About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Camouflaging the Chimera
We tied branches to our helmets.
We painted our faces & rifles with mud from a riverbank,
blades of grass hung from the pockets of our tiger suits. We wove ourselves into the terrain,
content to be a hummingbird's target.
We hugged bamboo & leaned against a breeze off the river,
slow-dragging with ghosts
from Saigon to Bangkok,
with women left in doorways reaching in from America.
We aimed at dark-hearted songbirds.
In our way station of shadows rock apes tried to blow our cover,
throwing stones at the sunset. Chameleons
crawled our spines, changing from day to night: green to gold,
gold to black. But we waited till the moon touched metal,
till something almost broke inside us. VC struggled with the hillside, like black silk
wrestling iron through grass.
We weren't there. The river ran through our bones. Small animals took refuge against our bodies; we held our breath,
ready to spring the L-shaped ambush, as a world revolved under each man's eyelid.
Crawling down headfirst into the hole,
he kicks the air & disappears.
I feel like I'm down there with him, moving ahead, pushed by a river of darkness, feeling blessed for each inch of the unknown.
Our tunnel rat is the smallest man in the platoon, in an echo chamber that makes his ears bleed when he pulls the trigger.
He moves as if trying to outdo blind fish easing toward imagined blue,
pulled by something greater than life's ambitions. He can't think about spiders & scorpions mending the air,
or care about bats upside down like gods in the mole's blackness.
The damp smell goes deeper than the stench of honey buckets.
A web of booby traps waits, ready to spring into broken stars.
Forced onward by some need,
some urge, he knows the pulse of mysteries & diversions like thoughts trapped in the ground.
He questions each root.
Every cornered shadow has a life to bargain with. Like an angel pushed up against what hurts,
his globe-shaped helmet follows the gold ring his flashlight casts into the void. Through silver lice, shit, maggots, & vapor of pestilence,
he goes, the good soldier,
on hands & knees, tunneling past death sacked into a blind corner,
loving the weight of the shotgun that will someday dig his grave.
Somewhere Near Phu Bai
The moon cuts through night trees like a circular saw white hot. In the guard shack I lean on the sandbags,
taking aim at whatever.
Hundreds of blue-steel stars cut a path, fanning out silver for a second. If anyone's there, don't blame me.
I count the shapes ten meters out front, over & over, making sure they're always there.
I don't dare blink an eye.
The white-painted backs of the Claymore mines like quarter-moons.
They say Victor Charlie will paint the other sides & turn the blast toward you.
If I hear a noise will I push the button
& blow myself away?
The moon grazes treetops.
I count the Claymores again.
Thinking about buckshot kneaded in the plastic C-4
of the brain, counting sheep before I know it.
Starlight Scope Myopia
Gray-blue shadows lift shadows onto an oxcart.
Making night work for us,
the starlight scope brings men into killing range.
The river under Vi Bridge takes the heart away
like the Water God riding his dragon.
Viet Cong move under our eyelids,
lords over loneliness winding like coral vine through sandalwood & lotus,
inside our lowered heads years after this scene
ends. The brain closes down. What looks like one step into the trees,
They're lifting crates of ammo
& sacks of rice, swaying
under their shared weight.
Caught in the infrared,
what are they saying?
Are they talking about women or calling the Americans
beaucoup dien cai dau?
One of them is laughing.
You want to place a finger
to his lips & say "shhhh."
You try reading ghost talk
on their lips. They say
'up-up we go," lifting as one.
This one, old, bowlegged,
you feel you could reach out
& take him into your arms. You
peer down the sights of your M-16,
seeing the full moon loaded on an oxcart.
Our eyes on the hill,
we have to get there somehow. Three snipers sing out like hornets.
The red pawn's our last move —
green & yellow squares backdropped with mangrove swamps, something to hold to.
Hand over hand, we follow invisible rope to nowhere,
duck-walking through grass
& nosing across the line of no return. Remnants of two thatch huts tremble to heavy, running feet.
We make it to the hill,
fall down & slide rounds into the mortar tube,
& smithereens of leaf debris cover the snipers. Unscathed,
with arms hooked through each other's like men on some wild midnight-bound carousal,
in our joy, we kick
& smash the pagoda till it's dried blood covering the ground.
A Greenness Taller Than Gods
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 an 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.
The Dead at Quang Tri
This is harder than counting stones along paths going nowhere, the way a tiger circles & 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.
Ray Charles! His voice calls from waist-high grass,
& we duck behind gray sandbags.
"Hello, Soul Brothers. Yeah,
Georgia's also on my mind."
Flares bloom over the trees.
"Here's Hannah again.
Let's see if we can't light her goddamn fuse this time." Artillery shells carve a white arc against dusk. Her voice rises from a hedgerow on our left.
"It's Saturday night in the States.
Guess what your woman's doing tonight.
I think I'll let Tina Turner tell you, you homesick GIs."
Howitzers buck like a herd of horses behind concertina.
"You know you're dead men,
don't you? You're dead as King today in Memphis.
