‘Facing It‘ by Yusef Komunyakaa is a 31 line poem that does not adhere to any particular rhyme scheme or strictly metered pattern. Komunyakaa has composed this poem by alternating between short choppy lines and longer, drawn out phrases. Both of these styles of writing utilize enjambment. The lines cut off in unexpected places and one must move quickly from line to line to follow the narrative.
The piece is composed in first person and due to contextual information, the reader will come to understand that the speaker is in fact Komunyakaa himself. The poem details his own reaction to seeing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. and the emotions he carries due to his time as a war journalist
“Facing It” by Yusef Komunyakaa speaks of one man’s reaction to seeing the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington, D.C. and the memories brought up by its reflective, granite surface.
The poem begins with the speaker facing the black granite wall of the memorial. He sees his own “black face” in the surface and feels as if he is slipping into his past as he reads all of the names written on the wall. He is returned to the time period that he served, or visited, Vietnam during the war, and imagines that his name should be alongside the 52,022 that are engraved on the monument’s surface.
In the second half of the piece the speaker sees the reflection of a number of mundane interactions in the memorial. He is experiencing the simultaneous existence of peace and war and how it changes those who surround it. The poem comes to the conclusion that no one living in peacetime could full understand the experience of one who saw the horrors of war; horror at facts and figures is a temporary thing, lived experience is permanent.
Analysis of Facing It
The poem begins with the speaker already on location in front of the memorial. It is important to understand that while this poem might be being told from a contained first person perspective, the setting in which it is located is far from solitary. The memorial is a popular destination and more than likely there would be a number of people walking, talking, and disturbing the speaker’s solitude. This makes his contemplation of the black granite memorial all the deeper as he has been able to find a clear moment to think alongside the chaos of D.C.
If one did not have the corresponding background information, it would be impossible to know where the speaker is or what he is looking at. All one is able to tell from the first lines that the speaker is black, and that he is looking at something made of “black granite.” Lines one and two have been composed as a hook to engage the reader’s interest and, ideally, inspire them to read along further.
The next two lines are a prime example of the choppy phrasing that is characteristic of this poem. The speaker is within his own world, narrating his own experience. He thinks,
I said I wouldn’t
dammit: No tears.
This makes clear to the reader that wherever the speaker is, it is somewhere quite moving. It is also not a surprise to the narrator who was, so he thought, prepared for what he was going to see. He was determined not to let his emotions get the best of him but he couldn’t help but cry.
The next line shows a brutal split in the speaker’s mind. He knows himself too well to fully commit to the notion that he is without emotions. He sees himself as being both “stone” and “flesh.” He can be impenetrable and malleable at the same time.The most important image of this section is that of his own reflection staring back at him. It is like a different being. It is the stone for the moment, while he retains the flesh. It is “eyeing” him from the granite as if displeased with his show of emotion. The only way that he can find release from the stare is to turn away.
Although he might move to the side, there is no escaping where he is. No matter where he looks he sees the “Vietnam Veterans Memorial.” It is everywhere, including “inside” him. It has found its way into his soul and is not letting go. It is in these lines that he reader finally comes to understand, if one did not have the knowledge previously, that the speaker is at a specific and well-known location.
He is standing before the “58,022 names” of all those who died in the war and is captivated by the way that the light moves on the granite. This is clearly the case, as in the previous section he could not break contact with his reflection. The speaker is engages further with the monument as he takes in the full horror of the vast lists of names that cover the granite surface. As he goes “down” the list he is,
Half-expecting to find
[his] own in letters like smoke.
These concluding lines reveal to the reader that the narrator was part of the war in Vietnam. One never comes to fully understand what his role was, but he came close to death at one point or another. He feels in some ways as if his name should be alongside those he knew in Vietnam. Perhaps he feels like he did die there, and now seeing the full outcome of the war, that he never really left.
In the second half of the poem the speaker reminisces on specific memories of his time in Vietnam. Up until this point the reader was only given a vague feeling of what it was like for the speaker. In this section of lines he narrator describes one of the names on the wall and the person who used to be attached to it. He speaks of, “Andrew Johnson,” and recalls how he saw a “booby trap” flash white as it killed him. The memory is blurred, the death no more than a flash, but it is poignant in its simplicity.
He looks deeper into the memorial and begins to analyze the reflections of others. He sees himself, and those around him. They are all part of the war in one way or another. Whether through their support, protest, service, or the simple fact that they are living in the world. He is connecting the mundane elements of a “woman’s blouse” and a “red bird” to the intensity of the Vietnam War. The woman that he can see in the monument is walking away from it, and the names that were perching on her reflection remain, they are unable to reenter life.
He sees other images in the stone, ones that “cut” through its surface, but are gone as quickly as they came.
Lines 25- 31
From his spot in front of the moment, gazing at the names and at those who are passing behind him, he sees a “white vet.” Another veteran of the war, a white man, is there to experience the same thing the speaker is. For one brief moment, they look through one another’s eyes. They are united by their common experience, something the majority of visitors to the wall are unable to tap into.
The white man is like him, they are both images floating in the black granite. The newcomer has lost something though and it appears to the speaker as if the man’s right arm, which he surely lost in the war, has been absorbed by the monument. The war, and the glory one might have thought would come with it, have taken something incredibly physical from the white soldier.
The final image that the speaker sees is that of a woman who seems to be,
…trying to erase names:
This is not the case though, she is simply brushing a boy’s hair. The poet chose these mundane and simple images in an effort to show the contrast between the world at home and the world at war. These existences can function simultaneously and come close to touching, but never fully or completely know one another.