Yusef Komunyakaa was born James Brown in Bogalusa, Louisiana on April 29, 1947, and raised during the beginning of the Civil Rights movement in the South. Then, in 1969, he served a short stint in the U.S. Army before becoming the managing editor of the Southern Cross during the Vietnam War and earned a bronze star for his work there.
He lived a very full twenty-six years before he began writing poetry in 1973 and hit the ground running. He earned his first bachelor’s degree on the GI Bill from the University of Colorado Springs in 1975. Then, in 1977, his first book of poems, Dedications and Other Darkhorses, was published, followed by Lost in the Bonewheel Factory in 1979. He also earned an MA from Colorado State University and MFA in creative writing from University of California, Irvine during this time.
Komunyakaa’s poetry plays with the inclusion of personal narrative, jazz rhythm, and vernacular language to summon forth images of life during both peace and war. The first major recognition of his poetry followed the publication of Copacetic in 1984, which was a collection of poetry using colloquial speech and incorporating jazz influences. Then I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head (1986) won the San Francisco Poetry Center Award, and Dien Cai Dau (1988) won the Dark Room Poetry Prize and has been noted as being among the best writing of the Vietnam War.
Since then, Komunyakaa has published nine more collections including his most recent, The Emperor of Water Clocks (2015). He has also written a bit of prose over the years, and this work is collected in Blue Notes: Essays, Interviews & Commentaries (2000). Komunyakaa has also taught at several universities, including University of New Orleans, Indiana University, and Princeton University. He is currently the Distinguished Senior Poet in New York University’s graduate Creative Writing program.
Komunyakaa’s work, and the images that it conjures, has been instrumental in the effort to help civilians understand what soldiers went through during the Vietnam War and how it affected all aspects of their lives. So in honor of soldiers and veterans on his birthday, let’s remember what our soldiers and veterans have sacrificed for our safety and freedom and that this sacrifice wasn’t simply physical.
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.