Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Thanks” Essay
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On the outside of Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Thanks” is a very hopeless type of story about a young man in the Vietnam War who recounts events in which could have been his last. He gives thanks to certain objects, as if they were the reason that he did not in fact get shot, or that he didn’t trip over a landmine. The thanks he is giving could be interrupted as thanks to God for these objects, or a downright statement of a lack of god in his life or this war.
Komunyakaa is making a statement about the war, and about his beliefs, though it is only with further dissection that the reader can begin to see which side Komunyakaa is coming from; the religious side or an almost denouncement of religion and a lack of a god in the Vietnam War.
The poem opens with Komunyakaa giving thanks “for the tree between me & a sniper’s bullet.” Komunyakaa is thanking the tree for coming in between him and the bullet. In the next couple of lines he states that he doesn’t know “what made the grass sway seconds before the Viet Cong raised his soundless rifle.” The reader gets the alliteration from the sway, seconds, and soundless, which gives the reader an almost calmed sense about it; it’s not so much that the Viet Cong raised his rifle attempting to kill the narrator, but that the grass swayed seconds before he raised his soundless rifle. Nature seems to be the one Komunyakaa seems to be referring to when he is giving his thanks, which could be directly linked to God, or, taken the opposite way, as a glorification of nature rather than the act of God.
During the next couple of lines we get a look into his past;
“Thanks for deflecting the ricochet against that anarchy of dusk. I was back in San Francisco wrapped up in a woman’s wild colors, causing some dark bird’s love call to be shattered by daylight when my hands reached up & pulled a branch away from my face.”
Obviously this boy is far from home, young, like most soldiers were, with someone at home that may be a wife or a sweetheart. The narrator was close to death in this scene. He was back at home, with the woman he might have loved, until it was “shattered by daylight” when the branch was pulled away from his face. When he is giving thanks later into the poem, he begins to state that he does not know who to thank.
“What made me spot the monarch writhing on a single thread tied to a farmer’s gate, holding the day together like an unfingered guitar string, is beyond me.”
The narrator states that it was beyond him who or what brought that butterfly to rest on that trip-wire. He could also literally mean beyond him in the spiritual sense of the word as well. It’s still unclear because the reader does get an overwhelming sense of nature intervening in these potentially life-threatening events.
Finally the reader gets personal feelings about the situation from the narrator.
“Thanks for the vague white flower that pointed to the gleaming metal reflecting how it is to be broken like mist over the grass, as we played some deadly game for blind gods.”
He is giving thanks for the flower giving away the position of some kind of anti-personnel mine, but he describes the war as a game for “blind gods.” With the lack of religious evidence and the sincerity for the thanks to be religious, the reader may assume that the thanks is directed toward chance, and the idea that all these things that saved the narrators life were just there by chance, and for so many other soldiers they weren’t. With the reference to the “blind gods,” the reader may see that as a reference to Johnson, Nixon, or the American government during the Vietnam War.
The way Komunyakaa expresses the narrator’s thanks and the way he describes the events seems too relaxed, he seems too detached from them, like he wasn’t himself during this times. It is only until the last line when he describes “something” that moved among the lost trees and moved only when the narrator moved, that the reader feels like their may be more to the narrators thanks. But, the narrator never states he knows why there was something among those trees; he states that he doesn’t know why there was.
Komunyakaa’s “Thanks” is, in some ways, difficult for the reader to interpret. But when looking back at the Vietnam War, and how most soldiers came out it and how most of the American public felt about it, the reader can get a sense of Komunyakaa’s resentment for the war and whoever, spiritual or political, sent him there. On the outside the reader can easily interpret a religious theme, and an almost prayer-like poem to God, but when delving deeper, one can see the almost opposite; a lack of God.