Analysis of Poem "Facing It" by Yusef Komunyakaa
Yusef Komunyakaa and Facing It
Facing It is a poem that deals with the personal angst of the speaker, a Vietnam veteran, who is visiting the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC.
The black wall of the memorial evokes all kinds of war-torn images from the violent past which are full of agony and pain. The poem explores just what effect these have on a young black soldier, struggling to cope in the here and now.
Born in 1947 in Louisiana, Yusef Komunyakaa spent time as a war correspondent in Vietnam, witnessing and reporting on the bloody battles for supremacy in the mid 1960s.
When he returned to the USA he began writing poetry whilst studying at the University of Colorado and went on to publish in magazines, eventually bringing out a book in 1988, Dien Cai Dau, which is Vietnamese for crazy. Included in the book was the poem Facing It.
Komunyakaa's poems cover many subjects, from war to folklore, from jazz to racial issues. Hard reality and personal history are often explored.
Facing It doesn't take an objective view of the Vietnam conflict but concentrates on a short episode in the life of an ex soldier who was once fully immersed in the harshest of environments.
- It brings to light the emotional and mental turmoil that this individual's memory has buried, for whatever reasons. In this sense it is both an attempt at catharsis and conscious confrontation; at cleaning away old and dirty truths, facing the horrific traumatic experiences of a recent past.
My black face fades,
hiding inside the black granite.
I said I wouldn’t,
dammit: No tears.
I’m stone. I’m flesh.
My clouded reflection eyes me
like a bird of prey, the profile of night
slanted against morning. 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.
I go down the 58,022 names,
half-expecting to find
my own in letters like smoke.
I touch the name Andrew Johnson;
I see the booby trap’s white flash.
Names shimmer on a woman’s blouse
but when she walks away
the names stay on the wall.
Brushstrokes flash, a red bird’s
wings cutting across my stare.
The sky. A plane in the sky.
A white vet’s image floats
closer to me, then his pale eyes
look through mine. I’m a window.
He’s lost his right arm
inside the stone. In the black mirror
a woman’s trying to erase names:
No, she’s brushing a boy’s hair.
Analysis of Facing It
Facing It is a free verse poem of 31 lines in total, a single stanza without a rhyme scheme or regular meter (metre in British English).
It is very much a personal approach, written in first person, which tells the reader that this is one individual facing whatever it is that might follow. This individual is also black.
In the first two lines an image is made, that of a black person's reflection fading into black granite. The speaker could well be talking to himself, whispering perhaps, as he takes a look into the black stone. It's granite, one of the toughest, most durable rocks there is.
But note the verb hiding which hints at shyness and doubt, or wanting to avoid being seen. Maybe this person doesn't want to see himself? Already the face is fading, a good thing for all concerned?
There is alliteration in the first line: face fades, and the assonance is plain: hiding inside/granite so there's some sound texture already.
The third and fourth lines deepen the sense of personal. The idea that this black man told himself before he came to this place that he would not cry or shed a tear. He's a bit emotional.
- He is split psychically. On the one hand he is as tough as that granite, on the other he is as weak and sensitive as flesh. This works both ways. His reflection, caught in the shiny granite may appear to be stone; his own mind knows that this is not so. He is not deluded. He knows himself to be human, made of flesh.
He's looking at himself again, line six tells the reader. He's looking back - the simile introduces a bird of prey, and a fixed, staring pose - the more he looks the darker his profile at an angle against the morning light.
This individual is definitely here for a reason: to look into himself, to gain insights.
And the poem is gaining momentum in its study of contrast and conflict. Just look at the language used so far: face/tears/flesh/eyes and granite/stone. What it is to be a vulnerable human. What it is to be tough and insensitive.
Lines seven and eight have enjambment, the lines not punctuated, bringing movement and some hesitation as the speaker uses the light to try and understand just what is happening to him inside and out.
The stone lets him go, as if it once imprisoned him, like the past perhaps? He turns the other way and the opposite occurs, the stone traps him again. The give away comes in line eleven when the speaker lets the reader know exactly where they are.
This is Washington DC, the capital of the USA, the hub of power where decisions directly affecting its citizens are made. No doubt the decision to go to war in Vietnam was made not far away from this memorial (which was decades in the making, so controversial was the Vietnam war involvement and outcome).
- So by line thirteen the reader has the scene set out in full. Here is a black man, a veteran soldier, come to view the war memorial, to use it as a mirror and so gain a little more understanding. He's trying very hard not to let things get on top of him.
But in the light of the new day all is not straightforward. The granite stone represents the war, the past, the reflection of the person as they peer into the surface is the present ....and the future? This is yet to come.
On the stone are lots of names, the war dead. There's a precise figure given, as if the individual has gone through each and every one. That's a lot of young people sacrificed in the name of the USA.
The speaker thinks his name could be there, figuratively speaking, like smoke, which can just vanish into thin air. But of course he won't find his own name, cos he's here, still alive, in the flesh.
But he does touch the stone, and the name of an ex colleague perhaps? Andrew Johnson could be any soul from anywhere in the United States - it also happens to be the name of the 17th president of the USA, vice-president to the assassinated Abraham Lincoln.
But this is not a historical President's name, this is the name of a soldier who fell victim to a booby trap explosive out in Vietnam. Touching that name has ignited a memory, an instant image.
As the black soldier studies the granite surface and the names, he sees reflected a woman's blouse. It's confusing. The blouse seems to have the names printed on it and he thinks she'll take the names away when she walks off. But no.
Deep down he would like those names to disappear with that woman, in the here and now. That would eradicate the past, the decision, the war, the battles, the bombs, the deaths.
When a bird flies off it seems there are brush strokes - are they too brushing away the names? No. It's just a bird, a red bird, blurring the situation.
He looks up as a consequence and sees a plane. Is this in the here and now or is it back when, in Vietnam? He's caught between a rock and a hard place.
- There is a veteran now in his mind's eye, a white guy with pale eyes who seems to be floating, looking though him, straight through him. Metaphorically he's a window opening into the relived past.
The poor white veteran loses his arm in the granite. Did he lose it in the war? Why is he looking through the speaker? Perhaps the speaker is feeling guilt; guilt; that he is not on the granite name list, that he is not one of the dead.
The final three lines bring the speaker back to the present but not before he confuses the brushing of a boy's hair with the wiping away of those names, of the past and all its ugly truths. The boy is the future, the new generation to come.
And so this mini-struggle to overcome the past ends on a positive note, with the black soldier able to distinguish between reality and memory. A filmic poem, with strong imagery and simple language.
© 2018 Andrew Spacey