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Poetry > Yusef Komunyakaa's Warhorses: Poems

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message 1: by Qiana (new)

Qiana Whitted | 189 comments I'm honored to inaugurate our group's discussion of poetry with a selection from Yusef Komunyakaa's latest book, Warhorses: Poems.

Komunyakaa's 13th collection was recently nominated for a Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, but his work has received much critical attention and awards in the past, including a Pulitzer Prize for Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems. Originally from Louisiana, he is well-known for his complex verses about the Vietnam War (during which he served in the Army as a reporter), jazz forms, and Southern culture.

Warhorses: Poems contains all of these elements. The first two sections focus on battle, loss, and love from ancient history to the present (there's even references to Guantanamo Bay and 9/11). The final section is a more personal, longer poem called, "Autobiography of My Alter Ego."

For our discussion, I offer the narrative poem, "Grenade."



There's no rehearsal to turn flesh into dust so quickly. A hair trigger, a cocked hammer in the brain, a split second between a man & infamy. It lands on the ground -- a few soldiers duck & the others are caught in a half-run -- & one throws himself down on the grenade. All the watches stop. A flash. Smoke. Silence. The sound fills the whole day. Flesh & earth fall into the eyes & mouths of men. A dream trapped in midair. They touch their legs & arms, their groins, ears, & noses, saying, What happened? Some are crying. Other are laughing. Some are almost dancing. Someone tries to put the dead man back together. "He just dove on the damn thing, sir!" A flash. Smoke. Silence. The day blown apart. For those who can walk away, what is their burden? Shreds of flesh & blood rags gathered up & stuffed into a bag. Each breath belongs to him. Each song. Each curse. Every prayer is his. Your body doesn't belong to your mind & soul. Who are you? Do you remember the man left in the jungle? The others who owe their lives to this phantom, do they feel like you? Would his loved ones remember him if that little park or statue erected in his name didn't exist, & does it enlarge their lives? You wish he'd lie down in that closed coffin, & not wander the streets or enter your bedroom at midnight. The woman you love, she'll never understand. Who would? You remember what he used to say: "If you give a kite too much string, it'll break free." That unselfish certainty. But you can't remember when you began to live his unspoken dreams.

- Yusef Komunyakaa, Warhorses: Poems (2009)

message 2: by jo (new)

jo | 1031 comments thanks qiana! first off, let me say that i am not overly fond of poems that are so direct and clear, and i am not overly fond of the use of the word "dream," which appears here twice. but here's something i like this poem. i just saw Waltz with Bashir, a terrific israeli animated documentary about war memory -- it's about an ex israeli soldier trying to reconstruct what happened during a particularly horrendous episode, to which he was present but which he doesn't remember, of the lebanon was of 1982. that film and this poem, both by people who have fought a war that took place several decades ago but feel to urge to discuss it now, are riddled with questions. the traumas of the past demand that we fill holes, and these holes, in narrative art, take the form of relentless, haunting questioning.

also, both here and in Waltz, the ex-soldier cannot shake one specific memory -- here, the horrendous dismembering death of a comrade. even though, doubtless, there were many other equally horrifying moments, the horror of the war, here, is congealed in that one moment. the moment is stunning in its meaning: the death of a man and life blithely carrying on: "Some are crying. Others are laughing. Some are almost dancing. Someone tries to put the man together... For those who can walk away, what is their burden?" part of the horror of the moment is its absolutely meaninglessness ("Do you remember the man left in the jungle?"). another part of its horror, is that it completely stops time. nothing will ever be the same: "Your body doesn't belong to your mind and soul... You wish he'd lie down in that closed coffin, & not wander the streets or enter your bedroom at night." this one accident in time, in its meaninglessness (many other like this) curves time and makes it curl in into itself. yu will never be free of the dead man's "unspoken dreams," most of which, probably (the man seems entirely anonymous), you never even knew.

enough noodling. others?

message 3: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments This question reflects my own ignorance about poetry, but what makes this a poem rather that a piece of prose?

message 4: by jo (new)

jo | 1031 comments this is such a good question, mina. this is my take. literary genres are fluid. three of the most recognizable features of poetry are meter, line breaks, and, though less and less, rhyming. this has none of the above. but poetry is also condensed language and rhetorical devices (repetition etc.) that make it sound distinctly different from your regular prose. so, if it's different enough from prose and the language is condensed and, to some extent, "strange," we can call it poetry.

message 5: by Qiana (last edited Aug 22, 2009 11:21AM) (new)

Qiana Whitted | 189 comments Ah! I'm enjoying these first impressions and reactions to "Grenade."

