kind of antimatter power source—an invaluable resource. It gives even some of Komunyakaa's lesser work and apprentice efforts the patina of the man of action's recollections of his formative kneescrapes and triumphs. For Komunyakaa is the real deal twice over—a brilliant poet in his best work and a hero who came back from Vietnam not only with a Bronze Star like a piece of the firmament on his chest, but with a knowledge of what it is to live without vanity, without any tradition but the Darwinian one that says: first survive, then return to history and its haze of manners and names. He told Vincente F. Gotera that when he began to write the Vietnam poems he remembered many faces from his tour of duty, but few names:
I suppose that's all part of the forgetting process, in striving to forget particular situations that were pretty traumatic for me. Not when I was there as much as in retrospect. When you're there in such a situation, you're thinking about where the nearest safest place is to run, in case of an incoming rocket. You don't even have time to think about the moral implications. …
The poems he produced about Vietnam are a deliberate and painful reconstruction of those missing—one might say vaporized—implications. Komunyakaa has said it took him “about fourteen years to start getting” the poems down on paper. One of the most moving of the group is “We Never Know,” in which Komunyakaa recalls how a man he shoots
… danced with tall grass for a moment, like he was swaying with a woman. Our gun barrels glowed white-hot. When I got to him, a blue halo of flies had already claimed him. I pulled the crumpled photograph from his fingers. There's no other way to say this: I fell in love. The morning cleared again, except for a distant mortar & somewhere choppers taking off. I slid the wallet into his pocket & turned him over, so he wouldn't be kissing the ground.
The portrait of tenderness in reverse, of understanding in reverse—indeed, of time in reverse, for the whole is remembered, like that past-backwards solo Jimi Hendrix devises for “Are You Experienced?”—drives home the irreversibility of violence and understanding. Its great poignance and power derives from the fact that it shows us the moral wilderness of the Vietnam war and the way out, inaccessible in this poem, but not forever. It shows also one of the characteristic sonic patterns of Komunyakaa's free verse, which sometimes, as in this poem, looks to the eye like a thousand magazine poems. This formal signature has to do with the way the end words communicate with each other: not so much through rhyme or slant rhyme as through the more mysterious language of echoes—the reincarnation of vowels which, unlike men, do return. Thus the “a” in “grass” alters slightly, but changes its spots in “barrels,” whose “e” surfaces, cropped but visible, a ghost of itself, in the hyphenated incandescence of “white-hot.” “Hot” of course rhymes with “got,” and that uncloseable “o,” like the mouth of a man hit by gunshot, draws its circle in the dead man's nightmare halo of flies. Komunyakaa has fashioned from the banqueting flies the ancient sign of the blest, and he sees, too late, that the man he has killed is a blessed thing—a human, deserving of the company of whatever angels he believed in when alive, and, even in death, commanding love.
That same sonic pattern is at play on a larger scale in the gorgeous “Starlight Scope Myopia,” which, unlike “We Never Know,” approaches strict formality and manages a virtuoso incorporation of rhyme and slant rhyme:
Gray-blue shadows lift shadows onto an oxcart.
Making night work for us, the starlight scope brings men into killing range.
The river under Vi Bridge takes the heart away
like the Water God riding his dragon. Smoke-colored
Viet Cong move under our eyelids,
lords over loneliness winding like coral vine through sandalwood & lotus,
inside our lowered heads years after this scene
ends. The brain closes down. What looks like one step into the trees,
they're lifting crates of ammo & sacks of rice, swaying
under their shared weight. Caught in the infrared, what are they saying?
Are they talking about women or calling the Americans
beaucoup dieu cai dau? One of them is laughing. You want to place a finger
to his lips & say “shhhh.” You try reading ghost talk
on their lips. They say “up-up we go,” lifting as one. This one, old, bowlegged,
you feel you could reach out & take him into your arms. You
peer down the sights of your M-16, seeing the full moon loaded on an oxcart.
In this poem Komunyakaa achieves his chronic ambition to be a jazz poet with a lineage as traceable to Louis Armstrong's trumpet as a Roman centurion's would have been to the sea foam from which Aphrodite rose. The alternating two- and three-line stanzas, with a pattern of three beats that Komunyakaa now and then expands to four or telescopes to two, combines with the end-word pattern of slant rhyme, assonance, and consonance that chimes throughout the poem to mime the magnifying powers of a starlight scope. The poem itself is a kind of starlight scope to which the reader presses his eye and sees ordinary words and terms under extreme magnification, like genetic proteins brought to light by some unblinking microscope: The Vietcong, appearing all alone in their two-beat line (#11), are scarier, larger, more vulnerable than life.
The “myopia” facet of the starlight scope makes itself felt in the fact that the Vietcong, technologically cut off from space and time and fixed to astral coordinates “inside our lowered heads / years after this scene / ends,” are easier to shoot; having been transformed into creatures of the starlight scope, gathered at the wrong end of the technological rainbow, they are already dead:
Are they talking about women or calling Americans
beaucoup dien cai dau? One of them is laughing. You want to place a finger
to his lips & say “shhhh.” You try reading ghost talk
on their lips. They say “up-up we go,” lifting as one.
Mao Tse-tung wrote that the theory that “‘weapons decide everything,’ which is a mechanist theory of war, [is] a subjective and one-sided view,” since in war there are “not only weapons but also human beings” and “the contest of strength is not only a contest of military and economic power but also of human power and morale.” Mao, a strong influence on Communist Vietnam's General Vo Nguyen Giap, according to the historian-general Philip B. Davidson, would seem to have been proven right by the decades of military success during which Giap drove first France and then the United States out of his small country. “Starlight Scope Myopia” exposes both the power and the myopia of the “mechanistic” view, while suggesting a third view: that “human power”—the power of being “lords over loneliness,” of speaking (”Caught in the infrared, / what are they saying?” Komunyakaa asks in the poem)—may be incompatible with weaponry, which is designed to expand the empire of silence. Writing his poems, Komunyakaa tries to steer clear of the world's starlight scopes, to correct their imposed myopias, to reinfuse them with what he says poetry is: “in essence … the spiritual and emotional dimension of the human animal,” a source of spontaneous communication that “can link two people together, reader and poet. …”
The two- and three-line stanzas, with their haiku terseness, provokes a kind of double vision through their invocation of the Water God—from a believer's point of view—and the paradox of traditional Vietnamese reverence for the old man at the moment he is killed (“you feel you could reach out / & take him in your arms.”) They enact the deep cultural exchange that might have gone on between the American soldiers and the Vietcong under other circumstances. (Such exchanges did and do occur, even in the midst of war, despite the propaganda on both sides thick as wax dripped in the ears.) Yet they suggest that when the chips are down, such exchanges make no difference. What the American soldiers know of the Vietnamese does not foster mercy. It “takes the heart away.” Mercy and humor (“One of them is laughing”) are foolhardy in a combat zone. In fact, with the help of high-tech weapons they can be twisted to detach a soldier from his actions. In the heat of battle or the cover of ambush, such feelings are best kept locked up in a mind patrolled by fear mounted on anger. The Vietnamese, after all, are loading ammunition meant to kill Americans along with their rice. The flickering identification with them—before, during, and after their deaths—must contend with the fingers of history moving to snuff it out.
In “Starlight Scope Myopia,” this unexpected empathy is best expressed by the words Komunyakaa puts into the mouths of the Vietnamese who may be “calling the Americans / beaucoup dien cai dau” (very crazy). This multicultural insult begins with a word the Vietnamese took from the French, whom they defeated, then switches for exactitude into Vietnamese to characterize the Americans, whom they are in the process of defeating. (The ironic phrase spans all the relevant cultures in the long Vietnam nightmare. That an American is wondering whether the Vietcong are using this phrase demonstrates both discomfort and a certain muted triumph at having them in his sights. Even a battlefield is a society with rules and language games.)
It also crystallizes a point Komunyakaa suggests in his interviews with Gotera, that societies of strangers, or even of traditional enemies, can be ever so delicately held together by infinitely recycled bits of language, by clichés:
[Among American] soldiers, for some reason—individuals coming from so many backgrounds: the deep South, the North, different educational levels—clichés are used many times as efforts to communicate, as bridges perhaps. And soldiers often speak in clichés. …
Clichés, like tatoos on the bodies of languages, are useful decorations of places where a common vision is hidden, or being brought to light. The cliché “Beaucoup dien cai dau” is Komunyakaa's assessment of the war itself and perhaps of America's role in it. True, his Vietnam lyrics display none of the sense of outrage, of being pierced by betrayal, so evident in the testimony of some black Vietnam veterans. Gene Woodley, who gives this essay its first epigraph, told journalist Wallace Terry of being transformed into an “animal” by his boot camp training and by the brutality of Vietnam and insisted that in shipping him and other “bloods” off to its rice paddy war, America
befell upon us one big atrocity. It lied. They had us naive, young, dumb-ass niggers believin' that this war was for democracy and independence. It was fought for money. All those big corporations made billions on the war, and then America left.
On the other hand, Komunyakaa is no indestructible patriot like the blood Terry interviewed who narrated the following anecdotes about his experience as a prisoner of war in Vietnam:
They would read things in their behalf about the Communist way and downgrading the United States, blah, blah, blah, all the time. … When Dr. King was assassinated, they called me in for interrogation to see if I would make a statement critical of the United States. I said no, I don't know enough about it. … My personal feeling is that black people have problems and still have problems in America. But I never told them that, because I had no intention of helping them to defeat us. We deal with our problems within our own country. Some people just do not live up to the great ideals our country stands for. …
Komunyakaa's poetry conveys the pain and grace involved in maintaining not so much the middle ground between these two positions as the shifting ground of possibilities that lies under them both. He illuminates these and other positions in part by creating a “tension between levels of diction,” as Gotera has said, by deploying what he himself calls a “neon vernacular” in which argots and forms of life blink on and off like those neon signs with which a cityscape expands and contracts, caressing and reshaping the night. Consider the masterful “Hanoi Hannah:”
Ray Charles! His voice calls from waist-high grass, & we duck behind gray sandbags. “Hello, Soul Brothers. Yeah, Georgia's also on my mind.” Flares bloom over the trees. “Here's Hannah again. Let's see if we can't light her goddamn fuse this time.” Artillery shells carve a white arc against dusk. Her voice rises from a hedgerow on our left. “It's Saturday night in the States. Guess what your woman's doing tonight. I think I'll let Tina Turner tell you, you homesick GIs.” … “You know you're dead men, don't you? You're dead as King today in Memphis. Boys, you're surrounded by General Tran Do's division.” Her knife-edge song cuts deep as a sniper's bullet. “Soul Brothers, what you dying for?” …
One of the many heartbreaking nuances of this poem is its suggestion that when people at last learn each other's language, they will do so the better to hook and destroy each other with narcotics of commiseration, gossip, trust, half-truth, or, unkindest cut of all, some inaccessible sweetness, some Tina Turner dancing in the mind's high grass. Hannah's questions are, as she well knows, also the questions asked by the bloods and, by the time of Komunyakaa's 1969-1970 tour, by most Americans: “what you dying for?” She also suggests to the “soul brothers” that they are fighting on the wrong side—against a people of color that has suffered colonial oppression. Her grains of truth, for all the soldiers' resistance to them (“Let's see if we can't / light her goddamn fuse / this time”), must sooner or later call up those emotions dangerous to bring to the battlefield. One of the veterans quoted above spoke of joining the Black Panthers after the war because they were a semimilitary group ready to prolong what General Giap would have called the “armed struggle.”
Komunyakaa, who served as a correspondent and editor for The Southern Cross in Vietnam, illustrates the black soldier's agonized dilemma in “Report from the Skull's Diorama.” Here he writes of
… a platoon of black GIs back from night patrol
with five dead. …
These men have lost their tongues,
but the red-bordered leaflets tell us VC didn't kill Dr. Martin Luther King. The silence etched into their skin
is also mine. …
What can be more unnerving than to find your lost voice coming back to you through the leaflets of an enemy? As General Giap knew, no weapon is more powerful than the weapon that cuts the mind. Thus Hanoi Hannah uses the “moonlight-through-the-pines” beauty of Ray Charles' voice to kindle, amid the gun barrels and starlight scopes and killing, “the spiritual and emotional dimension of the human animal” at exactly the time that soldiers most strive to remain machines. The healing voice is thus made into its opposite: a kind of psychological napalm that sets fires in the ganglia and carries out General Giap's “strategy of revolutionary war [which] totally integrated two principal forms of force: armed force and political force …, military dau tranh (struggle) and political dau tranh.” According to Philip B. Davidson,
their combined use created a kind of war unseen before: a single war waged simultaneously on several fronts—not geographical fronts, but programmatical fronts—all conducted by one and the same authority, all carefully meshed. It was a war in which military campaigns were waged for political and diplomatic reasons; economic measures … were adopted to further political ends; political and diplomatic losses were accepted to forward military campaigns; and psychological campaigns were launched to lower enemy military effectiveness.
By showing how all this works in his poetry, Komunyakaa engages in an equal and opposite dau tranh. With poetry as his weapon and tool, he seeks to rebuild the psyche that war and other social traumas disorder. He recalls reading poetry avidly in Vietnam, before he himself became a poet, in order to keep “in contact with [his] innermost feelings” and not be mummified by the starlight scopes or caught on the hook of some perfectly-baited propaganda broadcast: in other words, to keep thinking, to keep being human, to keep humming the rhythm of life. “The real interrogator,” he writes in “Jungle Surrender,”
… is the voice within. I would have told them about my daughter
in Phoenix, how young she was, about my first woman, anything
but how I helped ambush two Viet Cong while plugged into the Grateful Dead.
For some, a soft windy voice makes them snap. Blues & purples. Some place between
central Georgia & Tay Ninh Province— the vision of a knot of blood unravels
& parts of us we dared put into the picture come together. …
This daring to put the unbearable first into memory, then into the poem, reconstructs the war-broken rhythms losing track of which, as a Thelonious Monk sideman once said of Monk's asymmetries, would mean plunging down a kind of elevator shaft away from sanity, but even more from the ability to speak, to play. Climbing the precipice of memory, the soldier-poet proves his mettle in peace. He is like an amputee who feels his missing hand and looks down to find that it is there.
2. THE POET IN PEACETIME
Not only Komunyakaa's war poems, but also his peacetime poetry is obsessed with recovering what is lost, with scope and possibility and with jazz, the music of possibility—the noise freedom makes when it moves through the nerves. The peacetime poems in Neon Vernacular and Magic City display the conceptual and emotional range that is available only to a man who has been to the lip of the abyss and looked around. Highschool football, horniness, warfare, sex, torture, rape, racism, loneliness, yellowjackets, history—Komunyakaa probes them all. In a Magic City ballad about prepubescent interracial hijinks called “Albino,” Komunyakaa milks everyday incidents for their drops of revelation:
… Some summer days We shot marbles with ball bearings For hours before the first punch & the namecalling
Erupted. But by dusk We were back to quick kisses, Hollering You're It & Home As we played hide & seek. She led me to their clubhouse Beside the creek, a betrayal
Of the genes. … An odor in the air made its own Laws, as if the tongue was a latch Holding down a grace note.
If Komunyakaa finds his way to the kingdom of things past in such Magic City reveries, it is because he put in his hours of dusty apprenticeship. The early books excerpted in Neon Vernacular are certainly uneven, and some of the poems, such as “Light on the Subject” from Lost in the Bonewheel Factory, would have been better left unselected. That poem dates from a period when Komunyakaa was struggling to find his “own voice.” He began writing poetry in a University of Colorado workshop in 1973 and continued taking workshops throughout the seventies, studying under such luminaries as Charles Wright, C. K. Williams, and Howard Moss before landing a fellowship in 1980 at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center. “Well, in essence,” Komunyakaa admitted to Gotera,
one's voice is already inside, but a sort of unearthing has to take place; sometimes one has to remove layers of facades and superficialities. The writer has to get down to the guts of the thing and rediscover the basic timbre of his or her existence.
This unearthing is what must be done in the writing of every poem. Like ditch digging or distance running, it builds up a poet's strength. Komunyakaa's “basic timbre” is not so much a “voice” as the meter-making arguments that Emerson espoused, where the heart beats out time on the brainstem.
In Komunyakaa's weak poems, he is simply “not in form,” as the athletes say. “Light on the Subject” finds Komunyakaa pumped up, like a blood doper, with an exaggeration of a “voice”: “Hello, Mister Jack / The Ripper, come on in / make yourself at home.” Most of Komunyakaa's poorer efforts follow the glib workshop technique in which tones of voice clash together to make brassy ironies, and verb phrases are paired with nouns not to make meaning, but to startle, like the marriage of the three-foot midget and the 1000-pound giantess in a circus. Komunyakaa writes, “In this gray station of wood / our hearts are wet rags, / & we turn to ourselves, / holding our own hands / as the scaffolds sway.” Despite their authenticity of feeling, these lines betray a paint-by-numbers imagery.
None of this criticism is meant to deprecate Komunyakaa's “pre-war” volumes. Even when most weighed down by ill-considered borrowings, the early poems rarely fail to display flashes of Olympian form. “Chair Gallows,” from his first book, Dedications & Other Darknesses, is a fine elegy for the folksinger Phil Ochs, only mildly flawed by its soft-focus Bob Dylan ending and the somewhat forced imagery of its fourth line:
Beating wind with a stick. Riding herd on the human spirit.
It's how a man slips his head into a noose & watches the easy weight of gods pull down
on his legs. I hope this is just another lie, just another typo in a newspaper headline.
But I know war criminals live longer than men lost between railroad tracks
& crossroad blues, with twelve strings two days out of hock.
I've seen in women's eyes men who swallow themselves in mirrors.
The poems in Copaceptic (1984), Komunyakaa's strongest pre-war “set,” have their flaws, like bumpy light aircraft, but they do sooner or later lift off. In “Back Then,” Komunyakaa, like one of his literary fathers, Aimé Césaire, manages to give surrealism a political backbone:
I've eaten handfuls of fire back to the bright sea of my first breath riding the hipbone of memory & saw a wheel of birds a bridge into the morning but that was when gold didn't burn out a man's eyes before auction blocks groaned in courtyards & nearly got the best of me that was when the spine of every ebony tree wasn't a pale woman's easy chair. … .....at the pottery wheel of each dawn an antelope leaps in the heartbeat of the talking drum
Here the collective memory of an entire people is caught in the poem's talking drum. Komunyakaa makes all that history contemporaneous. He boldly casts his rhythmical net from the “the bright sea / of my first breath” to the slave trade (the “auction block”) to the results of age-old economic apartheids (“the spine / of every ebony tree [is] / a pale woman's easy chair”). Like a jazz musician playing a standard such as “When the Saints Come Marching In,” he composes a talking poem out of the major chords (sea, slavery, economic injustice). The escape from history that Stephen Daedalus could not achieve is managed on the page: The antelope on whose skin—the poem's “drumskin”—the enjambed rhythms are beaten out suddenly lives again, leaping. Even more than the enjambments in “Starlight Scope Myopia,” the ones here resist death by burning its endstops. “There's a completeness about a line,” Komunyakaa told Gotera,
a completeness and yet a continuation. It's the whole thing of enjambment, what I like to call “extended possibilities.” The line grows. It's not a linguistic labyrinth; it's in logical segments, and yet it grows. It's the whole process of becoming; that's how we are as humans. There's a kind of fluid life about us, and it's how poetry should be. … I would like to write poems that are just single lines. That is, a continuing line that doesn't run out of space because of the margin. …
This sort of perpetual motion, the ability to play notes that orbit forever in the mind's outer spaces, is clearly what Komunyakaa is after in “Back Then.” This is what he admires in the jazzmen—Thelonious Monk, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ray Charles, and Charles Mingus—about whom he writes. Strangely, poems or passages tendered as tributes to his musical fathers—an elegy for Thelonious Monk, for instance—are among his weakest riffs; sprung from the will, or a sense of filial duty, they give the impression that the poet is intimidated, like a piano student auditioning before some severe master. Komunyakaa seems to feel, too, the long shadow of Auden's twentieth century elegies. In the backsliding Monk elegy, Komunyakaa writes what he thinks his readers want to hear: an impersonation of angry grief. “Damn the snow. / Its senseless beauty / pours hard light / through the hemlock. / Thelonious is dead.” These lines work against the anguish they seek to express.
