Monday, 11 August 2014

Yusef Komunyakaa - Hanoi Hannah

I take my poetry before I take my music.  I will follow a poet before I follow a musician.  For me, poetry is more capable of a linguistic rhythm, a natural expression of speech, an attempt to express the human spirit.  I don’t always get that from song lyrics sung.  When I do happen across words to a song that I like, it’s more likely that I will read it or recite it as poetry.  Having said that, there is something about a song and music that can preserve emotional memory so that every time you hear the particular song again, even years later, you’re taken back to being nineteen or whenever, and you recall the smells, the taste, the vision, the history of events that once played out in front of your eyes while you were transitioning with that music.  My favourite poem for this post does some of that.  It centres on the Viet Nam war and offers nostalgia through a weave of popular song titles and artists who would have been well known to American troops at the time, along with typical propaganda lines from ‘Hanoi Hannah’ (real name, Trinh Thi Ngo).  ‘Hanoi Hannah’ who was given her nickname by American troops, was a North Vietnamese radio announcer who broadcast propaganda in English.  The poem is by the American poet, Yusef Komunyakaa, and is titled, Hanoi Hannah.  Komunyakaa himself, served in Viet Nam so writes from experience.  Here it is, Hanoi Hannah.

Hanoi Hannah
(Yusef Komunyakaa,  1947 - )
Ray Charles!  His voice
calls from waist-high grass,
& we duck behind gray sandbags.
“Hello, Soul Brothers.  Yeah,
Georgia’s also on my mind.”
Flares bloom over the trees.
“Here’s Hannah again.
Let’s see if we can’t
light her goddamn fuse
this time.”  Artillery
shells carve a white arc
against dusk.  Her voice rises
from a hedgerow on our left.
“It’s Saturday night in the States.
Guess what your woman’s doing tonight.
I think I’ll let Tina Turner
Tell you, you homesick GIs.”
Howitzers buck like a herd
of horses behind concertina.
“You know you’re dead men,
don’t you?  You’re dead
as King today in Memphis.
Boys, you’re surrounded by
General Tran Do’s division.”
Her knife-edge song cuts
Deep as a snipers bullet.
“Soul Brothers, what are you dying for?”
We lay down a white-klieg
trail of tracers.  Phantom jets
fan out over the trees.
Artillery fire zeros in.
Her voice grows flesh
& we can see her falling
into words, a bleeding flower
no one knows the true name for.
“You’re lousy shots, GIs.”
Her laughter floats up
as though the airways are
buried under our feet.
You know, I started writing this post more than a week ago now.  I’ve never read anything else by Yusef Komunyakaa – never heard of him until this poem was in a rock and roll and poetry anthology amongst forty poetry books a bloke was selling on Gumtree for twenty dollars the lot down at Budgewoi, but that’s another story ….  So I really like Hanoi Hannah – not only for how it reads, but because it takes me back to a familiar era.  Right, wrong or indifferent, we had a war, we had music and it’s great that somebody captured the memory of that as poetry.  So I’m interested in Komunyakaa, and I decide to do some research before I go and hit the ‘post’ button, and I’m struck by a couple of events in this poet’s life.  First, I feel he’s almost family when I discover Yusef was once married to an Aussie novelist, Mandy Sayer – married for 10 years – a bit of Aussie influence must have rubbed off in that time, surely.  Then I read of tragedy when another wife, Reetika Vazirani (also a poet), murdered her and Yusef’s two year old son before taking her own life – such tragedy.  It stuns me, the stark events that surprise in the lives of successful and public poets.  Here I am, private, not read, and spared such trials of which I doubt I could find the strength to endure.  It causes me to approach the work differently.

Reading Hanoi Hannah, I’m reminded of my own time when the songs had to be played over and over again, burning a track in my memory, accompanied by a video of current events recording in real time, when my emotion was my heart and I burst to express it, not just to tell of it, and it’s the music that relives itself in the poor attempt of my words.
My poem for this post is a piece I wrote many years ago when I was a very young sailor being ferried in an era of special song.

1972.  Six month ANZUK deployments ‘up top’.  Vietnam was still on but winding down; for us, anyway.  The daily routine at sea was relaxed; shorts and a pair of sandals; lazy days; good days; we looked forward to port visits.

70’s at Sea
Those were the days
of suede leather coats
beneath brown fur collars,
wine colored burgundy suits
in a page boy style,
The Carpenters on reel to reel,
‘Such a feeling coming over me,
there’s won-der
in most every-thing I see’
in a deserted
dark bar
on a road
between Chong Peng & Nee Soon,
lonely for companionship,
ceiling fans in nondescript rooms
on sultry
tropical nights,
days of blue at sea,
blue sky
with silent vapour trails of B-52’s
departing, closing VietNam,
hot days,
lifeless in the South China Sea,
asleep on a Burbank fender
Nancy Sinatra & Lee Hazlewood
Some velvet morning ……
when I'm straight
I'm gonna open up your gate
and maybe tell you 'bout Phaedra
and how she gave me life
and how she made it in ………’
big tall negroes
in full length leather coats,
soft grey
& wide-brimmed hats
hand slapping
on street corners in Wanchai,
beautiful asian bar-girls,
laughing chatty,
you crazy,
them mens crazy,
spend too long in the jungle,
beer bourbon & coke
sick on sour whiskey
staggering back on board,
dreams of home & white young girls
who care,
The Sandpipers ‘Come Saturday Morning’
to role play with Liza Minelli
over & over again,
hot days in boiler room air-locks,
breath taken away
with the dry steam heat, ‘flowers
growing on the hill,
dragonflies & daffodils,
learn from us
very much,
look at us
but do not touch,
Phaedra is my name ………..’
taken away by the dry steam heat.
                                                             J. O. White


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