“This is harder than counting stones along paths going nowhere….” is how Yusef Komunyakaa’s poem “The Dead at Quang Tri”[i] opens. It closes with the line “…the grass we walk on won’t stay down.”
This reminds me of the observation that Tim O’Brien made in one chapter of The Things They Carried when his platoon was being led to safety by an old man “…who had a tight rope walker’s feel for the land…” beneath his feet.[ii] This ‘papasan’ led them out of the jungle for five days through booby-trapped rice paddies, with no casualties during the entire trip.
I first heard Yusef Komunnyakaa read at the Indianapolis Art Centre in conjunction with “The Art of Combat: Artists and the Viet Nam War, Then and Now Exhibition,” 10 November 2000. Heard him speak three more times at the Butler University Visiting Writers Series and met him again during an opening at Snyderman/The Works Gallery in Philadelphia, on 7 September 2001.
Yusef’s voice as a writer comes out of the rhythm of both jazz and street language and a bit of South East Asian pidgen language. “Dien cai dau” was the local term used to describe a crazy person, but combined with “beaucoup” it meant a “really” crazy person. Like American soldiers.
Many of the local people, including the Buddhist monks, were often caught right in the middle: they wanted peace but both warring sides would squeeze them out leaving them no place and sometimes no alternative. No chance of walking anywhere on this earth. It was one certain Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Duc, who called the world’s attention to this growing frustration.
“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 him 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.”[iii]
[i] Komunyakaa, Yusef; Dien Cai Dau; Wesleyan University Press; Middletown, Connecticut; 1988; p. 12.
[ii] O’Brien, Tim; The Things They Carried; Broadway Books; New York, New York; 1990; p. 33.
[iii] Komunyakaa, Yusef; Dien Cai Dau; p. 18.