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Poetry as Gold. . .

Welcome to the Savvy Verse & Wit blog tour for National Poetry Month in the United States, but here on the blog, I consider it more of an international celebration.

If you have signed up to celebrate poetry this month, there are still some dates open, just check the schedule and let me know what date you’d prefer.

This past week I was reading Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier, translated by Barbara Harshav, and I came across a commentary about recreating the Portuguese language to make it clearer and truer to its origins: “The waiter, the barber, the conductor — they would be puzzled if they heard the newly set words and their amazement would refer to the beauty of the sentence, a beauty that would be nothing by the gleam of their clarity. … At the same time, they would be without exaggeration and without pomposity, precise and so laconic that you couldn’t take away one single word, one single comma. Thus they would be like a poem, plaited by a goldsmith of words.” (page 26) This passage reminded me of how poets — and fiction writers — often seek out ways through language to make images, characters, situations, emotions, and more clear to the reader — drawing connections between images that may, at first, seem to have nothing to do with one another, but through a juxtaposition or other means provide the reader with some insight or generate within him or her a deeper understanding or emotional response.

As I’m sure many of my faithful readers know, I read and write poetry, but they probably also know that I love Yusef Komunyakaa‘s work in particular.  “Facing It” is one of my all time favorites, and I think part of it is because I can picture exactly what he’s seeing as the Vietnam veteran in the poem describes his first experience with the Vietnam War Memorial.

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.

In particular, I love the parts of the poem where he describes reflections in unique ways, especially when the reflection eyes him like a bird of prey and the names that “shimmer on a woman’s blouse” but remain on the wall as she walks away. In addition, the poem reflects on the practice of rubbing the names onto paper from the wall as a form of care and caress — “she’s brushing a boy’s hair.”

Sorrow 2 -- Vietnam Wall

In many ways, poetry not only tells stories, but creates them with their readers and generates an emotional response that can be carried over to friends, families, or even book clubs. These are the types of poems that I consider “gold.”

What makes a great poem for you?

Dien Cai Dau by Yusef Komunyakaa

Yusef Komunyakaa‘s Dien Cai Dau is another collection of Vietnam War poetry.  The poet, who received the Bronze Star and edited The Southern Cross, dedicates this book to his brother Glenn, “who saw The Nam before” Komunyakaa did.  His poems put the reader in the soldiers’ shoes, allowing them to camouflage themselves and skulk around the jungles of Vietnam from the very first lines of “Camouflaging the Chimera.”  Beyond skulking in the jungle, hunting the Viet Cong, Komunyakaa discusses the weight of war as soldiers trudge through the landscape with their equipment and what they’ve done and seen.  Weaving through the tunnels looking for the enemy or searching the thick forest, soldiers are constantly reminded of their emotional and physical burdens, though they find joy in some of the smallest moments.

One of the beautiful aspects of Komunyakaa’s poetry is his vivid sense of how even the most beautiful elements of nature have a darker side.  In “Somewhere Near Phu Bai,” Komunyakaa writes “The moon cuts through/the night trees like a circular saw/white hot.  . . .” and in “Starlight Scope Myopia,” he suggests, “Viet Cong/move under our eyelids,/lords over loneliness/winding like coral vine through/sandalwood & lotus/.”

Beyond the nature imagery and the immediacy of the war, some of these poems have an analytical quality much like a general planning out the battle moves.  Each move of the soldiers is reflected in the carefully chosen words and lines, and the effect is genuine, creating a suspense and fear readers would expect soldiers to experience.

A Greenness Taller Than Gods (Page 11)

When we stop,
a green snake starts again
through deep branches.
Spiders mend webs we marched into.
Monkeys jabber in flame trees,
dancing on the limbs to make
fire-colored petals fall.  Torch birds
burn through the dark-green day.
The lieutenant puts on sunglasses
& points to a X circled
on his map.  When will we learn
to move like trees move?
The point man raises his hand Wait!
We’ve just crossed paths with VC,
branches left quivering.
The lieutenant’s right hand says what to do.
We walk into a clearing that blinds.
We move like a platoon of silhouettes
balancing sledge hammers on our heads,
unaware our shadows have untied
from us, wandered off
& gotten lost.

Dien Cai Dau by Yusef Komunyakaa is an excellent collection that will allow readers to join the fight in Vietnam, feel the fear and anxiety of soldiers, and see just how many enemies soldiers faced — the Viet Cong and the jungle.  Komunyakaa is a poet with incredible insight from propelling emotions off the page through images to using carefully chosen words and phrases to vividly paint the scene.  Dien Cai Dau is one of the best poetry books about the Vietnam War and often reads like prose.

This is my 6th book for the 2010 Vietnam War Reading Challenge

This is my 8th book for the Clover Bee & Reverie Poetry Challenge.