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“…like a bird of prey, the profile of night…”
–from “Facing It,” Yusef Komunyakaa’s great poem
about war and race and America and the Vietnam Memorial.
The university where I currently teach has more political diversity among its student body than most of the liberal-to-left institutions where I’ve previously taught. It’s never bothered me to teach students with different political opinions than me; in fact, I kind of like it. I just make sure they know that I’m going to be open about my political opinions when it comes up, and they should feel free to be the same. (I had a student a few years back who announced she was both a language poet and a Republican, a pair of claims that seems marvelously charming for its wrongheaded chutzpah.) Occasionally I get a guy who writes doggerel about the nobility of American soldiers. Commenting on this sort of poem, I usually say something like “Are you really honoring the complexity and humanity of the individual American soldier, when you represent him”—it’s always a him—“as a fearless unstoppable fighting machine?” Then I suggest he read Anthony Swofford’s Jarhead, Brian Turner’s Here, Bullet and Yusef Komunyakaa’s Dien Cai Dau, and turn to stylistic suggestions like “When you revise this, consider dropping the rhymes which are forcing you to contort your syntax and perhaps limiting what you can say.” Teacherly boilerplate, but generally good advice at this stage of student writing, no matter what the subject.
Shortly after the U.S. attacked Iraq—god, it’s years ago now, isn’t it?—I started a poetry workshop I was teaching at Haverford College by reading Langston Hughes’ “Let America be America Again”: “Let America be America again./Let it be the dream it used to be./Let it be the pioneer on the plain/Seeking a home where he himself is free.//(America never was America to me.)” I’m remembering this because of two encounters with the American flag lately:
1. I take Maisie for a walk along the Schuylkill River on Kelly Drive on one of Philadelphia’s glorious spring days—cherry trees in full bloom, sculls on the river, wannabe-Lance-Armstrongs battling it out with entitled-feeling rollerbladers. The guy who sells soft pretzels and sodas out of his van on the Drive also has pinwheels and little American flags on sale for a buck or two each; I tell Maisie she can pick one, assuming she’ll go for a sparkly pinwheel. “I want an AMEWICAN fwag!” she says. She walks along quite happily, waving it while I keep silent about my fear she’ll trip, fall and poke her eye out with it, because that’s what you have to do to let your child grow up. Naturally, we run into my husband’s ex walking the other way. A woman I like a lot, a college teacher, ultra-left-wing, very active in local grassroots politics. Her energy in political matters never fails to make me ashamed of my basically slackerish, idle leftwing ways, which mostly amount to bitter sarcasms and the occasional petition-signing or demonstration. She says “What is a QUINN child doing with an American flag”? (Maisie has her father’s last name.) I say, “This is the American flag of free speech, separation of church and state, of the first African-American president, and hopefully, if they don’t fuck it up too badly, health care reform.” (I don’t say anything about foreign policy or immigration “reform,” because that’s still pretty bad news.)
2. Jim and Maisie and I are in the Tang Dynasty funerary sculpture room at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Maisie’s favorite section: big ceramic camels, guardian monsters, horses. Out the window are the tops of the museum’s empress trees, their pale purple trumpet flowers waving in the wind, so I pick Maisie up to see. She points beyond them, says: “Look, there’s an AMEWICAN fwag!” The guard sitting by the window nods approvingly, points at her lapel, says to Maisie, “here’s another one”: a little metal American-flag-plus-yellow-troop-loop. Probably she has a son or daughter in the armed services. It’s not clear why this would make her purse her lips in a disapproving way when Jim says “that’s right, Maisie, it’s Obama’s flag!”
Here’s Komunyakaa’s “Facing It”:
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.
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.
And here’s a video of Komunyakaa reading his poem: