The Caged Bird And The Minotaur
Silence and Politics in the Poetry of Yusef Komunyakan and Horace Coleman
During the Vietnam War, African-Americans served in combat units in disproportionately high numbers with corresponding high casualty rates.
While Black Americans represented 11% of the population and 8% of the military between 1961–66, they comprised 16% of the combat deaths in VietNam. In 1965, 23.5% of all Army personnel killed in VietNam were black. (Gibson, The Perfect War).
Despite this, African-American literary scholarship and Vietnam era studies have continued to ignore or marginalize the role of the African-American in the VietNam War. The literary efforts of African American writers both veteran and non-veteran (with one or two notable exceptions) have also been ignored or neglected (Beavers, A White Man’s War).*
“Even silence is political,” Yusef Komunyakaa said to me in an interview in October 1998. He was talking about the silence many veterans felt after their return from VietNam; and the silence of African-American VietNam Veterans—the very absence of writing by these veterans. Komunyakaa insists: “it has a lot to do with class and education.”
Two African-American VietNam Veteran poets, (one who has won the Pulitzer Prize and the other one who has been overlooked), Yusef Komunyakaa and Horace Coleman, both challenge the silence that is still part of the minority experience in VietNam and afterwards. Their poems, whether about the VietNam War directly or indirectly, in different styles and approaches, force us to confront the collective amnesia and racism that still lingers in the American psyche. These poets also suggest that the violence of American life in the new millennium is a by-product of our VietNam experience.
A central theme in the poetry of both Komunyakaa and Coleman is the notion of home and homecoming. Their poems insist that home involves facing the wall in both a literal and figurative sense. To Komunyakaa and Coleman home is a not just a consideration of the wall—The VietNam Veterans memorial in Washington, but home also means facing the racism, indifference and ignorance of American society. Home and being all the way home means carrying the real memory of the war in VietNam into the new millennium.
The silence in Komunyakaa and Coleman’s poetry is both aesthetic and political and shares a sympathy and kinship with other African-American poets like Paul Laurence Dunbar, Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Hayden and Michael Harper. This silence has multiple layers—even a triple canopy—first, there is the silence of pre-war America and the racism and segregation that was a central force in shaping it; secondly, the war itself—VietNam and the silence of what the war still means (or does not mean) to Americans; and thirdly, the labyrinth of silence that has enveloped the returning African-American veteran.
If we begin with homecoming and work backwards, it should be apparent how these levels of silence interact with one another and form the complex nature of what the war was and is like for those African-Americans who survived it. These veterans returned home to face a wall of silence, as Horace Coleman writes about the Ohio he came home to in 1968: “Ignorance, provincialism, and fear of the younger generation…were rampant in Ohio, and the nation, at the time. Wearing an item of clothing decorated with a flag was an outrage then” (Letter, 23–24th, September, 1999). Coleman came home to Kent State, Jackson State, and Orangeburg State. He writes: “Why shooting students was practically a sport in certain places—especially if the students were black and attending a Southern school” (Letter). And he believes the incidents at these colleges “were barely news” (Letter) And Coleman argues:
the Kent State killings, their blithe ‘justification’ and casual dismissal, basically reflected Main Street America’s druthers. But these were white kids! It was, if not regrettable, tacky. Like the “full Cleveland” summer outfit: polyester slacks, loud shirt, gold chain, white belt and vinyl loafers [white] (Letter).
In “Still Life with Dead Hippie” his poem about the Kent State killings, Coleman asserts: “It’s all in the point of view” as he gives us the roll call of the dead—by making us see them again “slumped on the sidewalk” and ironically accusing the reader by offering “she has no right to cry out / in plain sight, to be so / full of pain” (54). The message of “the world” (as many veterans referred to America and home) Coleman suggests, is clear: keep quiet, hush up, and put the war behind you.
For Komunyakaa the silence he returned to in his home of Bogalusa, Louisiana was a self imposed silence, one in which he systematically “wrote around the war” (Interview). But it was also a silence that something he and others used as “an illusion of erasure,” a way of avoiding the war, perhaps because “we came back realizing some immense shame in being associated with it” (Interview). Yet Komunyakaa also insists: “Let’s face it. I grew up in Louisiana at a certain time; I grew up in a segregated system. I grew up thinking survival questions, but in retrospect, placing a critical analysis on those questions [they] could be seen as political questions” (Interview).
Yet in their different homecomings both poets share a sympathy in the tradition of Paul Laurence Dunbar: “a pain still throbs in the old, old scars / And they pulse again with a keener sting” (163). In “To Have Danced with Death” Komunyakaa recalls the silence of the black sergeant with one leg who is “stalled on the ramp” on his return from the war (Dien Cai Dau 46). The sergeant who “half smiled when / the double doors opened for him / like a wordless mouth taking back promises” (Dien 46). This notion of coming home to a country that withdraws the promises it has made is similar to Coleman’s view in: “Flash Forward”: “Well, I finally had that dream. / You know, the silent / vividly colored / real slow motion one / where you watch yourself / be part of The Way Wild Bunch?” (In the Grass 76). Coleman realizes he is the enemy he set out to destroy as he insists: “All I know is, war is / not a metaphor for, /a style of, / or a symbol for, / life” (77).
For many, as the saying goes, the homecoming was worse than the war. In Komunyakaa’s “Roll Call”: “All / the lonely beds take me back / to where we saluted those five pairs of boots / as the sun rose against our faces / Sometimes I can still hear them / marching through the house, / closing the distance” (15). Coleman too echoes this same kind of stance in “D Day + 50, Tet + 25”: “The shock of survival can be / worse than other wounds” (43).
This homecoming and the recognition of what it means to be all the way home fuels the poems about war too with its own ironic kind of silence, where African-American soldiers face the duality of fighting a war on two fronts, fighting as Ralph Ellison noted for “their self-affirmed right to fight” (Invisible Man xii), while being used at the same time as instruments of a racist government. Komunyakaa lets Hannah say it in his poem “Hanoi Hannah”: ‘Soul brothers, what you dying for?’ (Dien 130). In “Report from the Skull’s Diorama” it’s the silence of the black GIs back from night patrol with five dead who know the “VC didn’t kill / Dr. Martin Luther King” (Dien 47). As Komunyakaa writes “the silence etched into their skin / is also mine” (Dien 47). And there is silence again in the poem “Toys in a Field” when we see the Vietnamese children “silent / as distant rain, / the volume turned down…” (Dien 56). From the boat people to the returning veteran to the war itself, the enemy is silent, silent in the trees, silent as shadows. Dien Cai Dau is a book fraught with silences.
And so too is Coleman’s In the Grass. For Coleman, an officer stationed in Saigon who sits before the “night finder radar” to watch “the blip/shapes of unseen bombers / miles high and away” the war is silent and “thick as mosquito eggs on the circled surface of a pond, / bombs drift like murderous ghosts / falling in green streaks / at the bottom of the screen, / electronic dust spills upward” (52). And as he listens to the talk of new guys in “Epiphany #3,” he overhears “these people are really dumb—they don’t even speak English” and realizes silently “America would never win this war” (59). For Coleman there is a quiet, sad irony in “A Black Soldier Remembers”: “My Saigon Daughter I saw only once” (32). Identifying the young VietNamese girl as his daughter and realizing the silence she will face as the child of a black man—another kind of racism inherent in her birthright, Coleman realizes: “I have nothing she needs but / the sad smile she already has” (32). And in “Tu Do Talk,” he lets a nameless VietNamese tell him “Maybe your street without joy / paved with shit— / maybe road to bitterness” (27). In “Dui Boi, Dust of Life” Komunyakaa also writes to his child of the war (what the press popularly and incorrectly called child of the dust) and to whom Komunyakaa says: “Son, you were born with dust / on your eyelids, but you bloomed up / in a trench where stones were / stacked up to hold you down” (Dien 58). And he continues: “I blow the dust off my hands / but it flies back in my face” (Dien 58).
Both poets cannot turn the war into myth, to write poetry that dehistoricizes—and thereby depoliticizes—its historical subject (Norris, Modernism 731). Giving in to myth or to what Margot Norris calls “the mythical method” risks another kind of “moral darkness in compromised and incriminating relationships to colonialism, nationalism, class hatred, misogyny, and racism” (731).
And what of the silence that sent them to war in the first place? What kind of America did they leave behind before going overseas? What were its ways of silencing and thereby controlling African-Americans? Coleman writes:
Down South, not far from The Redneck Riviera, while in a military “tech school” I went out with some of the guys (white) in my class to have a drink. I must have forgotten what country I was already in. We picked a restaurant and sat down. A Scottish waitress, still on her real Green Card, said to our table “I’m sorry but I can’t serve the other gentleman.” I was “the other gentleman.” Nothing new there (In the Grass 9).
Komunyakaa also acknowledges his heritage: “Well, the railroad track was a dividing line in Louisiana. It was almost like living in two worlds. When I was in the black community I felt safe. Anytime I ventured out into the white community across the tracks I didn’t feel safe” (Interview). In Coleman’s poem to Jackie Robinson, “Artful Dodger”:
they made you stay at / separate hotels on the road / but the stats/ had to go in the same book / now we all play your way/and crowd the plate and take long leads / go in spikes up and don’t/ mind batting last at all (Between 9).
The world before the war was to Komunyakaa a world of work, a world where “work was sacred” and “the first image I have of my father is working at the lumber mill. That’s how my father defined himself. But I do believe the harder one works, I’m talking about physical labor as such, the less one has” (Interview). And for Komunyakaa “ I grew up—I had my first idea of war from my great uncle, Jesse, who had gone to World War I when he was seventeen” (Interview). And for Komunyakaa and others the going off to war was thought of as an ok thing to do. He says:
Blacks go all the way back. I think there was something like 2,500 or so in the Revolutionary War. Up until Korea you had that situation, you know, Black Jack Pershing making that statement to the young French officers—don’t treat blacks—I’m paraphrasing it—better than they are going to be treated like when they get back home (Interview).
Today, both poets continue to write about the war and its aftermath. Komunyakaa says he promised himself he would not write about the VietNam War anymore, yet he is now writing or has completed a book-length monologue entitled Autobiography of My Alter Ego; a poem in the voice of a white VietNam Vet bartender (Interview). And Horace Coleman again recalls the deaths at Kent State in “A Gift from the State”: “Their lives were candles / put in a breeze. / Remember?” Almost echoing Paul Laurence Dunbar, who he acknowledges as an early hometown influence: “Bright cloth snapping on a pole / is not the flag. / Buildings are not the land. / History is not a true book. We are these things” (A Gift from the State, Letter). For Komunyakaa, poetry is “a kind of dialogue with the parts of my own psyche in a way, trying to understand something about the world” (Interview). He says he wants a “poetry that is concerned with how something is said” because “writing involves a solitary moment—a moment of solitude, a moment of introspection” (Interview). And silence is part of that moment because for Komunyakaa and Coleman it serves as a vehicle to cut away the layers of skin to get at the wound—the war’s memory, and its long-term effects on the black soldiers who fought in it. In “The Wall,” a poem about the VietNam Veterans Memorial in Washington, Komunyakaa writes: “All the gunshots / across America coalesce here” (Thieves 122). Horace Coleman also implies a continued struggle over what VietNam and the VietNam legacy mean to Americans in his poem “The Wall”:
designed by the daughter of a woman I know / who tried with her husband / to keep their child safe / from political opinions and controversy / not knowing the young woman / would be the architect of hatred / frustration / envy / and a healing blackness” (Grass 34).
And in another poem “Cracks in the Wall” he insists ‘The war’s not over until the last suicide’ (Grass 37). Komunyakaa too shows the layers of the war’s aftermath for African-Americans in “The Poplars,” when he asks: “Am I a ghost dreaming myself back to flesh? I stand in the skin’s prison. / I can’t hear my footsteps. / …the car’s automatic locks click, sliding like bullets into the chamber of a gun” (Thieves 72).
For Horace Coleman and Yusef Komunyakaa silence is always a moment of reflection and revelation, a moment of connectedness to tradition and home and a legacy of inherited violence, despair and peril. To echo a popular song—home is where the hatred is…and to be all the way home is to acknowledge these truths—as part of recovery and renewal—the thread that leads out of the labyrinth to language and poetry.
Beavers, Herman. “Contemporary Afro-American Studies and The Study of the Vietnam War.” Vietnam Generation—A White Man’s War, 1.2 (1989): 6–13
Coleman, Horace. In the Grass. Woodbridge, CT: VietNam Generation, Inc. & Burning Cities Press, 1995.
Coleman, Horace. Between A Rock & A Hard Place. Kansas City: BkMk Press. 1977: 8
Coleman, Horace. Letter. September 23–24, 1999.
Coleman, Horace. Interview with Gerald McCarthy: February 25, 1997.
Dunbar, Paul Laurence. The Complete Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co. 1952: 162.
Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Vintage Books, 1980: xii
Gibson, William. The Perfect War. New York: Vintage Books. 1988: 215
Komunyakaa, Yusef. Dien Cai Dau. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1998.
Komunyakaa, Yusef. Thieves of Paradise. Hanover, New Hampshire: Wesleyan University Press/University Press of New England, 1998: (122)
Komunyakaa, Yusef. Interview with Gerald McCarthy: October 20, 1998.
Norris, Margot. “Modernism and Vietnam: Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.” Modern Fiction Studies, No. 44–3 (Fall 1998): 731.
*For a brief overview of the subject see Black Prisoner of War—A Conscientious Objector’s Vietnam Memoir by James A. Daly and Lee Bergman. Introduction by Jeff Loeb. Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas Press, 2000. (Originally issued as A Hero’s Welcome: The Conscience of James A. Daly Versus The United States Army) Loeb’s introduction gives insight into the significant number of books by African-Americans that have are out-of-print.