from “Autobiography of My Alter Ego” by Yusef Komunyakaa

Yusef Komunyakaa


I can’t press a fingernail
into the President’s name
till a jay cries from its tower
of green leaves, a fortress
of springtime branches,
because he didn’t go to Nam.
But sometimes I wish that Silver Star
never came out of its velvet-lined
box. They can melt it down
for a boy’s tin whistle
at a crosswalk, a lucky charm
for a guy burning his draft card
in Canada or Sweden. I know men
who did more than I dreamt
& only received an image of blood
on bronze because of black or brown
skin, shortchanged by a silhouette.
Sometimes I can’t stop
thinking of Oliver, a paratrooper,
just eighteen, who threw himself
on a VC’s hand grenade
to save his squad, who turned into mist,
something less than gopherwood.
For weeks, for months,
I could taste him in the dusty air.
Do you know how it feels
to have your tongue shaped
from a dead man’s name?
Suppose that grenade
hadn’t fallen like jackfruit
from a heavy branch,
& Oliver walked in here
today, took a seat beside
Nancy, & began to talk….
I have played the scene
over & over in my head:
the grenade, the three hundred years
of silence, the air filled
with nothing but our voices. The others,
where are they now, what
are they saying about Oliver?
If he had fathered children
would song or lament open
in their dark mouths? Today,
what kind of man would he be,
is that sound still traveling
out into space? I told you,
if you start me talking,
I’ll tell everything I know.

from Rattle #25, Summer 2006
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