In a time of political unrest, change, and war, Vietnam-era poets often tackled challenging themes and topics through new, postmodern poetic forms. ‘Nude Interrogation’ by Yusef Komunyakaa, published in 2001, is one of the best-known of these Vietnam-war-inspired poems.
Through its conversational, casual, and stream-of-consciousness prose form and vivid imagery, ‘Nude Interrogation’ explores a Vietnam vet’s distorted perception of the world and his avoidance of vulnerability.
Explore Nude Interrogation
‘Nude Interrogation’ by Yusef Komunyakaa is a prose poem about a Vietnam veteran’s PTSD and experience reacclimating to life after the war.
The poem opens with italics, indicating speech. A woman named Angelica asks another unknown person whether he killed anyone “over there,” presumably in Vietnam. Meanwhile, Bob Dylan’s semi-political 1967 song ‘All Along the Watchtower’ is playing in the background.
The speaker introduces himself by stating that he does not want to look at the floor but seems to feel uncomfortable. As Angelica asks either explicit or implicit questions about whether the speaker killed anyone, she undresses unashamedly.
The speaker does not answer her questions verbally at first, shaking his head in denial. However, as the woman takes off her underwear and turns out the light, the speaker bares himself to her, admitting that he did kill someone during the war.
The main idea of ‘Nude Interrogation’ by Yusef Komunyakaa is that war veterans often hide their secrets, fearing vulnerability due to PTSD and trauma from the war.
As Angelica, the woman in the poem, asks the speaker pointed questions about killing people during the war, the speaker remains silent. While she interrogates him, she undresses, making herself vulnerable. However, the speaker never removes a garment.
The speaker is not dressed in clothing. Instead, he is dressed in his secrets. Ultimately, the speaker admits to killing someone during the war, which bares his mind to Angelica. In such a way, the speaker becomes “nude” or undressed. With his secret revealed, he is entirely vulnerable, just like the naked woman in his bedroom.
Form and Structure
‘Nude Interrogation’ by Yusef Komunyakaa is one of the best examples of prose poetry. A prose poem may look like an essay or paragraph in structure. However, prose poems still use poetic devices such as imagery, symbolism, figurative language, or other creative writing techniques that keep it in the realm of poetry.
For example, the vivid imagery of the scene in ‘Nude Interrogation,’ the intense symbolism, the uniquely vague perspective of the speaker, the use of metaphor and simile, and other poetic devices keep this verse from turning into a bland paragraph.
‘Nude Interrogation’ by Yusef Komunyakaa is riddled with symbolism.
The most notable symbol in the poem is Angelica, whose name means angel-like and heavenly. This name choice makes her a representation of salvation, heaven, and innocence. Her “sky-blue panties” help to further stress this fact, implying that she is sky-like and ethereal.
Thus, Angelica’s vulnerable nudity, pointed questions, and active agency in this poem makes her a bit like an angel who listens to a prayer or confession from the speaker.
Additionally, the setting itself becomes a symbol. As the walls are plastered with posters of popular 1960s and 70s musicians, it is clear that the poem takes place in a bedroom as Angelica and the speaker are preparing to engage in intercourse.
It’s a very hippie-like bedroom, complete with a record player, blacklight, and sandalwood incense. These features help to identify the poem’s time period, but they also make the room a microcosm of the 1960s and 70s.
The bookshelf, “made of plywood and cinderblocks,” is rugged compared to the rest of the scene. This bookshelf may represent the brutish, bare barracks in Vietnam during the war.
Did you kill anyone over there? Angelica shifts her gaze from Janis Joplin poster […] Did you kill anyone? Did you dig a hole, crawl inside, and wait for your target?
In sentences one through six of ‘Nude Interrogation’ by Yusef Komunyakaa, the action opens in medias res as a woman named Angelica asks the poem’s speaker, “Did you kill anyone over there?”
Immediately, from this question, it becomes clear that this poem will include themes such as violence, interpersonal relationships, and war.
The poem next offers us imagery to establish the time period and setting. The “Janice Joplin” and “Jimi Hendrix” posters, “blacklight,” and “muslin blouse” help us understand that this poem takes place in a bedroom sometime around the 1960s and 70s when hippie culture and anti-war protests were at their peak.