Boys, you're surrounded by General Tran Do's division."
Her knife-edge song cuts deep as a sniper's bullet.
"Soul Brothers, what you dying for?"
We lay down a white-klieg trail of tracers. Phantom jets fan out over the trees.
Artillery fire zeros in.
Her voice grows flesh
& we can see her falling into words, a bleeding flower no one knows the true name for.
"You're lousy shots, GIs."
Her laughter floats up as though the airways are buried under our feet.
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.
Five men pull straws under a tree on a hillside.
Damp smoke & mist halo them as they single out each other,
pretending they're not there.
"We won't be wasting a real man.
That lieutenant's too gung ho.
Think, man, 'bout how Turk got blown away; next time it's you or me. Hell,
the truth is the truth."
Something small as a clinch pin can hold men together,
humming their one-word song. Yes, just a flick of a wrist & the whole night comes apart. "Didn't we warn him?
That bastard." "Remember, Joe,
remember how he pushed Perez?"
The five men breathe like a wave of cicadas, their bowed heads filled with splintered starlight.
They uncoil fast as a fist.
Looking at the ground, four walk north, then disappear. One comes this way, moving through a bad dream. Slipping a finger into the metal ring, he's married to his devil — the spoon-shaped handle flies off. Everything breaks for green cover,
like a hundred red birds released from a wooden box.
"You and I Are Disappearing"
— Björn Håkansson
The cry I bring down from the hills belongs to a girl still burning inside my head. At daybreak
she burns like a piece of paper.
She burns like foxfire in a thigh-shaped valley.
A skirt of flames dances around her at dusk.
We stand with our hands hanging at our sides,
while she burns
like a sack of dry ice.
She burns like oil on water.
She burns like a cattail torch dipped in gasoline.
She glows like the fat tip of a banker's cigar,
silent as quicksilver.
A tiger under a rainbow at nightfall.
She burns like a shot glass of vodka.
She burns like a field of poppies at the edge of a rain forest.
She rises like dragonsmoke
to my nostrils.
She burns like a burning bush driven by a godawful wind.
2527th Birthday of the Buddha
When the motorcade rolled to a halt, Quang Duc climbed out & sat down in the street.
He crossed his legs,
& the other monks & nuns grew around him like petals.
He challenged the morning sun,
debating with the air he leafed through — visions brought down to earth.
Could his eyes burn the devil out of men?
A breath of peppermint oil soothed someone's cry. Beyond terror made flesh —
he burned like a bundle of black joss sticks.
A high wind that started in California fanned flames, turned each blue page,
leaving only his heart intact.
Waves of saffron robes bowed to the gasoline can.
Re-creating the Scene
The metal door groans
& folds shut like an ancient turtle that won't let go of a finger till it thunders.
The Confederate flag flaps from a radio antenna,
& the woman's clothes come apart in their hands.
Their mouths find hers in the titanic darkness of the steel grotto,
as she counts the names of dead ancestors, shielding a baby in her arms. The three men ride her breath, grunting over lovers back in Mississippi.
She floats on their rage like a torn water flower,
defining night inside a machine where men are gods.
The season quietly sweats.
They hold her down with their eyes,
taking turns, piling stones on her father's grave.
The APC rolls with curves of the land,
up hills & down into gullies,
crushing trees & grass,
droning like a constellation of locusts eating through bamboo,
creating the motion for their bodies.
She rises from the dust
& pulls the torn garment around her, staring after the APC till it's small enough to fit like a toy tank in her hands.
She turns in a circle,
pounding the samarium dust with her feet where the steel tracks have plowed. The sun fizzes like a pill in a glass of water, & for a moment the world's future tense:
She approaches the MPs at the gate; a captain from G-5
accosts her with candy kisses;
I inform The Overseas Weekly;
flashbulbs refract her face in a room of polished brass
& spit-shined boots;
on the trial's second day she turns into mist —
someone says money changed hands,
& someone else swears she's buried at LZ Gator.
But for now, the baby makes a fist & grabs at the air,
searching for a breast.
Night Muse & Mortar Round
She shows up in every war.
Basically the same, maybe her flowing white gown's a little less erotic & she's more desperate.
She's always near a bridge.
This time the Perfume River.
You trace the curve in the road
& there she is
trying to flag down your jeep,
but you're a quarter-mile away when you slam on the brakes.
Sgt. Jackson says, 'What the hell you think you're doing, Jim'?
& Lt. Adonis riding shotgun yells, 'Court-martial.'
When you finally drive back she's gone, just a feeling left in the night air.
Then you hear the blast rock the trees & stars where you would?ve been that moment.
One More Loss to Count
"Me, I'm Chinese,"
Be Hai says.
She's the sergeant major's woman,
switching from French to English.
We talk with our eyes,
sipping Cokes in my hooch.
Days pass before she shows up again with a shy look, not herself,
that bowed dance with her head the Vietnamese do.
