Fourteen years after the Vietnam War, veteran and contemporary poet Yusef Komunyakaa wrote about facing the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial wall and the memories and images the wall evoked. In this video segment from Poetry Everywhere, Komunyakaa reads his poem, "Facing It" at the Dodge Poetry Festival.
Read "Facing It" at the Poetry Foundation.
Yusef Komunyakaa's poem "Facing It" takes advantage of a unique setting: the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall in Washington, D.C. Bearing the names of the American military personnel who died in the war, the wall is made of polished stone so those who view it see their own images reflecting off the names of the dead. By facing "it"—the Memorial—the poem's speaker finds himself facing other "its," including his past as a veteran and his mixed feelings about the present.
At the start of the poem, the speaker's "black face fades,/ hiding inside the black granite." We don't know what he is hiding from, only that he seems daunted. In its third line—the only appearance of the past tense in the poem—he says, "I said I wouldn't/ dammit: No tears," and reveals that he has been anxious about this moment. In the following stark, four-word line, "I'm stone. I'm flesh," the images literally describe the speaker and his reflection in the wall. But the contrasting nouns, both rich in connotation, suggest powerful emotions are being evoked. The "clouded reflection" of his "stone" self eyes him "like a bird of prey."
The speaker's first physical action is to turn, a movement that makes the stone let him go. But with another turn he's back inside, going "down the 58,022 names,/ half-expecting to find" his own. Instead, he touches the name Andrew Johnson (a soldier from the poet's hometown of Bogalusa, Louisiana) and sees the white flash of the booby trap that killed Johnson. Without commenting upon this memory, the speaker sees "Names shimmer on a woman's blouse/ but when she walks away/ the names stay on the wall," suggesting the war's indelible effect. The first female character in the poem, this woman seems freer than the speaker, able to leave.
Again, without comment, the speaker's gaze remains fixed upon the wall as a flurry of images—possibly memories, possibly real reflections—flash at him. One of the most striking is that of a white vet, whose face "floats closer" until the two look through the same space, the present and past overlapping.
Earlier in the poem the speaker was stone, then flesh; now he says, "I'm a window." He has become something to look through, and although it's unclear whether he's an empty space or a portal to understanding, at this moment he is no longer divided into two selves; from this moment on, in fact, he stops talking about himself altogether. Focusing on the other vet, the speaker notes, "He's lost his right arm," and there is a momentary sense of alarm until the next line explains, "inside the stone."
Another trick of the light sharpens the poem's last image. The speaker imagines a woman is trying to erase names, but "No, she's brushing a boy's hair." Here the speaker corrects himself and chooses the more innocent possibility, suggesting that it is important for him to get it right, to make sense of the haunting images from both the present and the past.
Read a biography of the poet Yusef Komunyakaa at the Poetry Foundation.
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