Yusef Komunyakaa: War and Peace
Poet Yusef Komunyakaa survived the Jim Crow South and later the Vietnam War. Over the years, he’s kept his faith in the future.
Yusef Komunyakaa is an esteemed poet whose work uses vernacular speech and syncopated rhythms to explore his life in the American South, his time as a soldier in Vietnam, and the larger African American experience.
Born James William Brown in Louisiana in 1947, he was drafted into the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, serving one tour of duty as a writer for the military paper Southern Cross. Upon discharge, he studied at the University of Colorado, Colorado State University, and the University of California, Irvine. In 1977, he published Dedications and Other Darkhorses, his first of sixteen poetry collections. He was awarded the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for the anthology Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems. His other honors include the 2011 Wallace Stevens Award, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, and a Hanes Poetry Prize.
He has also written a collection of essays, a dramatic adaptation of The Epic of Gilgamesh (2006), and the libretto for the opera Slip Knot (2003). He teaches creative writing at New York University.
Yusef Komunyakaa was just a little boy when his great uncle Jesse told him about his experiences fighting in World War I. Uncle Jesse held his young nephew’s hand as he shared his stories, but didn’t hold back the truth about the brutality of what he had experienced.
Yusef Komunyakaa: He was very descriptive about war, because he had internalized it. If you could go there, any war, I suppose, with a sense of history, and tangled up in all kinds of internal confusion, and automatically you want to question why you’re there.
Little could the two of them imagine, that uncle Jesse’s stories were preparing Yusef to later become a chronicler of one of America’s most devastating wars. And so, after what he had learned about real life combat, young Yusef wasn’t keen to play dead in games of war. He preferred to imagine far away places, like those his uncles had seen while they were abroad. He remembers their photos being displayed with pride in his family’s living room.
Komunyakaa: You know, one grows up with a certain kind of indoctrination, and it’s hard to push against that, but also it was a different time. It was almost religious in a certain sense, when you think about it.
Yet the rest of Yusef’s family rarely spoke about the wars their men had fought in. Life centered around work and worship. So while his father labored and his grandmothers prayed, Yusef sought books that showed him a world beyond the limits of his home in Bogalusa, Louisiana. But finding something to read wasn’t easy. Komunyakaa was born in 1947, the dusk of the Jim Crow era, the dawn of the civil rights movement, his local library didn’t allow African Americans to check out books. So his mother saved up for a collection of encyclopedias for her book-hungry son. When he wasn’t reading, he spent hours alone in the woods, learning the names of the flowers, animals, and trees that kept him company during the day. When he returned home at night, he imagined where he had been as the outskirts of lush new worlds.
Komunyakaa: We don’t have to physically travel always. Emotionally, psychologically.
As a boy Yusef Komunyakaa felt safest when he was able to retreat into nature outside of his segregated town, with its open presence of the Ku Klux Klan. But as he got older, he wanted to better understand the world around him. He first turned to the Bible for answers, but it never seemed to explain the existence of racial injustice, or how to deal with it. But when he encountered James Baldwin’s essay collection Nobody Knows My Name, Komunyakaa did find some of the answers he had been searching for. The collection describes the author’s reasons for leaving America in the 1940s. Like Komunyakaa, Baldwin feared that his life would be ended by racial violence, though in the late 1950s, Baldwin would return home to be part of the fight for civil rights. Komunyakaa read and re-read Baldwin’s stories dozens of times.
Komunyakaa: I was actually practicing to become James Baldwin.
When Komunyakaa graduated from high school, he traveled to Phoenix, then Puerto Rico, but he knew that the military was his real ticket to see the world. So he enlisted in the army, and shortly after training was sent overseas.
Komunyakaa: I started reading about Vietnam before I got there, because I wanted to know where I was going. I didn’t want to be totally surprised. I wanted to know something about the people, just the land itself and the rituals there, the culture, and the fact that they had been fighting a war forever, it seemed.
Komunyakaa was surprised to feel at home in Chu Lai. The terrain was similar to what he’d grown up with in Louisiana. And he related to the people, country folk like him.
Komunyakaa: If I had been born in the city, it would have been entirely different. I identified with the landscape to an extent, and I can imagine myself in that landscape at a different time, and I could negotiate it.
But despite his ease in the Vietnamese countryside, Komunyakaa knew that as an enemy soldier, he would still need to protect himself. Among the survival skills that helped him in the heat of combat was his imagination.
Komunyakaa: When one’s feet hit the ground, it’s a different realm. You realize that yeah, this could be the place where this is your Waterloo and such, you know. Without, you know, really thinking about it everyday, because I think that impedes one’s own imagination and just humanity and such. Because it is imagination as well, that keeps you alive.