However, all of these setting-establishing details have other purposes in the poem. For example, Jimi Hendrix and Janice Joplin were both outspoken anti-Vietnam War musicians. These musical mentions appeal to the senses and reestablish that war is a significant topic in the poem. Angelica looks at them as if to establish that she is opposed to war, as well.
The muslin blouse moves over her head, immediately indicating that she is the “nude” one in this interrogation. Then, the blacklight gives us a bit of synaesthesia as the “blues” dominate the scene. These “blues” are a blue color, a sad emotion, and indicative of the blues genre, of which Komunyakaa was a fan.
These artistic elements prove to us, as listeners, that this prose-form paragraph is actually a poem, despite its appearance.
If the imagery wasn’t vivid enough, we also get a musical score: “All Along the Watchtower” by Bob Dylan, another anti-war artist. As the music plays, the speaker says that he doesn’t want to look at the floor. This thought emphasizes his discomfort at Angelica’s questions and his fixation on her as she undresses. It seems that he feels seduced despite his avoidance of answering her.
Her miniskirt drops into a rainbow at her feet. … Did you use an M-16, a hand-grenade, a bayonet, or your own two strong hands, both thumbs pressed against that little bird in the throat?
In this section of ‘Nude Interrogation,’ the speaker’s discomfort increases. Angelica, after asking disturbing questions, undresses further.
The poet uses a metaphor to compare Angelica’s skirt to a rainbow, which adds a splash of color to the emotional scene. Yet, the rainbow indicates Angelica is like a celestial angel in the sky. In this, the girl is above the speaker, both in social and physical positions. The speaker seems to be sitting or lying down, watching Angelica undress.
Adding to the scene’s sky-like associations, the incense burning nearby “hangs a slow comet of perfume over the room.” It’s almost as if this scene isn’t real, and the speaker is lying on the ground, looking up at the sky. Here, the speaker may be disassociating or daydreaming due to trauma from the war.
The speaker is hesitant to speak and only shakes his head, denying that he killed “anyone over there.” But Angelica knows better. She continues undressing and probing the speaker, her questions getting more graphic and emotional.
Her bra hits a makeshift bookshelf “made of plywood and cinderblocks.” This symbol is slightly reminiscent of the concrete structures and towers used as military stations in Vietnam.
In this section, Angelica asks a strange question: “Did you use… both thumbs pressed against that little bird in the throat?” This metaphor, comparing a person’s Adam’s apple to a bird, may recall the peace dove, an icon of the hippie counterculture movement of the 60s and 70s.
Still, like most of the symbols in this poem, birds belong in the sky. So, if a person smothers the “little bird in the throat,” that bird can no longer fly or sing. This dead bird would be more like the speaker than the celestial Angelica.
She stands with her left thumb hooked into the elastic of her sky-blue panties…. Did you kneel beside the corpse and turn it over?
As Angelica removes her “sky-blue panties,” in sentences twelve through seventeen of ‘Nude Interrogation,’ “she flicks off the blacklight.” Here, the scene transitions from day to night in an instant. The themes, like Angelica’s questions, get darker from here on out.
“Snowy hills rush up to the window” as the light goes out. These snowy hills are a metaphor for clouds, and they tie into the speaker’s interpretation of the room as a sky. However, they also re-emphasize that the speaker’s perception is a bit off.
At this point in the poem, one must wonder what’s happening here.
Although Angelica speaks in the poem, there are no quotation marks. The speaker seems to see the entire scene as a snapshot of an evening sky.
So, are the events in the poem actually happening? Is this just a fantastical daydream? Is the speaker imagining this situation by looking for shapes in the clouds? We just can’t know how real this poem is, so it’s such a good one.
The speaker’s clouded judgment and perception of the world are unstable and tainted by trauma. And through this poem, we get a glimpse of just how confusing the world is to him.
As the night sky and the reality of the scene blur, Angela keeps asking her sharp, disturbing questions.
She, oddly, asks the speaker if he’s “right-handed or left handed,” including a hyphen in one but not the other. Seems strange, right?
