On Using Cliche In Dien Cai Dau

Essay, Research Paper Komunyakaa (with Vincente Gotera) (1990) Interviewer In much of your work, probably more so in Lost in the Bonewheel Factory [where

Essay, Research Paper

Komunyakaa (with Vincente Gotera) (1990)

Interviewer

In much of your work, probably more so in Lost in the Bonewheel Factory [where

"The Dog Act" and "The Nazi Doll" first appeared] than in Copacetic

it seems to me that you strive for a tension between levels of diction. I see you, for

example, yoking Latinate words to everyday ones.

Komunyakaa

That’s probably who I am. Fluctuating between this point over here and another

strain over there: the things I’ve read that come into my work, and also the things

I’ve experienced that affect my work, at the same time. And both of these work side

by side. I don’t draw any distinctions between those two, because after all

that’s the totality of the individual.

It goes back to a statement by Aim? Cesaire: essentially, he says that we are a

composite of all our experiences – love, hatred, understanding, misunderstaqnding

– and consequently we rise out of those things like – to use a clich? – a

phoenix. We survive the baptism by fire, only to grow more complete and stronger. The way

we are, perhaps today, might be entirely different tomorrow.

Interviewer

It’s interesting that you bring up the word clich?. In your Vietnam poems, I see

you doing something different from what you do in Copacetic and Lost in the

Bonewheel Factory. You thread in cliches and then deflate them.

Komunyakaa

That’s interesting because, especially with soldiers, for some reason –

individuals coming from so many backgrounds: the deep South, the North, different

educational levels – cliches are used many times as efforts to communicate, as

bridges perhaps. And soldiers often speak in cliches – at least this is what

I’ve found.

I’ve been using quotations a whole lot, as I remember them. Certain things in a

poem will surface, and I can hear a certain person saying those things. And I can see his

face, even when I cannot put a name to the face. …

… I’ve been going through faces in writing these Vietnam poems, and I’m

surprised at how few of the names I remember. I suppose that’s all part of the

forgetting process, in striving to forget particular situations that were pretty traumatic

for me. Not when I was there as much as in retrospect. When you’re there in such a

situation, you’re thinking about where the nearest safest place is to run, in case of

an incoming rocket. You don’t have time to even think about the moral implications.

from "Lines of Tempered Steel: An Interview with Vincente F. Gotera," Callaloo

13:2 (1990)

Michael Collins (1993)

In "Starlight Scope Myopia," [Komunyakaa’s] unexpected empathy is best

expressed by the word Komunyakaa puts into the mouths of the Vietnamese who may be

"calling the Americans / beaucoup dien cai dau" (very crazy). This

multicultural insult begins with a word the Vietnamese took from the French, whom they

defeated, then switches for exactitude into Vietnamese to characterize the Americans, whom

they are in the process of defeating. (The ironic phrase spans all the relevant cultures

in the long Vietnam nightmare. That an American is wondering whether the Vietcong are

using this phrase demonstrates both discomfort and a certain muted triumph at having them

in his sights. Even a battlefield is a society with rules and language games.)

It also crystallizes a point Komunyakaa suggests in his interviews with [Vincente]

Gotera, that societies of strangers, or even of traditional enemies, can be ever sod

elicately held together by infinitely recycled bits of language, by clich?s: "[Among

American] soldiers, for some reason — individuals coming from so many backgrounds: the

deep South, the North, different educational levels – clich?s are used many times as

efforts to communicate, as bridges perhaps. And soldiers often speak in clich?s

…" Clich?s, like tatoos on the bodies of languages, are useful decorations of

places where a common vision is hidden, or being brought to light. The clich? "Beaucoup

dien cai dau"is Komunyakaa’s assessment of the war itself and perhaps of

America’s role in it. True, his Vietnam lyrics display none of the sense of outrage,

of being pierced by betrayal, so evident in the testimony of some black Vietnam veterans.

Gene Woodley … told journalist Wallace Terry of being transformed into an

"animal" by his boot camp training, and by the brutality of Vietnam and insisted

that in shipping him and other "bloods" off to its rice paddy war, America

befell upon us as one big atrocity. It lied. They had us na?ve, young, dumb-ass

niggers believin’ that this war was for democracy and independence. It was fought for

money. All those big corporations made billions on the war, and then America left.

On the other hand, Komunyakaa is no indestructible patriot like the blood Terry

interviewed who narrated the following anecdotes about his experience as a prisoner of war

in Vietnam:

They would read things in their behalf about the Communist way and downgrading the

United States, blah, blah, blah, all the time. … When Dr. King was assassinated they

called me in for interrogation to see if I would make a statement critical of the United

States. I said no, I don’t know enough about it. … My personal feeling is that

black people have problems and still have problems in America. But I never told them that,

because I had no intention of helping them defeat us. We deal with our problems within our

own country. Some people just do not live up to the great ideals our country stands for

Komunyakaa’s poetry conveys the pain and grace involved in maintaining not so much

the middle ground between these two positions as the shifting ground of

possibilities that lies under them both. He illuminates these and other positions in part

by creating a "tension between levels of diction," as Gotera has said, by

deploying what he himself calls a "neon vernacular" in which argots and forms of

life blink on and off like those neon signs in which a cityscape expands and contracts,

caressing and reshaping the night.

from Michael Collins, "Staying Human" (a review of Neon Vernacular and

Magic City), Parnassus 18:2/19:1 (1993), 134-135