Yet the war wasn’t the only conflict that Komunyakaa needed to navigate in Vietnam. Though the US military was officially integrated, when troops were off duty, segregation was still the norm. And as Komunyakaa sought to survive the war, he couldn’t understand why other black soldiers would sacrifice themselves for a country that was denying them their rights.
Komunyakaa: I have a poem called “Grenade”, and it’s about 14 or 15 African Americans, young men who threw themselves on grenades to save members of the platoon or squad, or what have you. And I’m still trying to make some sense out of that. How can one be tutored to have that thoughtless quick reaction? Because that’s what it is. You can’t think about it. If a grenade fell here, you know, who would dive on it, right? I think it is unrehearsed. There’s no questioning in there, for sure. I couldn’t have done that, who would want to?
Yusef Komunyakaa wasn’t prepared to imagine willingly dying in Vietnam, especially as he came to realize that he didn’t support the war. He considered going AWOL, but the more he saw in the midst of battle, the more he felt he needed to stay. And so he did, as a combat reporter for the military newspaper The Southern Cross. Still under the influence of Baldwin, Komunyakaa felt duty to bear witness to the war and to record what he saw.
(Excerpt from Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Grenade”)
Do you remember the man left in the jungle? The others who owe their lives to this phantom, do they feel like you? Would his loved ones remember him if that little park or statue erected in his name didn’t exist, & does it enlarge their lives? You wish he’d lie down in that closed coffin, & not wander the streets or enter your bedroom at midnight. The woman you love, she’ll never understand. Who would? You remember what he used to say: “If you give a kite too much string, it’ll break free.” That unselfish certainty. But you can’t remember when you began to live his unspoken dreams.
Komunyakaa entered the war wanting to become a writer and went on to win a Bronze Star for his reporting. But when he returned home in 1970, he didn’t want to talk about the war, and avoided writing about it for almost a decade and a half. In 1984, Yusef Komunyakaa published his first book of poetry, Copacetic, a collection of autobiographical poems about his childhood in the rural South. It wasn’t until years later in the midst of renovating his home in New Orleans, that he was finally able to write about Vietnam.
Komunyakaa: I had a pad of paper at the bottom of the ladder, you know, because I was doing this in August as well. So if you’re talking about hot, at this moment? So I just find, I found myself writing a poem, and it just happened. You know, I couldn’t stop writing about what I had internalized, what I had experienced, and such. But I think that’s just natural.
Once he got started, he couldn’t deny that there were more stories to be told, and so he kept writing. These first poems would eventually become part of a collection, 1988’s Dien Cai Dau, the word for “crazy” in Vietnamese. The title was a reference to what Vietnamese civilians called American soldiers. The book became one of the most highly regarded works of American poetry about Vietnam. But for Komunyakaa, the poems weren’t just a recollection of battle. They were a record of what had grounded him as he witnessed what he calls the blood and guts of war. And just as he had done as a young boy, Komunyakaa turned to nature to make sense of what he had experienced.
Komunyakaa: I just immersed myself in nature, and nature taught me a lot.
These experiences would become the acclaimed collection Neon Vernacular, which won Komunyakaa the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1994.
(Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Poetics”)
Beauty, I’ve seen you
pressed hard against the windowpane.
But the ugliness was unsolved
in the heart & mouth.
I’ve seen the quick-draw artist
crouch among the chrysanthemums.
Do I need to say more?
Everything isn’t ha-ha
in this valley. The striptease
on stage at the Blue Movie
is your sweet little Sara Lee.
An argument of eyes
cut through the metaphor,
& I hear someone crying
among crystal trees & confetti.
The sack of bones in the magnolia,
What’s more true than that?
Before you can see
her long pretty legs,
look into her unlit eyes.
A song of B-flat breath
staggers on death row. Real
men, voices that limp
behind the one-way glass wall.
I’ve seen the legless beggar
chopped down to his four wheels.
Like his uncle Jesse decades earlier, Yusef Komunyakaa was finally able to face what he had internalized by sharing his experiences of war. Now in his seventies, he’s continuing to look into the dark places of his past and of human history in his 2021 collection, Everyday Mojo Songs of Earth.
Komunyakaa: You have to be able to go there as a, just as a human being. Some would say desperate place, but I see it as a place of enlightenment as well.
And by acknowledging great destruction alongside great beauty, Yusef Komunyakaa has found a way to survive the most troubling realities of life.
Komunyakaa: I think there’s always hope. That might be more revolutionary than anything else. This is what I believe.
There was a time when Yusef Komunyakaa tried to hide from the world. Poetry helped him to face it. Through hope and despair, he’s maintained his faith in a great narrative’s ability to guide us. And through his stories, he’s achieved the goals of his own heroes, to face the hard truths of our culture, and of ourselves.