To Have Danced with Death – Yusef Komunyakaa

Yusef Komunyakaa

This is another favorite poem of mine. I first read this poem as an undergrad and often recall it while watching the news. This poem is– as I read it– about an African American soldier returning home from the Vietnam war. He has been traumatized, wounded, and is unaffected by the political pomp and circumstance greeting him and the coffins he accompanies.

To Have Danced with Death

The black sergeant first class

who stalled us on the ramp

didn’t kiss the ground either.

When two hearses sheened up to the plane

& government silver-gray coffins

rolled out on silent chrome coasters,

did he feel better? The empty left leg

of his trousers shivered as another hearse

with shiny hubcaps inched from behind a building…

his three rows of ribbons rainbowed

over the forest of faces through

plate glass. Afternoon sunlight

made surgical knives out of chrome

& brass. He half smiled when

the double doors opened for him

like a wordless mouth taking back promises.

The room of blue eyes averted his.

He stood there, searching

his pockets for something:

maybe a woman’s name & number

worn thin as a Chinese fortune.

I wanted him to walk ahead,

to disappear through glass,

to be consumed by music

that might move him like Sandman Sims,

but he merely rocked on his good leg

like a bleak & soundless bell.

Kounyakkaa, Yusef. (1988) Dien Cai Dau. Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press. Page 46

Komunyakaa is a Vietnam War veteran originally from Louisiana and now teaches at Princeton.

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