May 25, 1997
United States Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky reflects on the Vietnam War.
PHIL PONCE: Finally, this Memorial Day, NewsHour contributor Robert Pinksy, Poet Laureate of the United States.
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 "Serpent Knowledge:"
On television, I used to see, each week,
Americans descending in 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: a spook or golem, there.
I think it made our country older, 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
Saguntum 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 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.
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 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.