“It’s etched within me. It’s haunting,” Westley Thomas tells PBS, as he stares directly into the camera. For this Vietnam veteran, and others, the American use of napalm is seared into his mind, his body.

“I don’t think there’s anybody who was involved with operations who didn’t see napalm being dropped at one point or another,” former Secretary of State John Kerry further muses.

Now in its second season, “Poetry in America,” which centers around one iconic American poem each episode, examines “You and I Are Disappearing,” written by Pulitzer Prize winner and Vietnam veteran Yusef Komunyakaa.

In the episode, Komunyakaa is joined by “film and theatre director Julie Taymor, composer Elliot Goldenthal, [and] a chorus of Vietnam War veterans… [to] discuss the awful mix of beauty and horror in war—and the challenge of making art from it.”

In 1969, as a soldier in the US Army and also as an editor for the The Southern Cross, Komunyakaa, then known as James Brown, wrote extensively on racism in the Army: “it takes a creative response towards racial understanding to keep democracy as a workable philosophy.”

Poet Yusef Komunyakaa, left. (Courtesy of Poetry in America)
Poet Yusef Komunyakaa, left. (Courtesy of Poetry in America)

In “You and I Are Disappearing” Komunyakaa tells PBS that he is exploring “all the different ways in the speaker’s psyche that burning is taking place.” It is a simile, a confrontation of both the Vietnam War and the Jim Crow South. He begins:

The cry I bring down from the hills
belongs to a girl still burning
inside my head. At daybreak
       she burns like a piece of paper.

Komunyakaa continues:

We stand with our hands
hanging at our sides,
while she burns

like a sack of dry ice.

As Komunyakaa continues, it becomes clear that it is not just the girl on fire. The speaker is physically as well as spiritually, disappearing.

In this poetic and moving examination of the Vietnam War, viewers will see and hear from voices that they have rarely heard nor considered. Airing weekly on PBS, the series is available to stream for free on PoetryInAmerica.org.

 

Read the full poem below:

You and I Are Disappearing

by Yusef Komunyakaa

“You and I Are Disappearing”
                       –Björn Håkansson

The cry I bring down from the hills
belongs to a girl still burning
inside my head. At daybreak
       she burns like a piece of paper.
She burns like foxfire
in a thigh-shaped valley.
A skirt of flames
dances around her
at dusk.
          We stand with our hands
hanging at our sides,
while she burns
          like a sack of dry ice.
She burns like oil on water.
She burns like a cattail torch
dipped in gasoline.
She glows like the fat tip
of a banker’s cigar,
       silent as quicksilver.
A tiger under a rainbow
  at nightfall.
She burns like a shot glass of vodka.
She burns like a field of poppies
at the edge of a rain forest.
She rises like dragonsmoke
  to my nostrils.
She burns like a burning bush
driven by a godawful wind.