Sometimes I look up to find her standing in the doorway,
not knowing how long she's been there, watching me with my earphones plugged in to James Brown or Aretha,
her man somewhere sleeping off another all-night drunk.
Once I asked her about family.
"Not important, GI," she said.
We all have our ghosts.
Mine are Anna's letters from L.A.
This morning Be Hai shows up with a photograph of the sergeant major
& his blond children back in Alabama.
For months we've dodged each other in this room,
dancers with bamboo torches.
She clutches the snapshot like a pass to enter an iron-spiked gate.
There's nothing else to say.
The room's caught up in our movement,
& the novel Anna sent me days ago slides from the crowded shelf.
Like the cassette rewinding we roll back the words in our throats.
She closes her eyes, the photograph falls from her hand like the ace of spades shadowing a pale leaf.
Opium, horse, nothing sends anybody through concertina this way. What is it in the brain that so totally propels a man?
Caught with women in our heads three hours before daybreak,
we fire full automatic but they keep coming,
slinging satchel charges at our bunkers. They fall
& rise again like torchbearers,
with their naked bodies greased so moonlight dances off their skin. They run with explosives strapped around their waists,
& try to fling themselves into our arms.
I slapped him a third time.
The song caught in his throat for a second, & the morning came back together like after a stone has been dropped through a man's reflection hiding in a river. I slapped him again, but he wouldn't stop
laughing. As we searched for the squad, he drew us to him like a marsh loon tied to its half-gone song echoing over rice fields
& through wet elephant grass smelling of gunpowder & fear.
I slapped him once more.
Booby-trapped pages floated through dust. His laughter broke off into a silence early insects touched with a tinge of lost music.
He grabbed my hand & wouldn't let go. Lifted by a breeze,
a face danced in the treetops.
We Never Know
He danced with tall grass for a moment, like he was swaying with a woman. Our gun barrels glowed white-hot.
When I got to him,
a blue halo of flies had already claimed him.
I pulled the crumbled photograph from his fingers.
There's no other way to say this: I fell in love.
The morning cleared again,
except for a distant mortar
& somewhere choppers taking off.
I slid the wallet into his pocket
& turned him over, so he wouldn't be kissing the ground.
A Break from the Bush
The South China Sea drives in another herd.
The volleyball's a punching bag:
Clem's already lost a tooth
& Johnny's left eye is swollen shut.
Frozen airlifted steaks burn on a wire grill, & miles away machine guns can be heard.
Pretending we;re somewhere else,
we play harder.
Lee Otis, the point man,
high on Buddha grass,
buries himself up to his neck in sand. "Can you see me now"
In this spot they gonna build a Hilton. Invest in Paradise.
Bang, bozos! You're dead."
Frenchie's cassette player unravels Hendrix's "Purple Haze."
Snake, 17, from Daytona,
sits at the water's edge,
the ash on his cigarette pointing to the ground like a crooked finger. CJ,
who in three days will trip a fragmentation mine,
runs after the ball into the whitecaps,
Seeing in the Dark
The scratchy sound of skin flicks works deeper & deeper,
as mortar fire colors the night flesh tone. The corporal at the door grins; his teeth shiny as raw pearl,
he stands with a fist of money,
happy to see infantrymen from the boonies — men who know more about dodging trip wires &
seeing in the dark than they do about women. They're in Shangri-la gaping at washed-out images thrown against a bedsheet.
We're men ready to be fused with ghost pictures, trying to keep the faces we love from getting shuffled with those on the wall.
Is that Hawk's tenor coloring-in the next frame?
Three women on a round bed coax in a German shepherd —
everything turns white as alabaster.
The picture flickers; the projector goes dead, & we cuss the dark
& the cicadas? heavy breath.
Tu Do Street
Music divides the evening.
I close my eyes & can see men drawing lines in the dust.
America pushes through the membrane of mist & smoke, & I'm a small boy again in Bogalusa. White Only
signs & 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 & war.
Back in the bush at Dak To
& 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 & 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.
Excerpted from "Dien Cai Dau"
Copyright © 1988 Yusef Komunyakaa.
Excerpted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Camouflaging the Chimera,
Somewhere Near Phu Bai,
Starlight Scope Myopia,
A Greenness Taller Than Gods,
The Dead at Quang Tri,
?You and I Are Disappearing?,
2527th Birthday of the Buddha,
Re-creating the Scene,
Night Muse & Mortar Round,
One More Loss to Count,
We Never Know,
A Break from the Bush,
Seeing in the Dark,
Tu Do Street,
The One-legged Stool,
To Have Danced with Death,
Report from the Skull's Diorama,
Combat Pay for Jody,
After the Fall,
Saigon Bar Girls, 1975,
Toys in a Field,
Dui Boi, Dust of Life,
Missing in Action,
What People are Saying About This
“The best writing we’ve had from the long war in Vietnam has been prose so far. Yusef Komunyakaa’s Dien Cai Dau changes that.”
"The best writing we've had from the long war in Vietnam has been prose so far. Yusef Komunyakaa's Dien Cai Dau changes that."William Matthews