Curtis Fox: This is Poetry Off The Shelf from The Poetry Foundation, April 10th 2008. I’m Curtis Fox. This week, Yusef Komunyakaa faces it. A few weeks ago, the military announced the 4,000 Americans had been killed in Iraq. The war drags on, no end in sight, and what’s happening over there is very much in the mind of Yusef Komunyakaa. In a print interview now up on our website, poetryfoundation.org, Komunyakaa says he’s working on a new book of poems, some triggered by the Iraq war. Komunyakka knows a thing or two about war. He served from 1969-1970, and that experiences surfaces again and again in his poetry for which he won a Pulitzer in 1994. One of his best known poems is about the Vietnam Veternas memorial in DC. If you’ve ever been there to see it, you know that even if you’re looking for it, the memorial is unexpected. It’s at the end of the mall, almost at the bank, and when you approach the earth dips down and a huge slice of reflective black granite pushes up to form a V right in front of you. Over 58,000 names are inscribed on it. Komunyakaa says the purpose of all memorials is to provide a place for reflection.
Yusef Komunyakaa: And with the Vietnam monument, it’s an active kind of reflection. The stone catches the light, shatters. It seems to be almost in motion at times.
Curtis Fox: He wrote the poem you’re about to hear after his first visit to the Vietnam Veteran’s memorial. It’s called
Yusef Komunyakaa: 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.
Curtis Fox: Yusef Komunyakaa reading “Facing It” from his book Pleasure Dome: New and Collected Poems published by the Wesleyan University Press. Komunyakaa has written many more direct poems about his experiences in Vietnam; the anguish of battle, the difficulties of being a Black American soldier fighting alongside white men, sexual relations between American servicemen and Vietnamese women. As in “Facing It” short, sinewy lines often give shape to personal anecdotes. He also writes about war more metaphorically, more philosophically. For example, his war poem “Lime” isn’t about Vietnam at all, at least on the surface. It’s about a Roman army occupying a defeated Greek city and culturally consuming it, Romanizing it. They break the statues, they combine the crushed marble from the statues with lime to make concrete. What they use the concrete for you’ll find out in the poem. Here’s Yusef Komunyakaa reading “Lime”.
Yusef Komunyakaa: The victorious army marches into the city,
& not far behind tarries a throng of women
Who slept with the enemy on the edge
Of battlements. The stunned morning
Opens into a dust cloud of hooves
& drums. Some new priests cradle
Stone tablets, & others are poised
With raised mallets in a forest of defeated
Statuary. Of course, behind them
Linger the turncoats & pious
Merchants of lime. What’s Greek
Is forged into Roman; what’s Roman
Is hammered into a ceremony of birds
Headed east. Whatever is marble
Burns in the lime kilns because
Someone dreams of a domed bathhouse.
Curtis Fox: That was Yusef Komunyakaa reading “Lime” from his book Talking Dirty to the Gods published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. It’s time for one more Yusef Komunyakaa poem, read by an actor this time. This poem is not about war, it’s about it’s polar opposite. It’s called “Kindness”, and in this poem the quality of kindness is personified as a kind of domestic goddess. The reader is Michael Stuhlbarg.
Michael Stuhlbarg: When deeds splay before us
precious as gold & unused chances
stripped from the whine-bone,
we know the moment kindheartedness
walks in. Each praise be
echoes us back as the years uncount
themselves, eating salt. Though blood
first shaped us on the climbing wheel,
the human mind lit by the savanna’s
ice star & thistle rose,
your knowing gaze enters a room
& opens the day,
saying we were made for fun.
Even the bedazzled brute knows
when sunlight falls through leaves
across honed knives on the table.
If we can see it push shadows
aside, growing closer, are we less
broken? A barometer, temperature
gauge, a ruler in minus fractions
& pedigrees, a thingmajig,
a probe with an all-seeing eye,
what do we need to measure
kindness, every unheld breath,
every unkind leapyear?
Sometimes a sober voice is enough
to calm the waters & drive away
the false witnesses, saying, Look,
here are the broken treaties Beauty
brought to us earthbound sentinels.
Curtis Fox: That was Michael Stuhlbarg reading “Kindness” by Yusef Komunyakaa which was published in 2003 in Poetry Magazine. We actually recorded Yusef Komunyakaa himself reading that poem, but I played Michael Stuhlbarg’s reading for a reason. We’re planning to do a program called Actors vs Poets, and we want to know what you think. Would you always want hear the poet him or herself read, or do you think poets aren’t alway the best readers of their own work, and actors can often do it better? Email us at [email protected], and maybe we’ll call you for a quick interview. Don’t forget to check out the print interview with Yusef Komunyakaa on our website poetryfoundation.org. It’s called “Every Tool is a Weapon”. Also while you’re there, check out some of the new poetry videos on the site. The music used in this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. For Poetry Off The Shelf, I’m Curtis Fox. Thanks for listening.