An Excerpt from my Master’s Thesis, “‘A Hundred Red Birds’: Aesthetics of War in the Poetry of Yusef Komunyakaa”

What makes Komunyakaa’s war poems (and the collection Dien Cai Dau in particular) so compelling is its insistence on–or rather its obsession with–the constant merging of dualities like these. It is seen over and over again in the tone, style, imagery, color scheme, gender politics, action, themes, and words of the poems. It is found in nearly every manifestation possible in poetry because, like the long list of unsatisfactory metaphors used to describe a girl burning in “You and I Are Disappearing,” there is no satisfactory, definitive, and conclusive moment for Komunyakaa wherein he finds the ultimate unity and sublime synthesis he desperately hunts. It is the impossibility of this synthesis that, in my opinion, drives Komunyakaa to continue writing about war, just as it drives history onward in Hegel’s theory.

Of the many various manifestations of merging dualities in Komunyakaa’s war poems, foremost is the blending of the horror of violence and pacific beauty. In his essay “Violence and Selfhood,” James Mensch posits the notion that violence “wipes the slate clean,” thereby clearing open “a space where the new can appear” (30). Drawing on the Czech philosopher Jan Patocka, Mensch pushes the idea that “[violence] makes us realize that sense-making is up to us, that it depends on our free choice how to disclose both the world and ourselves through our projects” (qtd. in Mensch 32). At the same time that violence creates a space of horror and senselessness, it also acts as an eraser for the psychic and emotional state of being in those within that space, which in turn allows–or perhaps demands–the act of creation to make sense of what has happened. From this perspective, it becomes clear how Komunyakaa used poetry to shape the experiences he had while serving as a soldier in Vietnam.

In fact, many veterans wrote of their experiences while in the war, and found its therapeutic value. In his highly revealing essay, “Childhood’s End: Self Recovery in the Autobiography of the Vietnam War,” Jeff Loeb explains the central motive for veterans of the war who write about their experiences to be an attempt to recover a sense of self. Loeb cites the critic Kali Tal, who saw a pattern of Vietnam survival literature to be similar to other trauma literature, “such as the memoirs of the Holocaust or victims of rape or incest…” (qtd. in Loeb 96) In this sense Komunyakaa’s poems are nothing like the confessional poets than poems like “Nude Interrogation” may at first appear. In addition to baring his innermost secrets, those dark hallways of depression and mental disorder that gave others such rich creative reservoirs to draw from (what Edward Hirsch calls “the fever of confession,”) Komunyakaa’s poetry is an attempt at healing from very deep wounds (122).

Tal’s pattern of “trauma literature” involves the following process: “first, separation from society, followed by a state of liminality, during which the traumatic experience of the war itself and the surviving of it take place, and finally ending back home, in ‘The World’” (qtd. in Loeb 96-97). For Komunyakaa and other soldiers, however, the world had changed dramatically while they were away, and they had changed dramatically also. The real tragedy, then, was that the heroic “return” they expected was impossible. In his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell notes the pattern in historical mythology of all heroic stories as being journeys. The final part of these journeys is the return: “When the hero-quest has been accomplished…the adventurer still must return with his life-transmuting trophy. The hero has something to bring back home which will impact his village in a profoundly positive way, a ‘renewing of the community’” (255).

Age-old stories of heroes going away to battle dark forces, internally and externally, had always ended in a triumphant return home. Odysseus returns to Ithaca, reunites with his son Telemachus, and slays the suitors competing for his wife. Even the Biblical story of the Prodigal Son offers redemption. The prodigal son comes home empty-handed, yet is embraced by his father and a celebration takes place in his honor. He has nothing to offer for his time away: no boon, no golden fleece. Granted, the story marks a change in this type of myth, and illustrates the power of forgiveness. The son wastes his money on food and prostitutes, yet receives the treatment of a hero. Would it be the same if he had murdered innocent women and children?

