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.