Remembrance Day: reflections upon the Vietnam War: Yusef Komunyakaa


Editor’s note:

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sent  soldiers in the early 1960s but American troupes did not become involved in combat until 1965 and by 1973 had withdrawn.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”.


.     .     .


Yusef Komunyakaa

(U.S. Vietnam War Veteram, born James William Brown, 1947, Bogalusa, Louisiana)

“Roll Call”


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

propped upright

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



.     .     .


“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.


.     .     .


“Ode to the Maggot”


Brother of the blowfly

And godhead, you work magic

Over battlefields,

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