Poems of Peace and War: Yusef Komunyakaa
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
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
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.
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.