JUNGLE SURRENDER

“In ‘Jungle Surrender’ the figures in the foreground are in a semiconscious state of concern about a relationship between their offsprings, the embracing couple in the mid ground.  My scout dog and I become voyeurs hidden in the jungle.  The figure with raised hands represents my surrender to the memories and hallucinations of war.  The mournful howl of the lone wolf echoes throughout the burning glow of the agent orange landscape.”[i]

The artist Don Cooper was born in Texas in 1944 and received his BFA in 1966 and his MFA in 1968, both from the University of Georgia.  He has held a variety of faculty positions at the University of Georgia, West Georgia College, and the Atlanta College of Art over the ensuing years.  His work is represented in several public collections including the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo, New York and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia.

Cooper was drafted within days of receiving his MFA and served as a ‘scout dog handler’ in Vietnam in 1969-1970.  After the war, he often painted dogs and other domestic animals but didn’t directly address images related to that war until the mid-1980’s.  He felt that these paintings, including “Jungle Surrender,” were a sort of purge of the trauma of that war.

Yusef Komunyakaa was born in Bogalusa, Louisiana in 1947.  He served as an Information Specialist in the United States Army and was also stationed in Viet Nam in 1969-1970.  He received an MA in writing in 1978 from Colorado State University and an MFA in creative writing from the University of California, Irvine, in 1980.

Komunyakaa has published more than fourteen collections of poetry including Dien Cai Dau in 1988 and Neon Vernacular for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1994.  He has held several teaching positions including the University of New Orleans, Indiana University, and Princeton University. Currently he serves as Distinguished Senior Poet in New York University’s graduate creative writing program.

jungle1
Don Cooper
“Jungle Surrender”
1984
Oil on canvas
56” x 84”
(Courtesy of the artist)

“Jungle Surrender (after Don Cooper’s painting)

“Ghosts share us with the past & future
but we struggle to hold on to each breath.

Moving toward what waits behind the trees,
the prisoner goes deeper into himself, away

from how a man’s heart divides him, deeper
into the jungle’s indigo mystery & beauty,

with both hands raised into the air, only
surrendering halfway:  the small man inside

waits like a photo in a shirt pocket, refusing
to raise his hands, silent & uncompromising

as the black scout dog beside him.  Love & hate
flesh out the real man, how he wrestles

himself through a hallucination of blues
& deep purples that set the day on fire.

He sleepwalks a labyrinth of violet,
measuring footsteps from one tree to the next,

knowing we’re all somehow connected.
What would I have said?

The real interrogator is a voice within.
I would have told them about my daughter

in Phoenix, how young she was,
about my first woman, anything

but how I helped ambush two Viet Cong
while plugged into the Grateful Dead.

For some, a soft windy voice makes them
snap.  Blues & purples.  Some place between

central Georgia & Tay Ninh Province—
the vision a knot of blood unravels

& parts of us we dared put into the picture
come together; the prisoner goes away

almost whole.  But he will always touch
fraying edges of things, to feel hope break

like the worm that rejoins itself
under the soil . . . head to tail.”[ii]


[i] Cooper, Don; An artist’s statement regarding “Jungle Surrender” as contained in an e-mail correspondence with this writer, 12 July 2016.

[ii] Komunyakaa, Yusef; “Jungle Surrender (after Don Cooper’s painting)” Dien Cai Dau; Wesleyan University Press; Middletown, Connecticut; 1988; pp. 37-38.

THE VENUS OF WILLENDORF

venus
“Venus of Willendorf”
28,000-25,000 BCE.
Oolitic limestone, 4 1/4” high
Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna

“She’s big as a man’s fist,
Big as a black-pepper shaker
Filled with gris-gris dust,
Like two fat gladiolus bulbs
Grown into a burst of twilight.
Lumpy & fertile, earthy
& egg-shaped, she’s pregnant
With all the bloomy hosannas
Of love hunger.  Beautiful
In a way that forces us to look
At the ground, this squat
Venus in her braided helmet
Is carved from a hunk of limestone
Shaped into a blues singer.
In her big smallness
She makes us kneel.”[i]


[i] Komunyakaa, Yusef; Talking Dirty to the Gods; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; New York, New York; 2000; p. 17.

2527th BIRTHDAY OF THE BUDDHA

“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.

buddha
“Thich Quang Duc, a Buddhist monk, burns himself to death on a Saigon street June 11, 1963 to protest alleged persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government.”
B & W Photograph. (AP Photo/Malcolm Browne)

“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.