What return did the soldiers who fought in Vietnam experience? Many of the soldiers sent off to Vietnam were teenagers or, as in Komunyakaa’s case, in their early 20s. Rather than experience the transition to adulthood within the familiar environment they were used to, that transition happened violently and too quickly. Therefore, the return the soldiers sought was to their former selves, a self that had never experienced the horrors of war, an innocent self–which, of course, was impossible. As Tal concludes, “This post-liminal reintegration, however, is never complete…which is to say, the self-alienation continues, often manifesting itself in compartmentalizing experience or denying portions of memory” (qtd. in Loeb 97). How did this self-alienation manifest itself in Komunyakaa’s psyche and, ultimately, in his poetry? The healing he sought took on multiple levels: a wounded boy searching for his adult self, a soldier searching for his humanity, a man searching for the comfort of a woman, a black man searching for his place among white men. This inner division produced a self and an other that created a poetry which continually built a bridge or a ladder connecting two principles running along the same axis.

For Komunyakaa, the creative shaping did not happen immediately. In fact, it would be 16 long years before he set pen to paper about his experiences in the war. He recounts the summer that it happened in detail, in 1984, nearly 15 years after his service in Vietnam:

Those old houses have twelve- and fourteen-foot ceilings. The humid New Orleans summer had begun edging in, and I wanted to get the hard, high work finished first, where the stifling heat collected. I put a pad of paper and pen on a table in the next room. This had a purpose. The images were coming so fast that, whenever I made a trek down the ladder, each line had to be worth its weight in sweat. That spring and summer I must’ve discarded thousands of images, ones that just a few months earlier I would’ve given up a thumb for. I learned that the body and the mind are indeed connected: good writing is physical and mental. (qtd. in Clytus 14-15)

This account of how Komunyakaa formulated the first drafts of the poems that ultimately became the collection Dien Cai Dau is truly fascinating for several reasons. First, it shows us that images from the war buried deep in his memory suddenly exploded into words a decade and a half later. It also shows us that Komunyakaa recognized the action of painting, going up and down a ladder, and writing poetry as connected, namely that the body and mind were simultaneously engaged in a synergistic creative endeavor. The hot and humid New Orleans setting was also crucial, being reminiscent of Vietnam.

It becomes quite evident, then, that Komunyakaa’s war poems reflect a modality similar to that rhythm and conceptual dynamic by which they were formed. In other words, the connecting of the body and mind, of painting and writing, of going up and going down (polarities) become the central poetic device for the poems themselves. It is also important to note that Komunyakaa himself, as poet, was working on a ladder during this process, a thing that is used to connect two non-adjacent spaces, but which exist on the same axis. It is interesting, too, that he used a ladder because of the vertical direction it suggests.

Robert Bly discusses the idea of the political poem as being a vertical psychological and creative movement in his essay, “Leaping Up Into the Unknown:”

In order to write a true political poem, [the poet] has to be able to have such a grasp of his own concerns that he can leave them for a while, and then leap up into this other psyche. He wanders about there for a while, and as he returns he brings back plantseeds that have stuck to his clothes, some inhabitants of this curious sphere, which he then tries to keep alive with his own psychic body. (133)

The poet’s “own concerns” that Bly refers to here are what he would call the poet’s “inwardness” (133). For Bly, the political poem is not about opinions, a conjecture of external circumstances as seen in the newspapers, but rather a deep internal meditation from a small pocket in the poet’s consciousness which reflects where he or she is within the political climate of that time. Quite unexpectedly then, “the political poem comes out of the deepest privacy” (132). This privacy and the leaping up that Bly speaks of are both tremendously apt when looking at Komunyakaa’s work.

