“The Clay Army,” The New Yorker September 8, 2008
I can’t read a Komunyakaa poem without noticing its sounds. Since his earliest books, Komunyakaa has shown a mastery of rhythms, and the majority of his poems share an almost singular keep-on-truckin’ sound sensibility. Like many of its precursors, “The Clay Army” progresses via an interplay of iambs and spondees (this is, in part, what gives a Komunyakaa poem its jazz) and a well-used system of enjambments.
Consider the opening couplet: “When the roof of the First Emperor of Qin’s tomb / caved in, six thousand life-size terra-cotta soldiers knelt…” The top line contains five stresses (most of this poem’s thirteen couplets’ first lines do), which imbues it with the ghost of pentameter, though not a single foot is iambic. Instead, we have two anapests, a dactyl, and a bacchius, the final two syllables of the final foot pounding the ear with its two stresses—in effect, a spondee. Two more spondees start the following line: CAVED IN, SIX THOUsand.” The rest of the line is developed with six iambs. This pattern of flow, stop-stop, flow, is largely responsible for giving the couplet, and the poem, its momentum. Unlike meter, the sounds don’t tire, they don’t date themselves, and readers don’t wander into cavernous tombs other than the clay army’s. Rhythm—cadence, really—becomes the poem’s dominant force.
The first two lines of “The Clay Army” are enjambed but comfortably so. As a result, readers are pulled to the ensuing lines with just the right amount of pause, the timing of this hesitation caused by the rhythmic expectations syntax has already setup. Other enjambments in the poem work in a similar way: “the rebel general Xiang Yu looted this sanctuary // of the dead, sequestering the bronze weapons / honed by these bodyguards of the afterworld // to kill the heirs of the charging drum & bells.” The lines progress forward methodically, pulling readers as waves might tug waders in a surf. The end words are safe and subject-conscious—sanctuary, weapons, afterworld, bells in this case—and each line wears the guise of a complete idea in and of itself, though this isn’t a consistent tactic throughout. The end result is a bolstering of the poem’s rhythm: ever-forward.
Though this rhythmic description of a Komunyakaa poem is nothing unique to this Komunyakaa poem, it is an interesting fit for its subject: an army designed to help the dead First Emperor continue his conquest in the next life: ever-forward, you could say. Of course, the irony is that in this life, in this world, the army is stuck in time, prone to the rack and ruin of history and its unique spin on preservation and decay.
As for the imagery, my favorite of the bunch is found in the description of the soldiers’ faces, their “noses…dilated as if smelling lilies / in a valley.” How lovely! As if these thousands of soldiers, horses, chariots wasn’t grand enough, the soldiers are smelling flowers! And their noses haven’t been carved or sculpted or shaped; they are dilated, as though living, as though in the very act of enjoying life’s finest while I write this sentence some 2200 years after the fact. What’s more, lilies of the valley are symbols for purity, which fits the First Emperor’s sense of (self-) divinity, but also for humility, which clearly doesn’t fit the First Emperor at all. Nevertheless, the image of these soldiers sniffing invisible lilies is striking and beautiful. While much of the rest of imagery is somewhat historical and objective, this simile is intimate and touching.
Like so many good poems, “The Clay Army” seems to do two things at once by indicating both the futility of the First Emperor’s dilapidated tomb as well as its amazing splendor. It highlights human stupidity, as I see it, as much as it does our magnificence. And, neither pulls too heavily on the other. This isn’t a tug of war but a rendering of the paradoxical nature of humanity. And of poetry.