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.
Disclosure: I purchased my well-worn copy of Dien Cai Dau. I am an Amazon associate.
© 2010 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.