New Trick From Old ‘Warhorses’

'Warhorses,' by Yosef Komunyakaa (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Is there anything new to say about war? With the recent glut of books and films tackling the subject, one certainly has reason for posing the question. But “Warhorses,” the latest collection from Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and Vietnam veteran Yusef Komunyakaa, offers a nuanced take on the overwritten subject, addressing its great complexity with profound ambivalence and great dexterity.

Komunyakaa doesn’t break any new ground with his descriptions of Vietnam or of what it is like to survive such a war, but he doesn’t have to, either; Komunyakaa is aiming for something much bigger. “Warhorses” doesn’t rehash the same stories or military clichés that generations of war movies have instilled in us. Instead, Komunyakaa turns to a smaller lens: the perspective of a particular character, or the different objects that constitute war. By boiling war down to its essence, Komunyakaa asks the reader, “Why do we go to war?”—and he does a pretty good job of answering his own question.

“Warhorses” is divided into three sections. The first section, “Love in the Time of War,” is a series of poems written in loose sonnet form. Komunyakaa starts by evoking the savage war of primitive man (“An obsidian ax. A lion-skin drum”) and works his way through ancient war, through Gilgamesh, through Cain and Abel, through the visceral, bloody war of the past, to the darker and more terrifying present of torpedoes and secret wars.

Komunyakaa writes plainly but with powerful imagery. He need only call up a few simple, well-placed nouns and his scene is clear. He takes this idea the furthest in a two-part poem that lists the things that divide man to show the consequences of these divisions. Each terse one-word phrase becomes packed with meaning, emphasizing the divided nature of the concepts they represent: “Grid / coordinates. Maps. Longitude. Latitude. Property lines drawn / in unconsecrated dust.” War is both a calculated affair deployed from a bunker and a personal conflict between two neighbors.

This metonymic technique serves Komunyakaa well, allowing him to provide fresh insight into the things that make up war. But it sometimes veers toward a laundry list or a museum description. The second section of the book, which deals with the implements of war, sometimes loses its momentum due to the weight of the nouns that are loaded upon it. Komunyakaa excels at unemotionally describing scenes and letting the reader draw his own associations from the poetry. However, in poems like “The Clay Army,” he doesn’t add anything beyond the basic historical facts one could find in a textbook: “Some warriors are sculpted; in unbroken taijiquan stances. In the third pit, / royal commanders huddle with scrimmages / in broken heads.”

Yet Komunyakaa is not only interested in the physical objects that make up war. The poems in the first section are as much about love as they are about battle. “For a woman to conceive in this place & time, / she must be in the arms of a warrior riding / down through the bloody ages,” he says in one of his earlier poems. The women in his poems both drive the war and have the mystical power to soothe and heal the wounds of battle. They are both an antidote and a cause.

Then, of course, there are the warhorses themselves. In the poem that lends the book its title, Komunyakaa speaks of them as mythic beings, created to be ridden into battle. Throughout the book, Komunyakaa suggests that there is some basic human force that drives man to war; the horses are just as old and just as essential to the task of killing. As such, horses are often referred to throughout the poems as a symbol of man’s own warlike drive: “Horses carried men to reed boats. / Horses carried the Lion-hearted / ...Horses carried man to the quartering. / Horses carried men to the grasslands / of the Crow, Shawnee, & Apache.” But the horses also hint at Komunyakaa’s own experience: warhorse refers to one who is a veteran of many battles and struggles, a title that he can certainly claim as he himself faced fire in Vietnam.

While literary references ooze from Komunyakaa’s poems, they are surprisingly readable and unpretentious. Yet there is still a clear wall between the poet and the reader. As Komunyakaa once said, “Poetry is a kind of distilled insinuation. It’s a way of expanding and talking around an idea or a question.”

This particular perspective on the art is especially evident in his third section: one long poem entitled “Autobiography of My Alter Ego.” “Autobiography” tells the story of a man, not unlike Komunyakaa, who has spent time in Vietnam. Unlike Komunyakaa, however, he never moved beyond working at his father’s bar, and the whole poem resembles the unfocused rant of a slightly destabilized veteran. Here, the urgency that was muted throughout the other sections becomes more apparent. Komunyakaa’s alter ego is angry and full of guilt but has no idea how to express it. He stands in for Komunyakaa’s own ambivalence about war, his feeling of never being able to fully express his emotions regarding it. “Iraq? Well, as I said before: / If you start me talking, / I’ll tell everything I know,” he says, implying that there is a whole world of information to which neither the reader nor the narrator is privy to.

While each of the three sections has its own distinctive tone, Komunyakaa’s voice is discernible behind them all. He is the warhorse, the man who has ridden into battle and can’t quite seem to return home even all these years later. He knows he’ll never be able to explain the entirety of his experience, so he doesn’t even try. Instead, he limits his focus to one moment, one person, one tool of war. In the process, he manages to say something greater. By looking at individual causes and experiences, he is able to bring a fresh perspective to the desire to go to war.