Thanks for the tree
between me & a sniper's bullet.
I don't know what made the grass
sway seconds before the Viet Cong
raised his soundless rifle.
Some voices always followed,
telling me which foot
to put down first.
Thanks for deflecting the ricochet
against the anarchy of dusk.
I was back in San Francisco
wrapped up in a woman's wild colors,
causing some dark bird's love call
to be shattered by daylight
when my hands reached up
& pulled a branch from my face. Thanks
for the vague white flower
that pointed to the gleaming metal
reflecting how it is to be broken
like mist over the grass,
as we played some deadly
game for blind gods.
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.
I don't know why the intrepid
sun touched the bayonet,
but I know that something
stood among those lost trees
& moved only when I moved.
Yusef Komunyakaa’s Thanks
I’m noticing that a common thread among a few of my favorite poems: I was fortunate enough to hear the poet read them. Yusef Komunyakaa is a poised reader, effortlessly conveying emotion with carefully delivered lines. He pauses just long enough that he seems to be pondering his words, and yet he carries his poems with an unmistakable tempo. In my senior year at Virginia Tech he came to Blacksburg and read at the bookstore on a Friday night. If you want to see some people that are actually engaged in poetry try going to a reading on a Friday night in a college town. These were the diehards. Honest to God, I was considering skipping the reading for yet another glorious evening at Hokie House, Big Al’s, Sharkey’s, or one of the other fine downtown Blacksburg establishments. I didn’t bail on the reading because the VT English Department had deemed one of my poems to be worthy of 2nd prize in their annual poetry contest and the award was being presented at the reading. I can’t even remember which poem of mine won this award, but I do remember how Yusef Komunyakaa captivated me, and a handful of others, that February night.
As you might have guessed from Thanks, Yusef served in the Vietnam War, primarily as a journalist. Often he was traveling with soldiers and often he found himself in harms way witnessing the atrocities of war. It’s fitting that he signed my copy of his book Neon Vernacular ‘To Matthew: PEACE Yusef Komunyakaa.’ I imagine once you participate in war, finding peace becomes a never-ending quest. Just as there must be hatred and rage in so many dimensions of life, there must also be peace. The peace that Yusef seeks in Thanks leaves me goosebumped and breathless. He documents the moments when he should have died and he focuses on their arbitrary nature. It would be easy for the poem to bog down in questions, especially ‘why have I been spared,’ but Komunyakaa steers the poem along calmly. Those questions are always beneath the surface like a large catfish swishing across the muddy bottom, and still, the poem glides from one image to the next. That smooth delivery, a trait common in many of Komunyakaa’s poems, is simply awesome.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the death-defying moments that make this poem remarkable. After saying thanks for an errant sniper bullet and the swaying grass that revealed the enemy, an explanation of sorts reveals: “ Some voice always followed, / telling me which foot / to put down first.” Yusef concludes the poem by again calling upon this notion that he wasn’t alone: “but I know that something / stood among those lost trees / & moved only when I moved.” Either of these would appear to be apt places to address God or the higher power he is thanking, yet he tactically omits that direct reference. He has more beings, more forces, more fates to thank than can be encompassed in a single faith. I realize the sacrilegious and contradictory nature of that last sentence, but there is an eerie communion in this poem with the speaker and the natural world; his thank you is all-inclusive, belonging to everything and everyone.
Notice the delicate beauty of the things that tip him off to looming death: “The vague white flower / that pointed to the gleaming metal” and “the monarch / writhing on a single thread / tied to a farmer’s gate.” Komunyakaa detours from his list to offer a theory on his survival: “Maybe the hills / grew weary & leaned a little in the heat.” It seems utterly foolish that personification would work in a poem like this, but Komunyakaa has a way of making anything seem natural. From this explanation the poem moves to its most explosive image, a final thank you: “Again, thanks for the dud / hand grenade tossed at my feet / outside Chu Lai. I’m still / falling through its silence.” These four lines crack readers clear across the sides of their heads with shock, gratitude, and curiosity. He’s bewildered that the grenade failed to destroy him, but he’s grateful for it’s malfunction and feels strangely indebted to the unknown. So many of us have moments of our own where we “fall through the silence,” maybe not on Komunyakaa’s scale, but still moments where we don’t understand and don’t know who to thank. The next time you’re blessed with one of these moments, say thank you even if there’s no one around to hear you, chalk it up as a small victory in the quest for peace, and call it a day.