More successful are the poems in which jazz appears like an angel that wanders into the lines and breaks into song. In its blues feeling, “Audacity of the Lower Gods” (from the 1986 collection I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head) is a jazz ballad. The pronoun “I” is not a site of anxiety or drama, but a place where the reader can rest without discomfort, a leaping off point for the ride down the long, vowel-extended, mostly iambic beats:
I know salt marshes that move along like one big trembling wing. I've noticed insects shiny as gold in a blues singer's teeth & more keenly calibrated than a railroad watch, but at heart I'm another breed.
The audacity of the lower gods— whatever we name we own. . … I'd rather let the flowers keep doing what they do best. Unblessing each petal, letting go a year's worth of white death notes, busily unnaming themselves.
In a volume as cynical as I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head, the fat tone of these drawling iambs offers a seemingly anti-poetic paradox: that the happiest world may be a world left alone, untroubled by so much as a curse or a blessing or a name, all of which limit possibility, Komunyakaa's muse and first love.
That such a world is not for humans, but for angels and flowers in their haze of death notes, means that the search for possibility, and the eternal rediscovery of it, goes on, as it does in “Copacetic Mingus” (from Copacetic) and “Changes; or, Reveries at a Window Overlooking a Country Road, with Two Women Talking Blues in the Kitchen” (a “new” poem in New and Selected.) These poems are proof that pleasure, as much as any dour wargod, can dominate and set its stamp on a life. “Copacetic Mingus” is made from two-to four-beat lines that hover like notes under Mingus' fat fingers and from punctuation that comes in now a little ahead, now a little behind the movable beat (made not from stresses so much as from whole words and phrases: whole notes of “hard love … hard love”):
Heartstring. Blessed wood & every moment the thing's made of: ball of fatback licked by fingers of fire. Hard love, it's hard love. Running big hands down the upright's wide hips, rocking his moon-eyed mistress with gold in her teeth. Art & life bleed into each other as he works the bow. .....… Here in New Orleans years below sea level, I listen to Pithecanthropus Erectus: Up & down, under & over, every which way— thump, thump, dada—ah, yes. Wood heavy with tenderness, Mingus fingers the loom gone on Segovia, dogging the raw strings unwaxed with rosin. Hyperbolic bass line. Oh no! Hard love, it's hard love.
Here the jazzman's and the poet's vision of time meet, like the two sides of some fantastic commemorative medal. This is possible because there is so much delight and devotion in Komunyakaa's portrait, so much diamond-hard love. If the poem has a flaw, it is that it lacks the metaphysical edge—the at times stark terror—of the grand war poems that begin two volumes later.
The question arises whether the peacetime poems can achieve the intensity that their “mighty subject” gives the wartime ones. The answer, inevitable for a poet of Komunyakaa's gifts, is yes. In the new poems with which Neon Vernacular begins and in the poems that evoke the neighborhoods of Magic City, Komunyakaa taps a seam of memory deep into his childhood in Bogalusa, Louisiana—at the time a complicated spot roamed by both the Ku Klux Klan and anti-Klan civil rights organizers—and up into the untappable future.
In “Changes,” Komunyakaa sets two columns of text parallel on the pages, just as one might place two old friends and one stranger between two mirrored walls and then sit back to be instructed by the infinite series of reflections on either side. In the mostly three-beat lines of the left hand column Komunyakaa writes a conversation between two women whose subject is the losses, like some dyslexia of the fates, that make life unreadable. In the right hand column, Komunyakaa sets down what appear to be his own historical reveries, his own rearrangement and orchestration of the unreadable. The effect he achieves is that of a vast conceptual rhyme, the written equivalent of harmonics in music. Possibility is extended and made equal to what Komunyakaa calls the “psychic domain” of his speakers:
a blues environment … [like that] in New Orleans … [where] there are so many layers of everything … [where] you have the traditional and the modern side by side … [to create] an existential melancholy based on an acute awareness … I admire that to an extent, because linked to it is a kind of psychological survival. How one deals with life: to be on this plane one moment and the next moment, a different plane. …
In the same interview Komunyakaa speaks of the necessity of keeping “one foot in history, and the other in a progressive vision.” Thus, in “Changes,” the country women, one's voice italicized, the other's voice in plain text, speak of death while the poet, in a smaller typeface to indicate the unspoken stream of consciousness, probes like Miles playing with his back to the audience and muses on beginnings:
Joe, Gus, Sham … Even George Edward Done gone. Done Gone to Jesus, honey. Doncha mean the devil, Mary? Those Johnson boys Were only sweet talkers & long, tall bootleggers. Child, now you can count The men we usedta know On one hand. They done Dropped like mayflies— Heat lightning jumpstarts the slow afternoon & syncopated rainfall peppers the tinroof like Philly Joe Jones' brushes reaching for a dusky backbeat across the high hat. Rhythm like cells multiplying … language & notes made flesh. Accents & stress almost sexual. Pleasure's knot; to wrestle the mind down to unrelenting white space, to fill each room with spring's contagious changes. Words & music. “Ruby, My Dear turned down on the cassette player. …
A full analysis of this fabulous poem would require another long essay, but even in this short excerpt one can see Komunyakaa achieving some of that jagged grandeur that the old man of strangeness, Thelonious Sphere Monk, set down in tunes such as “Ruby, My Dear,” which Komunyakaa here conjures up like a familiar spirit. The poem is clearly an ars poetica of sorts: an ode to Komunyakaa's beloved possibility and poetry's enacting of it. Again, Komunyakaa finagles his way around death and destruction:
It's a fast world Out there, honey They go all kinda ways. Just buried John Henry With that old guitar Cradled in his arms. Over on Fourth Street Singing ‘bout hell hounds When he dropped dead. You heard ‘bout Jack Right? He just tilted over in prayer meeting. The good & the bad go Into the same song. dragging up moans from shark-infested seas as a blood moon rises. A shock of sunlight breaks the mood & I hear my father's voice growing young again, as he says, “The devil's beating his wife”: One side of the road's rainy & the other side's sunny. Imagination— driftwood from a spring flood, stockpiled by Furies. Changes. Pinetop's boogiewoogie keys stacked against each other like syllables in tongue-tripped elegies for Lady Day & Duke. Don't try to make any sense out of this; just let it take you like Pres's tenor & keep you human. …
If an ex-warrior's meditations on death are always of interest, his meditations on life are specially revelatory. To have the two meditations joined together in this tour-de-force arrangement makes for the “extended possibility—what falls on either side of a word—” that Komunyakaa explicates later in the poem. The columns are like two numbers multiplied together, generating something larger. Like that ferocious Max Roach-Cecil Taylor encounter in which the drummer and the pianist go to war on their instruments, aurally sprouting extra arms like a pair of Shivas, all the while creating spontaneous and phantasmagorical harmonies, Komunyakaa in his two columns reaches the goal he proclaims at the end of the poem. He gets “beyond the tragedy / of always knowing [as in the starlight scope poem] what the right hand / will do.” As is only feasible from a poet whose right hand really does know what his left hand is doing, we can read straight across the page (”Right? He just tilted over in tongue-tripped elegies for Lady Day” or “The good & the bad go out of this; just let it take you”). The crossover lines enact little resurrections: The man who tilts over comes up singing. The good and the bad slip out of ordinary ethical perception, as if they found a world of pure beauty on the other side, where evil is as unthinkable as the violation of the laws of physical symmetry. Death, as some scientists like to tell us, is nothing to be afraid of. It is only change. It is on death as change that Komunyakaa rings his “Changes.” The columns of the poem end up wrapping suggestively around each other, like strands of DNA: strands of hope, of humanity. Don't let your fear of death lock you up in hurt and bloodshed, they seem to say: “just let it take you / like Press tenor & keep you human.”
In our day Hamlet's question is “Shall we be human, or not be human?” Technology and foolishness have ordained this choice. Komunyakaa's Bogalusa memories, collected in Magic City and at the beginning of Neon Vernacular, include a double portrait of the town's Ku Klux Klansmen and their African American opponents, the “Deacons of Defense.” In the first stanza of the poem, entitled “Knights of the White Camellia & Deacons of Defense,” the dragons and all the Klansmen gather “in a big circle / Beside Mitch Creek, as it murmured / Like a murderer tossing in his sleep. …” Shrouded in their robes and hoods, like small tepees possessed by the ghosts of lunatics, the Klansmen choose to become a color: to not be human. The conscience of the river is deeper and faster-flowing than theirs. As the poem progresses, Komunyakaa manages the considerable feat of teaching the reader about politics without resorting to diatribe. The Ku Klux Klan as an evil institution is remarkable mainly for what it shares with many a “mainstream” organization:
The sacrament. A gallon Jug of bootleg passed from hand to hand …
Bibles, icons, & old lies. Names Dead in their mouths like broken Treaties. …
In the poem's second stanza, describing the nonviolent resistance of the “Deacons” on the day after the Klan assembly, Komunyakaa sips the mead of troubled warriors: “a radiance / Not borrowed from the gleam / of gun barrels. …” Radiance, after all, has always been a great teacher. It was the study of radiance that led Copernicus to conclude that the earth was not the center of the universe. The Deacons and the other freedom marchers prove among humans what Copernicus' observations proved among the stars; and all those mythical beings—shining knights and dragons and thoroughbred whites to whom the bursting wood of burning crosses speaks—cannot get used to the idea that they no longer exist. And ghosts walk the earth.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1755
SOURCE: Fabre, Michel. “On Yusef Komunyakaa.” Southern Quarterly 34, no. 2 (winter 1996): 5-8.
[In the following essay, originally broadcast in fall of 1994, Fabre provides a brief overview of central themes and recurring motifs in Komunyakaa's poetry. Fabre praises Komunyakaa for his depth and originality of poetic voice, the broad scope of his poetry, and his ornate, sophisticated style.]
The following is the text of Michel Fabre's introduction of southern poet Yusef Komunyakaa to a French television audience in the fall of 1994 during a conference on southern literature celebrating the establishment of the Faulkner Foundation at the Université de Haute Bretagne in Rennes. Professor Fabre graciously consented to translate his remarks and to allow us to introduce Mr. Komunyakaa and his work to Southern Quarterly readers.—Ed.
I feel greatly honored to have been asked to introduce Yusef Komunyakaa. Preparing this talk was also for me a splendid introduction to his work since I did not know the range of his achievements, which have already won him the Pulitzer Prize. I have only become familiar with his work during the last couple of months. This may be an asset. Today I can speak of the poet—and speak to him—with the enthusiasm of a recent initiate.
You have read, on the program of this symposium, that he has published eight volumes from 1979 to date. Among the first are Dedications and Other Darkhorses, Copacetic, Lost in the Bonewheel Factory and I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head. Then Toys in a Field and Dien Cau Dai which comment upon the war in Vietnam. Magic City celebrates Bogalusa, Louisiana, where he spent his childhood, and February in Sydney was inspired by his stay in Australia. His most recent book, Neon Vernacular, is a compendium of his favorite poems in previous collections plus a number of recent pieces. Although I do not believe it is necessary for me to enumerate all the literary prizes and distinctions he has won, I want to cite the aforementioned titles because they are evidence of the diverse sources of his inspiration. He is at present at work on a book called Thieves of Paradise.
In your writings, Yusef Komunyakaa, critics have mostly focused on two major themes, and rightly so: your experiences as a war correspondent in Vietnam and your passion for jazz. Concerning Vietnam, one mostly thinks, when reading your lines, of the experience of soldiers caught in an absurd war, of your images of horrible bloodshed, of meaningless moments from whose fragments you restore a kind of redemptive meaning. In Toys in a Field and Dien Cau Dai, your poems speak of comrades lost in action, ambushes, “boat people,” water buffalo and monsoons, seasons in the jungle and official reports, though primarily they are meditations about the precariousness of men's lives performing a daily routine of violence. It was most caught up, for instance, in your vision of a dead soldier still holding a photograph of a woman in his hand and your evocation of a Vietnamese girl raped by the GIs, who suddenly disappears before their trial. You exclaim, “I danced with death,” or you proffer thanks to a tree whose trunk stood between you and a sniper's bullet. You even celebrate (in “Hanoi Hannah”) the Vietcong radio propagandist who attempted to break the spirit of the GI's by singing “Georgia on My Mind.” These express a kind of ironic beauty—as in yet another frame of reference—the holocaust of a fragile Vietnamese girl burning like a torch, “like a field of poppies” under napalm.
One must not limit you to this Vietnam ghetto, however. Of course not. As contrast there are your fine means of music and jazz. One finds in your poetry techniques which at time recall Langston Hughes, who alluded to jazz and the blues and sometimes borrowed their rhythms. You do not resort to the mimetic, however. And your frame of reference is not Louis Armstrong, but such later figures as Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Dexter Gordon—another generation. I think of “April in Paris”:
Dexter Gordon's tenor sax Plays “April in Paris” inside my head all the way back on the bus from Double Bay. Round Midnight, the 50's, cool cobblestone streets resound footsteps of bebop musicians with whiskey-laced voices from a boundless dream in French …
You write in “Woman, I Got the Blues,” “… we slow drag to little Willie John, / we bebop to Bird LPs.” Parker, Monk, Charlie Mingus—these are your heroes. One need only listen to your “Elegy for Thelonious” or to “Copacetic Mingus” to be persuaded of this. (“Copacetic” won't fail to intrigue the non-initiate. One must look elsewhere in your work, at “Untitled Blues,” to be convinced that the term is not really translatable.)
But you refuse to limit jazz to a single period, to a single place, to a single meaning. Thus one encounters splendid allusions to Buddy Bolden (you are a true Louisianian!) in a composite setting:
Sure I could say Everything's copacetic, listen to a Buddy Bolden cornet cry from one of those coffin- shaped houses called shotgun. We could meet in Storyville famous for quadroons, with drunks discussing God around a honky-tonk piano …
Here, one might reflect, is good old New Orleans style. Such is also the case for “Blues Chant Hoodoo Revival” though not for “Gerry's jazz,”
Cocky and skillful, you go into a groove and dance the true pivot playing for jitterbug contests at Kattomba and the Trocadero Going deeper into each song, you rattle keys like Houdini locked in a trunk, .....Bending within a black echo “The difference between the difference is the difference” you holler. to a full moon hanging over the steel mills of Woolongong.
African American music has become for you the language of the Antipodes, a universal language ranging from Storyville to Sydney.
I admire, in April in Sydney, the manner in which you speak with pride about the Aborigines, though you make no attempt to make them wholly admirable. (In sum, you speak of them just as you'd wish people would speak of African Americans.) Yet irony is on their side when, in “Protection of Moveable Cultural Heritage,” the skulls of two heroes of aboriginal resistance kept in a glass case in a London museum call forth a kind of Western barbarism which leads you to think straight to Klaus Barbie.
Desert dreamer, telepathic sleepwalker over shifting sand your grandfather's on the last postcard I airmailed to my mother Though he sees truer than you this grog-scented night, you remain in the skull-white landscape like a figure burned into volcanic rock.
Through all such travels, itineraries and avatars, your voice becomes difficult to define. It keeps changing, it seems to me. Your early volumes, up to Copacetic reveal a sort of surrealistic liking for hermetism, stemming from the juxtaposition of unexpected sensations and images, the abundance of intertextual allusions, such as references to Paris and Sartre, or the occasional use of French Creole. From the blues to surrealism, you intimate that there is indeed only one short step. Thus it is not by chance that you claim modernistic and traditional cultural roots by acknowledging in “Letter to Bob Kaufman” (the great black and beat “abomunist” poet): “I read Golden Sardine and dance the calinda / to come to myself.”
It is not due to chance, either, that you should celebrate the French poet François Villon and the blues singer Leadbelly as brothers in the same pantheon:
Two bad actors canonized by ballads flowering into dusk crowned with hoarfrost
Your poetry, like that of Pound, makes much use of intertextuality. And yet (and this “yet” is all important, in my opinion) one finds in your verse a deep sense of familial and cultural rootedness, especially in your poems of childhood, in which happy moments spent with your father are repeatedly evoked, in your attraction to black popular beliefs and the occult (with hoodoo and those “goat-footed heretics crying for John the Conquerer root” in “Faith Healer”). Also in the returning presence of Vallejo, in the memories of Robert Lee, who was “more girl than boy” and who inspires a splendid piece.
I insist, indeed, upon this aspect—which is evident well before and beyond the poems in Magic City: there is no doubt that you are a Louisianian in sensibility, culture and openmindedness. You are at one with the Louisiana of Ernest Gaines and Kate Chopin, of Tom Dent and Brenda Maria Osbey. I think of those poems of yours which deal with the thorn merchant, his wife and his mistress. Or of your “Landscape for the Disappeared” which begins thusly:
Lo & behold. Yes, peat bogs in Louisiana. The dead stumble home like swamp fog our lost uncles & granddaddies come back to us almost healed …
The depth and originality of your poetic voice stem from all these characteristics. In brief, your prodigious scope. At times it is very sophisticated, nearly ornate. I derive deep aesthetic enjoyment from the seven improvisations in “The Beast and Burden,” which recall the allusive and learned variations in Melvin B. Tolson's Harlem Gallery. Like Tolson, you provide portraits—the Vicious, the Esoteric, the Sanctimonious, the Vindictive—but, on top of these, you provide a final Communion after the Exorcism. I also enjoy, and even more so because it touches my heart rather than my mind, your brotherly voice which, through the reverberations and echoes of discrete images seems to speak for each of us. Thus, in “Newport Beach 1979,” I can identify with your remark:
To them I'm just a crazy nigger out watching the ocean drag in silvery nets of sunfish …
Or else I appropriate the haiku-like opening in “Black String of Days”:
Tonight I feel the stars are out to use me for target practice
Or I share the enjoyment of moving halfway between religion and bullfighting:
Veronica passes her cape between breath and death, rehearsing the body's old rhyme.
Finally I listen gravely to your variations on “Safe Subjects”:
How can love heal the mouth shut that way? .....Say something about pomegranates. Say something about real love Yes, true love, more than parted lips, than parted legs in sorrow's darkroom of potash and blues … Let the brain stumble from its hiding place …
With such words you call our souls to bright daylight, you make them stumble forth from their hiding place into the open, you become the midwife of our more profound humanity. For all of these, here and now, I ask you to accept our grateful thanks.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 781
SOURCE: Finkelstein, Norman. “Like an Unknown Voice Rising Out of Flesh.” Ohio Review, no. 52 (1994): 136-9.
[In the following review of Komunyakaa's Neon Vernacular, Finkelstein praises the poet's work.]
Yusef Komunyakaa's Neon Vernacular presents about twenty years worth of poetry: poetry that shudders with desire, past and present, frustrated and fulfilled. Remembrance is the motive force behind much of this work, but the past is rarely presented as a scene, neither a background for a current emotional state nor a canvas on which the poet can show off his descriptive powers. Rather, in Komunyakaa's strongest poems, time is the medium for a complex dialogue, which is intensified by the poet's mordant wit and flashy but carefully modulated language. Komunyakaa's sense of personal time is infected by the disease of history. When memory and anecdote constitute the poem's body, it's best not to seek a cure.
Thus, much of Komunyakaa's best poetry emerges from his experiences in the Vietnam War. This work, which dates from the mid-eighties, has an immediacy that goes well beyond typical poetry of remembrance while preserving all of its powers of reflection. Difficult to excerpt, these poems depend on the interplay of searing images and a sad, knowing, cautious voice which enunciates them over a temporal distance both too long and too short for words. Here is the entirety of “We Never Know”:
He danced with tall grass for a moment, like he was swaying with a woman. Our gun barrels glowed white-hot. When I got to him, a blue halo of flies had already claimed him. I pulled the crumbled photograph from his fingers. There's no other way to say this: I fell in love. The morning cleared again, except for a distant mortar & somewhere choppers taking off. I slid the wallet into his pocket & turned him over, so he wouldn't be kissing the ground.
