Audio

Poems of Peace and War: Yusef Komunyakaa

January 10, 2007

Yusef Komunyakaa: I want to say that it took me 14 years to write about my experiences in Vietnam.

 

Camouflaging the Chimera

 

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 bamboo & leaned

against a breeze off the river,

slow-dragging 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.

 

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 title of this poem is “Thanks”.

 

Thanks for the tree

between me & a sniper’s bullet.

I don’t know what made the grass

sway seconds before the Viet Cong

raised his soundless rifle.

Some voice always followed,

telling me which foot

to put down first.

Thanks for deflecting the ricochet

against that anarchy of dusk.

I was back in San Francisco

wrapped up in a woman’s wild colors,

causing some dark bird’s love call

to be shattered by daylight

when my hands reached up

& pulled a branch away

from my face. Thanks

for the vague white flower

that pointed to the gleaming metal

reflecting how it is to be broken

like mist over the grass,

as we played some deadly

game for blind gods.

What made me spot the monarch

writhing on a single thread

tied to a farmer’s gate,

holding the day together

like an unfingered guitar string,

is beyond me. Maybe the hills

grew weary & leaned a little in the heat.

Again, thanks for the dud

hand grenade tossed at my feet

outside Chu Lai. I’m still

falling through its silence.

I don’t know why the intrepid

sun touched the bayonet,

but I know that something

stood among those lost trees

& moved only when I moved.

 

I’m going to read just a couple of short sections, a few sections, of a long poem in progress entitled “Love In The Time Of War”. New poem.

 

 

The jawbone of an ass. A shank

braided with shark teeth. A garrote.

A shepherd’s sling. A jagged stone

that catches light & makes warriors

dance ota bull-roarer’s lamentation.

An obsidian ax. A lion-skin drum

& reed flute. A nightlong prayer

to gods stopped at the mouth of a cave.

 

The warrior-king summons one goddess

after another to his bloodstained pallet.

If these dear ones live inside his head

they still dress his wounds with balms

& sacred leaves. & kiss him

back to strength. back to boy.

 

Here, the old masters of Shock & Awe

huddle in the war room, talking iron,

fire & sand, alloy & nomenclature.

Their hearts lag against the bowstring

as they daydream of Odysseus’s bed.

But to shoot an arrow through the bull’s-eye

of twelve axes lined up in a row

is to sleep with one’s eyes open. Yes,

 

of course, there stands lovely Penelope

like a trophy, still holding the brass key

against her breast. How did the evening star

fall into that room? Lost between plot

& loot, the plucked string turns into a lyre

humming praises & curses to the unborn.

 

Just two last poems.

 

[text unavailable]

 

The very last poem is the second poem I wrote in the Vietnam sequence. “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.

 

(APPLAUSE)

 

Yusef Komunyakaa at the Poems of Peace and War panel. Part of the Chicago Humanities Festival, 2006.

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