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.
From Dien Cai Dau by Yusef Komunyakaa. Copyright © 1988 by Yusef Komunyakaa. Reprinted by permission of Wesleyan University Press. All rights reserved.
Was he looking for St. Lucia’s light to touch his face those first days in the official November snow & sleet falling on the granite pose of Lincoln? If he were searching for property lines drawn in the blood, or for a hint of resolve crisscrossing a border, maybe he’d find clues in the taste of breadfruit. I could see him stopped there squinting in crooked light, the haze of Wall Street touching clouds of double consciousness, an eye etched into a sign borrowed from Egypt. If he’s looking for tips on basketball, how to rise up & guard the hoop, he may glean a few theories about war but they aren’t in The Star-Apple Kingdom. If he wants to finally master himself, searching for clues to govern seagulls in salty air, he’ll find henchmen busy with locks & chains in a ghost schooner's nocturnal calm. He’s reading someone who won’t speak of milk & honey, but of looking ahead beyond pillars of salt raised in a dream where fat bulbs split open the earth. The spine of the manifest was broken, leaking deeds, songs & testaments. Justice stood in the shoes of mercy, & doubt was bandaged up & put to bed. Now, he looks as if he wants to eat words, their sweet, intoxicating flavor. Banana leaf & animal, being & nonbeing. In fact, craving wisdom, he bites into memory. The President of the United States of America thumbs the pages slowly, moving from reverie to reverie, learning why one envies the octopus for its ink, how a man’s skin becomes the final page.
Copyright © 2011 by Yusef Komunyakaa. Used with permission of the author.
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.
Copyright © 1988 by Yusef Komunyakaa. From Dien Cai Dau (Wesleyan University Press, 1988). Reprinted from Split This Rock’s The Quarry: A Social Justice Poetry Database.
Maybe it was hog-killing time
when he arrived in Lynchburg,
Virginia, several lifetimes behind him,
the old smell of the monkey house
at the New York Zoological Gardens
receding, a broken memory left.
Not sure of the paths & turns
taken, woozy in a swarm of hues,
he stood in Anne Spencer’s garden
surrounding the clapboard house,
but when she spoke he came back
to himself. The poet had juba
in her voice, & never called him
Artiba, Bengal, Autobank, or
Otto Bingo. Her beds of tiger
lilies, sweet peas, & snapdragons
disarmed him. Her fine drawl
summoned rivers, trees, & boats,
in a distant land, & he could hear
a drum underneath these voices
near the forest. He never spoke
of the St. Louis World’s Fair
or the Bronx Zoo. The boys
crowded around him for stories
about the Congo, & he told them
about hunting “big, big” elephants,
& then showed them the secret
of stealing honey from the bees
with bare hands, how to spear fish
& snare the brown mourning dove.
One night he sat in the hayloft,
singing, “I believe I’ll go home.
Lordy, won’t you help me?”
A hoot owl called to the moon
hemmed in a blackberry thicket,
& he bowed to the shine of the gun.
Copyright © 2016 by Yusef Komunyakaa. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on April 8, 2016, by the Academy of American Poets.
In the days when a man would hold a swarm of words inside his belly, nestled against his spleen, singing. In the days of night riders when life tongued a reed till blues & sorrow song called out of the deep night: Another man done gone. Another man done gone. In the days when one could lose oneself all up inside love that way, & then moan on the bone till the gods cried out in someone's sleep. Today, already I've seen three dark-skinned men discussing the weather with demons & angels, gazing up at the clouds & squinting down into iron grates along the fast streets of luminous encounters. I double-check my reflection in plate glass & wonder, Am I passing another Lucky Thompson or Marion Brown cornered by a blue dementia, another dark-skinned man who woke up dreaming one morning & then walked out of himself dreaming? Did this one dare to step on a crack in the sidewalk, to turn a midnight corner & never come back whole, or did he try to stare down a look that shoved a blade into his heart? I mean, I also know something about night riders & catgut. Yeah, honey, I know something about talking with ghosts.
Copyright © 2011 by Yusef Komunyakaa. Reprinted from The Chameleon Couch with the permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.