Yusef Komunyakaa's "Facing It"
An Emotional Response to the Vietnam Memorial
Yusef Komunyakaa emphasizes his ethnicity at the very beginning of his poem "Facing It" in the first lines: "My black face fades,/hiding inside the black granite." In these lines, the word "black" has been repeated twice, in reference both to his own skin color and the color of the memorial. By doing this Yusef has identified himself as an African American and forged a connection between himself and the memorial through similarities of color. This connection is extended through word choice, as his face "fades" and "hides inside" the granite. The outline of his face that allows him to be identifiable and distinct from the memorial vanishes, and he and the memorial have in effect become one congruent entity. This melding together is not only on a superficial level, as his face goes "inside" the granite, delving beyond the surface into the interior of the rock.
For Yusef, the memorial is more that it appears; it is not just cold stone, but something he identifies with on a more deep and profound level. It is this deeper meaning that inspires his emotional response in the next lines: "I said I wouldn't/dammit: No tears./I'm stone. I'm flesh." These lines show both his past emotional struggle as well as his present one. For Yusef, this memorial does not awaken in him new emotions but old reoccurring ones; ones which he fights to contain with little success, although he came to the memorial with the knowledge that he would find it a highly emotional experience. He struggles to internalize his emotions, telling himself he is stone, like the granite memorial, a strong and steady reminder of the past, but he fails as he realizes the difference between him and the memorial: he is a living human being. He shares the darkness, the blackness, with the granite memorial, yet he can feel the full impact of this connection whereas a granite memorial cannot itself feel the pain that it directly represents.
As his rock-solid control and his emotions struggle against each other, his perception of himself and his surroundings constantly alters as well. Originally his face was distinct but faded into the memorial as he came to terms with the depth of its meaning, and his emotions came to the surface. After the expression of these emotions, his hazy reflection stands out, now as a menacing presence: "My clouded reflection eyes me/like a bird of prey, the profile of night/slanted against morning." After realizing his weakness as a sharp contrast against the solid unmoving granite memorial in front of him, Yusef now finds himself mirrored within his reflection in a moment of emotional release. He views this image with hostility, as a bird of prey would eye its victim. His reflection "eyes" him with the same eyes that rebelled against his self-control and gave proof to his emotional tumult through their tears.
As his face becomes clear it now serves as a direct reminder of the emotional impact of his surroundings upon him, through mirroring his own face and also by simultaneously illuminating his surroundings and his silhouetted existence within these surroundings, reminding him that he stands within the Vietnam Memorial. This effect is described within the next few lines: "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." His constant turning and moving from angle to angle also suggests emotion as he cannot view the memorial from a single stationary vantage point but must shift back and forth, fully aware of the effect each shift of movement has upon his perceptions of both himself and the memorial, which are directly correlated with his emotions.
Yusef reads the names on the memorial: "I go down the 58,022 names,/half-expecting to find my own in letters like smoke." In these lines he draws attention to the reality and magnitude of loss through stating the exact number of men killed. However, he also underscores his inability to fully accept this reality by expecting his own name to be present, and written "like smoke". Smoke adds a surreal quality, as smoke vanishes almost as it appears, and is a direct contrast to the memorial, with names permanently engraved of those who died and therefore whose names will never vanish. The one name Yusef reaches out and touches is that of Andrew Johnson: "I touch the name Andrew Johnson;/I see the booby trap's white flash," a man who Yusef associates with a flashback from the war, most likely a flashback to Andrew Johnson's death.
To Yusef the names do not represent the loss of war, to Yusef these names represent a multitude of individuals, and the memories he shared and events his witnessed with them. However, as he in fact touches Andrew Johnson's name, Yusef finds that he did not share these men's ultimate end. Yusef's own name does not appear on the memorial, and at best he can only visualize its presence existing in smoke, whereas he can reach out and touch the name of Andrew Johnson. In the beginning of the poem Yusef's visual perception has played tricks upon him but now he reaches out and touches the name of his comrade, and in doing so remembers he truly is dead and will never return, due to the "booby trap's white flash."
The names upon the memorial represent experiences that Yusef carries within himself and that impact him in ways that have altered him forever. This is why it seems that Yusef finds it hard to comprehend that other people should not visibly carry the impact of the war with them also, wherever they go. Yusef writes: "Names shimmer on a woman's blouse/but when she walks away/the names stay on the wall." Yusef seems to find it hard to comprehend that a woman can approach the memorial and then walk away and take nothing with her, leaving it all behind exactly as it existed before. It appears neither have had any effect upon the other, the names briefly shimmer upon the woman's blouse and then both the woman's blouse and the memorial remain separate and intact.
Yusef cannot walk away untouched, and instead finds himself gripped by more flashes from the past: "Brushstrokes flash, a red bird's/wings cutting across my stare./The sky. A plane in the sky." Again these names invoke memories from the war, memories of warplanes flying in the sky, realistic memories of past experiences. However, like his name written in smoke, these memories take on a surreal quality with floating images: "A white vet's image floats/closer to me, then his pale eyes/look through mine. I'm a window." The image of the vet appears ghost-like and as an apparition, who looks through Yusef without seeing him, perhaps because Yusef is still alive.
Yet Yusef finds a connection he shares with this veteran, as "he's lost his right arm/inside the stone," much as Yusef's head had vanished inside of the stone at the beginning of the poem. The loss of the veteran's arm insinuates a mutilated appendage, a casualty of the war, much as Yusef's peace of mind is also a casualty of the war. Yusef has lost his peacefulness in a way that can never be undone, and again he watches others and finds it shocking that they can continue living normal lives and be in the presence of the memorial, without it hindering their ability to function in any noticeable way: "In the black mirror/a woman's trying to erase names:/No, she's brushing a boy's hair."
Yusef interprets every movement as a product of his own overwhelmed mental state, rapid motion for him can only symbolize emotion and turmoil which ends up falling short of reality. Others, although likely impacted in their own way, can still live normal lives and perform normal tasks in spite of the war, and in the presence of the memorial, whereas it takes Yusef a moment to understand that a woman can stand in front of such a monument and perform a natural everyday action such as brushing a boy's hair.