Poetry Review, Yusef Komunyakaa, “Facing It”

13 May

My black face fades,/hiding inside the black granite.   What we are seeing, through the eyes of a vet, is the Vietnam memorial.  What his race is, we don’t know, because his face is black looking into that smooth black mirror of names.

I said  I wouldn’t/dammit:  No tears.   His face fades because he is crying, or at least tearing up.  Such an odd promise, to not cry at a memorial.  I know there’s a fear of losing control, and also of not letting the thing get to you, of not letting it win.  I understand that.  Oh, but tears can be so healing.

I’m stone.  I’m flesh.  This is a marvelous line, because the man is going between stone and flesh, his resolve to not cry vs. his body’s insistence he does so.  Also the memorial is made of stone and flesh–all those names piled on each other, all those people who died, written in stone.

My clouded reflection eyes me/like a bird of prey, the profile of night/slanted against morning.  A veteran would see the world through a parted eye.  That’s the amazing thing about this poem, we are watching a man, look at words, empathizing with the memorial to words.  He’s also facing himself amidst these words, having survivor’s guilt, a living person among the ranks of the dead.

I turn this way–the stone lets me go./I turn that way–I’m inside/the Vietnam Veterans Memorial/again, depending on the light/to make a difference.  Again looking at the memorial in two different ways, he’s in the world and he’s in the wall.  He has a choice.  The names don’t.

I go down the 58,022 names,/half expecting to find/my own in letters like smoke.  His half-expectation is interesting, indicating that he doesn’t think himself better, and maybe not even luckier than those that are written there.  That maybe he kind of died too in that war.  Certainly the title “Facing It” isn’t just talking about the literal facing a wall, but also looking at the reality of the war, and the dead, and taking it in.

I touch the name Andrew Johnson:/ I see the booby trap’s white flash.  He has a memory associated with that name–and also the name is something of a trap, because it brings him back there, makes him remember the losses he had in the war.  I like the touching bringing a vision, like if he touched all these names there would be a flicker of a memory.  Like the names are magic for being written on that wall.

Names shimmer on a woman’s blouse/but when she walks away/the names stay on the wall.  He acknowledges that his experience isn’t the same as others.  To some people the names are just names.  They don’t have stories associated with them.  They remain an abstraction.  Also, he’s noticing what’s going on in the world through the reflective wall–a great metaphor for how a veteran sees the world.

Brushstrokes flash, a red bird’s/wings cutting across my stare.  The world still goes on despite this fact.  And that’s what this poem is, a veteran taking the war experience and the losses and tries to make amends with the real world which still goes on happening.   In his mind the real world is almost an interruption.

The sky.  A plane in the sky.  Again seeing the world, this time something completely neutral.  The world still turns.

A white vet’s image floats/closer to me, then his pale eyes /look through mine.  I’m a window.  The eyes glancing at each other through the wall, not acknowledging that they’re looking.  Is it because of the implicit knowledge that both might have on what’s going on in each other’s heads?    He calls himself a window–completely depersonalizing himself, as if he’s still keeping himself from crying.

He’s lost his right arm, inside the stone.   To the Vet the stone is the war itself, and the white man’s arm is in there, because that stone is a testament to what has been taken.

In the black mirror/a woman’s trying to erase names:/no she’s brushing a boy’s hair.   Interesting that her action of brushing hair would seem like erasing names in the window.  In a way, isn’t doing that action, brushing someone’s hair, going on living sort of erasing the names, or at least the meaning behind them?  In the eyes of a vet it might–so while life going on is a great gift, there’s a sense of loss that comes when this list of names moves from being known people to names written in history.  What this man is facing isn’t so much the war, but also that life is moving on, that the world has not ended, and that he needs a way to make his two worlds into one.

Honestly, Komunyakaa’s poem is brilliant–showing the complex feelings of a vet in a world that forgets its wars eventually.

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