To speak to Mina's question, my view is that it is a poem if the poet declares it so. Sure, most works of poetry have those recognizable elements, but many poets - I'm thinking of Black Arts Poets in particular, as well as more recent postmodern poets - delight in breaking all the rules. No line breaks, no capital letters, misspelled words, no rhyme scheme...

"Grenade" breaks some rules of course, but I have to say that I find a subtle, but notable sense of rhythm in the work. Consider the repetition of the phrase, "A flash. Smoke. Silence." And the way Komunyakaa juxtaposes the rambling thoughts with the shorter questions and phrases. I find this to be very poetic!

Jo, I'd like to take issue with your statement about the poem being "direct and clear" (though, I'm with you on the word "dream"). Are we even sure this poem is about military conflict? I'm always reminded of Tim O'Brien's ideas on war as metaphor for deeper human struggles. And when a black poet - especially one from the Civil Rights/Vietnam Era - begins to talk about burdens, sacrifice, and coffins (and statues), I always tend to wonder about the soldiers and unsung heroes for social justice. King? Evers? Till? The more I read this, the more I wonder if the grenade isn't more useful as a metaphor for them.

One last thing:

Something that really intrigues me about this poem is the images of flesh turning to a kind of dust that is literally ingested through "the eyes & mouths of men." It makes the haunting and ghostly images in the second half of the poem - when the point of view shifts from "them" to "you" - seem all the more powerful. It's almost like a form of communion - eating the flesh and blood? Bringing its "unspoken dreams" back to life? (Am I reaching here?)

message 6: by jo (new)

jo | 1031 comments the beautiful thing about poetry is that, when i discuss it with others, i start loving it more and more. this piece reads a lot more nicely to me now that you are pointing out things, qiana. great point about war and civil rights and race. (i want to say, though, that my comment was mostly about language). i think i'll like this poem even more tomorrow, when i read it again.

let me raise, then, another point. "the woman you love, she'll never understand." the specter of wounded masculinity -- which, once again, talks more about war than about civil rights, because, in the latter, the women were there.

but of course it also sounds like something the dead man/soldier might have said, and the speaker is repeating -- questioning?

and was the woundedness of the civil rights also the self-declared province of men?

(a suggestion to other folks who might want to chime in but are not practiced at discussing poetry. first, of all, mina's question -- what makes this poetry? -- is an obvious and pretty cool start. but also, i find it helps me to take it one sentence at a time, or, maybe, even just one sentence. if you find a sentence you like, share with us!).

message 7: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments Thanks, jo & Qiana! Reading your comments helped me to see the poetry in the piece much more clearly, especially the repeated phrase. The line that stays with me is the final line, "But you can't remember when you began to live his unspoken dreams." You both dislike the overused word "dreams", but that is the word that pushes what I feel sure is a Vietnam poem into the Civil Rights movement as well. We know that we are living out many of those larger dreams, but Komunyakaa leaves us wondering what the dead man's personal dreams may have been and how those who survived may have begun to live them as well as, or even instead of, their own.

In reading this poem, I thought about Anthony Grooms' outstanding book, Bombingham , where the central story of a boy and his family during the Civil Rights Movement is bookended by scenes from his later years in Vietnam. (Don't read the blurb on the book - it's misleading.) It's another one of those books that I go around begging people to read!

message 8: by Mozart (new)

Mozart i think what makes this prose poem, a poem besides the declaration by the author of calling it a poem, is the density and concentration. I like to think of poems, unless intentional are meditations. In this particular poem, Komunyakaa is dissecting what a grenade means through a series of emotions and images. .. i think the poem being in this form of a prose poem, emphasizes the weight of what he's talking about mortality and remembering... and the depth of seeing someone die like that and living with it.
@jo, i feel like dream is not meant to be "ooo.. i like dream", but instead acts as a haunting to the solider who is remembering this individual.

I am happy y'all brought up O'brein's book, because in that selection is it really about war? or men dealing with their insecurities, and finding comfort in things they can control (love letters, bibles, pendants)... so as a man, i can see the fraternity-oftentimes unspoken admiration and conflict of the heart and soul in this poem... also, i wonder if yusef komunyakaa is questioning us about the weight of being a witness through the portal of war?

for example, we all have witnessed horrific events, how do these events inform the way we live our lives. GREAT POEM... i love Komunyakaa... reading his poems is truly codebreaking beauty.

@wilhelmina, thanks for making me aware of this discussion!

message 9: by Qiana (new)

Qiana Whitted | 189 comments Hi Mozart, welcome and thank you for participating with such insight and energy! I am still new to Komunyakaa; I've only read his most anthologized poems, so when I saw that he had a new collection, I jumped on board.

