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On "Tu Do Street"

Alvin Aubert (1993)

Especially relevant to the present discussion is the poem "Tu Do Street," from Dien Cai Dau, with its titular punning on "two door." …

An implicit distinction is drawn in the poem between the Gis’ quest for sexless or pre-sexual socialization in the bars and their quest for sex in other rooms, for although the black Gis are shunned by the mama-sans and bar girls in the bars frequented by the white Gis, "deeper into alleys," in off-limit areas, the black soldiers have access to prostitutes whose services are available on a nondiscriminatory basis. These assignations take place in "rooms" that invoke a transformational landscape: They "run into each other like tunnels / leading to the underworld." Implicit in these conduits is a common humanity, linked to a common death, figuratively in sex and literally in war, for black and white Gis alike:

There’s more than a nation
inside us, a black & white
soldiers touch the same lovers
minutes apart, tasting
each other’s breath …

What’s "more than a nation / inside" the Gis, black and white, is of course their shared humanity.

The persona knows about the two doors but impelled by purposes of the persona behind the persona – the poet in quest of a poem, and consequently, of his equalization and literary canonization – he goes in through the opposite door anyway, purposefully and perhaps ritualistically subjecting himself to the rejection on racial grounds he knows he is sure to get. When he enters the bar frequented by the white Gis, where the music is different from that in the bars where the black Gis go, the bar girls "feel like tropical birds" in their evasiveness. The experience triggers a memory [Aubert cites the lines beginning "Music divides the evening" and ends "Hank Snow."] … As it was at home so it is on the ar front – at least in the rear echelons in Saigon where the soldiers go for rest and recuperation. In the combat zone, where "only machine gun fire brings us / together," where inter-racial camaraderie has immediate survival values, a different code of behavior prevails …

The bar girls and prostitutes of Saigon are metonymically depicted in "Tu Do Street" as victims, their "voices / wounded by their beauty and war." These women are also a part of the "nation / inside us" quoted and commented on above, for it is they – "the same lovers" touched by black Gis and white Gis alike, implicitly by virtue of their capacity for motherhood, for bringing life into the world, and as the primary sources of nurturing – who are the conferers and common denominators of the universal, of the common humanity that populates Komunyakaa’s projected socio-literary commonwealth and makes material his "unified vision."

from Alvin Aubert, "Yusef Kumunyakaa: The Unified Vision – Canonization and Humanity," African American Review 27: 1 (1993), pp. 122-123.

Kevin Stein (1996)

Komunyakaa takes some of our easy assumptions about the art, oftentimes garnered from film and music, and turns them on ear. How frequently in films devoted to the war, for example, is music shown as a kind of unifying force among American soldiers? How many scenes out of a film such as Good Morning, Vietnam for instance, use music as the common denominator linking our troops in a shared cultural heritage? While it’s difficult to deny that music itself was a crucial part of the experience of the war, both in Vietnam and at home, notice how Komunyakaa’s Africn-American experience illuminates incidents in the poem "Tu Do Street" where music is not the unifying element we might have thought it to be …

[Stein cites the last twelve lines of the poem.]

In this brothel scene, hardly the most promising site for such revelations, the poem’s black speaker comes to an epiphanic understanding of "shared humanity" that, for the American combatants, runs deeper than their skin color. More importantly, the speaker recognizes a common humanity whose roots cross the superficial boundaries of nations, connecting those of black, white, yellow and recalling Komunyakaa’s "Recreating the Scene" [another poem in Dien Cai Dau], red skin. Surely the Vietnamese women these soldiers "run to hold," as well as their brothers who fight the Americans, understand what it is to be human upon this green globe and what sentence awaits each of us in death’s "underworld." However, this revelation does not come without its share of ominous undertones, for the figurative "tunnels" that link these men and women in their humanity also have a literal reality in the deadly maze of tunnels the Viet Cong use to ferry supplies, to fight and quickly disappear, and into which many American soldiers ventured never to return (as "Tunnels," the book’s second poem, memorably describes). Such ironies did not escape the attention of the Viet Cong, who employed every tactic available to them to undermine the morale of the American troops. …

from Kevin Stein, "Vietnam and the ‘Voice Within’: Yusef Komunyakka and Dien Cai Dau" (Chapter 5) in Private Poets, Worldly Acts: Public and Private History in Contemporary American Poetry (Athens, Ohio: Ohio U P, 1996), pp. 98-99.

Komunyakaa (1998)


No poem shows the interrelatedness of human beings in war-time more effectively than "Tu Do Street" in which the black soldier, after being rejected in a "white" bar, finds a "black" bar and temporary solace with a Vietnamese prostitute. The he reflects: "Back in the bush at Dak To / & Khe Sanh, we fought / the brothers of these women / we now run to hold in our arms. / There;s more than a nation / inside us, as black & white / soldiers touch the same lovers / minutes apart, tasting / each other’s breath, / without know these rooms / run into each other like tunnels / leading to the underworld." This is an amazing image of our connected humanity, but is the connection with "underworld" just a harsh reminder of death that should stir us to behave with more kindness, or is it a pessimistic reflection of the human propensity to divide and destroy ourselves?


It was one of those endings that, once I’d written it down, just stopped where it was. There were many symbolic underworlds in Vietnam, the underground tunnel systems, some of the bars, and the whole psychic space of the GI – a kind of underworld populated by ghosts and indefinable images. It was a place of emotional and psychological flux where one was trying to make sense out of the world and one’s place in that world. And there was, relentlessly, a going back and forth between that internal space and external world. It was an effort to deal with oneself, and with the other GIs, the Vietnamese, and even the ghosts that we’d managed to create ourselves. So, for me, this is a very complex picture of the situation of the GI – going back and forth, condemned in a way to trek back and forth between those emotional demarcations while trying to make sense out of things.

from "Still Negotiating with the Images: An Interview with William Baer," Kenyon Review Fall 1998

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