The many palimpsests of “Tu Do Street”

In “Black and Blues Configurations,” Walton Muyumba argues that Yusef Komunyakaa’s poem “Tu Do Street” replaces notions of “oppositions” and “hierarchical arrangements” common within Black poetry at the time with a “palimpsest,” a pair or group of scenes or realities overlaid one on top of the other so that each one is extant at the same time (1068).  Muyumba claims that the palimpsest at the heart of the poem is the world of White soldiers superimposed over that of Black soldiers in Vietnam, such that each group occupies the same spaces, even the same bodies (the Vietnamese sex workers), in ways that the other group isn’t aware of, but which influences both groups profoundly and blurs the distinctions they artificially create between one another.  He argues, Komunyakaa’s “idea silences the notion that racial essences identify these participants clearly” (1069).  What is interesting in “Tu Do Street” that Muyumba doesn’t explain, however, is all the different ways that Komunyakaa establishes the palimpsest concept in his poem to set up his main metaphor of race and identity as a series of overlaid experiences and realities.

Komunyakaa opens up his poem with the line “Music divides the evening.”  This brings in the idea of division from the first; however, the dividing factor, music, is not a firm boundary, as music is sonic, blendable and blended, rather than a solid thing.  Right off the bat, Komunyakaa is showing that the divisions that many people create are more porous than they may realize.  He describes another porous boundary two lines later with the phrase “lines in the dust.”  Anything created in dust or sand is notoriously impermanent and changeable, and Komunyakaa seems to be suggesting that the “men” who draw these lines are better at creating the illusion of boundaries than at creating lasting, real ones.  The music and the lines in the sand contribute to the “palimpsest” of the poem because they allow the two worlds—White and Black—to coexist in the absence of clearer dividing lines.

The women in the poem illustrate another kind of palimpsest, and not just in the way they service both races of men.  Lines 8-9 portray the women as “bar girls” who “fade like tropical birds,” simultaneously “fading” and drawing attention as tropical birds catch one’s eye.  The inner and outer lives of sex workers are put on display here, as Komunyakaa demonstrates awareness that they are “wounded [both] by their beauty & war” (ll. 22), both servants of these Americans and sisters of the Americans’ foes (ll. 25).  Komunyakaa presents palimpsests of love and violence, enmity and intimacy within the body of each woman in the bar.

Finally, Komunyakaa points out the palimpsest of Vietnam itself as both a physical place in the world and as a gateway to the ethereal land of the dead, knowable only to those who can navigate it.  His last three lines evoke “rooms” that “run into each other like tunnels / leading to the underworld.”  The rooms themselves are both the racially segregated American bars and mysterious, claustrophobic tunnels like those created by the Viet Cong, tunnels which many American soldiers were tasked with infiltrating in order to plant explosives or suss out enemy positions.  (One of the pervasive images in literature of the Vietnam War is the serpentine, hellish tunnel that may or may not lurk just underfoot, brimming with enemies who could attack at any moment.}  This conveys a belief that, despite the seemingly impenetrable boundaries between races, the “tunnels” that these bars embody are, in fact, navigable by someone who can take the care and run the risk. The tunnels in the poem, in turn, are palimpsests themselves—both hideaways and fortresses for the Viet Cong and paths to the Underworld, a space which, in many renderings of Greek and Roman mythology, is readily accessible to mortals who push against invisible borders.  The lands of the dead and the living, the safety of above-ground life and the threat tunneling just beneath one’s feet, and the worlds of White and Black Americans are all linked here, overlaid on top of one another and ultimately inextricable despite people’s best efforts to keep them separate.

Mumba’s argument about Komunyakaa’s palimpsests is grounded in the notion that the poet needed to portray racially charged spaces in this way in order to make sense of his own parallel identities, at once identifying himself as Black, American, African American, and a war veteran.  The poem “Tu Do Street” goes further than just exploring Komunyakaa’s personal experience of intersectional identity, however.  The poet’s cross-section of a moment within the life of a Vietnam War soldier shows just how fragile any clear sense of the reality is within a given situation.  Komunyakaa’s poem suggests a belief that any attempt to pin down a single version of reality, especially one based on racial essentialism, superiority, or hatred, is easy to unspool with the slightest tug.


Pictured: Tu Do Street, Saigon, 1969

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