I am a big admirer of Tim O'Brien and of his philosophy about what it means to write about war (as well as his distinctions between "story-truth" and "happening-truth"). I think both he and Komunyakaa really capture that weight of being a witness very powerfully. And because the memories and the tragic events that surround them are so fragile, it gives the writing - or in this case, the prose poem - that feeling of instability and haunting.

So none of y'all liked my Communion idea? Blood, flesh, mouth, etc.? I thought I had something there...!

message 10: by Mozart (new)

Mozart Thanks, Q. I liked your communion ideal, i just didn't want to make an extra long response. I believe that in many instancese for men like O'Brein and Komunyakaa, war becomes spiritual-communion... and that war becomes less about conquest( i am not advocating war), but overcoming our fears. slaying them if you will. on the note about commuion, i think your on to something, and i consider communion the ultimate sacrifice, not just drinkin' grape juice... and that is what this poem is doing. even more so, i think this poem is saying what happens after the communion has been ingested and how it is transformative.

message 11: by Queen (new)

Queen | 10 comments Hi everyone. This is my first time discussing a poem outside of a classroom setting. Granade is very descriptive but brief. One of the many lines that struck a cord with me was "For those who can walk away, what is their burden?". We have been taught, oh that's what happened to them, that's not your problem mind your business. But how many times have we been affected by someone else's burden or situation, especially, when we know that person. Being a part of the human family, it is impossible not to have empathy.

message 12: by jo (new)

jo | 1031 comments it's great, if, you know, heavy, that people are noticing so much the aspect of "burden." and that both queen and mozart talk about burden in such a variety of terms. the burden of witnessing, the burden of carrying on, the burden of empathy (yes, queen!), the burden of communion, the burden of fear, the burden of "mortality and remembering"(mozart).

that communion theme reminded me a lot of what people were saying after nine/eleven -- breathing the ashes. powerful stuff.

@mozart: i just think we americans overuse the word dream. that's all. there's GOT to be another way to say that, hey?

message 13: by Queen (new)

Queen | 10 comments i agree with you jo about the use of the word dream. the poet may have his reasons for its usage but dream is but one word overused.

message 14: by Qiana (new)

Qiana Whitted | 189 comments Hi Queen, welcome to the discussion! I'll admit that the line you pointed out - "For those who can walk away, what is their burden?" - is the one that hooked me too. And I'm glad to see that my Communion idea seems to work...I was getting ready for some push back, ha ha.

Anyone have thoughts about the use of the word "rehearsal" in that first line? It seems oddly specific.

Or what about the kite saying? What do we do with that?

What a dreamy, dream-filled poem!

message 15: by Rashida (new)

Rashida | 264 comments I wish I could join your discussion, I am so jealous of you all. But something about poetry makes my eyes cross. And my brain hurts when I try to dissect them. I wanted to provide you with the following link, though, because I thought immediately of this group.

HUGE DISCLAIMER: This contains content that many people would deem gross and inappropriate. If you are easily offended, you may not want to follow, or very carefully skim. But, in the "highbrow poll" at the top of the page, and recurring in posts throughout the discussion, is a dissection of the form of another of Komunyakaa's poems, and whether the "correct" label is poetry or prose.

message 16: by Queen (last edited Aug 28, 2009 08:17AM) (new)

Queen | 10 comments I appreciate the welcome Qiana :D. Rehearsal...we all know that soldiers go thru training and drills to rehearse the aspects of war. However, there is no rehearsal for a real body being blown to smithereens. There is no rehearsal to assemble a real body back together. You can't take it from the top and do it all over again as one could during an obstacle course or a simulation. The words "There is no rehearsal" indicates how vulnerable one is upon the impact of a live granade.

The line about the kite I will think more about before I comment.

message 17: by Mozart (new)

Mozart I love this poem, but I find the line about the kite sorta weak. cliche. I think if it was taken away the poem would be stronger, and nobody would miss it?
anyone feel a different way about it?

message 18: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments I thought that it was just me, Mozart! It was, for me, the weakest line in the poem.

message 19: by Qiana (new)

Qiana Whitted | 189 comments I like your take on "rehearsal," Queen! I'm still mulling over why he would choose a word that (for me) evokes images of public performance....hmmm...

Okay, the kite image is weak. I'll give you that, LOL! But it still begs the question, why would such a talented writer fall back on that kind of cliche? Who is supposed to be the "kite" and what is the "string"? And how is this idea supposed to convey unselfishness? It seems paradoxical - it is warning against the risks of too much freedom?

I'd love to hear other lines or phrases that you all found interesting?

message 20: by Queen (new)

Queen | 10 comments I can comment on a few other lines.