Here, the poet is emphasizing how a person can perceive the world through their habits and choices. For example, the speaker seems to see reality, but this reality is hazy and cloudy since he can’t escape from his past. In the same way, a person’s experience writing or using a gun may differ depending on whether they are right or left-handed.
In the same way, turning over a corpse illustrates the difference between brutality and violence. Leaving a dead body face-down seems harsher than turning over the body to see its face. However, both perceptions of death are equally disturbing.
She’s nude against the falling snow. Yes. […]The night was too big. And afterwards, I couldn’t stop looking up at the sky.
In the final section of ‘Nude Interrogation,’ it becomes clearer why the speaker frequently mentions the sky. Angelica, now naked, is “against the falling snow,” which generates two different images.
In one image, Angelica is naked, freezing, miserable, and frostbitten by snow. In the other image, Angelica is a nude angel up on a cloud, like a cherub strumming on a harp up in heaven. Which image is the right one? Well, it seems that both images depict the way the speaker sees the world around him. Things can be both nice and utterly terrifying simultaneously, according to this poem.
Finally, the speaker admits that “Yes,” he did kill someone. He repeats this response twice, as if frustrated and frightened to reveal it.
Meanwhile, the record that once played ‘All Along the Watchtower’ has ended. It’s now spinning “like a bull’s eye on the far wall of Xanadu.”
This is an allusion to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan,’ a poem about the poet’s opium-induced dream in which he visits an imaginary palace with “savage” scenes, beautiful women playing music, and undertones of war and omens.
This poem, criticized for its exoticism and objectification of women from Asia and Asia Minor, is mostly about the poet’s ability to conjure a place with his mind. As such, it fits perfectly in ‘Nude Interrogation,’ where the speaker is in a dream-like state, remembering his traumatic time spent in Vietnam during the war while getting cozy with a larger-than-life woman.
Finally, in the last sentences of this poem, the speaker explains his fascination with sound and the sky. As if generating an excuse for killing another person, the speaker says he “was scared of the silence.” This silence means death to the speaker.
The speaker also explains that “The night was too big. And afterwards, I couldn’t stop looking up at the sky.” In this statement, the speaker reveals that he looks at the sky to avoid reality. He uses the sky as a tool to dissociate and let himself lose his thoughts on the horizon. Instead of looking down at the traumatic scene of war, his head is up in the clouds, so to speak.
However, by admitting these things aloud, the speaker has let himself come black to earth. He is vulnerable, laid bare to Angelica, and nude — in thought and emotions, at least.
Yusef Komunyakaa did not fight in the Vietnam War but enlisted as a correspondent and editor American Red Cross. While he was not on the frontlines, his writing was and is honest about the devastations of the Vietnam War, as suggested in ‘Nude Interrogation.‘
In ‘Nude Interrogation’ by Yusef Komunyakaa, a woman named Angelica interrogates a Vietnam War veteran as she undresses. Her process of undressing while asking these questions is a metaphor for vulnerability and exposing the truth, which is what the speaker most struggles with after his time in the war.
The speaker in ‘Nude Interrogation’ by Yusef Komunyakaa is never given a name. The speaker only ever uses the pronoun “I” to identify himself, and he avoids doing so until the very end of the poem. This deliberate exclusion of the speaker emphasizes his disassociation from the world, his need for a distraction, and his avoidance of taking agency in his life.
In ‘Nude Interrogation’ by Yusef Komunyakaa, the sky represents a distraction from reality. The speaker appreciates daydreaming and fixating on imagery because he tries to avoid thinking about his past and his time spent as a service member during the Vietnam War.
This Yusef Komunyakaa poem is one of the best-known and loved poems about the Vietnam War. Additionally, it’s one of the best examples of prose poetry, using prose form to create intricacies that can only be poetic.
Some other examples of Vietnam War poetry include:
- ‘On Getting Out of Vietnam’ by Howard Nemerov – is a poem that compares the US’s involvement in the Vietnam War to the Greek legend of Theseus and the Minotaur.
- ‘The Green Beret’ by Ho Thien – is a Vietnamese poem that tells the tragic story of a Vietnamese boy whose father was killed by an American soldier named Green Beret.
- ‘What Were They Like?’ by Denise Levertov – is a poem about the aftereffects of war and what happens when one culture conflicts with another culture.