Skip to main content

Analysis of "Camouflaging the Chimera" by Yousef Komunyakaa

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Yousef Komunyakaa

Yousef Komunyakaa

"Camouflaging the Chimera" by Yousef Komunyakaa

"Camouflaging The Chimera" focuses on a specific scene from the Vietnam War—an ambush in the jungle—about to be carried out by American troops on the Viet Cong, short for Vietnamese Communists.

Yousef Komunyakaa served in Vietnam as a war reporter and it's this personal involvement that infuses the poem, bringing a realistic edge to a surreal moment in time. It was first published in the 1988 book Dien Cai Dau, Vietnamese for crazy in the head which the locals called the Americans.

The USA became seriously involved in Vietnam in March 1965, sending combat troops in to fight against the communists. Trouble had been brewing for decades following the end of the second world war but President Lyndon B. Johnson's decision to deploy 3,500 marines upped the ante.

The conflict escalated and despite being warned that a war in Vietnam could last indefinitely, the USA increased the number of troops dramatically over the next few months. What had been known as the Indochina War became the Vietnam War.

It proved a disaster for the USA. They lost some 58,000 soldiers in a war that cost the Vietnamese an estimated 2 million civilian lives alone. By January 1973 the USA, with Nixon as President, declared an end to their offensive and the withdrawal of all US troops brought an end to hostilities.

  • The poem comes from the heat of war, its imagery is vivid, and its language is a mix of everyday and figurative.
  • The word chimera comes originally from Greek mythology and is a monstrous creature with the body of a lion, the head of a goat protruding from its back, with the lion's tail having a serpent's head.
  • In this poem chimera means an imagined terrible creation; the whole of the US military mythologized.
  • The theme is that of the experience of war, how a human adapts to nature and culture to pursue the military goal.
  • What emerges from the poem is a sense of unreal psychological tension, of something being created that is really a creature of the imagination (the chimera) despite the harsh hardware of war.

Komunyakaa was inspired to write the poem fourteen years after the war ended. He was working on a house in New Orleans, renovating the insides on a hot day in 1984:

'there was a kind of familiar tropic heat that day. So it was the heat, and the dust, and the dismantling of things - and that's how it happened.'

It took a long time for the poem to emerge, which can be the case with many creative acts that have their genesis in emotion and feeling. Direct experience of war has produced lots of distinct poetry over the years - Komunyakaa's book Dien Cai Dau is critically acclaimed for its depth and breadth.

This poem uses a mix of literal and figurative language to produce image and atmosphere but as one commentator noted:

'surrealism...does not function to present Vietnam to the reader as exotica, but rather to underline the existential reality of ambush;the internal psychic state of each combatant. The wish fulfillment of camouflage involves becoming the landscape.'

Vincente F. Gotera, Depending on the Light, 1990.

Conflict and war are something humans seem helpless to control. Is violent struggle part of our evolutionary make-up or are we using weaponry simply because it is there to use against a perceived enemy? Is war natural or avoidable?

Poetry can help highlight certain aspects of war and facilitate reflection and debate. Camouflaging The Chimera is an excellent starting point for both.

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Owlcation

"Camouflaging the Chimera"

We tied branches to our helmets.
We painted our faces & rifles
with mud from a riverbank,

blades of grass hung from the pockets
of our tiger suits. We wove
ourselves into the terrain,
content to be a hummingbird’s target.

We hugged bamboo & leaned
against a breeze off the river,
slow-dragging with ghosts

from Saigon to Bangkok,
with women left in doorways
reaching in from America.
We aimed at dark-hearted songbirds.

In our way station of shadows
rock apes tried to blow our cover,
throwing stones at the sunset. Chameleons

crawled our spines, changing from day
to night: green to gold,
gold to black. But we waited
till the moon touched metal,

till something almost broke
inside us. VC struggled
with the hillside, like black silk

wrestling iron through grass.
We weren’t there. The river ran
through our bones. Small animals took refuge
against our bodies; we held our breath,

ready to spring the L-shaped
ambush, as a world revolved
under each man’s eyelid.

"Camouflaging the Chimera" Stanza-By-Stanza

"Camouflaging The Chimera" is a slim poem on the page, short stanzas following one another, like stepping stones. Each one brings something different and has been likened to 'documentary photos' due to their strong imagery.

First Stanza

The camouflaging starts immediately, natural products are used to make sure the men and their rifles blend in with their surroundings, in this case, a Vietnamese jungle.

