Review of Yusef Komunyakaa's Warhorses
Like Aphrodite rising from the foam of Uranus’s severed genitals, the poems in Yusef Komunyakaa’s most recent volume, Warhorses, begin in violence and birth a warped sort of love. Komunyakaa draws heavily from stories of ancient war for the first section, “Love in the time of War,” referencing the Gilgamesh Epic, Greek heroes Achilles and Odysseus, and biblical characters such as Samson and Cain and Abel.
The first poem begins with the juxtaposition of two phrases, “The jawbone of an ass, a shank” a line which recalls the biblical story of Samson, who used a donkey’s jaw to kill one-thousand Philistines. But this first line also illustrates one of the major themes of Warhorses—the nature of humanity is intertwined with violence, and people will twist everything around them—animals, objects, and even emotion—toward violence. A jawbone in itself is not naturally a weapon. Perspective created a shank, just as it is human proclivity for violence that molded an animal—a horse—into an instrument of war.
Each poem in the first section is written as a sonnet, and although Komunyakaa breaks the stanzas differently in various poems, the first eight lines consider war, and the final six are devoted to the breed of love that exists in wartime.
The separation between the two is clear in poems such as “They swarmed down over the town,” which begins:
They swarmed down over the town
& left bodies floating in the ditches
& moats. Bloated with silence,
blue with flies on the rooftops.
The second half concerns the manifestation of love that arises after the violence:
On the wild forgetful straw beds,
they created a new race, a new tongue
to sing occidental prayers & regrets.
Once readers understand the way Komunyakaa is organizing the stanza’s, however, he begins to erase the boundaries between the love and war. No longer at opposite poles, the two become, at times, inseparable. Constant warring surrounds love, and as a result, love retains qualities of violence, such as in the first section of “Hand-to-hand: the two hugged each other”
Hand-to-hand: the two hugged each other
Into a naked tussle, one riding the others back
locked in a double embrace. One
forced the other to kiss the ground.
Although this stanza begins the poem, it just as easily could have ended it according to Komunyakaa’s method of organization. The two men are locked together “Hand-to-hand.” Whether in combat or in love is unclear, and because of the way that Komunyakaa chose to separate the stanza, they could well be the same thing. This blending continues into the final four poems of the section, which depart ancient warfare and offer brief meditations on modern battle.
Humans continue to bend nature in “A bottle-nosed dolphin swims midnight water”, in which a trainer and his wife make love in their water bed, while “A bottle-nosed dolphin swims midnight water/ with plastic explosives strapped to her body.” In “Someone’s beating a prisoner”, an interrogator beats a prisoner until he “makes him piss on the stone floor,” then “orders the man/ to dig his grave with a teaspoon.” This immersion in violence is not without consequences. In the final poem, in an unidentified place of war a name is called during role, someone who is both a son and a lover, and there’s no response. The soldier has hung himself, “his name hangs high in the rafters,” and all that’s left are “his propped up boots & helmet” one man’s leftover tools that “refuse to answer.”
In the second section, “Heavy Metal”, Komunyakaa steps away from any sentimentality he’s begun drifting toward at the end of the first section and returns to scrutinizing humanity’s obsession with turning objects toward war. The first poem in the series, “The Helmet,” is an imagining of how men first dreamed up basic tools of war during a time “before/ bronze meant shield and breastplate…”
Perhaps someone was watching
a mud turtle or an armadillo
skulk along an old interminable footpath
armored against sworn enemies.
As the poems once again progress toward present times, Komunyakaa devotes more lines to exploring humanity’s obsessive relationship with weaponry. In “The Catapult”, men struggle to turn back the winch and use a catapult for their own gain. After loading the rocks, however, the warriors “bowed at the foot/ of the cross,”—though they created the object they worshipped it, believing that the weapon they created had the power to save. The theme of weaponry-as-god surfaces again in “Grenade”, which begins with the line, “There’s no rehearsal to turn flesh into dust so quickly,” a reversal of the Genesis passage about the creation of man.
The final section of Warhorses, “Autobiography of my Alter Ego” is a long memoir poem spanning Komunyakaa’s childhood in Louisiana through when he returned from the Vietnam War. The same themes from the earlier two sections are revisited, as Komunyakaa remembers back to “the first person I ever loved,” a “tall black woman/ named Roberta.” After he’s drafted, he seems startled to encounter love even in the thick of the violent jungle, writing that, “I felt as if I were falling/ in love with the wives, daughters,/ & sisters of the dead NVA/ & Vietcong.” Still, this strange love never alters Komunyakaa’s actions, and he returns home a haunted individual.
The final section of the poem transitions to a new theme: forgiveness. It’s what Komunyakaa’s troubled father begs for at the end of his life, and it’s an idea that begins to weigh on Komunyakaa as well. We get the sense that it’s not simply personal forgiveness he’s concerned with, but all of humanity’s, who as a race are never far from potential violence. Ultimately, he seems to believe we don’t deserve it, having resigned himself to the idea that by nature, we are a violent race. “Forgive my heart & penis” he pleads at the end of the book, believing them both to be faculties of instinct, “but don’t forgive my hands.” The human heart may be a mysterious force, but our hands—our tools—are not subject to every desire, a belief that Komunyakaa spends all of Warhorses trying to explain and atone for.