Ahead of Memorial Day, poet Richard Blanco shared poems by veterans. “[Let’s] take a look at war from their perspective. I think it’s a perspective that’s sometimes missing from the general consciousness,” he said.
Blanco read “Facing It” by Yusef Komunyakaa. Written in response to visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the poem discusses racism, loss, the consequences of war. Richard said how thanking someone for their service could never capture the depth and complexity of what it means to serve. “Here’s your service in these lines: it’s pain, it’s grit, it’s love, it’s so many things.”
Blanco also read “Before the Deployment” by Jehanne Dubrow, a deeply tender poem that captures the effects of war on loved ones left behind; and “Songs of Napalm” by Bruce Weigl, written for his wife and which addresses the constant struggle with PTSD.
Follow along with the poems as they are read and discussed.
By Yusef Komunyakaa
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 in letters like smoke.
I touch the name Andrew Johnson;
I see the booby trap’s white flash.
Names shimmer on a woman’s blouse
but when she walks away
the names stay on the wall.
Brushstrokes flash, a red bird’s
wings cutting across my stare.
The sky. A plane in the sky.
A white vet’s image floats
closer to me, then his pale eyes
look through mine. I’m a window.
He’s lost his right arm
inside the stone. In the black mirror
a woman’s trying to erase names:
No, she’s brushing a boy’s hair.
Before the Deployment
By Jehanne Dubrow
He kisses me before he goes. While I,
still dozing, half-asleep, laugh and rub my face
against the sueded surface of the sheets,
thinking it’s him I touch, his skin beneath
my hands, my body curving in to meet
his body there. I never hear him leave.
But I believe he shuts the bedroom door,
as though unsure if he should change his mind,
pull off his boots, crawl beneath the blankets
left behind, his hand a heat against my breast,
our heart rates slowing into rest. Perhaps
all good-byes should whisper like a piece of silk—
and then the quick surprise of waking, alone
except for the citrus ghost of his cologne.
Song of Napalm
By Bruce Weigl
for my wife
After the storm, after the rain stopped pounding,
We stood in the doorway watching horses
Walk off lazily across the pasture’s hill.
We stared through the black screen,
Our vision altered by the distance
So I thought I saw a mist
Kicked up around their hooves when they faded
Like cut-out horses
Away from us.
The grass was never more blue in that light, more
Scarlet; beyond the pasture
Trees scraped their voices into the wind, branches
Crisscrossed the sky like barbed wire
But you said they were only branches.
Okay. The storm stopped pounding.
I am trying to say this straight: for once
I was sane enough to pause and breathe
Outside my wild plans and after the hard rain
I turned my back on the old curses. I believed
They swung finally away from me …
But still the branches are wire
And thunder is the pounding mortar,
Still I close my eyes and see the girl
Running from her village, napalm
Stuck to her dress like jelly,
Her hands reaching for the no one
Who waits in waves of heat before her.
So I can keep on living,
So I can stay here beside you,
I try to imagine she runs down the road and wings
Beat inside her until she rises
Above the stinking jungle and her pain
Eases, and your pain, and mine.
But the lie swings back again.
The lie works only as long as it takes to speak
And the girl runs only as far
As the napalm allows
Until her burning tendons and crackling
Muscles draw her up
into that final position
Burning bodies so perfectly assume. Nothing
Can change that; she is burned behind my eyes
And not your good love and not the rain-swept air
And not the jungle green
Pasture unfolding before us can deny it.
This episode first aired on Boston Public Radio on Monday, May 24th, 2021.