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Violence as Imagery: Dalton Trumbo's Johnny's Got his Gun and Komunyakaa’s Facing It
Let’s talk about how a poet’s imagery can screw a person up.
Imagery is both a fascinating and devious creature. Every poem has it, and if it doesn’t, then it’s very likely that what you’re reading is not, in fact, a poem. The essence of imagery is the innate ability to draw a reader into a work and create a believable impression of a theme, person, place, or thing. If a poet hasn’t yet mastered this skill, then he has work to do to ensure the most basic foundation.
Let me give an example, Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Facing It,” is a perfect instance of imagery so successful that it creates a visceral, palpable emotion in the reader. Now, I’m not personally a fan of war poetry, or prose for that matter, ever since an emotional fiasco regarding Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun. To this day, I have a vivid recollection of the story simply because the imagery was so succinct at capturing the narrative that my brain could not look away. The depiction of a man kept inside a shell of a body seriously makes me want to retch. It’s intense stuff.
Needless to say, I could never bring myself to finish Trumbo’s book because I was viscerally traumatized by the imagery and could not continue. I do not know how it ends – and please don’t tell me – I know enough to have forever captured the poor soul in the darkest corners of my mind. I’ll be honest here and tell you that I was so messed up by this book that I couldn’t even keep it on my bookshelf next to my school books. It had to be thrown away. In hindsight, I probably should have sold it back to the bookstore, but then I would have had to give it a car ride there and I wasn’t ready for that kind of closeness.
Maybe this visceral reaction is not the case with Yusef’s poem; however, I definitely took the Trumbo situation out on poor Yusef; that I can admit. I did my reading with an incredible bias, disturbed by the images, with one hand prepared to cover my eyes in case it took too dark a turn. Let’s look at an example: “I see the booby trap’s white flash…he’s lost his right arm inside the stone” (lines 17, 27-28). To clarify, the man is literally blown up right in front of us. That’s some pretty serious shit, right there.
Despite my penchant for dramatics, Yusef and Trumbo deserve their dues. Their images are strong and definitely convey the scene to a reader in a way that is viscerally moving. It takes a brave writer to take on such darkness with passion about gruesome subjects. But let’s be real – the violence of the whole matter will be plenty to give me nightmares long into the future.