by Yusef Komunyakaa
Komunyakaa’s poem, Toys in a Field, pays eerie homage to the Vietnam War and its effect on those who experienced it. By juxtaposing the images of Vietnamese children with references to the war, the poem speaks volumes about the war itself. The first two lines of the poem provide this perversion of childhood and innocence: “Using gun mounts for monkey bars.” This line cannot help but offer a metaphor for the destruction of the innocence of the unsuspecting soldiers arriving in Vietnam to discover the horrors of war. The parallel between the Vietnamese child and the American experience is a consistent theme throughout the poem--children play in “multimillion-dollar helicopters abandoned in white-elephant graveyards.” These machines, now useless, provide a playspace for the Vietnamese youth as certainly as they provided a space for the death of the soldiers who were inside them as they fell to the ground.
In the next breath, Komunyakaa compares the children to “vultures landing in fields” to consume the dead--an image not far removed from the earlier mentioned helicopters, dropping into their own field to wage war upon an unknown enemy. Furthermore, the author refers to the children’s play as “silent as distant rain,” similar to the movement of a soldier in the jungle--maintaining a silence that, if broken, will result in the early arrival of an inevitable storm of its own. If this comparison is not enough, Komunyakaa goes one step further with the end of that line: “…the volume turned down on the six o’clock news.” Again, the poet brilliantly combines the innocence of childhood play with the self-induced innocence of the American public at home—turning down the volume of its television sets in the hopes that the war will be permanently silenced in their memories.
The terrifying comparison of the child and the adult experience of war in general and Vietnam specifically is only punctuated by Komunyakaa’s final image of “the boy with the American eyes who keeps singing rat-a-tat-tat, hugging a broken machine gun.” So much about this line is horrifying—it provides an image of war at its worst—a child (likely the product of a rape) wrapped around a machine gun, playing “war” because it is all he has ever experienced and the only game he knows. The unnaturalness of this image is not an accident. Komunyakaa makes a conscious decision to compare the child with the soldier, thereby portraying two forms of innocence destroyed by one powerful force.