On "Tu Do Street"
Alvin Aubert (1993)
Especially relevant to the present discussion is the poem "Tu Do Street," from Dien Cai Dau, with its titular punning on "two door."
An implicit distinction is drawn in the poem between the Gis quest for sexless or pre-sexual socialization in the bars and their quest for sex in other rooms, for although the black Gis are shunned by the mama-sans and bar girls in the bars frequented by the white Gis, "deeper into alleys," in off-limit areas, the black soldiers have access to prostitutes whose services are available on a nondiscriminatory basis. These assignations take place in "rooms" that invoke a transformational landscape: They "run into each other like tunnels / leading to the underworld." Implicit in these conduits is a common humanity, linked to a common death, figuratively in sex and literally in war, for black and white Gis alike:
Theres more than a nation
inside us, a black & white
soldiers touch the same lovers
minutes apart, tasting
each others breath
Whats "more than a nation / inside" the Gis, black and white, is of course their shared humanity.
The persona knows about the two doors but impelled by purposes of the persona behind the persona the poet in quest of a poem, and consequently, of his equalization and literary canonization he goes in through the opposite door anyway, purposefully and perhaps ritualistically subjecting himself to the rejection on racial grounds he knows he is sure to get. When he enters the bar frequented by the white Gis, where the music is different from that in the bars where the black Gis go, the bar girls "feel like tropical birds" in their evasiveness. The experience triggers a memory [Aubert cites the lines beginning "Music divides the evening" and ends "Hank Snow."] As it was at home so it is on the ar front at least in the rear echelons in Saigon where the soldiers go for rest and recuperation. In the combat zone, where "only machine gun fire brings us / together," where inter-racial camaraderie has immediate survival values, a different code of behavior prevails
The bar girls and prostitutes of Saigon are metonymically depicted in "Tu Do Street" as victims, their "voices / wounded by their beauty and war." These women are also a part of the "nation / inside us" quoted and commented on above, for it is they "the same lovers" touched by black Gis and white Gis alike, implicitly by virtue of their capacity for motherhood, for bringing life into the world, and as the primary sources of nurturing who are the conferers and common denominators of the universal, of the common humanity that populates Komunyakaas projected socio-literary commonwealth and makes material his "unified vision."
from Alvin Aubert, "Yusef Kumunyakaa: The Unified Vision Canonization and Humanity," African American Review 27: 1 (1993), pp. 122-123.
Kevin Stein (1996)
Komunyakaa takes some of our easy assumptions about the art, oftentimes garnered from film and music, and turns them on ear. How frequently in films devoted to the war, for example, is music shown as a kind of unifying force among American soldiers? How many scenes out of a film such as Good Morning, Vietnam for instance, use music as the common denominator linking our troops in a shared cultural heritage? While its difficult to deny that music itself was a crucial part of the experience of the war, both in Vietnam and at home, notice how Komunyakaas Africn-American experience illuminates incidents in the poem "Tu Do Street" where music is not the unifying element we might have thought it to be
[Stein cites the last twelve lines of the poem.]
In this brothel scene, hardly the most promising site for such revelations, the poems black speaker comes to an epiphanic understanding of "shared humanity" that, for the American combatants, runs deeper than their skin color. More importantly, the speaker recognizes a common humanity whose roots cross the superficial boundaries of nations, connecting those of black, white, yellow and recalling Komunyakaas "Recreating the Scene" [another poem in Dien Cai Dau], red skin. Surely the Vietnamese women these soldiers "run to hold," as well as their brothers who fight the Americans, understand what it is to be human upon this green globe and what sentence awaits each of us in deaths "underworld." However, this revelation does not come without its share of ominous undertones, for the figurative "tunnels" that link these men and women in their humanity also have a literal reality in the deadly maze of tunnels the Viet Cong use to ferry supplies, to fight and quickly disappear, and into which many American soldiers ventured never to return (as "Tunnels," the books second poem, memorably describes). Such ironies did not escape the attention of the Viet Cong, who employed every tactic available to them to undermine the morale of the American troops.
from Kevin Stein, "Vietnam and the Voice Within: Yusef Komunyakka and Dien Cai Dau" (Chapter 5) in Private Poets, Worldly Acts: Public and Private History in Contemporary American Poetry (Athens, Ohio: Ohio U P, 1996), pp. 98-99.
