We often hear art imitates life. Life provides us with inspiration; it influences who we become and how we think. Not all experiences are good but we can be certain they shape us in one way of another. One group of people that seem to make the most from their experiences are artists, who can at least express themselves and their emotions regarding experience through their art. Writers do this all the time and writing proves to be a therapeutic exercise for many who do not seek publication. One poet that has made the most of his experiences and turns them into poetry that benefits thousands of readers is Yusef Komunyakaa. Komunyakaa wrote about issues and events that impressed him. These topics are not always good or cheerful but one thing we can say about them is they are real. When we read his poetry, we know we are reading the man that fights for recognition every day. through his art, Komunyakaa becomes complete.
In "My Father's Love Letters," we see how Komunyakaa's childhood experiences shaped his thinking. Through this poem, we can see how all kinds of things influence children. We also see how children grasp more than we give them credit for grasping. Most parents think their children do not know much or will not figure things out, or simply do not pay enough attention to what is going on around them. This poem demonstrates otherwise. In fact, this poem illustrates how children perceive much, much more than what their parents would ever want to know. In this poem, we see a father through his child's eyes. The father is in pain over a broken relationship and he expects his son to believe what he tells him about that relationship. However, the young speaker of this poem is far too smart to believe what his father tells him. Instead, he puts things together on his own and comes to his own conclusions. In a sense, he is facing the situation with a more mature attitude than his father is. "My Father's Love Letters" reveals the delicate nature of man when he is in a broken state. The young speaker realizes his place. He knows he is the child and he must obey his father. He writes the letters and while his father thinks he is simply dictating to his son, he is actually giving him insight into his soul. In addition, he is learning all about his father's relationship. The sorrowful father would "beg, / Promising to never beat her / Again" (5-7). Here, the son sees the broken man willing to say anything to get the woman back. He uses words like "Love, / Baby, Honey, Please" (Komunyakaa Love Letters 16-7) to win her back but they are in contrast to the setting we have of the father and son sitting in "quiet brutality / Of voltage meters & pipe threaders, / Lost between sentences" (18-20). The son is fully aware of brutality and it is no mistake he uses this word to describe the mood of this home. He sees his hopeless father and yet can still wonder if his mother reads the letters and "laughed / and held them over a gas burner (25-6). This young man sees everything and can make more sense of the situation than his father. At an early age, he sees the power of love and the power struggle between adults. This experience shapes his mind about love is, what it looks like, and what love does to people.
The theme of war is a sensitive one and many of Komunyakaa's poems touch this subject. He focuses on the mental anguish of war. This anguish is not just associated with the soldiers but with those living in the states as well. The victims of the war included women and children in America and in Vietnam. In a sense, everyone was a victim. Imagery becomes a popular tool for the poet, as he expresses his emotions regarding the war and its effects. He looks at war from an almost hopeless perspective. In "Camouflaging the Chimera," we see how the poet places the soldiers in a situation where they blend into their surroundings, as if they are becoming images that will fade away with time as life goes on for those back home. He writes,
We tied branches to our helmets.
We painted our faces & rifles with mud from a riverbank, blades of grass hung from the pockets of our tiger suits. We wove ourselves into the terrain, content to be a hummingbird's target. (Komunyakaa Chimera 1-7)
Here we see how the men become one with their environment and, like ghosts, they sink into the background, slowly fading away. This technique helps the poet create an experience that is not only inside the soldiers' minds, but it also gives readers the opportunity to visualize how soldiers were forgotten or looked over.
In "Facing It," the personal becomes real as the speaker of the poem revisits the Vietnam memorial in Washington. Imagery is the powerful technique the speaker employs and he demonstrates how to use imagery successfully. When the speaker looks at the memorial, anxiety from his past takes over his mind. He says, "My clouded reflection eyes me / like a bird of prey, the profile of night / slanted against morning" (Komunyakaa 6-8). The reflection he sees in the stone is the man he used to be or the soldier that fought in Vietnam. Memory takes over and everything seems to change for the speaker. The letters on the memorial are described as "smoke" (16) and the reflection of the people around him are fading through him as he feels he becomes a" window" (27). These images show us a man that is lost in the names and shapes that fall upon the granite. When he runs his fingertip along the names of the dead, he recalls a booby trap. It is a struggle for him to stay out of the past because the memorial acts as a conduit for all of the memories the speaker has chosen to forget until this moment. While he watches what he thinks is a lady trying to erase names from the wall, he realizes she is simply brushing a child's hair. The inability to draw distinct lines between the present and the past is captured in that moment, as the speaker finds himself projecting what he wants to do upon the others around him. He wishes to wipe away the names as an attempt to forget the past but he soon realizes he is unable to do so.
The most significant symbol in "Facing It" is the memorial, which represents the war. The war consumed the speaker and as he looks at the wall, he feels the same kind of consumption as he feels himself and the images of others drifting into the cold blackness before him. While looking at the wall, he says his "black face fades" (Komunyakaa 1) into the stone. As he looks into the wall, he feels himself dissolving back to another place and time. The wall, serving as a painful and vivid reminder of the war, pulls the speaker back to the war. We can almost see the reflection of this man fading into the granite as his memories flood his mind. The wall and the memory of war are so powerful that the speaker must turn his head away and resist the urge to break down in tears. The wall as a symbol of the war is gripping and dramatic and helps the speaker get his point across. Again, we are looking at divisions and the wall represents that line which exists between the past and the present. It looms dark and it is never going away. The speaker uncovers the frailty of the human spirit with this poem because he exposes the process of how the mind works when coping with painful memories.
In "Tu Do Street," the speaker experiences racial divides in Vietnam. The divide felt by the speaker emphasizes just how strong these kinds of divisions can be, even as they are unspoken. The poem opens with the hint of some kind of division as the speaker writes, "Music divides the evening / I close my eyes & can see / men drawing lines in the dust" (2-3). This image creates an invisible barrier the speaker feels when he walks into the bar. The lines drawn in the dust indicate that the separation between individuals is permanent. This not to say that the idea of such separation is good. To the contrary, the speaker uses language indicating how difficult and futile such lines are. Such lines are everywhere and sometimes difficult to erase once established. The speaker likens the experience back to a time in his youth when he is a "small boy / again in Bogalusa. White Only / signs & Hank Snow" (4-7). Here we see how…