Yusef Komunyakaa
Farrar, Straus & Giroux ($14)

by Miguel Murphy

In Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, war is depicted as the fundamental drive of the human species, no less a part of the natural order than the sunset. “Before man was,” McCarthy writes, “war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner.”Warhorses, Yusef Komunyakaa’s most recent collection of poetry, is a lyrical contemplation of this wardrive, as well as a much needed consideration of our country’s militaristic role in recent history. Not so much a book against war, Komunyakaa’s volume is a weighing of its impulse, a meditation on flesh as the site where brutal carnage is matched by sensual delight.

Readers familiar with Komunyakaa’s work will recognize his muscular practice of poetic form, though he doesn’t so much experiment as create a kaleidoscopic view of the origins and machineries of violence.Warhorses is organized in three sections: a sequence of (mostly) Petrarchan sonnets, a series of more “standard” free verse lyrics, and a single 40-page dramatic monologue of tiered couplets, “The Autobiography of My Alter Ego,” written in the voice of an American veteran.

Many of the sonnets take as their subject historical and mythical figures: Cain and Abel, Penelope and Odysseus, the Mameluke (warrior slaves of ancient Baghdad who rose to power in the 13th century), Achilles and Patroclus, Gilgamesh and Enkido, and even a dolphin trained by the U.S. military to carry out an underwater suicide bombing. In much the same way horror and beauty are indistinguishable in Goya’s charcoals, Komunyakaa’s sonnets challenge the boundary between love and murder. The octets often describe an act of violence that the sestet mirrors with a kind of lovemaking (“I want to stitch up all your wounds / with kisses, but I also know that sometimes the seed is hurting / for red in the soil”), in which the warrior’s battle becomes a lover’s embrace: “he fell against his sweetheart again / & again, as if holding that warrior in his arms.” If human love is battle, Komunyakaa suggests it is not only metaphorically, but historically, so. The ambiguity of desire in these poems (“I touch the crescent-shaped war wound”) reflects a struggle to understand whether “the oldest prayer” of the flesh is Eros or Thanatos.

Komunyakaa organizes his book to consider this conundrum, beginning with an image of an ancient artifact as an implement for war—“the jawbone of an ass. A shank / braided with shark teeth”—and closes with the confession of a 20th-century veteran who admits, “I did what I did. / I called the Vietnamese / gooks & dinks / so I could kill them. . . . I used the butt / of my M16, / & stars bled on the grass.” Komunyakaa’s long poem of tiered couplets is a kind of answer to the mirrored octets and sestets of the first sections’ sonnets, and to the journey of the book as a whole. “Forgive my heart & penis,” he writes, “but don’t forgive my hands.”

Indeed, the technology for war seems to be at the center of the book’s meditation on society. The middle section focuses primarily on the various tools (“The Helmet,” “The Catapult,” “Warhorses”), art (“The Clay Army,” “Guernica,” “The Panorama”), and locations (“The Towers,” “The Warlord’s Garden,” “The Hague”) associated with mass violence. “How many battles were fought before / bronze meant shield & breastplate,” he asks in “The Helmet,” and in the title poem he considers the use of the historical battle horse (“When Cortés & his men rode / . . . they came as gods / out of a dream”) as well as contemporary machinery (“Horsepower harnessed beneath a metal hood / whinnied & grunted in the brain”). In one of the more poignant poems of this section, “Heavy Metal Soliloquy,” Komunyakaa gives voice to the elation of young troops headed into battle “inside our titanium tanks”: “finger on the trigger, getting ready to die, / getting ready to be born.” Perhaps this section is the most relentless of the three, as it doesn’t ruminate so much on love as its does on the hard bewilderments of wartime violence. “There’s always a fallen warrior whispering” he writes in “Guernica,” “a stone’s promise, waiting for a star, / his mouth agape.”

Readers after a more harshly Dionysian vision—like that of the Judge in McCarthy’s novel who seeks “a hero anointed with the blood of the enemies of the republic”—might be disappointed that Komunyakaa doesn’t seek out that nihilistic hero driven by a Macbeth-like bloodlust, but instead complicates war with the eros of a personal—some might say self-indulgent—desire. Though there are moments in the text of poignant witness, as in the prose poem “Grenade,” in which he recounts the self-sacrifice of a fellow soldier (“For those who can walk away, what is their burden? Shreds of flesh & bloody rags gathered up & stuffed into a bag”), most of Komunyakaa’s depictions are not as brutally forthcoming as, say, Wilfred Owen’s in “Dulce et Decorum Est,” softened as they are by Komunyakaa’s syntactical precocity, imagistic fervor, and musical enjambment:

I don’t know
if I should say
what I never said before—gut wounds
& head wounds, blood
ran into the last rays
of sunlight, mixing with night
a sky heavy as the darkness
inside the first human grave.

The understandable hesitation of this passage helps us to approach what we might rightfully fear—a violence both archetypal and innate. Komunyakaa insists throughout Warhorses that the struggle between love and brutality is part of the natural order for a species that constantly finds itself at war. Ultimately, his contemplation of the militaristic results in a profound interrogation of human responsibility. If we can empathize with the lovers of his poems, we must also acknowledge ourselves as murderers too.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009