Happily, Komunyakaa's weaving of personal time and historical circumstance extends beyond the battle zone. Consider these lines from “Work,” a recent poem about cutting the lawn for a rich white family. While “Her husband's outside Oxford / Mississippi, bidding on miles / Of timber” and perhaps “buying / Faulkner's ghost,” the lady of the house sunbathes:
… This antebellum house Looms behind oak & pine Like a secret, as quail Flash through branches. I won't look at her. Nude On a hammock among elephant ears & ferns, a pitcher of lemonade Sweating like our skin. Afternoon burns on the pool Till everything's blue, Till I hear Johnny Mathis Beside her like a whisper.
By now, this must be a locus classicus or primal scene of instruction for a male African-American writer, but Komunyakaa manages to balance the personal and historical, as “Scent of honeysuckle / Sings black sap through mystery, / Taboo, law, creed, what kills / A fire that is its own heart / Burning open the mouth.”
An able lyricist, Komunyakaa knows that it's always best to add a touch of vinegar to even his most insidiously sweet lines, as in this passage on body painting in “Passions,” from Lost in the Bonewheel Factory (1979):
To step into the golden lute & paint one's soul on the body. Bird goddess & slow snake in the flowered tree. Circle, lineage, womb, mouth, leaf-footed godanimal on a man's chest who leaps into the moon on a woman's belly.
“The Way the Cards Fall,” from Copacetic (1984) has a kind of grace comparable to that of Williams's “Widow's Lament in Springtime”:
The pear & apple trees have even missed you— dead branches scattered about like war. Come closer, my eyes have grown night-dim. Across the field white boxes of honeybees silent as dirt, silent as your missent postcards. Evening sunlight's faded my hair, the old stable's slouched to the ground. …
Komunyakaa doesn't always hit the mark like this; sometimes the lyric memories come a little too easily, as in new poems such as “A Good Memory” and “Songs for My Father.” Nor am I completely convinced by his vernacular, which can sometimes sound contrived:
His voice can break into butterflies just as the eight ball cracks across deep-green felt, growing silent with something unsaid like a mouth stuffed with nails. He can go off his rocker, sell the family business for a dollar, next morning pull a Brink's job & a hijack a 747.
(from “The Heart's Graveyard Shift”)
But like the jazz musicians he celebrates and elegizes, Komunyakaa never takes his instrument for granted. Twisting, searching, and almost always resisting the easy harmonies, Komunyakaa's poetry reminds us that form is a vexation, a summons, a responsibility, “Like an unknown voice rising / out of flesh.” This is work that chastens more often than it solaces. Yet its urgency is not to be denied.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7052
SOURCE: Stein, Kevin. “Vietnam and the ‘Voice Within’: Public and Private History in Yusef Komunyakaa's Dien Cai Dau.” Massachusetts Review 36, no. 4 (winter 1995-96): 541-61.
[In the following essay, Stein argues that Komunyakaa's Vietnam War poetry creates a dialogue between the official public history of the war, as created by the mass media, and the personal experiences of those who fought in the war. Stein observes that Komunyakaa “creates a soldier's history of Vietnam from an African-American perspective.”]
The haunting locale of Yusef Komunyakaa's Dien Cai Dau (1988) is as much the domain of the human heart and mind as the jungles of Southeast Asia. Based on Komunyakaa's Vietnam war experiences, the book details an inward turning, “a way of dealing with the images inside my head,” as Komunyakaa tells an interviewer, a means to put in order a private history that exists as much outside of history as within it (Houghtaling). Komunyakaa abjures the war's “objective” history that flickered in America's living rooms on the nightly news, objectivity figured most shockingly by the daily body count fulgurating behind Walter Cronkite's head like heat lightning on a steamy July evening. Instead, Komunyakaa's Dien Cai Dau operates within an essentially dialogic structure in which he carefully directs a dialogue between such communal history and the more personal accounts of those who took part in these events. As an African-American, Komunyakaa exists on the margins of official war history, grouped with those Wallace Terry has called the forgotten “fact” of the war—the “black Americans who fought there.”1 His collection provides a perspective on the war that other fine books by Vietnam vets—John Balaban's After Our War and Bruce Weigl's The Monkey Wars come to mind as perhaps the best—simply can't offer.2 Komunyakaa creates a soldier's history of Vietnam from an African-American perspective, and not surprisingly, our view of what it was to be an American in Vietnam, particularly a Black American, alters considerably. In particular, Komunyakaa relies on elements of the very media we most closely associate with the war's communal experience—music, television, drama, and film—to reveal how these elements were perceived, often quite differently, by white and African-American soldiers.
Perhaps by virtue of this marginalization, Komunyakaa is acutely aware of the disparity between the history recorded in books and the history one immediately experiences. In fact, Komunyakaa's implicit recognition of the distinction between objective history and a personally felt history resembles Martin Heidegger's distinction between “Historie” and “Geschichte.”3 For Heidegger, in his study of temporality, Being and Time, “Historie” is roughly what is “recorded,” the course of events that chronicles the rise and fall of nations, the wars these nations prosecute, the fate of civilizations on a large scale. It amounts to a “science” of history. On the other hand, “Geschichte” has more to do with the individual's own inward and “authentic” sense of life, the way what is recorded may pale in comparison to the individual's own immediate experience of those very outward events that shape “Historie.” In “Geschichte,” time becomes an ontological category, the historical-being of the individual. Thus, each individual must take responsibility for his/her own life and push ahead into the “possibilities” of a future not bound to historical time. In Komunyakaa's work, these two senses of the individual's place in history are often in dialogue, for while the actual events of history possess a real presence, the speaker nearly always subordinates them to a more intuited, felt, and existential sense of what it meant (and still means) to experience the Vietnam war.
Because his quest is inward and subjective, the war's actual events frequently serve as mere backdrop for Komunyakaa's obdurate, private search for meaning. As a result, time collapses and expands within the journey as the speaker moves from past to present to a tentative future. Thus time itself attains a kind of mutability in Komunyakaa's work, for what we assume to be past, and therefore gone, feverishly reasserts itself in the speaker's mind. The past simply will not stay put. And neither will the dead—as the speaker of “The Dead at Quang Tri” laments when the Buddhist boy whose head he'd rubbed “for luck” comes floating by “like a white moon” one dark night, “He won't stay dead, dammit!” Komunyakaa's goal is a careful thinking and rethinking that will simultaneously revivify such events and enable him to come to peace with them. He does so, as Heidegger believes all poets must, through the natural agent of memory, through the second “coming of what has been”:
… thinking holds to the coming of what has been, and is rememberance.(4)
This amalgam of public and private history, hauntingly persistent and deeply pooled in Komunyakaa's memory, spills out in these poems in sometimes unexpected effluences. Komunyakaa says as much when, in an interview, he describes his brain as “sort of like a reservoir,” containing “all the frightening images and what have you” associated with the war (Houghtaling). The book, he realizes, was an actual process of “letting go” of those images, a release of the perilous waters of memory (Houghtaling). In the poetic process, Komunyakaa combines actual history and his own inward response to historical events, then subjects both to the filter of his artistic sensibility. What results is a different kind of history that makes use of external, historical events to produce an inward, aestheticized history flushed with personal values and interpretations. Jeffrey Walsh rather succinctly summarizes this process for any veteran who attempts to present an artistic “vision of Vietnam”: “the writer needs to order and recreate his own memories, and then to communicate an aesthetic ‘version’ of the realities he faced” (203). Still, Komunyakaa's Dien Cai Dau differs considerably from earlier poetic texts devoted to the war. Because the book comes thirteen years after the war's close, its manner is more retrospective and ruminative than collections published while the war raged in Southeast Asia, volumes such as Michael Casey's Obscenities (1972) and D. C. Berry's saigon cemetery (1972) and the anthology of poems by Vietnam veterans, Hearts and Minds (1972).5 It is less a book “against” the Vietnam war, the claimed purpose of much poetry published during the war, and more a book about the Vietnam war and the experiences it held for soldiers and innocents alike.6
Like revenants returned from death, these ghostly images conspire in Komunyakaa's work to make the past discomfitingly present. A good example of the collapse and expansion of time in these poems is “Starlight Scope Myopia,” which opens with a nearly surreal memory of an ambush aided by the nightscope's deft technology of death:
Gray-blue shadows lift shadows onto an oxcart. Making night work for us, the starlight scope brings men into killing range.
Not only does the scope make the enemy visible in the dark night of that distant past, but it also serves as the agent of their return to the speaker in the present, as the ironic use of “[m]yopic” in the title indicates. If anything, the speaker's vision is farsighted, stretching from the past to the evanescent moment of his present.
Even though the speaker tells the story in past tense, he acknowledges, later in the poem, the event's continuing presence in his life “years after” the war. In this way, the speaker alters the poem's radical of presentation, rhetorically shifting himself and his reader from the past into the present. Moreover, he calls attention to himself as speaker and storyteller, and thus breaks the willing suspension of disbelief many poems demand of their readers:
Viet Cong move under our eyelids,
lords over loneliness winding like coral vine through sandalwood & lotus
inside our lowered heads years after this scene
The distance between poet and poem and between poet and reader further collapses when the speaker suddenly begins to identify with these “shadows” and begins painfully to see them as human beings it is his job to kill. The essential dialogic structure of the poem, and of much of the book, first manifests itself here, enabling the speaker not only to address his past “self” but also to engage his reader in the chilling scene. In the selection quoted below, the speaker's dialogue between duty and a kind of moral humanism is expressed in his choice of the pronoun “you,” which enables the speaker to distance the self who is speaking from the self who years ago experienced this incident in Vietnam. At the same time, the pronoun “you” collapses the reader's distance from the poem and entwines that reader in the scene's moral ambivalence:
You try reading ghost talk on their lips. They say
‘up-up we go,’ lifting as one. This one, old, bowlegged,
you feel you could reach out & take him into your arms. You
peer down the sights of your M-16, seeing the full moon loaded on an oxcart.
If violence against combatants brings moral questions to the fore, it's no wonder that the speaker finds violence against innocents especially disturbing. In “Recreating the Scene” the speaker details the circumstances surrounding the rape of a Vietnamese woman by three American soldiers. Komunyakaa, who served as a journalist in Vietnam, uses those skills to narrate the incident with ostensibly detached, journalistic precision. This rhetorical strategy helps the reader understand that, while the speaker did not actually witness the incident firsthand, he recounts it much like a journalist whose job is to recreate “the scene” of a crime for his readers. The poem's speaker seems to understand, as must Komunyakaa, that the incident inheres with the potential for exploitative use of language as disturbing in its own way as were the government's obfuscations regarding “kill ratio,” “protective reaction strikes,” and “pacification.” Such an understanding issues from what James Mersmann describes as the poet's “awareness that war (the ultimate insensibility and untruth) is itself an abuse of language (the ultimate vehicle of sensibility and truth), or at least an occasion for its abuse” (207). Here, the speaker pieces together a narrative replete with careful details that enlarge the context of the incident:
The metal door groans & folds shut like an ancient turtle that won't let go of a finger till it thunders. The Confederate flag flaps from a radio antenna, & the woman's clothes come apart in their hands. Their mouths find hers in the titanic darkness of the steel grotto, as she counts the names of dead ancestors, shielding a baby in her arms.
The language, though restrained and measured, strikingly contrasts the relative condition of the empowered and disempowered characters it describes. Torn from her largely agrarian society, the woman is pulled through the “metal door” of an armored vehicle representing at once the best and worst of a powerfully mechanized culture. Not only is the woman desecrated by the men's actions, but so too are her past, in the figure of the ancestors she recalls, and her future, embodied by the child she protects in her arms—all of them simultaneously wounded inside “a machine / where men are gods.” One subtle but telling detail enlarges the context of the woman's fate: the “Confederate flag” that flies above the vehicle. Given that the poem's speaker, one assumes, is African-American, this one enumeration evokes the implicit racism of the incident and makes it more than a discrete, if obscene, aspect of the spoils of war. Surely the speaker recognizes in the woman's plight a version of his own struggle for respect and equality, and just as surely he sees that skin color—black, white, yellow—silently undergirds much of the politics of this war.
As with “Starlight Scope Myopia,” here time shrinks and swells, both for the woman whose story has been told and for the speaker who tells it. Once released from the APC, the woman turns her attention to filing a complaint, and she's momentarily filled with a sense of promise for justice as “for a moment the world's future tense.” Here too the speaker enters the poem in his position as journalist, interrupting the narrative to claim his role in the incident he's retelling, “I inform The Overseas Weekly.” Although he tells the story in present tense to increase the immediacy of the incident, the speaker, of course, knows the story's ending as well as he knows the previous events he's already related to his readers. Again the past- and present-self implicitly engage in dialogue, in this instance pitting the soldier-self's belief in justice against the present day speaker's knowledge of what has become of such innocence. At the poem's close, he conflates time as a means to emphasize this dialogue between temporal versions of the self, both his and hers, in which a difference in time demarcates the line between innocence and experience:
on the trial's second day she turns into mist— someone says money changes hands, & someone else swears she's buried at LZ Gator. But for now, the baby makes a fist & grabs at the air, searching for a breast.
Komunyakaa's poem makes disconcertingly apparent that the Vietnam war involved more than the all too familiar arguments about Communist expansionism that characterized America's “objective” history of the conflict. In fact, as early as 1968, political commentators such as George Liska haggled over the salient “domestic implications” of the war, asserting that the domino theory had real and pertinent influence over issues in the United States (87). In War and Order: Reflections on Vietnam and History (1968), Liska asserts that the “key” domestic issue affected by the war at that time is quite simply America's “racial” turmoil, a situation he succinctly describes as a “crisis” (87). Liska explains at length why opposing camps of “interventionists” and “anti-interventionists” disagree vehemently on what is at stake domestically through America's foreign policy initiatives in Vietnam. He then offers this summary of the interventionist or “imperial” viewpoint, one which he shares:
There is an interdependence between affirmation of American prestige and power vis-a-vis Hanoi and its allies and the prospect for semi-orderly integration of American society in the face of Black Power. In the last resort, whatever order exists in the United States depends on the government's known will and ability to deal firmly with hostile force. A collapse of this reputation abroad would strengthen the appeal and increase the credibility of domestic advocates of violence as a safe and profitable way to “racial equality.” Any administration conspicuously threatened abroad would be bound to have the greatest difficulty in dealing with domestic crises. The consequence of default in the exercise of the imperial role might very well be a Second American Revolution for the “independence” of a hitherto “colonized” group.7
Liska's War and Order overtly defends, as the chilling oxymoron of its title implies, a relationship between the judicious prosecution of war and the maintenance of amenable social order. If America doesn't show the Viet Cong who's boss, Liska argues, America will never squash the Black Power movement for equality at home. Perhaps the “hostile force” Liska has fearfully in mind is the Black Panthers, but it's not difficult to see such an argument as a means both to justify the war and to maintain the then-current distribution of power at home, or to alter it only so much as not to disrupt its imbalance. Even the phrase “semi-orderly integration” implies the kind of glacial progress toward equal rights that contributed largely to the civil unrest Liska sought to forestall. For most Americans, this interrelationship between domestic and foreign policy remained well beyond the horizon of their attention, and equally beyond the periphery of their knowledge. Many of Komunyakaa's poems, to the contrary, address these larger ideological issues and their effects on black Americans, whom Liska sarcastically refers to above as an internally “colonized” group seeking “independence.” As a result, the social situation back in the States in the late Sixties insistently reappears in the text of these poems, and as one would expect, the issue often revolves around race. True enough, these poems refuse the racial and political anger of work by poets such as Amiri Baraka. Alvin Aubert, in fact, regards Komunyakaa as “cautious in dealing with his ethnicity” (Epoch 67). But these poems' resolute will is the source of their rhetorical power. Komunyakaa's speaker looks his readers in the eye and does not blink. When Vicente Gotera argues, in an otherwise cogent essay, that the fact “Komunyakaa is black hardly matters in many of the poems in Dien Cai Dau” (296), he diminishes a substantial number of poems that gain their ability to scald and instruct from the fact of Komunyakaa's being African-American (296). Those poems proffer a viewpoint attainable best, and perhaps only, from a source conversant with the politics of race and disempowerment in America.
In fact, Komunyakaa takes some of our easy assumptions about the war, oftentimes garnered from film and music, and turns them on ear. How frequently in films devoted to the war, for example, is music shown as a kind of unifying force among American soldiers? How many scenes out of a film such as Good Morning, Vietnam, for instance, use music as the common denominator linking our troops in a shared cultural heritage? While it's difficult to deny that music itself was a crucial part of the experience of the war, both in Vietnam and at home, notice how Komunyakaa's African-American experience illuminates incidents in the poem “Tu Do Street” where music is not the unifying element we might have thought it to be:
Music divides the evening. I close my eyes & can see men drawing lines in the dust. America pushes through the membrane of mist & smoke, & I'm a small boy again in Bogalusa. White Only signs & Hank Snow. But tonight I walk into a place where bar girls fade like tropical birds. When I order a beer, the mama-san behind the counter acts as if she can't understand, while her eyes skirt each white face, as Hank Williams calls from the psychedelic jukebox.
In this instance music, instead of unifying, “divides” as surely as those “lines” drawn in the dust by men behaving like bullies in the schoolyard. The lines are racial and political, separating one country from another, and likewise dividing one country into separate and unequal parts. The irony proves to be trenchant, especially for America, a country founded on the doctrine of equal rights to all, and especially poignant when that country has called its citizens, both black and white, to offer themselves in sacrifice at war. The speaker gives the betrayal of these political and moral dogma a Biblical context:
We have played Judas where only machine gun fire brings us together.
And lest the reader miss the careful choice of the pronoun “we” above, the speaker clarifies and broadens the culpability for such racism:
Down the street blacks GIs hold to their turf also.
Racism is answered, not surprisingly, by racism, though it's unarguable that one of these groups holds more power to act upon this prejudice. Still, and this illustrates Komunyakaa's tenacious will and intellectual honesty, the poem does not stop here, at this ironic sense of brothers-in-arms at war amongst themselves. To his credit, Komunyakaa pushes the poem further into the darkened recesses of human relationships, discovering in the Saigon brothel neighborhood an even greater irony:
Back in the bush at Dak To & Khe Sanh, we fought the brothers of these women we now run to hold in our arms. There's more than a nation inside us, as black & white soldiers touch the same lovers minutes apart, tasting each other's breath, without knowing these rooms run into each other like tunnels leading to the underworld.
In this brothel scene, hardly the most promising site for such revelations, the poem's black speaker comes to an epiphanic understanding of “shared humanity” that, for the American combatants, runs deeper than their skin color, as Aubert has noted (African American Review 122). More importantly, the speaker recognizes a common humanity whose roots cross the superficial boundaries of nations, connecting those of black, white, and yellow skin. Surely the Vietnamese women these soldiers “run to hold,” as well as their brothers who fought the Americans, understand what it is to be human upon this green globe and what sentence awaits each of us in death's “underworld.” However, this revelation does not come without its share of ominous undertones, for the figurative “tunnels” that link these men and women in their humanity also have a literal reality in the deadly maze of tunnels the Viet Cong used to ferry supplies, to fight and quickly disappear, and into which many American soldiers ventured never to return (as “Tunnels,” the book's second poem, memorably describes). Such ironies did not escape the attention of the Viet Cong, who employed every tactic available to them to undermine the morale of the American troops. Vietnam's version of Tokyo Rose is the spritely “Hanoi Hannah,” who in a poem bearing her name strives to induce homesickness among the American troops by playing their music and reminding them of women left behind:
Ray Charles! His voice calls from waist-high grass, & we duck behind gray sandbags. “Hello, Soul Brothers. Yeah, Georgia's also on my mind.” … “It's Saturday night in the States. Guess what your woman's doing tonight. I think I'll let Tina Turner tell you, you homesick GIs.”
Hannah's tactics are predictable, as predictable as the American soldiers' reaction to them: they unleash “a white arc” of artillery fire in vain attempt to silence her. The poem might easily fall prey to cliché if it ended here, but Komunyakaa surprises his readers by presenting an account of these tactics that has, for the most part, gone unnoticed in other poetic descriptions of the war. His poems become politically charged, though always understated, as he offers a black American's perspective on psychological warfare strategies that accentuate racial division. Here the racial undercurrents of the war produce the unpleasant, dull shock of nine volt batteries held to the tongue, as Hannah, having used Ray Charles and Tina Turner to attract the black soldiers' attention, then spews forth her brutally cynical punch line while attempting to mimic black dialect:
“You know you're dead men, don't you? You're dead as King today in Memphis.” … “Soul Brothers, what you dying for?”