Their goal is to become a part of the landscape so they do not show up easily. The first stanza has a comma ending, a slight pause for the reader.

Second Stanza

Grass hangs from pockets of the men's tiger suits (stripey uniform, something like green and brown and black) - yet more natural organic material helping the men keep low in profile as an integral part of the jungle.

The speaker voices for the troops and tells the reader they 'wove' themselves, being like a part of the fabric. So still and well camouflaged are the men hummingbirds came close. These are tiny vivid jungle birds which hover with fast wing beats. The men are content because they probably know if the hummingbirds are not disturbed by their presence their camouflage must be pretty effective.

Third Stanza

The men are near the river and the bamboo, a tall strong plant very common in parts of Asia. The line slow-dragging with ghosts implies that the river has seen and perhaps carried off many dead bodies, victims of the war, over time. Now they are ghosts, and the men are aware of this.

Fourth Stanza

The war has raged across the country, from Saigon to Bangkok, maybe along the path of the river. The speaker expands further and suggests that the men are thinking of the women they've left behind in the USA, the image of their arms reaching in a reflection of the need for comfort and contact.

The Vietnam jungle must have seemed a lonely, strange place for those young alienated American soldiers, camouflaged with mud, waiting to kill an enemy expert in the art of jungle fighting.

The men are aiming their rifles (or thoughts and longings) at the songbirds. Is their singing too much to take for the homesick soldiers thinking of their women?

Fifth Stanza

Nature is all round—they're in the wilds of a jungle—and rock apes throw stones which the men perceive as an attempt to blow their cover—reveal their whereabouts.

A way station is a place people can stop between stations on a line, like a temporary resting spot. Here in the poem, it is of shadows, as the sun sets.

Sixth Stanza

Chameleons are reptiles, lizards, that can change skin color and so camouflage themselves depending on circumstance. This is a direct parallel with the soldiers. The speaker watches the chameleon change as the light of day gradually disappears.

It is night, the moon is out, catching the metal - of buttons, of bayonets, of helmets?

Seventh Stanza

The waiting is difficult, there's tension in the air as the men lie silent in the dark. Just what could it be that nearly broke inside them? Is it their spirit? Having to remain silent for so long with the thought that you could be killed at any moment getting to them? No doubt.

The VC (Viet Cong) are moving but not very effectively. They resemble black silk/ wrestling odd image...smooth meets clumsy...soft meets hard.

Eighth Stanza

The strangest line of all occurs in this stanza...We weren't there...the soldiers wish themselves elsewhere? Or, their camouflage is so good, they've been waiting for such a long time, that they psychologically disappeared from the scene.

Figurative language comes to the fore. The river is now blood coursing through their veins. Their bodies are refuges for small animals...they've become accepted as part of the jungle.

They're suspended, waiting.

Ninth stanza

But they're still ready for action. The speaker is in control and knows that the ambush must be L-shaped for the operation to be a success.

But essentially, each man is for himself, each soldier has their own vision of what is to come. They may be a team united and prepared but individually they each have a unique version of the world.

Experiences such as this - a dangerous military ambush in a faraway jungle - are shared yet for every soldier there is a separate psychic world located according to the speaker behind the eyelid, close to the eye, the window of the soul.

"Camouflaging the Chimera" Figurative Language

"Camouflaging the Chimera" uses both literal and figurative language. Figurative language includes the use of metaphor and simile, such as:

We wove/ ourselves into the terrain

like black silk/wrestling iron through grass.

The river ran/through our bones.

"Camouflaging The Chimera" Structure/Form

"Camouflaging the Chimera" is a free verse poem of 31 lines split into nine stanzas, four of which are quatrains (4 lines each) and five tercets (3 lines each).

There is no rhyme scheme.

The lines are short, which means that the reader cannot read rapidly, so there is some tension between stanzas as the meaning is withheld momentarily. This also affects the rhythm - there is no set beat pattern such as iambic daDUM daDUM and so on. Each stanza has its own unique mix of metrics.

Caesura, breaks in lines, are frequent, usually through commas or other punctuation. This again means a pause for the reader.


100 Essential Modern Poems, Ivan Dee, Joselh Parisi, 2005

© 2019 Andrew Spacey


Verlie Burroughs from Canada on November 25, 2019:

This is an amazing poem Andrew. I want to send it to a friend ( a poet) who served in Vietnam and see what he thinks of it. Thanks!

Related Articles