No poem shows the interrelatedness of human beings in war-time more effectively than "Tu Do Street" in which the black soldier, after being rejected in a "white" bar, finds a "black" bar and temporary solace with a Vietnamese prostitute. The he reflects: "Back in the bush at Dak To / & Khe Sanh, we fought / the brothers of these women / we now run to hold in our arms. / There;s more than a nation / inside us, as black & white / soldiers touch the same lovers / minutes apart, tasting / each others breath, / without know these rooms / run into each other like tunnels / leading to the underworld." This is an amazing image of our connected humanity, but is the connection with "underworld" just a harsh reminder of death that should stir us to behave with more kindness, or is it a pessimistic reflection of the human propensity to divide and destroy ourselves?
It was one of those endings that, once Id written it down, just stopped where it was. There were many symbolic underworlds in Vietnam, the underground tunnel systems, some of the bars, and the whole psychic space of the GI a kind of underworld populated by ghosts and indefinable images. It was a place of emotional and psychological flux where one was trying to make sense out of the world and ones place in that world. And there was, relentlessly, a going back and forth between that internal space and external world. It was an effort to deal with oneself, and with the other GIs, the Vietnamese, and even the ghosts that wed managed to create ourselves. So, for me, this is a very complex picture of the situation of the GI going back and forth, condemned in a way to trek back and forth between those emotional demarcations while trying to make sense out of things.
from "Still Negotiating with the Images: An Interview with William Baer," Kenyon Review Fall 1998
Return to Yusef Komunyakaa
The boy went to church and listened to the preacher, reading the poetry of the King James Bible. He wanted to be a preacher, too. But by the time he came of age there was a war in Vietnam, and he found himself clutching the black metal of an M-16 assault rifle, not a book. ''I never used the word gook or dink in Vietnam,'' he said. ''There is a certain kind of dehumanization that takes place to create an enemy, to call up the passion to kill this person. I knew something about that growing up in Louisiana.''
It took him 14 years to write about the war in two books of poetry. In many of his poems, like ''Starlight Scope Myopia,'' he writes with compassion about those he fought. The Vietnamese peasants reminded him of sharecroppers.
He came back and went to college and then to graduate school at Colorado State University and the University of California at Irvine. And he began to write. His dozen or so books of poems, including ''Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems,'' which won him the Pulitzer in 1994, use the experience of being black and often poor in America to speak of suffering and endurance, and most importantly healing.
His life, he said, has been a ''healing process from the two places'': Bogalusa and Vietnam. But darkness has stalked him beyond the bayou and Southeast Asia. His 2-year-old son, Jehan Vazirani Komunyakaa, named for Shah Jehan, the emperor who built the Taj Mahal, was stabbed to death last July by Jehan's mother, the Indian-born poet Reetika Vazirani, who then took her own life. At the funeral, Mr. Komunyakaa sat as a poem he wrote to his son, which began ''I am five,'' an age his child never would reach, was read to the mourners by a friend. He has an adult daughter from another marriage.
HE has just finished a performance piece called ''The Trial of Chief Standing Bear.'' The chief was arrested in 1879 while taking the body of his son home for burial from the reservation where his Ponca tribe had been relocated in Oklahoma. In the resulting trial, a federal judge declared that American Indians had legal rights.
Mr. Komunyakaa wonders at how quickly we forget the injustices perpetrated in the name of God and country, on the Great Plains, in the segregated South, in the soporific heat of Vietnam, in the slums of Newark and Trenton and in Iraq. He fights against this forgetting, for only in remembering is there healing. ''I excavate history,'' he said. ''I look at lives buried under too much silence. Periods of time, like slavery, have to be revisited, reimagined, so we can move through them.''
In his poem ''Tu Do Street,'' after being expelled from a Vietnamese bar for white soldiers, he walks into a bar for black soldiers and sees the Vietnamese bar girls, ''wounded by their beauty & war,'' noting that ''back in the bush at Dak To & Khe Sanh, we fought the brothers of these women we now run to hold in our arms.''
There's more than a nation
inside us, as black & white
soldiers touch the same lovers
minutes apart, tasting
each other's breath,
without knowing these rooms
run into each other like tunnels
leading to the underworld.Continue reading the main story