The question, of course, preys upon African-American soldiers' ambiguous position in the war. It also calls to mind Muhammed Ali's curt retort when asked his reasons, other than religious, for not fighting in Vietnam: “No Viet Cong ever called me nigger.”
Komunyakaa seizes this issue and examines it via a wide variety of media, employing television, drama, and even painting as portals to the human psyche. What's most interesting about each of these examples is the location where these events take place—inside an individual soldier's, or ex-soldier's, mind. The paradoxical effect of this existential mode, rather surprisingly, is to interrogate the reader's own assumptions about the interplay of this war and racial politics, and its results are startling. One piece in particular, “One-legged Stool,” makes clear that the Viet Cong realized the potential value of America's own latent racism and used it with terrifying results. A rambling dramatic monologue set in prose and prefaced by stage directions, the poem reads like a one-man play invoking all of the racial politics and psychological warfare tactics the book alludes to elsewhere. Forced to squat all day on a one-legged stool and “partly hallucinating,” as the stage directions indicate, a black soldier bravely attempts to subvert his captors' tactics by standing up, literally and figuratively, for himself and America:
Don't you know I'll never cooperate? No, don't care what you whisper into the darkness of this cage like it came out of my own head, I won't believe a word. Lies, lies, lies. You're lying. Those white prisoners didn't say what you say they said. They ain't laughing. Ain't cooperating. They ain't putting me down, calling me names like you say. Lies. Lies. It ain't the way you say it is. I'm American. (Pause.) Doctor King, he ain't dead like you say. Lies. … You didn't see that. I'm still sitting on my stool.
The piece moves at a frenetic pace, as the speaker himself lurches from reality to fantasy, from the present to the past, from Vietnam to home—all of it punctuated by the periodic appearance of a shadowy-faced Viet Cong at a peephole in the hut's only door. Near the breaking point, reduced to eating “dung beetles” pinched from the floor, the man repeats his name, rank, and serial number as if they are a mantra, a way to pull back so far inside of the self as to become unassailable. Defiantly, the speaker refuses to give in to the enemy's psychological manipulation, and in the end he sees it as a kind of racism even worse than that he experienced in the American South:
Yeah, VC. I've been through Georgia. Yeah, been through 'Bama too. Mississippi, yeah. You know what? You eye me worse than those rednecks.
This sense of the perilous nature of racial and national identity pervades the book. It appears in one form in “Communique,” where African-American soldiers quickly tire of the dominant culture's offering of Bob Hope's shopworn routines and the Gold Diggers' “[w]hite legs.” (They wait instead for “Aretha” Franklin, who never appears.) These black soldiers “don't wanna see no Miss America,” no doubt because in the Sixties she was sure to be white, and even reject “Lola” Falana because she “looks awful white” to them. Elsewhere, it serves as fulcrum in “Report from the Skull's Diorama,” through which the poem's black GIs, back from night patrol “with five dead,” confront both the reality of their loss and “red bordered / leaflets” printed with the reminder, “VC didn't kill / Dr. Martin Luther King.”
Balancing these expressions of ethnic isolation, several poems stitched throughout the collection insist that a shared cultural heritage does exist for the American soldier and that this heritage can bind rather than divide. A good example is “Eyeball Television,” in which a captured soldier, whose race is never an issue, conjures up images from American television's more or less universal popular culture, lurching from “Spike Jones” to “Marilyn Monroe” as a way to endure his fate:
He sits crouched in a hole covered with slats of bamboo, recalling hundreds of faces from I Love Lucy, Dragnet, I Spy, & The Ed Sullivan Show. … When he can't stop laughing at Roadrunner on Channel 6 the sharp pain goes away.
In the same fashion, these soldiers, once removed from the battlefield, are shown to share interests that cross lines of color, age, class. In “A Break from the Bush,” for instance, a mixed-race platoon of men with names like “Clem,” “Johnny,” and “Frenchie” relax as a group on R & R. The men play volleyball together, get “high on Buddha grass,” and jam to the great black guitarist Jimmie Hendrix's anthem to LSD, “Purple Haze.” Another poem, “Seeing in the Dark,” plays upon the service man's long-standing appreciation of “skin / flicks.” Regardless of race, a randy mob of infantry men “just back from the boonies” gathers together to watch “washed-out images / thrown against a bed sheet.” The image of the bed sheet provides a ghostly means to join two things that surely dominate these soldiers' thoughts: the poetic, figurative death found on the sex bed and the literal death had on the battlefield.
The core of this loose series and a key to its structure, as well as the clue to the existential mode of the entire book, lies in “Jungle Surrender,” a poem based on Don Cooper's painting of the same name. In the poem the speaker imagines himself in the place of the captured American soldier the painting portrays, and he wonders how he would have fared under such interrogation. Would he tell them of the ambush he sprung while “plugged into the Grateful Dead?” Would he suffer and break, only to return “almost whole?” In Cooper's painting, as within the human mind, the speaker recognizes:
Love & hate flesh out the real man, how he wrestles
himself through a hallucination of blues & deep purples that set the day on fire.
He sleep walks a labyrinth of violet, measuring footsteps from one tree to the next,
knowing somehow we're all connected. What would I have said?
The real interrogater is a voice within.
Yeats once said that while rhetoric involves an argument with another person, true poetry requires an argument with—or perhaps, against—the self. Throughout the book, the poem's speaker has engaged in a lively debate with the self involving complex issues of morality and race and politics and basic humanity. In the process, the reader, because “we're all connected” (a line which echoes the epiphany of “Tu Do Street”), has necessarily been drawn into this dialogue between public and private history.
The book has at its core the quest for a personal and authentically meaningful sense of history that, while acknowledging the presence of “Historie,” is not burdened by it. Perhaps the book seeks a concrete instance of Heidegger's “Geschichte” that enables an African-American poet to deal with his past, accept the present, and forge ahead into the possibilities of the future opening before him. It's arguable that such a sense of history, once achieved, is actually ahistorical, bound more to an immediate experience of time than that provided by objective history. One final poem in Dien Cai Dau best delineates the dialogic process in Komunyakaa's work in which “Historie” and “Geschichte” come to be juxtaposed. As such, the poem serves as a good illustration of the Russian theorist M. M. Bakhtin's contention that an individual can indeed hold a “dialogic relationship” with his/her own words:
… dialogic relationships are also possible toward one's own utterance as a whole, toward its separate parts and toward an individual word within it, if we somehow detach ourselves from them, speak with an inner reservation, if we observe a certain distance from them, as if limiting our own authorship or dividing it in two.
In “Facing It” the speaker appears to be very much in dialogue with himself, intensely divided “in two.” The speaker is torn between the dialectics of power and powerlessness, racial difference and human universality. Given the context of the book, its melding of personal and collective history, it's difficult to see the speaker as anyone but Komunyakaa himself. Here, the science of recorded history confronts the poet's inward experience of “what happens,” as the opening lines reveal:
My black face fades, hiding inside the black granite. I said I wouldn't, dammit: No tears. I'm stone. I'm flesh. My clouded reflection eyes me like a bird of prey, the profile of night slanted against morning. I turn this way—the stone lets me go. I turn that way—I'm inside the Vietnam Veterans Memorial again, depending on the light to make a difference.
The terms of Komunyakaa's dialectic are many and obvious: stone vs. flesh, night vs. morning, release from memory's cold cell vs. imprisonment inside the Memorial which represents it. The most compelling expression of this dialogue, of course, is figured in the racial dialectic of the speaker's “black face,” a “profile of night,” fading and reappearing in the recurrent white “light” of “morning.” It is a version of the argument which animates the book as a whole, extending beyond the mere question of race to larger and more fundamental questions of basic humanity that seek to know what we share, why, and to what end? Which ask what it means to be human and therefore intellectually capable of carrying forward a past, and yet willing to seize one's future? The poem demonstrates what the speaker of “Jungle Surrender” has already come to know, namely that the “real interrogator” is always the “voice within.” Komunyakaa seems to understand, as does Heidegger, that our past is never truly gone until our future is complete, until the future has exhausted its endless possibilities to alter and realign the way we view the past which has led us to this present moment. That past, thus, must stay with him, ineluctably present. As such, the book represents the poet's way of coming to terms with it, “a way of dealing with” its horrific images.
Curiously enough, “Facing It,” the final poem in the collection, was the first poem written for this book, and it became the “standard” by which he judged those that followed (Houghtaling). It's not difficult to see why. The poem enacts the kind of transformations sought throughout the book and then coldly denies them, as when Komunyakaa touches the “name of Andrew Johnson,” hoping to conjure up a vision of the man's face, his life, but instead sees only “the booby trap's white flash” of death. And later, when the names of the dead “shimmer on a woman's blouse,” releasing them from the role of dead inscribed there, this release is short-lived, for “when she walks away / the names stay on the wall.”
Near the poem's close, this same disenchanting pattern of promise and disappointment appears again:
A white vet's image floats closer to me, then his pale eyes look through mine. I'm a window.
These lines promise the kind of mingling and transformation that the speaker has fervently sought through the book's interior dialogues. When the white vet comes “closer,” his eyes momentarily “look through” those of the black speaker, unifying their presence and value. This, an uncautious reader might conclude, is just the point of the book, its ultimate achievement. Note, though, how Komunyakaa problematizes this scene of racial unity by following it immediately with the realization, “I'm a window.” Two powerfully conflicting interpretations, held in juxtapose, result: that the white vet has indeed learned to see things empathetically “through” the black speaker's eyes, or more discomfitingly, that the white vet simply “looks through” the black speaker as if he were merely a window, an inhuman object hardly worth noticing.
If the poem were to end here, mired in ambivalence, the quest would barely seem worth the trouble, either for poet or reader. The speaker's dialogue with himself, with his reader, and with “Historie” is splendidly realized in the image of the window. He looks silently backward and forward in time, both toward his reader and away. He is at once visible and invisible, colorless as glass, neither black nor white. He serves as both sign and signified of the essential dialogic structure of the book, a window to history nailed in place, immovable and unmoved, both outside and inside of its margins—all of which, of course, refuses resolution in its ambiguity, in its very muteness.
However, the poem's (and the book's) closing image reverses the usual pattern and frees the speaker from his static, nearly death-like trance:
In the black mirror a woman is trying to erase names: No, she's brushing a boy's hair.
The woman's thoughtful, nurturing, thoroughly quotidian act of love closes the book on perhaps the most redemptive note imaginable for such a text. Her gesture focuses the book's ending on the future that young boy embodies, a future outside of the glass-like surface of the Memorial and ahead of the faceless window the speaker has imagined himself to be. What's more, the question of whether this mother and son are black or white matters not at all. The touch of her hands is a kind of blessing, a simple but profound sacramental act enriching the lives of mother, son, and the poet who observes them. Komunyakaa's speaker comes to understand the existentialist Heidegger's concept of Dasein, the “givenness” of human existence from which we cannot stand apart and of which the fabric of our lives is spun. His speaker discovers human existence is always founded on being-in-the-world, bound up with others in the beautiful and frightening relations that constitute our very lives. Dasein places the individual out in the world, connects his/her being to others' being. In such a view there is no retreat, no escape into the separate realms of “subject” and “object,” for these categories overlap and contain each other. Thus immutably bound up with others and the material world through which he moves, Komunyakaa closes his dialogue between private and public history. In the end the recognition that issues from this dialogue and enables him to move resolutely forward, neither erasing the “names” of the past nor failing to seize his future, proves to be fittingly “authentic” and revivifying.
Terry provocatively suggests that, much like the contribution of black soldiers in WW II, African-American soldiers' role in Vietnam will be diminished to the point of invisibility by the year 2000. See Reading the Wind: The Literature of the Vietnam War, an interpretive critique by Timothy J. Lomperis, with bibliographic commentary by John Clark Pratt (Durham: Duke University Press, 1987).
These books represent the broad range of soldier-poets' interpretations of their experiences in Vietnam, at least they represent my favorites. Other texts, bearing to some extent on Vietnam and written by these same authors, are listed among the Works Cited. For a helpful appraisal of these and other collections by soldier-poets, as well as a measured reading of Hearts and Minds, see W. D. Ehrhart, “Soldier-Poets of the Vietnam War,” in America Rediscovered: Critical Essays on Literature and Film of the Vietnam War, eds. Owen W. Gilman, Jr. and Lorrie Smith (New York: Garland, 1990), pp. 313-331.
The distinction is crucial to Heidegger's discussions and it appears, in various forms, throughout the text. As usual with Heidegger, he makes much of small distinctions in word choice and etymology, and he carries through the distinction with the corresponding adjectives “historich” and “geschichtlich.” “Historie” seems to refer to what Heidegger considers a “science of history.” See pages 375, 378, in Heidegger's pagination. For discussion of “Geschichte,” the kind of history that “happens” and is authentically felt, see especially Sections 6 and 76 of Being and Time.
Heidegger, “The Poet as Thinker,” in Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. and intro. Albert Hofstadter (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), p. 10. The piece, itself a poetic rumination on the why and how and what of a poet's thinking, elsewhere describes the process of this interior dialogue: “We never come to thoughts. They come / to us. // That is the proper hour of discourse” (6).
Winning Hearts and Minds: War Poems by Vietnam Veterans, edited by Larry Rottmann, Jan Barry, and Basil Paquet, drew a fair amount of attention in the United States. Although the work was honest and often poignant, critics have noted its lack of aesthetic sophistication (a consideration surely not paramount for most of the poets whose work was gathered there). Negative critical views of Hearts and Minds are offered, for example, by John Felsteiner in “American Poetry and the War in Vietnam,” Stand, 19.2 (1978): 4-11, and Jeffrey Walsh, American War Literature 1914 to Vietnam. Walsh's somewhat brutal judgment is fairly summarized by these remarks: “… the war is, in general, presented in a rather repetitive, stereotyped, ahistorical and conventionally ‘realistic’ way. … What clearly is lacking is an available artistic mode of a sustained kind, an extended formal utterance or discourse in which the war's distinctive technical nature as well as its moral nature can be realised” (204).
I have in mind here the slew of protest poetry published during the war by a plethora of well-known poets. Their goal, admirable in most views, was to alert the American public to the senselessness of the war and to hasten its end. A partial list would surely include poets such as Robert Bly, James Wright, Denise Levertov, Robert Duncan, Allen Ginsburg, Galway Kinnell, William Stafford, and Marge Piercy. Although not meant to be inclusive, the list gives indication of the widespread vitality of a movement which came to be known as “Poets and Writers against the Vietnam War.”
Liska, p. 87. Liska's War and Order, according to its foreword by Robert E. Osgood, then Director of the Washington Center of Foreign Policy Research, “elaborates the imperial conception, refines the scope and limits of its practical application, and relates it more specifically to America's involvement in the Vietnamese war” (vii). Liska's work appeared as Number 11 in the Studies in International Affairs series published by Johns Hopkins University Press. For a view opposing Liska's, see Number 10 in the same series, Robert W. Tucker, Nation or Empire? The Debate over American Foreign Policy, which Mr. Osgood characterizes, quite correctly, as reaching “fundamentally different conclusions” from those reached in Liska's War and Order (vii).
Aubert, Alvin. “Yusef Komunyakaa: The Unified Vision, Canonization and Humanity.” African American Review 27, No. 1 (Spring 1993): 119-123.
———. “Rare Instances of Reconciliation.” Epoch 38 (Spring 1989): 67-72.
Bakhtin, M. M. Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics. Ed. and trans. Caryl Emerson. Intro. Wayne C. Booth. Theory and History of Literature, Volume 8. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.
Balaban, John. After Our War. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1972.
———. Blue Mountain. Greensboro, NC: Unicorn Press, 1982.
———. Ca Dao Viet Nam. Greensboro, NC: Unicorn Press, 1980.
———. Vietnamese Folk Poetry. Greensboro, NC: Unicorn Press, 1974.
Berry, D. C. saigon cemetery. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1972.
Casey, Michael. Obscenities. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972.
Ehrhart, W. D. “Soldier-Poets of the Vietnam War.” In America Rediscovered: Critical Essays on Literature and Film of the Vietnam War. Eds. Owen W. Gilman, Jr. and Lorrie Smith. New York: Garland, 1990: 313-331.
Gotera, Vicente F. “‘Depending on the Light’”: Yusef Komunyakaa's Dien Cai Dau.” America Rediscovered: Critical Essays on Literature and Film of the Vietnam War. Eds. Owen W. Gilman, Jr. and Lorrie Smith. New York: Garland, 1990: 282-300.
Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. New York: Harper & Row, 1962.
———. Poetry, Language, Thought. Trans. and Intro. Albert Hofstadter. New York: Harper & Row, 1971.
Houghtaling, David. Radio interview with Yusef Komunyakaa. WCBU, Peoria, IL: 24 February 1989.
Komunyakaa, Yusef. Dien Cai Dau. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1988.
Liska, George. War and Order: Reflections on Vietnam and History. Studies in International Affairs Number 11. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1968.
Mersmann, James F. Out of the Vietnam Vortex: A Study of Poets and Poetry against the War. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1974.
Rottmann, Larry, Jan Barry, and Basil T. Paquet. Winning Hearts and Minds: War Poems by Vietnam Veterans. Brooklyn: 1st Casualty Press, 1972.
Walsh, Jeffrey. American War Literature: 1914 to Vietnam. New York: St. Martin's, 1982.
Weigl, Bruce. A Romance. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1979.
———. The Monkey Wars. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985.
———. Song of Napalm. Boston: Atlantic Press, 1988.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5397
SOURCE: Komunyakaa, Yusef with Ernest Suarez. “Yusef Komunyakaa.” In Southbound: Interviews with Southern Poets, edited by Ernest Suarez, pp. 130-43. London: University of Missouri Press, 1999.
[In the following interview, which took place in April 1998, Komunyakaa discusses his literary influences and the significance of music to his poetry.]
Yusef Komunyakaa's knowledge and love of music and painting have heavily influenced his poetry. His poems are meticulously crafted “tonal narratives” that present series of highly concentrated images. Komunyakaa uses the rhythms of jazz and other types of music to help create a visceral relationship between the images, inviting the reader to enter into an emotional and intellectual dialogue with the poem. His poems shun the didactic and draw on a wide range of subject matter—family, landscapes, rural and urban life, race relations, sports, philosophy—to jar the reader by confronting him or her with new, and often contradictory, relationships toward experience.
Raised in Bogalusa, Louisiana, Komunyakaa served as a military correspondent in the army during the Vietnam War. In 1994 he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems. He teaches at Princeton University, where he is Humanities Professor of Creative Writing. The following interview was conducted in my home in Kensington, Maryland, on April 8-9, 1998.
[Suarez]: You've edited an anthology of jazz poetry. Comment on the relationship between music and your poetry.
[Komunyakaa]: Sascha Feinstein and I have edited two jazz anthologies—The Jazz Poetry Anthology and The Second Set: The Jazz Poetry Anthology, volume 2, and we are preparing a third volume that collects jazz poetry from around the world to be published in 2001. In 1982, I was teaching at the University of New Orleans, and it was there that I began to think about the idea of compiling an anthology of jazz-related poems. William Matthews, Jayne Cortez, Gwendolyn Brooks—a couple of her early poems—Michael Harper, and others were writing poems that acknowledged jazz and the musicians who have distinguished this music. I never really thought about my own work as being jazz-influenced until I considered how we internalize the music we hear. My mother always had the radio tuned to stations in New Orleans; the radio served as a shrine. I was fascinated with the music since I had been hearing it from early on, particularly traditional jazz—especially Louis Armstrong—gospel music from such greats as Mahalia Jackson, and the blues, rhythm and blues—all of that was entering my psyche via the radio. I listened to country and western and came to realize its association with the blues. But this is in retrospect.
When did you start making connections between music and poetry?
