What eventually came to be known as The Vietnam War began in 1955 and ended twenty years later when Saigon “fell” to Communist North Vietnam and became known as Ho Chi Minh City. (In 2012 Vietnam is a unified Socialist-oriented free-market economy.) Vietnam was a a Cold-War era ‘hot button’ zone for the USSR and the USA. The U.S. sent soldiers in the early 1960s but American troupes did not become involved in combat until 1965 and by 1973 had withdrawn. Three million Vietnamese (from both sides) died, a million and a half Laotians and Cambodians, and close to 60,000 U.S. soldiers. It was not a war that could be “won”.
. . .
(U.S. Vietnam War Veteram, born James William Brown, 1947, Bogalusa, Louisiana)
Through rifle sights
We must’ve looked like crows
perched on a fire-eaten branch,
lined up for reveille, ready
to roll-call each M-16
between a pair of jungle boots,
a helmet on its barrel
as if it were a man.
The perfect row aligned
with the chaplain’s cross
while a metallic-gray squadron
of sea gulls circled. Only
a few lovers have blurred
the edges of this picture.
Sometimes I can hear them
marching through the house,
closing the distance. All
the lonely beds take me back
to where we saluted those
five pairs of boots
as the sun rose against our faces.
. . .
“The Dead at Quang Tri”
This is harder than counting stones
along paths going nowhere, the way
a tiger circles and backtracks by
smelling his blood on the ground.
The one kneeling beside the pagoda,
remember him? Captain, we won’t
talk about that. The Buddhist boy
at the gate with the shaven head
we rubbed for luck
glides by like a white moon.
He won’t stay dead, dammit !
Blades aim for the family jewels;
the grass we walk on
won’t stay down.
. . .
“Tu Do Street”
Music divides the evening.
I close my eyes and can see
men drawing lines in the dust.
America pushes through the membrane
of mist and smoke, and I’m a small boy
again in Bogalusa. White Only
signs and Hank Snow. But tonight
I walk into a place where bar girls
fade like tropical birds. When
I order a beer, the mama-san
behind the counter acts as if she
can’t understand, while her eyes
skirt each white face, as Hank Williams
calls from the psychedelic jukebox.
We have played Judas where
only machine-gun fire brings us
together. Down the street
black GIs hold to their turf also.
An off-limits sign pulls me
deeper into alleys, as I look
for a softness behind these voices
wounded by their beauty and war.
Back in the bush at Dak To
and Khe Sanh, we fought
the brothers of these women
we now run to hold in our arms.
There’s more than a nation
inside us, as black and white
soldiers touch the same lovers
minutes apart, tasting
each other’s breath,
without knowing these rooms
run into each other like tunnels
leading to the underworld.
. . .
“A Reed Boat”
The boat’s tarred and shellacked to a water-repellent finish, just sway-
dancing with the current’s ebb, light as a woman in love. It pushes off
again, cutting through lotus blossoms, sediment, guilt, unforgivable dark-
ness. Anything with half a root or heart could grow in this lagoon.
There’s a pull against what’s hidden from day, all that hurts. At dawn the
gatherer’s shadow backstrokes across water, an instrument tuned for gods
and monsters in the murky kingdom below. Blossoms lean into his fast
hands, as if snapping themselves in half, giving in to some law.
Slow, rhetorical light cuts between night and day, like nude bathers em-
bracing. The boat nudges deeper, with the ease of silverfish. I know by his
fluid movements, there isn’t the shadow of a bomber on the water any-
more, gliding like a dream of death. Mystery grows out of the decay of
dead things – each blossom a kiss from the unknown.
When I stand on the steps of Hanoi’s West Lake Guest House, feeling that
I am watched as I gaze at the boatman, it’s hard to act like we’re the only
two left in the world. He balances on his boat of Ra, turning left and right,
reaching through and beyond, as if the day is a woman he can pull into his
. . .
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.
. . .
“Ode to the Maggot”
Brother of the blowfly
And godhead, you work magic
In slabs of bad pork
And flophouses. Yes, you
Go to the root of all things.
You are sound and mathematical.
Jesus, Christ, you’re merciless
With the truth. Ontological and lustrous,
You cast spells on beggars and kings
Behind the stone door of Caesar’s tomb
Or split trench in a field of ragweed.
No decree or creed can outlaw you
As you take every living thing apart. Little
Master of earth, no one gets to heaven
Without going through you first.
. . . . .
All poems (except “Reed Boat” and “Ode to the Maggot”) are from the poet’s 1988 collection, Dien Cai Dau.
© Yusef Komunyakaa