The privacy Komunyakaa explores and exposes is central to his war poems. From a political objective, his poetry is not unlike Allen Ginsberg, who addresses America directly in a headstrong and sardonic tone: “America when will you be angelic? / When will you take off your clothes? / When will you look at yourself through the grave?” (39). Ginsberg also undresses himself, just as Komunyakaa does in “Nude Interrogation.” Yet Komunyakaa is also witness, murderer, and survivor. Komunyakaa’s angel undresses seductively so that he may, too, and rid himself of the poison that is his crime. It is this kind of privacy that, once exposed, becomes powerfully political. He does not ask America to undress; he seduces himself to undress and become naked before America. Both poems give full expression to Bly’s declaration that “a true political poem is a quarrel with ourselves” (132).

The leap up into another psyche that Bly poses as formative of true political poetry suggests a vertical motion, which recalls Komunyakaa on his ladder, painting at the top and descending with “plantseeds that have stuck to his clothes” in the form of words, phrases, images that would become Dien Cai Dau (133). The vertical movement itself appears in the poems, both upward and downward.

Here is the poem “Tunnels,” which opens, “Crawling down headfirst into the hole, / he kicks the air and disappears” (192). It was the downward movement, Komunyakaa stated, that precipitated his writing, at the bottom of the ladder. So, too, our soldier disappears into the unknown void of honest and painful writing. Writing of this sort requires an abandonment, a trust in one’s instinct, but mostly an act of courage. Komunyakaa recognizes this and detaches from the poet-voice within, the poet-soul whose job is to give voice to those things that are obscured by fear. It continues, “I feel like I’m down there / with him, moving ahead, pushed / by a river of darkness, feeling / blessed for each inch of the unknown.” This “river of darkness” is both an echo to Langston Hughes and a recognition that the poet’s own skin color reflects the nature of establishing his poetic voice. Komunyakaa correctly recognizes the energy that exists in this uncomfortable but rich space, with its “damp smell,” “mysteries & diversions,” as well as its “web of booby traps” and “lice, shit, maggots, & vapor of pestilence” (192-193).

The poet, then, must venture down through all of this, into the darkness, which for Komunyakaa holds a deeper significance because the darkness means he’s venturing into his own racial insecurity. There is a force in this tunnel that compels him to move forward, the same force that compelled him to moved down the ladder and release the torrent of images building in his mind for 16 years. The soldier in the poem is “pulled by something greater than life’s ambitions.” And a few lines later he is “forced onward by some need, / some urge.” Komunyakaa successfully dramatizes the quest for the poetic voice (192).

Here is Bly again: “The poet’s main job is to penetrate that husk around the American psyche, and since that psyche is inside him too, the writing of political poetry is like the writing of personal poetry, a sudden drive by the poet inward” (135). It is the same process as what John Ashbery referred to as “lowering a bucket down into a kind of underground stream flowing through his mind” (Macfarquhar 86). Granted, Ashbery’s experience is without the desperation of Komunyakaa’s, but not without its seriousness. The two poets, though radically different, both harness the downward movement into themselves in order to access the poetic. For Komunyakaa, it is not unlike Dante’s downward movement through the circles of Hell.

At the end of “Tunnels” the soldier is brought to full submission “on hands & knees, tunneling past / death” yet “loving the weight of the shotgun / that will someday dig his grave.” I find these last two lines to be problematic. First, a “tunnel rat” (as they were called in Vietnam) was equipped with a pistol, not a shotgun. Pistols were much more efficient in the confined space of a tunnel. Second, if the gun itself is symbolic of the poet’s pen, why does Komunyakaa believe it will someday “dig his grave”? I have come to believe that his poetry is an attempt to rescue himself from his own wounds, and this reading does not agree with my theory. There is a narrative arc to the positioning of the poems in Dien Cai Dau, with “Digging” the second poem, and “Facing It” last. With “Digging” Komunyakaa might be fully engaging in a proleptic fashion the fear of his soldier-poet, who, by voluntarily descending into this tunnel, becomes aware that the shotgun, designed to protect him, may actually be the thing that kills him. The poet fears that the writing itself will kill him, yet he still loves the weight of his weapon, the pen (192-193).


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