In the late 1970s. When I was in graduate school at the University of California at Irvine studying with Charles Wright, I started to notice the appearance of jazz references in my poetry. I was also aware of my poems embracing surrealism. In a way, it was a return to what I found myself writing earlier. I didn't want to graft the trappings of jazz to my own work. I wanted it to be natural, part of the process. I listen to all kinds of music: jazz, blues, folk, rock—the whole spectrum—gospel, all of that influences my work because I believe we internalize music and it becomes an overlay through which we filter so much. I can listen to Coltrane's blues and then be caught up by Bob Dylan's raspy voice on Blood on the Tracks. Language itself is music. Silence is also part of music; otherwise, we wouldn't have modulation.
So you're saying that in the late 1970s and 1980s you started moving toward musical patterns associated with jazz?
Well, I think the musical patterns were already there, just below the surface of the telling, driving the need to create. The patterns weren't conscious ones, but I do feel they were inside my psyche.
The same ones?
Well, yes, I think so. I start to write by just listening to language that comes back at me. The ear's a great editor. So, yes, music inhabits me and I enjoy it, but only later, when I started thinking about the essence of music, did I realize its unconscious impact. I believe it's associated with those earlier experiences listening to the radio. I notice how young children listen to music. They don't listen with the head; they listen with their whole bodies.
It's a physical and emotional experience.
Yeah, that's right. A whole experience that attempts to bridge the emotional and cultural elements. I think that early humans listened this way because their very lives depended on an alert response.
If music were primarily an intellectual experience, it wouldn't have the same appeal.
That's right. It wouldn't hit the same way. However, the intellectual experience is also a bodily process, and physical awareness of music naturally includes a cognitive or meditative response.
What's the relationship between musical rhythms and your conception of the line?
I write from my own voice. Richard Hugo talks about the use of long and short lines influenced by swing music. I'm more interested in a line associated with a vertical trajectory that moves language down the page. At the same time, because of the images and line breaks, it invites in a sped-up meditation. I'm referring to poems where I use a very short line, and in that sense, perhaps, I am doing something akin to what some of the Beats did in the 1950s. It's also natural to the American idiom—think of William Carlos Williams—to use the short line. I've also written prose poems. But even when I formulate a prose poem, it's initially written in shorter lines, and then that structure is collapsed. Of course, here I'm thinking of lyrical narratives. I don't worry about lineal narratives. What I think about, for the most part, is a narrative of tone, or tonal narrative that may focus on a central story, but it allows encountering others within it.
Can you be specific?
I'll go with a poem, “Blues Chant Voodoo Revival,” which refers to the rituals of vodun from New Orleans and other parts of Louisiana. In the poem there's also an emotional narrative unfolding. We know that, about the rituals. The same can be said about traditional blues. With this in mind, it's easy to recognize that there's a lot of innuendo within the context of the poem. Insinuation. The blues suggest that one talk around a subject or situation, but, at the same time, it's what we bring to it and, in my case, what I bring to the poem. Of course, someone else may interpret the same poem differently. So, one person may see it as blasphemous, and another sees it as sacred or a song of praise.
Although some readings are more correct than others.
Or a combination thereof. Yes.
What's the relationship between your poetry and that of the Beats? When you mention shorter lines, are you thinking of Creeley?
I'm thinking of Creeley. I'm thinking of Bob Kaufman, whom we usually don't associate with the Beats, but we should. He was born in New Orleans, started reading poetry as a merchant marine, and then ended up in San Francisco in the middle of that movement. Jazz enters into his work, even to the extent that he named his son Parker; that's pretty committed. He edited a magazine called Beatitude, which many people think is the etymological basis for the term Beat.
What in particular within Kaufman's work appeals to you?
Jazz and how his poems are imbued by surrealism; the quirky, ironic, satirical edge of his poems also appeals to me. The fact that he can go inside an off-the-wall idea and emerge tying it to existential metaphysics. His commitment was troubling and challenging—how he could remain silent for eleven years, till the Vietnam War was over, said a lot about the depth of this talented voice in American poetry. I find myself rereading his Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness, The Ancient Rain, and Golden Sardine.
When did you start reading poetry?
I read Edgar Allan Poe when I was about eight or nine. The first poem I ever memorized was “Annabell Lee.” Then I memorized James Weldon Johnson's “The Creation” and started looking at the Harlem Renaissance poets, especially at Hughes, Helene Johnson, Anne Spencer, Claude McKay, and Countee Cullen. They were writing about topics that touched me deeply. I realized that a lot of their poems were satirical. Their verses were about my own existence, how I saw myself as a black person in America. That leads me to James Baldwin. When I got to Baldwin's Nobody Knows My Name, I was mesmerized. I think I read that book about twenty-five times. My fascination had a lot to do with what the book was about, of course, but it also had much to do with the picture of Baldwin, with how he looked, and I could identify with him. I loved reading Shakespeare, the mystery and clarity in language, but reading Baldwin, there was an urgency that touched my life. I embraced the image of Baldwin.
What was important about the “image of Baldwin” for you?
He definitely did not possess the typical look of a celebrity who appeared on the covers of most magazines such as Life, Newsweek, Ebony, Tan, or Bronze. He looked like an everyday citizen of my community. At this time, I was still daydreaming about constructing a greenhouse, but also the attraction to language became noticeable, in part because I was reading Notes of a Native Son and Go Tell It on the Mountain.
What led you to the Harlem Renaissance poets?
I remember what was called “Negro History Week,” which meant celebrating figures such as Marion Anderson, Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver, James Weldon Johnson, Frederick Douglass—all interesting historical figures. Out of one of those weeks came my introduction to the Harlem Renaissance, particularly Langston Hughes. Hughes talked about the blues, which reminds me of when I was three or four years old, standing behind the radio, trying to touch those lit tubes to see where music came from. I grew up hearing my mother and grandmothers humming in the background as they scrubbed floors and cooked butter beans and baked cornbread. I heard them singing “Precious Lord,” “Amazing Grace,” all of those songs. Even though I was too shy myself, I celebrated the singing by listening. I was transported by the power of language, by the simple majesty of metaphor and music in the human voice.
Many of the poets whom I've spoken with have pointed to the music of the churches—the white churches and the black churches—as contributing to the rhythms of their verse.
Yes. Within black churches, there's a choral response, a call and response; the minister stands there rendering a syncopated oration to “amen” that comes in chorus or individually from the congregation: “Amen,” “Tell it like it is.” A kind of dialogue echoes all the way back to Africa. I admire such participation. That's what poetry's about. Poetry invites. Poetry is celebration and confrontation. It takes us to the oral tradition. And just attempting to encapsulate action and stasis through imagery propels release—this is celebration. Confrontation has everything to do with the power of words and what they mean. This is probably why Plato wanted to banish the poet from his ideal republic when he was addressing Euripides. Poets trouble the waters now and then. I'm not so much interested in making a statement as in provoking a question in the reader or the listener; that's the confrontation. I think many political poems fall short because they're filled with empty antics and gestures. Gwendolyn Brooks says “art is that which endures.” I am drawn to poetry that consists of images rather than of statements.
Your poetry is nondidactic; it's an imagistic poetry of emotional combustion.
What I want for the reader or the listener entering the poem is to become a cocreator of meaning. I don't want the poem to talk to the reader or the listener, but to establish a dialogue. Sometimes there's a dialogue within the privacy of one's psyche when we're not told what to think, or how to think, but imagistically guided toward feelings that are already within our grasp. One doesn't necessarily have to know what it means, but he or she does have to feel something. It's like music. There can be an immense clarity through sheer feeling. The ability to feel humanizes us, and often the music of language provides the connective tissue linking a variety of feelings.
Are you saying that images can be suggestive of things that can't be expressed rationally through language?
Yes, images suggest and nudge us. I would like to create images with an urgency that inspires the willing reader to go the distance and become emotionally or psychologically involved in the possibilities. Everyone brings something different to a poem. Take a phrase out of a poem and ask ten people, “What does this mean? How do you relate to it?” And perhaps you'll get eight different answers. Imagery makes the meaning elastic, amorphous as an organism attempting to deny or defy its design.
How did you come to this conception of the image?
I was particularly taken with how poets internalized surrealism and modernism. Particularly, I'm thinking of García Lorca and a few others.
Southern poetry has largely been associated with the poetry of the Southern Renaissance, with the verse of Tate, Ransom, and Warren.
For the most part, “the Fugitives,” those southern agrarians, attempted to erase people like me from their idea of history. However, I read Robert Penn Warren's Promises early on, and there was something in those poems that I saw as different from the official “Fugitive” literary sentiment. They captured a sense of place that seems somewhat more inclusive than John Crowe Ransom and much of Allen Tate. I was quite taken with some of the poems in Promises. The book was so different. I was also drawn to other contemporary voices such as James Dickey, as well as those associated with the so-called post-Harlem Renaissance, such as Melvin Tolson and Frank Marshall Davis.
Robert Hayden is also one of my favorite poets. I still admire his dedication to a poem. The influence of French symbolism and history on “The Diver,” “Middle Passage,” and “Runagate Runagate” taught me what poetry could be. One has the sense that he was apprehensive releasing each poem into the world. I am impressed by his willingness to refine his lines, how he wanted every word to count. Perhaps poetry becomes an obsession, an obsession to get it right. For me, even after the poems are published, I'm still revising. It's an effort not necessarily to make the poem into a literary construction or a conceit, but to make it correspond to the music within one's self.
You just used the phrase “the music within one's self.” What's the relationship between that music, which I think in some ways translates into form, and the content of the poem?
Content is shaped by the music. There's always editing going on, an attempt to control the perception of content. Music is one means of control. Why one person writes a very long poem about a certain topic and another writes a short poem about the same thing often has to do with a difference in music. I notice that repetitions often elongate the telling into a narrative, and shorter poems invite a lyrical pulse beat—a flash of imagery that distills the buried emotions.
Is consciousness of the music necessary to the writing of poems?
Yes. The music lures the genuine poet who couldn't imagine any other profession. Before I went to Indiana University, I entertained the idea of becoming a cabinetmaker because I wanted to control my time so I could write. If I were a cabinetmaker, or a factory worker, I would still be writing poems. When I understood this, it contained an instructive sensation. I don't know why we don't have more carpenters or assembly-line workers who are poets.
Poems like Phil Levine's, although it takes an immense talent to write like Phil. But I have a suspicion that more people write. …
Than they let on?
Think of how often a kid in the back of the class wearing a baseball cap, a kid who looks like he is not into poetry at all, shows up one day and says, “Hey, could you read these poems I've written?”
That's right. But the boy or girl doesn't want to lose his or her projected cool. Poetry springs from somewhere inside us, the same way that music or painting does. Art constructs a physical and emotional dimension driven by the rhythm of the heart. We live within a series of cycles—years, months, days, and so on. There's something within the music and sonic patterns of language that we become attuned to, that we respond to. For the painter this is sometimes visible in the brush strokes.
You mentioned Dickey's collection Poems, 1957-1967 as being important to you. What did you take away from those poems?
I was reading them for attention to detail, a sense of place, but also the precise naming of things. I was raised in the South. I knew those names, the nuances of language, and there's a power in the poetry. In his work there exists a surrealism or magical realism through circumstance in how things collide within his vivid depiction. The “Sheep Child” is birthed out of folklore and the imagination of rural people—moments of gothic modernism, perhaps more akin to Poe than Faulkner's lush realism. “The Heaven of Animals” is one of my favorite poems by an American poet, but by all accounts I feel that I wouldn't have liked the author, that we would have walked a path around each other or had a fistfight, even though that's not my temperament. And of course, in Buckdancer's Choice, I am aware of some stereotypical tropes and strokes on Dickey's canvas. I was familiar with his territory, although I approached it differently. I grew up with the idea of hard work and a close relationship to the soil, dipping one's hands into the earth. When I say hard work, I mean really hard work. I think about putting in miles of fence posts and that seems pretty relaxing compared to cutting pulpwood all day, picking up the crosscut, going into the woods at 5:00 in the morning and coming out past sundown. As a teenager, that was my summer job. It was very instructive. It taught me a lot about the body and what it could do; it also taught me to listen because, penetrating the woods, I listened to the singing of birds, the call of frogs, of insects, everything alive. There was a music deep in the forest that had everything to do with human existence; it linked me to the past and brought me to my ancestors, to hard work. I think it had a lot to do with my father, with his emphasis on the sacredness of labor. To him it was salvation. I began to question how much emphasis had been placed on work, and if he were speaking his own words. My father worked twelve to fourteen hours a day. But I knew rich people who didn't seem to work at all. They had wealth and, as a matter of fact, even made money from my dad's backbreaking work. I began to ponder these things, but at the same time, I didn't want to second-guess my father or defy him. This was when I was about twelve years old, and I began to consider his life as a carpenter. Before that he worked at the sawmill. The first image of him I have is pulling a long steel cable that he hooked to logs. The logs were lifted into the air and then placed on the conveyer belt that ran up to the saws. I knew who actually cut the logs and brought the logs there. I thought about the boxcars that hauled the lumber away and where they were headed. I daydreamed myself away from Bogalusa. I began to envision Japan, Mexico, France. In my mind I took a barge and traveled to distant lands.
How does this relate to your poetry?
This was the beginning of a dialogue within myself, and perhaps that's what poetry's about. It raises questions. These events initiated a philosophical process which served as a conduit toward poetry. Poems aren't truth set in stone, but at least there is an approximation of truths. We take the risk of witnessing. Human dreams are shaped by the screams and laughter in the imagination.
When did you start writing poetry?
I wrote my first poem in high school. I raised my hand. I thought I could write a poem for my graduating class. And then I almost slapped my hands over my mouth, thinking, “What did I say?” I agonized over this for about two weeks. I had been reading Tennyson. I had memorized passages from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar and a few of his 154 sonnets. I still had never written a poem. I loved Langston Hughes but never dreamt of doing what he did with such finesse. So I volunteered for something that scared me. And finally, I just nailed myself to the chair and wrote a hundred lines of traditional-sounding poetry. I didn't write poetry again for a long time. I kept reading. I took two poetry anthologies to Vietnam.
Do you remember which anthologies?
Hayden Carruth's The Voices Great within Us and Donald Allen's Contemporary American Poetry. I remember those anthologies as different from each other, but including some of the same poets. I took my first writing workshop in 1973 at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs with Dr. Alex Blackburn. He had been in England for fourteen years before arriving in Colorado Springs, where he taught a poetry workshop. I began writing there, and I've been writing ever since. I was a graduate student first at Colorado State University, where I completed an M.A., and then I went to Irvine in southern California in August and later received an M.F.A. in 1980.
When did you start writing the poems that appear in your first book?
Some of those poems in Lost in the Bonewheel Factory were written before I was a graduate student.
You studied with Charles Wright.
It was an interesting experience. For the most part, Charles was forthright in his ideas about poetry and aesthetics, but he could also appear guarded in his response to poems by someone else. I had come there having read everything of his, such as Grave of the Right Hand and Dream Animals. I thought it was an entirely different voice from anyone's. It didn't even seem like an American voice. Perhaps the act of translating Eugenio Montale and Dino Campana also shaped the imagistic and musical presence in his work.
Both of you are very visual poets. Do you see any connection?
There was a certain visual feel to my work early on because at one time I wanted to be a painter. Finally, I started to use a different material—language—to accomplish that. It was language of what I saw. Images are important to me. They are part of my thinking process. I think in images. At one time, I threw myself into the ocean of western philosophy—Kant, Jean-Paul Sartre, Hegel, Hobbes, and so forth. When I started thinking about philosophical paradigms and elaborate treatises, I began to see discourse in images, because much of the language is very abstract. I tried not to reduce the abstraction to images, but maybe heighten the language from abstraction to images. This enabled me to comprehend the philosophical precepts more thoroughly. So, yes, from the onset, I was drawn to Wright's engaging patterns of images.
You wanted to somehow make the philosophical concrete, or at least linguistically concrete, while retaining the suggestiveness that an image or an abstraction possesses?
Yes, I think I had done that early on because I was so attracted to the language of the Old Testament. Lately, I've seen the Old Testament as a surreal text. Of course, elements of the fantastic also exist in mythology. Images dovetail until the psyche itself becomes a chimera. Maybe there's a biblical magical realism when history collides with the imagination and mystery.
You've recorded a CD recently. What inspired you to do so?
When Tony Getsug of 8th Harmonic Breakdown asked me to participate in his dream of bringing poetry and jazz together, I was momentarily excited. But then I thought about some of the failures from the 1950s, in particular a few of Kerouac's attempts, and I hesitated. However, meditating on the possibility, especially when Tony mentioned John Tchicai and his ensemble, the idea came back to life. It was a pleasure to perform with John and the others at the Chopin Theater in September of 1997. This experience confirmed that there has to be rapport, and the poet has to respect the music just as musicians must respect the language of poetry. Everyone should surprise each other.
What are your current endeavors?
I have the desire to let my poetry inform various works in progress—a libretto, plays, novels. When it comes to dialogue, I am not that interested in realistic scenarios. I'm more attuned to the idea that today's streets are one huge theater. Every sidewalk is an elongated catwalk, an extended metaphor. I want to create characters in that real time and also outside the constraints of it. I believe that the most impressionable playwrights such as Beckett and Tennessee Williams remain close to poetry. A Streetcar Named Desire, Krapp's Last Tape, or Waiting for Godot come to mind. I want to write plays that are tonal excursions, that propel us to the heart of possibility. I love good imagistic fiction. A lot of the fiction falls into the so-called canon, but also I like fiction such as Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, José Saramago's Blindness, Toni Morrison's Beloved and Paradise, or even an experimental short novel like H. D.'s Paint It Today.
What can we look forward to as far as new works?
At this moment, because I want to challenge myself in order to grow, I am writing in several different genres. Short plays—“Goat” and “The Ending of a Mystery Novel.” Also, I look forward to the release of another CD, Thirteen Kinds of Desire, which is a collaboration with Pamela Knowles, who is an American jazz singer based in Australia. I wrote thirteen lyrics for her in 1995. The section entitled “Testimony” in my collection Thieves of Paradise was written for ABC in Sydney, Australia, where Sandy Evans has composed some spellbinding compositions into a ninety-minute work. It employs thirty musicians, eleven singers, and one actor. This piece is an attempt to lyrically portray Charlie Parker.
Having recently compiled Pleasure Dome: New and Collected Poems, to be published by Wesleyan in 2000, I can now move on to other collections of poetry. Talking Dirty to the Gods is a volume of sixteen-line poems composed of four quatrains which explore a myriad of small, everyday phenomena that we tend to overlook, including the mythic, godlike personae who we often find ourselves submitting to.
I am finishing a book-length poem entitled “The Autobiography of My Alter Ego.” The character, a white American Vietnam vet who happens to be a bartender, talks about his many observations, and in the process he spills a number of disquieting secrets that inhabit his psyche. When this veteran returns from the war, he rides Greyhounds and Trailways crisscrossing the country. It's almost like he really doesn't want to arrive. While he remains in this kind of limbo, he reads constantly. The bus becomes his university, and he's exposed to the Odyssey, Greek stories, and Blake. He speaks out of a severe need, so he witnesses on behalf of his inner being, and this allows him to talk about things that many Americans usually avoid. What results is a lyrical confrontation, not so much with the reader, but within this character. He attempts to bring all the fractured parts of himself together, to make himself whole again. The only way he can accomplish this is to be forthright, and I allow him this privilege.
I. Primary Works
Copacetic. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1984.
Dedications and Other Dark Horses: Poems. Laramie, Wyo.: R.M.C.A.J. Books, 1977.
Dien Cai Dau. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1988.
I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1986.
The Jazz Poetry Anthology. Edited by Sascha Feinstein and Yusef Komunyakaa. 2 vols. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991, 1996.
Lost in the Bonewheel Factory: Poems. New York: Lynx House Press, 1979.
Magic City. Hanover, N.H.: Wesleyan University Press, 1992.
Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems. Hanover, N.H.: Wesleyan University Press, 1993.
Premonitions of the Breadline. Irvine: University of California Press, 1980.
Thieves of Paradise. Hanover, N.H.: Wesleyan University Press, 1998.
Toys in a Field. New Orleans: Black River Press, 1986.