"Someone tries to put the dead man back together." This makes me feel like no matter what calamaties or hardships humans face, there is always someone who tries to soothe things or do something to help bring ease eventhough it may be fruitless. It's showing compassion.

Another line "Would his loved ones remember him if that little park or statue erected in his name didn't exist, & does it enlarge their lives? " Words that come to mind are rememberance and perservation. People don't want to forget and want to perserve the memory of their loved ones. To add to that, people want to have some type of physical evidence that an event occurred and who was involved in it (that they existed). It can be the naming of a street, a school, a park (large or small), a statue, a block party, graphic t-shirts, tatoos, etc.

Qiana what other line are interesting to you, dear?

message 21: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments The issue of remembrance makes me think of the Vietnam War Memorial in DC where proponents and opponents of the war come together to remember their loved ones, trace their names, and sometimes leave some small token of love behind. I think that it fills a gap for those who acutely miss those they lost,

message 22: by Qiana (new)

Qiana Whitted | 189 comments Yes, the image of the Vietnam War Memorial is really strong here and what city doesn't have an MLK park or street?

Queen, I love that you mentioned the line, "Someone tries to put the dead man back together." The longing and futility of that is really powerful. I would have to say, that the lines preceding the quote: "Some are crying. Other are laughing. Some are almost dancing." is also really striking to me because it captures the whole range of emotional responses to such tragedy.

message 23: by Queen (new)

Queen | 10 comments Emotional responses do vary. I agree with you Qiana. People react in ways they probably didn't expect. There's no rehearsal for emotional responses either. There is part of a line I would like to mention; " & one throws himself down on the grenade." Why would anyone do such a thing?

message 24: by jo (new)

jo | 1031 comments You wish he'd lie down in that closed coffin, & not wander the streets or enter your bedroom at midnight. The woman you love, she'll never understand. Who would? You remember what he used to say: "If you give a kite too much string, it'll break free." That unselfish certainty. But you can't remember when you began to live his unspoken dreams.

okay, so i'm reading this for the nth time and thinking, where does this come from? in my first comment i mentioned the issue of masculinity ("she'll never understand."). since the kite quote comes right the "she'll never understand" sentence, i took it to be a man-2-man piece of advice about how to "handle" women. is this how you guys saw it too?

but then the next two sentences don't make sense at all. what is going on here??? i don't know!

message 25: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments I didn't see it that way, jo, because that certainly would not be "unselfish certainty." I'm not sure what it does mean, however, unless it represents a way in which he incorporated the soldier's philosophies into his own life. It could just apply to military discipline. But if he is, in fact, unselfish (he did throw himself on a grenade to save others), it sounds more protective that controlling to me.

message 26: by jo (new)

jo | 1031 comments but what is the "woman you love" doing there? and what does that crazy sentence about the kite, mentioned just after the woman, mean? help!

message 27: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments I saw the passage about the "woman you love" ending with "Who would?", and the memory of the dead man's words (strange as they are) linked to the part ending with "to live his unspoken dreams." The expectation of remembering his words linked with the strange realization that he is living out the dead man's dreams. But I'm no expert on poetry!

message 28: by jo (new)

jo | 1031 comments Wilhelmina wrote: "But I'm no expert on poetry!"

who is? :)

message 29: by Qiana (last edited Sep 04, 2009 09:22AM) (new)

Qiana Whitted | 189 comments Okay, so here's two more verses from Komunyakaa's Warhorses.

This first one is from the section, "Love in the Time of War."

When our hands caress bullets & grenades,
or linger on the turrets & luminous wings
of reconnaissance planes, we leave glimpses
of ourselves on the polished hardness.
We surrender skin, hair,sweat & fingerprints.
The assembly lines hum to our touch,
& the grinding wheels record our laments
& laughter into the bright metal.

I touch your face, your breasts, the flower
holding a world in focus. We give ourselves
to each other, letting the workday slide
away. Afterwards, lying there facing the sky,
I touch the crescent-shaped war wound. Yes,
the oldest prayer is still in my fingertips.

This second one is from the 40+ page poem called, "Autobiography of My Alter Ego." (*Note, the spacing is reprinted here exactly like it is in the book.)

Ah. Abu Ghraib.
                            Guantanamo. Lord,
if the dead could show us
                                where the secret graves are
we'd walk with bowed heads
                                      along the Mason-Dixon Line
till we're in a dusty prison yard
                                        in Angola or Waycross,
or we're near the Perfume River
                                            or outside Ramadi. You see,
the maps & grids flow together
                                       till light equals darkness:
an eye, a nose, an ear, a mouth
                                  telling a forbidden story,
saying. Sir, here's the skin
                              growing over a wound,
& this is flesh interrogating a stone.

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