Crazy: A Review of Dien Cai Dau

Dien Cai Dau means “crazy” in Vietnamese. It’s also the title of a collection of poetry by Yusef Komunyakaa. It’s not often you read poetry by somebody who has both the Pulitzer Prize for his writing and the Bronze Star for his time in Vietnam. It made me feel like I was in a pleasant dream that slowly morphed into a bad one. Brief and powerful work. This volume was published in 1988. I was 21 and not even commissioned yet.

Lately, I’m obsessed with luck. In “Thanks,” Komunyakaa is grateful for avoiding a sniper’s bullet. Thankful that fate has let him pass. Thankful for other near misses. This part grabbed me:

Again, thanks for the dud

hand grenade tossed at my feet

outside Chu Lai. I’m still 

falling through its silence.

I’m also recently fascinated by literature that references maps. This reference occurs in “Short-timer’s Calendar” that warns to stay away from the new guys because they’re bad news. It’s an example of the dreamlike language:

…It was like playing

tic-tac-toe with God. Each x,

a stitch holding breath together,

a map that went nowhere–

like lies told to trees. 

I watched them grow into an ink blot,

an omen, a sign the dead could read.

I felt like I was reading an upbeat voice that was bringing terrible news. With the benefit of hindsight, things can be seen all at once, instead of in chronological order. That sometimes breaks your heart and Komunyakaa does that to me here in “A Break from the Bush.” Describing a unit getting some R + R from the fighting at a beach, he hits hard like he does throughout the collection:


who in three days will trip 

a fragmentation mine, 

runs after the ball 

into the whitecaps,


A friend recently told me right to my face that there hasn’t been any good war poetry since WWI. He was British, so maybe he’s biased. But I have no earthly idea what he’s talking about.


About Eric Chandler

Husband. Father. Pilot. Cross Country Skier. Writer. Author of Outside Duluth and Down In It.
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