II. Secondary Sources
Aubert, Alvin. “Yusef Komunyakaa: The Unified Vision—Canonization and Humanity.” African American Review 27 (spring 1993): 119-23.
Baca, Stacey. “CSU Prof Knew Student Great Poet.” Denver Post, April 17, 1994, sec. A, p. 8.
Conley, Susan. “About Yusef Komunyakaa.” Ploughshares 23 (spring 1997): 202-7.
Dericotte, Toi. “The Tension between Memory and Forgetting in the Poetry of Yusef Komunyakaa.” Kenyon Review 15 (fall 1993): 217-22.
Fabre, Michael. “On Yusef Komunyakaa.” Southern Quarterly 34 (winter 1996): 5-8.
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 Jr. and Lorrie Smith, 282-300. New York: Garland, 1990.
Jones, Kirkland C. “Folk Idiom in the Literary Expression of Two African American Authors: Rita Dove and Yusef Komunyakaa.” In Language and Literature in the African American Imagination, edited by Carol Aisha Blackshire-Belay, 149-65. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1992.
———. “Yusef Komunyakaa.” In Dictionary of Literary Bibliography, 120:176-79. Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1992.
“Komunyakaa, Yusef, 1947-.” In Contemporary Authors, 147:264-66. Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1995.
Larson, Susan. “A Homecoming.” New Orleans Times-Picayune, November 12, 1995, sec. D, p. 1.
Quindlen, Anne. “Poetry Emotion.” New York Times, April 16, 1994, sec. A, p. 21.
Ringnalda, Don. “Poems ‘Whittled from Bone.’” In Fighting and Writing the Vietnam War, 136-71. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994.
———. “Rejecting ‘Sweet Geometry’: Komunyakaa's Duende.” Journal of American Culture 16 (fall 1993): 21-28.
Stein, Kevin. “Vietnam and the ‘Voice Within’: Public and Private History in Yusef Komunyakaa's Dien Cai Dau.” Massachusetts Review 36 (winter 1995-1996): 541-61.
Walker, Jeffrey. “A Man of His Words.” Los Angeles Times, April 13, 1994, sec. E, p. 3.
Weber, Bruce. “A Poet's Values: It's the Words over the Man.” New York Times, May 2, 1994, sec. C, pp. 11, 18.
“Yusef Komunyakaa.” In Contemporary Literary Criticism Yearbook 1994, 190-94. Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1995.
“Yusef Komunyakaa, 1947-.” In Contemporary Literary Criticism, 94:216-49. Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1997.
“An Interview with Yusef Komunyakaa.” New England Review 16 (winter 1994): 141-47. By Muna Asali.
“Jazz and Poetry: A Conversation.” Georgia Review 46 (winter 1992): 645-61. By Robert Kelly.
“‘Lines of Tempered Steel’: An Interview with Yusef Komunyakaa.” Callaloo 13 (spring 1990): 215-29. By Vicente F. Gotera.
“Seeking Surprises: An Interview with Yusef Komunyakaa.” Black Scholar 27 (spring 1997): 72-73. By Durthy A. Washington.
“Yusef Komunyakaa: Still Negotiating with the Images.” Kenyon Review 20 (summer/fall 1998): 5-20. By William Baer.
Aubert, Alvin. “Rare Instances of Reconciliation.” Review of Dien Cai Dau. Epoch 38 (1989): 67-72.
———. “Stars and Gunbarrels.” Review of Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems. African American Review 28 (winter 1994): 671.
Collins, Michael. “Staying Human (Yusef Komunyakaa).” Review of Magic City and Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems. Parnassus 18-19 (1993-1994): 126-50.
Dericotte, Toi. Review of Copacetic, I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head, Dien Cai Dau, Magic City, and Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems. Kenyon Review 15 (fall 1993): 217-22.
Engels, John. Review of Magic City. New England Review 16 (winter 1994): 163-69.
Finkelstein, Norman. “Like an Unknown Voice Rising Out of Flesh.” Review of Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems. Ohio Review 52 (1994): 136-39.
Gotera, Vicente F. “Killer Imagination.” Review of Dien Cai Dau. Callaloo 13 (spring 1990): 364-71.
Gwynn, R. S. Review of Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems. Hudson Review 46 (winter 1994): 741-44.
Waniek, Marilyn Nelson. “The Gender of Grief.” Review of Magic City. Southern Review 29 (1993): 405-19.
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SOURCE: Salas, Angela M. “‘Flashbacks through the Heart’: Yusef Komunyakaa and the Poetry of Self-Assertion.” In The Furious Flowering of African American Poetry, edited by Joanne V. Gabbin, pp. 298-309. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999.
[In the following essay, Salas praises Komunyakaa for the range, depth, and imaginativeness of his poetry.]
Yusef Komunyakaa's life and career fit almost perfectly into the American ideal of the self-made man, arising from the ashes of harsh childhood and youth to attain success and power by dint of hard work, good luck, and fierce intelligence. The prototypical American ideal is most often a lad who finds himself a mentor and rises through the ranks of the business world, attaining money and power, yet remembers his humble beginnings. He is a practical man, doing practical things, and he never challenges the social or economic status quo; he fits in, gets to work, and by his good fortune reassures others that anyone can succeed—with Horatio Alger luck and pluck.
Komunyakaa both embodies and redefines this American dream. From his birth in Bogalusa, Louisiana, where he admits he never really learned to play his part in the tragicomedy that was the Jim Crow South, through youthful service as a military correspondent during the Vietnam War, Yusef Komunyakaa survived and thrived. Now having reached middle age, Komunyakaa is respected, well known, and increasingly influential. Like Alger's heroes, he is hard-working, courteous, generous, intelligent, and observant. Unlike Alger's exemplars of the American dream, Komunyakaa is an African American man, a poet who argues that poetry is and must be political.1 In his career, Komunyakaa has successfully questioned both the world's ills and the conventions of poetry as he has found them. He critiques and pushes limits, adding to the treasurehouse of American poetry while leaving a rich legacy for other, younger, poets. Indeed, while it is unlikely that Komunyakaa ever conceived of his life and career in terms of the American myth of the self-made man, one can imagine him taking delight in both embodying and rewriting this pale ideal, leaving it enriched for generations to come.
Any reader who engages with Yusef Komunyakaa's lush and frequently disturbing work realizes that he is an ambitious poet who, as Alvin Aubert has written, “approaches the intensity of no less a figure than prototypical canon quester Ralph Ellison in his bid for mainstream American literary status.”2 Michel Fabre, introducing Komunyakaa at a French conference on southern literature in 1994, asserted that the poet “calls our souls to bright daylight … make[s] them stumble forth from their hiding place into the open … become[s] the midwife of our more profound humanity.”3 In a review of the 1998 volume Thieves of Paradise, Donna Seaman suggests that Komunyakaa “gets inside language, achieving a complexity and a naturalness of form, and reflecting a knowingness born of scholarship and imagination, experience and empathy.”4 For his part, Garrett Hongo has written that Yusef Komunyakaa “is perhaps the most original poet of his generation, and one of the most brave both in stylistic innovation and commitment to handling difficult subjects and dark emotions.”5 Yusef Komunyakaa, a shy young man mentored through the Vietnam War by what he found in poetry anthologies, has come into his own. He is now in the anthologies.
An omnivorous reader of poetry, drama, and prose, Komunyakaa is influenced by Walt Whitman, by Margaret Walker, by the literature of the Harlem Renaissance, by French and Russian literatures, by Shakespeare, by Borges, by Marquez and—quite unmistakably—the Bible. A former double major in English and sociology, Komunyakaa understands the ways the human soul can be either nourished or starved. His own work is powerfully surrealistic, steeped in the work of the Language poets, masterful at intertextual riffs and resonant with his passion for music.
These are only some of the reasons Yusef Komunyakaa won the Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems, after having become widely recognized for Dien Cai Dau, his collection of Vietnam War poetry. His first book, Dedications and Other Darkhorses, was published in 1977; yet it was Dien Cai Dau, an uncompromising volume addressing the collective, as well as individual, horror and guilt of the African American soldier in Vietnam, that brought Komunyakaa wide acclaim and the attention of a large reading audience. Neon Vernacular and the Pulitzer Prize have earned Komunyakaa a permanent position at Princeton University, as well as the peripatetic life of that rarity in belle lettres: the poet whose presence lends cachet to any serious literary gathering.
I suggest that Komunyakaa actually hit his literary stride in I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head (1986), which announced his presence as a poet to be reckoned with and which, while critically successful at the time of its release, has been overlooked after Dien Cai Dau. In I Apologize and every volume thereafter, readers get an articulation of Komunyakaa's presence as a poet and as a man. From “Unnatural State of the Unicorn,” the opening poem of I Apologize, through “Anodyne,” the closing piece in Thieves of Paradise, readers follow Komunyakaa's continuing preoccupation with his place, as an African American man who wears the scars of racism and war, in the world of letters. To a world that would have denied the young black child he was any place in the world, Komunyakaa firmly replies with a reminder that he still lives—that poverty, violence, racism, booby traps, snipers, guilt, and pain have neither silenced nor destroyed him. Indeed, as Toi Derricotte asserts, “for Komunyakaa, poetry is the expression of an embattled ego determined by whatever means necessary to survive.”6
While Komunyakaa's work has evolved in the twelve years since I Apologize was published, his voice is much the same as it was in “Unnatural State of the Unicorn”:
Introduce me first as a man. Don't mention superficial laurels the dead heap up on the living. I am a man. Cut me & I bleed. Before embossed limited editions, before fat artichoke hearts marinated in rich sauce & served with imported wines, before antics & Agnus Dei, before the stars in your eyes mean birth sign or Impression, I am a man. I've scuffled in mudholes, broken teeth in a grinning skull like the moon behind bars. I've done it all to be known as myself. No titles. I have principles. I won't speak on the natural state of the unicorn in literature or self-analysis. I have no birthright to prove, no insignia, no secret password, no fleur-de-lis. My initials aren't on a branding iron. I'm standing here in unpolished shoes & faded jeans, sweating my manly sweat. Inside my skin, loving you, I am this space my body believes in.(7)
From the opening, where the speaker demands to be introduced as a man, rather than as a list of static accomplishments, to the final lines, in which he claims the space his “body believes in,” the poem is physical. The speaker asserts ownership of the space he inhabits, insisting that his words, read or spoken, will not be about “the natural state of the unicorn / in literature or self-analysis,” but will instead be about those things he deems important, such as fighting for survival in mudholes and the nauseating feeling of breaking teeth “in a grinning skull / like the moon behind bars”—subjects that might be deemed unpoetic and ungenteel by the sort of prattling dilettante only impressed by “embossed limited editions,” ethereal discussions, and catered delicacies. The space Komunyakaa claims is not simply corporeal; it is emotional and poetic as well. He will write about things readers might prefer not to address: life and murder—fear and sweat.
Perhaps as interesting as the tone of the poem and the way Komunyakaa weaves his way through the demands of high and low seriousness (“antics & Agnus Dei”) is the poem's structure. The poem begins and ends with assertions of what the speaker of the poem is; however, these assertions bracket a long list of negations—a list of things the speaker either is not or will not do. He will not speak on anything as specious as the natural state of the unicorn in literature; he will not fight for or claim titles; nor will he assert a personal or a professional pedigree. Instead, he will be a man, claiming the space he inhabits and the past that, paradoxically, both imprisons him and makes him the man he is proud to be.
It is profitable to read “Unnatural State of the Unicorn” as the manifesto that signals the beginning of Yusef Komunyakaa's career as one of the most influential poets of this generation. Having established his terms of engagement in the poem, Komunyakaa continues through I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head, giving readers various gritty insights into life as an African American man—and Vietnam War veteran—in the United States. Indeed, the speaker of “Touch-up Man” leans “over the enlarger, / in the light table's chromatic glare / where [he's] king, doctoring photographs, / airbrushing away the corpses”—an apt comment upon the capacity of technology to disguise harsh reality—and of the responsibility of the poet to reclaim that truth.
“How I See Things,” another manifesto-cum-poem in I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head, consists of seven stanzas of five lines each. The poem is constructed with Komunyakaa's characteristic enjambment of lines, as the poet remembers and evokes the eventful 1960s, with its freedom marchers, nightriders, lynchings, conflict in Vietnam and daily, dull realities. This interwining of personal and collective history, of guilt implicating the very soil of Louisiana, is classic Komunyakaa: personal and standoffish; visual and aural; ironic and pained:
I hear you were sprawled on the cover of Newsweek with freedom marchers, those years when blood tinted the photographs, when fire leaped into the trees.
Negatives of nightriders develop in the brain. The Strawberry Festival Queen waves her silk handkerchief, executing a fancy high kick
flashback through the heart. Pickups with plastic Jesuses on dashboards head for hoedowns. Men run twelve miles into wet cypress swinging bellropes. Ignis fatuus can't be blamed
for the charred Johnson grass. Have we earned the right to forget, forgive ropes for holding to moonstruck branches?
Every last stolen whisper the hoot owl echoes turns leaves scarlet. Hush shakes the monkeypod till pink petal-tongues fall.
You're home in New York. I'm back here in Bogalusa with one foot in pinewoods. The mockingbird's blue note sounds to me like please,
please. A beaten song threaded through the skull by cross hairs. Black hands still turn blood red working the strawberry fields.(8)
The poem, itself a series of “flashbacks through the heart,” seems at first to be addressed to some hero of the civil rights movement—perhaps to writer Galway Kinnell. Kinnell was a field director for CORE near where Komunyakaa grew up; his bloodied face appeared on the cover of a national news magazine, calling attention to the violence directed at anyone working to end Jim Crow.9 Komunyakaa soon moves into a meditation of a time “when blood tinted the photographs, / when fire leaped into the trees,” as he muscles incongruous images together to show the perverse reality of those years, when “negatives of nightriders / develop[ed] in the brain” and were seared into memory.
With this image Komunyakaa draws attention to the associations of the images of white and black. His readers live in a culture in which white is associated with purity, and black with evil or madness, as in Conrad's Heart of Darkness; yet these nightriders dressed themselves in white, camouflaging their identities and hoping to disguise the “blackness” of their hearts. In a photographic negative, of course, white hooded men would appear black, while their black victims would be transformed into white images. Komunyakaa thus employs and comments ironically upon the tropes of white and black and gives a visual representation of the reversal of those associations, since the “white” men are devils, while the black targets of their hostility are sacrifices to madness.
Meanwhile, an image no photographer could capture is that of a “beaten song / threaded through the skull / by cross hairs.” The bird's song, usually so hopeful, is transformed by its association with the cross hairs of a weapon's scope—an image certainly the legacy of the Vietnam War. And that final image, “Black hands still turn blood red / working the strawberry fields” reminds readers that, while some things, such as field labor, did not change during the Vietnam War and the civil rights era, strawberry juice on the hands is no longer a simple occupational hazard—it is a reminder of Vietnam and hands that have literally been bloodied by war.
Twelve years and four volumes after the publication of I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head, Yusef Komunyakaa still meditates upon complexities, rendering them back in word portraits that, like Newsweek covers, arrest the reader. In “The Wall,” his second poem about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. (“Facing It,” the past poem in Dien Cai Dau is the first), Komunyakaa characteristically comments upon the multiple legacies of violence and war. “The Wall” is prefaced by these lines from William Shakespeare's Sonnet 55: “But you shall shine more bright in these contents / Than unswept stone, besmeared with sluttish time.” The diction of the poem is of a lower order than Shakespeare's, but is just as serious:
Lovenotes, a bra, lipstick kisses on a postcard, locks of hair, a cerulean bouquet, baseball gloves broken in with sweat & red dirt, a fifth of Beefeaters, everything's carted away. Before it's tagged & crated, a finger crawls like a fat slug down the list, keeping record for the unborn. All the gunshots across America coalesce here where a mother sends letters to her son. As time flowers & denudes in its whorish work, raindrops tap a drumroll & names fade till the sun draws them again out of granite nighttime.(10)
From the epigraph, lending Shakespeare's gravity to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and to the war itself, to the lines “a finger crawls like a fat slug / down the list,” which acknowledge John Balaban's masterful poem “After Our War,” Komunyakaa's “The Wall” is highly compressed, aural and visual, allusive and elusive, horrible and ordinary. One might say that this poem is vintage Komunyakaa, aligning incongruous images (the sun drawing names “out of granite nighttime”), juxtaposing the peculiar (“cerulean” bouquets) with the clichéd (“baseball gloves broken in / with sweat & red dirt”).
One would be wrong, however, in making such an assumption. In fact, “The Wall,” like most of Thieves of Paradise, is more fraught with significance than Komunyakaa's earlier work. While much of Komunyakaa's work before Thieves of Paradise has been an articulation of the perspective of a man who comes to his work from his racial experiences, from his war experiences, from his former status as correspondent, not participant, in grim events, the poems of Thieves of Paradise are more universal in scope and intent. Thus, while the renowned poem “Facing It” renders a particular set of moments at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, “The Wall” comments upon the memorial as site of cultural commentary—the place where “All the gunshots / across America coalesce,” and where the grounds-keepers who inventory and store each day's offerings at the Wall are “keeping record / for the unborn.” This is not Komunyakaa's America—it is America—and Komunyakaa is accepting the challenge of universality and insisting that he be read by that standard. The question now is whether all his readers will have the heart to follow him as he ventures away from the particular experience of an African American Vietnam War veteran (an experience he's rendered to stunning effect) and begins to write about many of the troubling legacies America will leave its unborn. And how will these readers follow him as he reminds us that the Vietnam War, while always with us, is now more history than current events? The Wall is, itself, a site of history, where the once-spontaneous gesture of gift-leaving has become the highly ritualized subject of coffee-table books and museum exhibits that display the pain of the living, rather than the legacy of the dead. Additionally, Komunyakaa places the dead of the Vietnam War in the long line of history's fallen warriors. After all, the sonnet to which “The Wall” alludes concludes with this couplet: “So, till the judgement that yourself arise, / You live in this, and dwell in lovers' eyes.” Like Shakespeare, Komunyakaa immortalizes the lost warrior through poetry, while commenting ironically upon the transience of marble and of “gilded monuments.” “The Wall” is Sonnet 55 for the twenty-first century, and Komunyakaa is suggesting that he might be our new Bard.
There can be no doubt that Yusef Komunyakaa, with volumes of work and much success behind him, is spreading his wings and demanding to be read as an American poet. This demand may be discomfiting for some readers, since it has been possible thus far to maintain slight distance from the immediacy of Komunyakaa's vision, mediated, as it has been, by history. Good readers have been stunned into silence by Komunyakaa's subject matter and methods of engagement, but they have also been able to reassure themselves that the issues Komunyakaa raises are blessedly past. After all, while lynchings and napalm are horrible, the Vietnam War is over, and the upheaval for civil rights was largely successful. And if, as Komunyakaa has always suggested, the effects of past violence and horror linger and leave their marks in the present, those horrors have always lingered in limboed individuals, not in the country at large.
It is somehow easier to sympathize with an abstract victim, someone “out there,” who suffers at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, than it is to accept that we all suffer, that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a national wailing wall, the manifestation of all of our nation's unresolved grief and humiliation. Yet in “The Wall,” and in most of Thieves of Paradise, Komunyakaa makes readers face the continuing implications of slavery, of racism, of the Vietnam War, of Manifest Destiny and of “the dark history of Western culture.”11 These implications are not outside us—they are inside, and they are us. We can no more escape our history than we can our DNA. From the child who reads his father's resentment of Vietnamese tourists in “Frontispiece” to the resurrection of Charlie Parker, in “Testimony,” Komunyakaa forces readers to come to terms with our personal and collective ghosts. And, playing “point and counterpoint” with our literary heritage, Komunyakaa both revivifies that heritage and asserts his intention to be counted among the greats.
Indeed, many of the selections in Thieves of Paradise do not resemble poetry as much as they do paragraphs, essays, and stories. It is as though, in “Nude Interrogation,” “Phantasmagoria,” “A Reed Boat” and other such pieces, Komunyakaa is suggesting that the very idea of poetry be reconsidered. T. S. Eliot, in pondering the course of Western civilization, offered to show us fear in a handful of dust; Komunyakaa offers electric, almost postapocalyptic, moments of clarity in various moments, packaged in sundry ways. And yet he returns, circles back, to his primary concerns: endurance, celebration, and posterity.
