Memorial Day Poetry

May 25, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT

ROBERT PINSKY, Poet Laureate: Here are two poems that deal with the war that for people in my generation may always be in a lot of ways “the” war. First, a passage about Vietnam from “Serpent Knowledge.” In my book-length poem “An Explanation of America.” In the poem I address a child.

From “An Explanation of America:” “On television I used to see each week Americans descending machines with wasted bravery and blood, to spread pain and vast fires amid a foreign place among the strangers to whom we were new.

Americans, the spook or Golan there.

I think it made our country bolder forever. I don’t mean better or not better, but merely as though a person should come to a certain place and have his hair turn gray that very night.

Someday the war in Southeast Asia, somewhere, perhaps for you and people younger than you, will be the kind of history and pain Sugumtton is for me, but never tamed or history for me, I think.

I think that I may always feel as if I lived in a time when the country aged itself, more lonely together in our common strangeness, as if we were a family and some members had done an awful thing on a road at night and all of us had grown white hair or tails, and though the tails or white hair would afflict only that generation then alive and of a certain age, regardless of whether they were the ones that did or planned the thing, or even heard about it.

Nevertheless, the members of that family ever after would bear some consequence or demarcation, forgotten maybe, taken for granted, a trait, a new syllable buried in their name.”

ROBERT PINSKY: And here’s a poem by Yusef Komunyakaa, the distinguished American poet who’s a veteran of the war in Vietnam.

The poem is from Komunyakaa’s book, “Dien Cai Dau.” “Facing It.”

“My black face fades, hiding inside the black granite.

I said I wouldn’t, damn it, 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 touched the name Andrew Johnson.

I see the booby traps’ white flash.

Names shimmer on a woman’s blouse, but when she walks away, the names stay on the wall. Brush strokes 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.”