Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Review: Dien Cai Dau by Yusef Komunyakaa

Dien Cai Dau, which means "crazy" in Vietnamese, is a collection of poems by Yusef Komunyakaa about his experiences as a soldier during the Vietnam War.  I first read this collection in a college English course on literature of the Vietnam War, and after re-reading it last week, I've concluded that it's my favorite poetry book dealing with the war.  Komunyakaa is a master of words, describing his experiences and observations in a way that isn't as gritty and raw as some other writings by Vietnam veterans but still shows the horrors of war and the struggle to survive.  He tells it like it is but does so with much emotion.

In Dien Cai Dau, Komunyakaa writes about ghosts (a common theme I've noticed in works about the Vietnam War), loss, fear, relations between white and black soldiers, finding humanity in the enemy, and grief.

In "Thanks," my favorite poem in the book, Komunyakaa writes about cheating death and counting his blessings.
What made me spot the monarch
writhing on a single thread
tied to a farmer's gate,
holding the day together
like an unfingered guitar string,
is beyond me.  Maybe the hills
grew weary & leaned a little in the heat.
Again, thanks for the dud
hand grenade tossed at my feet
outside Chu Lai.  I'm still
falling through its silence.  (page 44)
Dien Cai Dau reminds me of the handful of stories my late father told me about his time in Vietnam as an MP in the Air Force.  I spent a lot of my childhood with my father at VFW functions, putting flags on veteran's graves, collecting donations for the disabled vets and handing out poppies, and watching him get choked up at various ceremonies, and I'm sure that at these times that he was remembering friends who didn't come home.

In "Facing It," Komunyakaa describes his feelings as he stands before the Vietnam Wall:
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 letters like smoke.
I touch the name Andrew Johnson;
I see the booby trap's white flash.  (page 63)
Every time I read this poem, I think of my father and how he wanted to visit the memorial but died before he could.  And I remember my first trip to Washington, D.C., in 2000, about a year before I moved to the area, heavily pregnant with swollen ankles, determined to make the trip in my dad's place.  There's something about Komunyakaa's words that remind me of my father, and when I read Dien Cai Dau, I think of the stories he told me and even the ones he didn't.

Regardless of my personal connections to the book, I think Dien Cai Dau is the perfect collection for readers who are interested in poetry of the Vietnam War but are worried about not being able to understand the poems.  Although a close reading is necessary to see the richness of Komunyakaa's words, to grasp the full meaning of his poems, the images and the emotions can be understood right away.  But don't let the accessibility of his poems fool you; these poems are deep and powerful.

Dien Cai Dau is the third book I've read for the Vietnam War Reading Challenge at War Through the Generations.

Disclosure: I purchased my well-worn copy of Dien Cai Dau.  I am an Amazon affiliate.

© 2010, Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not copy or reproduce content without permission.


Serena said...

I really enjoy all of this poet's work...but this book holds a special place in my was one of my favorites from our college course.

Jeanne said...

Now I will never get the line "holding the day together" out of my head. Wow.

bermudaonion said...

You gave me chills when you talked about your dad and visiting the Vietnam Memorial for him. That is truly a touching place to visit. The book sounds very moving.

She said...

I've heard so many goof things about Yusef Komunyakaa. I think I need to try something of his-- this one sounds great. What a great cover as well!

Suko said...

Wonderful review, Anna. You've shared with us a bit of what must be a meaningful and powerful collection of poems.

Darlene said...

This book sounds so powerful. I'm glad you were able to go to the Vietnam Memorial for your father. It's nice to have something that reminds you of your father and his stories. Nice review Anna.

Staci said...

Your post really touched me Anna...especially the connection with your father. That first poem you posted...powerful! I think I could truly appreciate this collection of poetry. Thank you for this poignant review!

Anonymous said...

I have unconsciously stayed away from Vietnam novels, perhaps because I was so effected by it growing up. So many of my neighbors and friends' brothers were killed in that war, and I was very struck by the whole hippy thing being an impressionable age at the time.

But, ever since you left the great link to the War Through The Generations Challenge I'm intrigued. I guess I do read a lot of novels about WWII, and so I immediately signed up for the challenge. Thanks for opening my eyes! said...

Beautiful post! I will be adding this book to our WWII studies for high school. Thank-you for the fabulous review and for including a couple of poems. So touching!

Anna said...

Serena: I'm glad you love this collection, too.

Jeanne: His poetry has a tendency to hit you hard and stay with you for a long time.

Bermudaonion: I'm glad I was able to do it for him. Given the subject of this year's reading challenge, I think I should make another trip at some point this year. I'll have to grin and bear the tourists. ;)

She: I hope you give him a try. I'd like to read some of his other work at some point.

Suko: Thanks!

Darlene: The war was such a big part of his life. I didn't realize how much this book reminded me of him until I re-read it.

Staci: Thanks! I think you should definitely give this one a try.

dolcebellezza: I know you won't be joining us for the Vietnam challenge, but I hope you'll participate in a future challenge!

LaughingLioness: Thank you. I hope your students get a chance to learn about Vietnam. I never studied it in high school.