The closing poem of Thieves of Paradise, “Anodyne” might be an inheritor of Whitman's tradition of poetic and physical self-assertion, but, like “Unnatural State of the Unicorn,” it veers into unexpected places:
I love how it swells into a temple where it is held prisoner, where the god of blame resides. I love slopes & peaks, the secret paths that make me selfish. I love my crooked feet shaped by vanity & work shoes made to outlast belief. The hardness coupling milk it can't fashion. I love the lips, salt & honeycomb on the tongue. The hair holding off rain & snow. The white moons on my fingernails. I love how everything begs blood into song & prayer inside an egg. A ghost hums through my bones like Pan's midnight flute shaping internal laws beside a troubled river. I love this body made to weather the storm in the brain, raised out of the deep smell of fish & water hyacinth, out of rapture & the first regret. I love my big hands. I love it clear down to the soft quick motor of each breath, the liver's ten kinds of desire & the kidney's lust for sugar. This skin, this sac of dung & joy, this spleen floating like a compass needle inside nighttime, always divining West Africa's dusty horizon. I love the birthmark posed like a fighting cock on my right shoulder blade. I love this body, this solo & ragtime jubilee behind the left nipple, because I know I was born to wear out at least one hundred angels.
It is fitting that the last selection in this “break-out” collection meets Whitman's song of celebration on its own terms and surpasses them. Both corporeal and ethereal, it is a dizzying piece of writing. With eight assertions of self-love, it rises into abstraction (“rapture & the first / regret”) and swoops into startling corporeality (“This skin, this sac of dung / & joy”), and reminds readers of the assertions Komunyakaa made in “Unnatural State of the Unicorn.” The poet is still a man. He no longer simply announces his presence in the world of poetry; he celebrates his own endurance and his strength and poet and man. After all, one must listen to a man “born / to wear out at least / one hundred angels,” particularly when he speaks so persuasively.
In I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head Yusef Komunyakaa refused to apologize for anything. He offered complicated and allusive poems, self-consciously asserting the validity of his vision. In Dien Cai Dau, Magic City, and Neon Vernacular, Komunyakaa established himself as a poet of enormous range and depth, writing about blues, jazz, childhood, racism, war, and even the legacy of the Vietnam War for the Vietnamese. In Thieves of Paradise, bolstered by a decade of critical acclaim and success, Komunyakaa takes the challenge of universality. He quests for the canon, not as an African American writer, as a southern writer, or as a Vietnam War veteran. He is, and he celebrates, all those things, but he writes, too, as a poet with such extraordinary range and imagination that he renders the foreign familiar, capturing the thoughts of women, Vietnamese, the dead and the maimed so well that we think we are hearing from them without the poet's meditation. Komunyakaa places himself beside Shakespeare, out-Whitmans Whitman and out-Komunyakaas Komunyakaa.
Like T. S. Eliot, Yusef Komunyakaa shores up fragments against the ruins; unlike Eliot, he does so with energy and with hope for the future. Komunyakaa may exhaust his reader, but it's a good, cleansing, sort of exhaustion. One is grateful for a poet willing to endure “flashbacks through the heart” for his readers and for the sake of the future.
Gotera, “‘Lines of Tempered Steel’: An Interview with Yusef Komunyakaa,” 215-29.
Garret Hongo, book jacket blurb for Thieves of Paradise (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1998).
Yusef Komunyakaa, I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head.
Yusef Komunyakaa, Thieves of Paradise.
Publishers Weekly, 70.
Aubert, Alvin. Review of Neon Vernacular. African American Review 28 (1994): 671-72.
Derricotte, Toi. “The Tension between Memory and Forgetting in the Poetry of Yusef Komunyakaa.” Kenyon Review 13 (1993): 217-22.
Fabre, Michel. “On Yusef Komunyakaa.” Southern Quarterly 34 (winter 1996): 5-8.
Gotera, Vince. “‘Lines of Tempered Steel’: An Interview with Yusef Komunyakaa.” Callaloo 13 (1990): 215-29.
—. Radical Visions: Poetry by Vietnam War Veterans. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994.
Komunyakaa, Yusef. Dien Cai Dau. Hanover: University Press of New England, 1988.
—. I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head. Hanover: University Press of New England, 1986.
—. Thieves of Paradise. Hanover: University Press of New England, 1998.
Publishers Weekly. “Review of Thieves of Paradise.” February 23, 1998. 70.
Seaman, Donna. Review of Thieves of Paradise. Booklist. February 15, 1998. 970.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4156
SOURCE: Komunyakaa, Yusef with Fran Gordon. “Blue Note in a Lyrical Landscape.” Poets & Writers 28, no. 6 (November-December 2000): 28-33.
[In the following interview, Komunyakaa discusses his influences, including jazz, Southern literature, and his experiences serving in the Vietnam conflict.]
In 1994 Yusef Komunyakaa's Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems (Wesleyan, 1993) won the Pulitzer Prize, the Kingsley Tufts Award, and the William Faulkner Prize, awarded by the Université de Rennes. His collection of poems Thieves of Paradise (Wesleyan, 1998) was a finalist for the 1999 National Book Critics Circle Award. That same year, Komunyakaa was elected a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. His distinguished list of honors began with a Bronze Star for his work as a news correspondent during the Vietnam War. At a reception earlier this year commemorating the 25th anniversary of the end of the war, Komunyakaa—who has been classified as a “jazz poet” or a “Southern writer”—was introduced as a “soldier poet,” a distinction that has followed his career since the publication of Dien Cai Dau (Wesleyan, 1988), a book of poems extracted from his experiences during the war. Dau's “Facing It” was anthologized in The Best American Poetry 1990, chosen by Harold Bloom for Best of the Best, and read by retired air force colonel Michael Lythgoe on pbs's NewsHour as part of Robert Pinsky's Favorite Poem Project.
Currently a professor in the Council of Humanities and Creative Writing program at Princeton University, Komunyakaa has taught at Indiana, Washington University, UC-Berkeley, and the University of New Orleans. This year he has published a collection of poems, Talking Dirty to the Gods (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), and a book of essays and criticism, Blue Notes: Essays, Interviews, and Commentaries (University of Michigan). In March 2001 Wesleyan will publish Pleasure Dome: New and Collected Poems, 1975-1999. An additional nine colletions of poetry, two co-edited anthologies, and a generous handful of recordings and performance works have made their way into his curriculum vitae, including the libretto for the soon-to-be staged opera Slipknot, about a slave who defines himself as “almost free.”
Komunyakaa was raised on the blues and jazz of his birthplace, Bogalusa, Louisiana. As a child, he made up his own lyrics to familiar songs. The first poems that took hold of him were traditional—Tennyson, Longfellow, Poe. Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks came next. Much later, when Komunyakaa returned from serving in the Vietnam War in the late '60s, he discovered Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) in a magazine. Komunyakaa tore out the page with his poems and tucked it in his wallet. “There was something about the language that was so vibrant and new to me,” said Komunyakaa. “I think those few poems taught me a lot—that one could take risks, that there could be a kind of floridity that had muscle and tension. And I kept reading the poems; I'd open my wallet up, take out the page on Baraka, and read it.” After Baraka, Komunyakaa discovered “big talent” Bob Kaufman.
One of America's most receptive minds, Komunyakaa is also one of its most original voices, as evidenced most recently by Talking Dirty to the Gods, which comprises 132 four-quatrain poems that challenge the sanctity of deities. It is both a return to his formal beginnings and a flight toward the infinitude of language.
[Gordon]: Can you remember the first stories your mother read to you? Which myths you were exposed to?
[Komunyakaa]: Folklore more than myth. Southern folklore. Lots of ghosts.
New Orleans folklore? Voodoo?
As a matter of fact, yes. I would hear things whispered in the background—that gave people certain power over others. And I knew the people who were being named in these things, which was very interesting. In a way, it implanted a certain kind of apprehension about certain people—their power. Or their desperation—to have spells removed, or to cast spells. All those things were quite interesting to me and really prompted my imagination. Something else my mother gave me: I think you call them viewfinders, with this amazing false light. I remember being spellbound by some of the photographs of caves in America. Then there were travel photographs to other places: Mexico, Japan, Greece, Italy. And to have that false light enter the psyche, it does create a surreal moment in a certain sense—How one might look at something. I was drawn to mythology as a teenager, because it was another way of traveling in the imagination.
Characters in the work of Southern writers like Faulkner always seemed to me to be closest to the shifty braggarts of Olympus. Is there something about the Southern landscape that brings out the fallible god in its inhabitants?
Well, language itself. Language is an act of conjuring. I think the way language works in the South is its presentation—an argument with mystery, an argument with the past. Faulkner's idea of poetry is very Victorian, and yet one can tilt that landscape a bit and realize that, yes, the poetry has informed the prose. The prose perhaps would have been dead on the page if the poetry had not been woven into it. The poetry releases his imagination to go many different directions, and let's face it, he also embraces the Gothic.
You don't think of yourself as a Southern writer.
I cannot deny that certain poems are influenced by the Southern landscape. I've said in Blue Notes that when we internalize a landscape, everything filters through it—and I still believe that even though we try often to turn that landscape upside down, to see it in a distorted way, it is still there.
What happens if there are too many landscapes—or if you're adrift?
Well, it is just a more complex landscape, more to deal with. Maybe for the artist that is the gift—not this immense clarity from the onset. We're always trying to work things out, we're always trying to see, and not necessarily from the most enlightened place.
It was interesting, sitting in an African-American barbershop today in Princeton. I felt a certain disembodiment, like I'm in the deep South, because of the voices I heard from Virginia, from Georgia. Men were congregated there, telling their stories, recalling. It seems like a roll call from the dead sometimes. That's what it feels like. They know each other. Some of these men came in the forties, some came in the fifties, and even a few came in the thirties. And the young boys were sitting there, and I was thinking, “They're getting these very close haircuts.” And I thought, “Didn't I experience this once before? This is not new at all; this is the same place that I knew when I was a boy.”
There are good things about keeping a culture intact—little things like haircuts and food. On a larger scale it's great for African-American literature to be available at the Schomburg Center, New York Public Library in Harlem. …
But this brings to mind a problem. If you go into some bookstores and they have a poetry section, and you're looking for Robert Hayden and you can't find him, something whispers in your brain, “Go and look for him in the African-American section.” And there he is—one or two copies of Hayden hiding out in the African-American section, which, if you think of Hayden, is the last thing he wanted. Here is this great American voice—an American presence that should be even more than what it is—hidden in the African-American section. My problem with education is that often we have individuals who really think of themselves as being very well educated, so I say, “Okay, now when I was in high school, junior high, I had to memorize long passages of Shakespeare. I knew Tennyson, Longfellow, Poe. But I also had to learn some other voices as well, such as Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks.”
When was the first time you read Hughes?
It was Negro History Week. God, I never read anything like that. And yet I had heard it—but I hadn't read Hughes. That's how I came to Baldwin's Nobody Knows My Name—but much had to do with Baldwin's picture on the cover. I looked at Baldwin's picture and I said, “Oh, I know that face.” Not necessarily those long, passionate, driven clauses and sentences—although he was saying some of the things I was thinking—but it was his photograph that was so important to me. I was a teenager when I picked Baldwin up. It was in a small library that looked like a little house. I think it was the house of the woman who ran it. She had been my kindergarten teacher, and my mother's. She never had children. There was something matronly about her—austere, big presence. She ran the library and I would go there and choose books because we weren't allowed to go to the public library. That says a hell of a lot when one thinks about education—that it was a no-no, it was taboo, because education leads to questions.
It's the power of the questions more than anything else—and that's what I still believe is so important about education.
In Magic City's first poem, “Venus's-flytraps,” a child's questions are weapons.
Yes, because it is so important. And that's what art is about—it's one big question. And not so much such a revised perspective, but it is that question placed there for us to entertain, and come back to. I think that question is what makes us human.
It's not Write What You Know.
Write what you're willing to discover. Why always give me something that you know?! The poem isn't an ad for an emotion.
As a senior in high school, you wrote a twenty-five-quatrain poem for commencement, but were too shy to read it. What was it about this form that even then interested you? Was there a particular poem you were trying to emulate? Or did you sense even then the fit of this form to reflection: questions posed and answered aptly by contradictions. Did the distance inherent in the form suit your shyness?
That's interesting. There is a kind of formalism in quatrain poems that indicates the illusion of control. Then I was reading Locke and Tennyson. I think I was caught up in the lyricism more than anything else. Then Robert Frost's “The Death of the Hired Man” and “The Road Not Taken” became important to me, as well as “The Witch of Coös,” which is a poem Gothic enough to have been written by Edgar Allan Poe. It was so different from his other poems. But also he wrote about nature, so I was right there.
Most Americans fear nature.
I've been so distant from it, disconnected in a certain way, but when I lived in Louisiana, I trusted nature. I was thinking about this recently because I was in Santa Fe, looking out at this river, and along this river there was grass and what have you, and I said, “Gosh, I would like to walk through there”—and the words scorpion and rattlesnake kept entering my mind and kept me from doing it. But when I was growing up, there was no hesitation. I would have been out there right in the middle of it. I used to catch snakes. The rituals of animals are important to me. They just teach you a lot about life.
You use science a lot. It comes into play in your work so much.
Yes. But even with science there are certain questions that will remain questions. And that's fine. Because we're attempting to answer everything—and we create answers that pretty much erase themselves, I think. So why not be in awe of the mystery.
That's part of Southern literature. The first poem you memorized was “Annabel Lee.”
I wrote an essay on this. “Annabel Lee” was a Southern name for me and I said, “Gosh, I know that name.” It's interesting coming back to that poem because in a way it had a lot of playfulness for me—and even maybe sentimentality. I didn't think about class at all within the context of that poem. In retrospect, yes, there are statements about class. But Poe is problematic when it comes to his treatment of blacks. In his short stories, he has to cripple them, he has to maim them in some way; he cannot see them as whole people. He had to make them grotesque. But that has a lot to do with his imagination; his imagination has been perverted as well when it comes to the black person. I said somewhere that racism is a mental illness, and maybe that's what we're glimpsing—that mental distortion. Because as a whole person, as a whole black man, one that hasn't been crippled, I don't know if Poe can deal with me. And maybe it has to do with something very complex. Anything that distorts the personality in such a way we define as a mental illness. It's interesting, because Baldwin says it's not anger that sends the lynch mob out into the streets—it's fear. And fear taken to that extreme is, yes, mental distortion.
My first idea about education was actually to go into psychology, because I wanted to deal with just that element—those things I had witnessed in my lifetime, early life in Louisiana. Even then I saw them as psychological constructions that were negative constructions that had everything to do with the downfall of the individual as a complete human. We're such an interesting one. Human life, human existence is always an ontological question, you know, just sitting there. It's such a huge question. All of these precise magical happenings that seem to be controlled by the brain—such an instrument. Such an instrument, and yet it's accidental. It has everything to do with chance and time, so even as a child I thought about this a great deal.
You mean the system and the wisdom effected?
Yes, “wisdom,” and the capacity to do what we do—and that's why it terrifies me when I see people not fully engaged. I went back to Bogalusa, Louisiana, last month to revisit the old territory, and it seemed like everything was standing in place. By viewing the deterioration, I realized at that moment, for that system to work, blacks had to be psychologically, spiritually, and in every way at the bottom. Since this concept has been challenged, that little city deteriorated. Poor people once believed that if they worked hard, and excelled, they could move on.
Your dad believed that.
My father believed that, and others around me believed that. My whole neighborhood believed that in a way when I think about it. I knew men who had worked very hard and had been rather thrifty as well, and yet through the cost of living and what have you … I came back, years later, and they had their shoes tied with strings around their feet, and stuff of this sort. And this is not supposed to happen. Don't mention if one happens to work and get sick. There is a real … Come back and visit these empty shells. So that place where there was so much inspiration, disquieting inspiration, seems to have eaten itself barren in so many ways. And it doesn't have a spirit or heart any longer. It's just there, waiting to be. …
And at the same time these are the little communities artists come out of. They come out of the middle of nowhere. And for a long time, living and teaching in Indiana, I began to meditate on the Midwest, because there were similarities. I lived in New Orleans, and then I lived in Bloomington, Indiana, and I said, “Hmm, I am back home in the South. Deep South.” When in fact New Orleans seemed like it could be anywhere in so many ways because it has twenty-four distinctive communities. In the Bywater area you might hear an accent and think you're in the Bronx. And when I came to the Midwest I began to entertain an idea of time and space. Now, time and space has a lot to do with the innovative spirit. I started thinking about some of the jazz musicians, some of the writers. William Burroughs comes from St. Louis, and spent all that time in Lawrence, Kansas. Miles Davis is from East St. Louis. Or even Eliot—Eliot is from St. Louis and quite innovative, really, if you look at the Moderns, quite innovative in so many ways. And that voice of Eliot's was completely informed by the South. The River. And he's more British than the British. And you know he agonizes about his voice, how he sounds when he goes to Harvard. Yes, he must have had some black caretakers, wouldn't doubt it.
Eliot wrote of himself as having been “a small boy with a nigger drawl.” Now what was that about?
That's Eliot trying to deal with himself. He's trying to wrestle himself down to the ground and dissect himself.
He was talking about his speech.
Yes! But see, that same rhythm informs Eliot's work, and you can definitely see this in Inventions of the March Hare. The early poems, some of those poems are racist, chauvinistic, misogynistic. All of it's right there in those early poems. And he's talking about, you know, playing piano in a back alley of North Cambridge, when in fact—C'mon, Eliot, that is St. Louis, man. Don't get confused!
One of the interesting things about your new book is that although people might see you as becoming more formalistic, you're going back to your beginnings. 13 Kinds of Desire [a collaboration with jazz singer Pamela Knowles] seemed very formal, a little glimpse into Gods.
Well, I thought about these things before—my obsession with insects, mythology. I didn't know I would write a hundred and thirty-two, but in retrospect there are more topics to explore. I wanted that form to move swiftly through imagistic territory, and moments between the stanzas where there could be meditations.
I think of [Thelonious] Monk with your work.
I think of Monk, of Monk and his silence.
You liked silence as a child.
We don't honor it as much. It's just not part of our culture. And what has happened to silence—if we're silent, we're still, and people say, “Are you daydreaming? Are you wasting time? Time is money.”
Gertrude Stein spoke of the importance of silence in a poem. Is it this silence that allows for the “surprise” you say a poem must have to work?
Sometimes it's an image. Or sometimes it's a parcel of images.
Can you use music to clarify an image?
You mean the music in the words?
I mean music literally. I'm talking about your jazz collaborations.
That becomes an interesting question. I don't know if music helps clarify.
It can warp an image?
It possibly can. But I think the risk might be worth it.
What about the influence of music on one's identity?
It's interesting thinking of music as imposing or shaping one's identity. I remember reading an essay by Charles Black, who for years held the Sterling law chair at Yale. He's an interesting one, because he's a civil rights lawyer, white, from Texas. And he heard Armstrong as a teenager. And hearing that sound just pretty much reshaped his psyche.
Blues brings a transcendence to your work. Hughes used blues to similar effect—a bounce from the pit with bebop. As in “Palimpsest”: “I am going to teach Mr. Pain / to sway, to bop,” or “Cenotaph”: “I know shame would wear me like a mask … if I didn't slow drag to Rockin' Dopsie.” There's almost a religiosity here—as despair is supposedly the worst sin of all.
Despair is maybe the worst sin in a certain culture. Please … we're human beings. How can we not despair? In Days of Obligation, Richard Rodriguez talks about Mexico as being a country of tragedy and the United States as being a country of comedy. And he prefers, I think, Mexico in many ways because again I think tragedy can embody mystery easier than comedy can. Comedy is an attempt to laugh away mystery.
Oh, but comedy is tragic.
The good ones are. I know. I know. It's interesting to think about someone like Lenny Bruce.
I kept thinking about Lenny Bruce in the lines of your poems “Hanoi Hannah” and “A Break From the Bush.” I thought I was projecting. But he did make an impact.
Yes. Especially when you think about the time he was coming out saying these things. He's confronting society. He's confronting what might be termed as the establishment. Just laying himself bare. Trusting the democratic impulse that is perhaps buried in the national psyche—not realizing that someone out there is going to dig his grave. But there's a great hope in Lenny Bruce as well. He's a person who I could see writing a poem about.
“Hanoi Hannah”. …
“Soul brothers what you dying for?” Oh yeah, I know what you mean, when old Hannah comes out and says something like, “You know you're gonna die. You know you're dead men, don't you?”
Dien Cai Dau, the book those poems appear in, did a lot to debunk the old heart-of-darkness take on the jungle, because, to paraphrase something you once said, it's the sun unfiltered that can kill, not darkness. In “Prisoners,” “… prisoners look like / marionettes hooked to strings of light.” And in Talking Dirty to the Gods, by aligning us all, and even bugs, with the gods, you disarm that old totalitarian strategy, whether used to run countries, schools, or libraries: the appropriation of mythology by oppressors—i.e., Nazis—for their own validation. Your work's done a lot to recover the lost as well as to bury the deadly. Have you started to write the poem on Matthew Hansen, the Arctic explorer forgotten because he was black, and his cohort, Admiral Perry, was a lying egomaniac?
Matthew Hansen is interesting to me, because the first time he goes with Perry is not to the North Pole. They're headed to Panama. He goes on almost all the trips, and at the end he was the one who had the strength. He was younger. He had to live with the Inuits, and there was a word created for him in their language. And he most likely had children there.
I believe someone criticized your Vietnam poems because they did not name things exactly, they used too many similes, they did not put a name to the kinds of horrors … You're supposed to name that?
You're not supposed to name that. Really. How can you name it? We're good for naming everything. Name something and you control it. Why have that feeling, the idea of controlling everything? We're back to the whole thing about mystery. There are so many interesting figures in history that I just happened to know about because I was reading about them in the seventies. There are so many interesting characters who are just buried, that have sort of scratched their way out. … Recently, they've been giving a lot of medals to World War II soldiers, black soldiers. First Lieutenant Vernon J. Baker called in fire on himself to save others.
World War I was even worse. A greatuncle of mine was in World War I—I think it was with the 371st—and he came back not the same person. My uncle always talked about France. “Someday I'm going to go back to France. I have a daughter over there, I think.” That's what he kept saying. And he had been put on the detail to bury the dead—so many people were getting killed; it was so cold—to bury them, and then exhume them later on and send them back.
I'm talking about excavating historical figures with the purpose of honoring them in some way. That's why Matthew Hansen is so interesting, but there are others who will also appear in my collection-in-progress entitled “Wishbone Trilogy.” Many people have seen the world change in such immense ways. It makes me think of the German painter Max Beckmann, who, speaking about World War I, says, “I am continually working at form in actual drawing, and in my head, and during my sleep. Everything else vanishes, time and space, and I think of nothing but how to paint the head of the resurrected Christ against the red constellations in the sky of Judgment Day.” For me, as well, horrors are named through imagery. Aesthetics keep us from forgetting.But I don't think the writer or the artist can have the politics of the piece on the surface. Otherwise it becomes didactic, polemical—problematic as art. I do believe that. And yet we can't forget.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3355
SOURCE: Kirsch, Adam. “Verse Averse.” New Republic 224, no. 4493 (26 February 2001): 38-41.
[In the following review, Kirsch discusses the jazz inspiration in Komunyakaa's poetry. Kirsch also praises Talking to the Gods as Komunyakaa's “best and more beautiful book so far.”]
Poetry may aspire, like all the arts, to the condition of music; but if it approaches too closely it is likely to pay a price. A poem can be said to be musical in several ways: it can take the form of a lyric to accompany instrumental music; it can create a coherent pattern of sound through meter and rhyme; it can attempt to mimic the overall impression created by a piece of music, usually by straying from denotation into rich connotation. The first kind of verbal music is ancient: the word “lyric” originally meant poetry accompanied by a lyre. The second is still what we usually mean when we praise a poem's music. It is the third type, a product of the nineteenth century and its dream of a unified artwork, that is most problematic, and most easily abused.
In his essay “Swinburne as Poet,” Eliot pointed out that this latter kind of poetry is musical only by a rather loose analogy: “an expression of sound, which could not possibly associate itself with music.” Actual songs tend to be lucid and simple, as in Shakespeare:
Fear no more the heat o' the sun, Nor the furious winter's rages; Thou thy worldly task hast done, Home art gone, and ta'en thy wages; Golden lads and girls all must, As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.
The intensification provided by instrumental music actually wars against verbal intensity. It is when poetry, alone, tries to take into itself the emotional or sensuous effects of music that it must stretch its meanings, often to the breaking point. As Eliot says of Swinburne, “there is no pure beauty of sound, or of image, or idea.”
And this marks an important point of continuity between the Victorian and modernist periods, for the obscurity of much modernist poetry is really only the radicalization of this type of music. Music's uncanniness lies in its ability to provoke feelings that are at once precise and extremely difficult to name. Hart Crane attempted something similar in “Voyages (II)”:
Take this Sea, whose diapason knells On scrolls of silver snowy sentences, The sceptred terror of whose sessions rends As her demeanors motion well or ill, All but the pieties of lovers' hands.
This is certainly musical, after a fashion; but the musical impression that it gives has much to do with the attempt to make words, like notes, non-referential. The sea's noise is not like a diapason; an organ cannot write sentences; the sea is not “sceptred”; a scepter does not rend; lovers' pieties are not located in their hands. One has the impression, as often with Crane, that he is allowing himself to be propelled forward by an emotion, hoping that the energy, the strangeness, and the rhythm of his words will impart that emotion, without ever saying what it is or creating an adequate symbol for it. That he succeeds to a remarkable extent cannot be denied. But Crane's verse, like Shelley's or Swinburne's and some of Eliot's—and unlike Donne's, or Wordsworth's, or Frost's—does not wholly survive its effect. It works best if read as it seems to have been written, ecstatically.
Yusef Komunyakaa is a musical poet in this tradition. In Blue Notes, a collection of his interviews and occasional prose, there is a short statement about Komunyakaa's relationship to jazz music, with the instructive title “Shape and Tonal Equilibrium.” He insists, fairly enough, that “As an African American poet … I resist being conveniently stereotyped as a jazz poet.” But jazz is nonetheless a primary inspiration for his technique: “Jazz … has been the one thing that gives symmetry—shape and tonal equilibrium—to my poetry.” It provides a way to unify the eclectic references and “tonal insinuations” that crowd his poems. In other words, what Komunyakaa takes from jazz is improvisation: “I learned from jazz that I could write anything into a poem.”
How to provide shape and equilibrium, in the absence of traditional form, is the great challenge for contemporary poetry. The binding power that Komunyakaa finds in jazz is what all free-verse poets seek. “Tone,” he writes in another short essay, “is the poem's buried structure. Here I think of Charlie Parker as he played ‘Cherokee,’ incorporating surprised feelings into the composition.” But the jazz metaphor leads to a particular, and perilous, interpretation of what it means to improvise in language. For, in the most basic sense, all writing of poetry is partly improvisation; there is no complete certainty as to what the next word, the next image, will be. The real choice is whether to make the improvised words seem composed, to give them the appearance of inevitability; or else to make the poem read as if it were improvised. (This choice is parallel to the choice between formal verse and free verse.) Komunyakaa opts for the latter—not just for the fact of improvisation, but also for the appearance of improvisation; and what it gives in range and energy it takes away in precision and control.
A good example is the poem “1984,” from I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head, which appeared in 1986. (Komunyakaa's first seven books are excerpted in Neon Vernacular, which was published in 1993.) The title sets the theme for Komunyakaa's variations—Orwell's dystopia—and he allows a series of associated words and images to swarm together:
We say, “I've seen it all.” Bombardment & psychic flux, not just art nouveau tabula rasa or double helix. We're ancient mariners counting wishbones, in supersonic hulls humming a falconer's ditty over a banged-up job.
The passage can be called jazz-like, if by that we mean a frenetic and wandering attention, but it has nothing intrinsically to do with jazz. (In its fractured narrative it is reminiscent of John Ashbery, a poet who has no proclaimed affinity with jazz.) It proceeds by non sequitur, a weakening of syntactic and semantic logic, and it suggests the same kinds of questions that we ask of Crane. If “art nouveau” and “double helix” are things that we have seen, and grown jaded about, why is “tabula rasa” included in the list, since it is not parallel to the other two? Why are we “counting” wishbones, rather than wishing on them or pulling them apart? “Hulls” and “mariners” suggest a seagoing ship, but there are no “supersonic” ships: that word implies an airplane. And why does the sound of the “hull” resemble a “falconer's ditty”? What does it mean to hum a ditty “over” a “banged-up job”? And what is that job?
Of course, we are not supposed to ask these questions. The passage speeds past them, leaving not a meaning but an impression. Even when the meaning is clearer, there are always particular words and transitions that seem born less of design than of whim. Consider “Diorama,” a section of the sequence “Palimpsest,” from Komunyakaa's 1998 volume Thieves of Paradise:
Terra incognita—crosshairs & lines on the atlas—anywhere have-nots outnumber raintrees along avenues igniting skylines, marrying the dead
to the unborn. The meek. The brain an Orwellian timemachine where Boyz N the Hood drifts into a Fagin school. They look for Wild Maggie Carson,
Crazy Butch, the Little Dead Rabbits, Plus Uglies, & Daylight Boys. No one escapes the concentric shotgun blast. Circles reach back to Hell's Kitchen
& out to Dorchester, coldcocking the precious sham of neon. The night sways like a pinball machine on a warped floor slowdragged smooth by Love & Hate in each other's arms.
Here the “buried structure” is not clearly announced, but it can be teased out: the poem is a set of improvisations on the subject of urban poverty and gang violence. Komunyakaa suggests a continuity between the urchins of Oliver Twist (“Fagin school”), nineteenth-century New York gangs such as the Plug Uglies, and the contemporary African American gangs portrayed in the film Boyz N the Hood. These zones of poverty are, to most people, “terra incognita,” inhabited by nameless “have-nots.” The “shotgun blast,” the effect of violence, reaches everyone in the old New York ghetto of Hell's Kitchen, the modern Boston ghetto of Dorchester, and, by implication, the similar neighborhoods in every American city. But there are wide gaps in this net of inference. How does an avenue ignite a skyline? Why are there “raintrees” in these urban landscapes? Who are the “they” that “look for” the people named (and who are most of the people)? How do you “coldcock” a “sham”?
Interestingly, Komunyakaa's “jazz” style—if it is fair so to call it—recedes before certain subjects, which demand a more straightforward treatment. One of these, oddly enough, is jazz itself, and the lives of its heroes. The section of Thieves of Paradise called “Testimony” is a sequence of fourteen poems about Charlie Parker, and the desire to testify accurately leads Komunyakaa to a plain, prosy style:
I can see him, a small boy clutching a hairbrush. This is 852 Freeman Street, just after his father took off on the Pullman line with a porter's jacket flapping like a white flag.
Here, more clearly than in Komunyakaa's wilder poems, we can see that his free verse, like most free verse, is basically made up of prose sentences, arbitrarily lineated. In one of the interviews included in Blue Notes, Komunyakaa says that “when I first write a poem, I will confine it to its initial line breaks, but when I'm reading [aloud], I read basically according to how I'm feeling. … When I'm reading, I'm not always looking at the page, but I remember the words.” This seems fairly clear evidence that the “initial line breaks” are not created with any sonic pattern in mind, but with that same inchoate drive towards “equilibrium” that informs every aspect of his poems. And as with almost every free-verse poet, the pressure of those line breaks is not strong enough to direct our reading of the verse.
Jazz, too, invites a certain sentimentality from Komunyakaa. The next to last poem in Neon Vernacular is “Blue Light Lounge Sutra for the Performance Poets at Harold Park Hotel,” and it is a case study in what happens when poetry reaches for the pre-verbal power of music:
the need gotta be so deep words can't answer simple questions all night long notes stumble off the tongue & color the air indigo so deep fragments of gut & flesh cling to the song. …
This is a poem about the insufficiency of poetry, of language: a time-honored theme, but always a problematic one. If the need addressed by poetry is “so deep words can't answer” it, what can the poet do but gesture at it, declaring his own limitations? Komunyakaa is driven to synesthesia—indigo notes, gut clinging to the song—to indicate a fulfillment that is natural to music but extremely difficult to achieve in poetry.
The other subject that calls forth a plain style from Komunyakaa is the Vietnam war. He is perhaps best known as a “Vietnam poet,” thanks mainly to the poems in Toys in a Field (1986) and Dien Cai Dau (1988). This tortured subject has seldom been handled in a truly poetic fashion—that is, disinterestedly and aesthetically. Perhaps enough time has not yet elapsed. Komunyakaa's poems are, instead, forms of witness, autobiographical and morally insistent. It is an honorable purpose, and one that he fulfills with candor.
We learn from Blue Notes that Komunyakaa was a military reporter in Vietnam, frequently saw combat, and was awarded a Bronze Star. As a journalist, he was already burdened with the task his poetry was to address more completely: “I had to report, I had to witness.” And that is what he does, for example, in “Please”:
Mistakes piled up men like clouds pushed to the far side. Sometimes I try to retrace them, running my fingers down the map telling less than a woman's body— we followed the grid coordinates in some battalion commander's mind. If I could make my mouth unsay those orders, I'd holler: Don't move a muscle. Stay put, & keep your fucking head down, soldier.
These poems, for all their awful subject matter, are unsurprising; the writing of the world wars, and other Vietnam writing, has taught us what to expect. The merit of Komunyakaa's Vietnam poems lies in their precision, like this fine description of a captured Vietnamese soldier “surrendering halfway: the small man inside / waits like a photo in a shirt pocket, refusing / to raise his hands.” Komunyakaa is also striking in his descriptions of what it was like to be a black soldier in the American army, divided from both fellow soldier and enemy. “Hanoi Hannah,” a poem about listening to the North Vietnamese radio propagandist, is restrained but telling:
Howitzers buck like a herd of horses behind concertina. “You know you're dead men, don't you? You're dead as King today in Memphis. Boys, you're surrounded by General Tran Do's division.”
What Komunyakaa calls, in that same interview, the “vicious arguments with oneself” that he underwent in Vietnam are only alluded to in his verse, but their violence is well communicated by his reticence.
Taking Dirty to the Gods is Komunyakaa's tenth book, and it is a departure from his previous work. It contains 132 poems, all in the same form, a loose semi-sonnet of four quatrains. It is the first time that he has so comprehensively submitted to a regular form, though it is not a very constricting one: there are no rhymes, the line lengths vary, and the basic structure of the poems remains that of the sentence. Still, the form provides a measure of tension that has been missing from much of his earlier work. Even such flexible limitations have led Komunyakaa to produce his best poems so far.
The nearest analogy to Talking Dirty to the Gods is Robert Lowell's History, another collection of irregular sonnets. Like Lowell, Komunyakaa meditates brokenly on violence, natural and human; esoteric details from his reading provide many of his subjects and images. The poems do not tell a single story, but the repetition of form and the return to a few subjects and fields of reference make the book feel unified. Komunyakaa looks to Greek antiquity, to nature, and to contemporary America for his subjects, and he mixes the three to good effect.
“Eros,” for instance, sounds one of the collection's main themes, the power of sex:
He's on a hammock in Bangkok, Eating succulent prawns & squid Spiced with red pepper & lemongrass. Hesiod's “Fairest of the deathless Gods” can feel the fatigue syndrome Loosen its grip in this archipelago Of pleasures. He reads a pirated Edition of The Plague. At twilight, He'll go to the corner shop & buy a jade brooch for Muriel Back in Boise. He'll return To Club Limbo. A new counterfeit Gift dipped in fire. Eros throws A kiss to the teenage prostitute, & touches the wad of greenbacks Nestled against his groin.
The irony here—Eros is not a graceful boy, but a jaded American sex tourist—is rather heavy, especially the stereotypical “Muriel back in Boise,” a Babbitt wife. Yet the particulars in the poem, the juxtaposition of registers—the gross “wad of greenbacks” delicately “nestled” against the groin—is very effective. And in this limited compass, Komunyakaa's usual obscurities—who or what is the “counterfeit gift dipped in fire”?—seem better calibrated, more jarring, than when they come in a continuous stream.
Another poem, “October,” is equally striking in its respect for archaic violence:
Half of summer, at the lonely Wooded edge you lingered. Now, with that wet nose Pressed to the windowpane, I fear for you. In changing Coat, your antlers a crime. I say Arrow & rifle slug, But you keep edging closer. I wish you understood salt licks & blinds. If you were in northern Mexico, not in New Jersey Where the leaves fake blood, Praise would be a Tarahumara Chasing you till a heart detonates Shadows, till Actaeon's voice is Surrounded by his baying hounds.
The sudden introduction of Actaeon is a much more unlikely and pleasing use for Greek myth than most contemporary poets can find. Komunyakaa's wary respect for the hunter, his pity for the elk in domesticated New Jersey, are in keeping with the book's general distrust of modern life, which has not eliminated violence, but casts it in new and less honest forms. Modernity is derided as an “endless situation comedy,” as mere “modern reason.”
Komunyakaa is nostalgic for a world before Darwin, when “what the worm / Taught us was sacred, / Serene as the beetle / Grub the bird now jabs / With her spear”—for the insect world that he conjures in “Bedazzled”:
A jeweled wasp stuns A cockroach & plants an egg Inside. In no time, easy As fear eats into someone,
The translucent larva grows Beneath its host's burnished Shell. The premature stinger Waits like a bad idea, almost Hidden.
Instead we now have the far more destructive and vulgar violence of man. One modern specimen is exhibited in the book's first poem, “Hearsay”:
Yes, they say if you shave a monkey You'll find a pragmatist, the president Of a munitions plant, a tobacco tycoon, Or a manufacturer of silicone breasts Who owns a medieval chateau Decorated with Picasso's Weeping Women & Madonna's underwear.
One advantage of the sonnet sequence—and Talking Dirty to the Gods is more or less a sonnet sequence—is that not every poem needs to succeed equally. The momentum of repetition carries us over the limper or more confusing poems. The latter occur when Komunyakaa attempts too many disjunctions in the short space that he has to work with, as in “The God of Broken Things”:
He could go on forever fixing Cracks, fissures, dents, fractures, Rasping & gluing together what is Unheard-of with what can never be Broken or hurt beneath the architecture Of planned obsolescence. Objets d'art & bric-a-brac mended with ratty hemp. The secret space the butterfly Screw opens wings inside a heart Made to slip into a dream.
The leap from the rather banal list of synonyms to the elevated, wandering, syntactically wounded lines is unsatisfying. And the last sentence is more or less unreadable—a screw opens a space that wings inside a heart that slips into a dream—all dreamy connotation, no precise denotation. It is an example of the kind of improvised, “musical” verse that Komunyakaa has often written in the past, and its weakness is the more evident in this more regular form.
Indeed, this is a good example of the virtue of form: it urges a certain objectivity and openness, it prevents the poet from improvising and demands that he compose. If the form in Talking Dirty to the Gods were stricter, Komunyakaa could perhaps get away with more obscurity, since the pattern would enforce a sense beyond the literal sense. That is what Lowell often achieves in the sonnets in History, such as “Bird?”:
A large pileated bird flies up, dropping excretions like a frightened snake in Easter feathers; its earwax-yellow spoonbill angrily hitting the air from side to side blazing a passage through the smothering jungle— the lizard tyrants were killed to a man by this bird, man's forerunner. I picked up stones, and hoped to snatch its crest, the crown, at last, and cross the perilous passage, sound in mind and body … often reaching the passage, seeing my thoughts stream on the water, as if I were cleaning fish.
With Lowell's poem, too, we can ask many questions about sense: what, for example, is the “perilous passage”? And yet the heavy, perfectly tuned lines, each accelerating into its end-stop, create a verbal music that carries all before it. Komunyakaa, by contrast, still takes his direction from prose, not from verse, and so he does not make the most of his chosen form. But even with this limitation, Talking Dirty to the Gods is his best and most beautiful book so far.