Skip to main content

Yusef Komunyakaa's "Facing It"

  • Author:
  • Updated date:
Yusef Komunyakaa

Yusef Komunyakaa

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."

Flowers at the memorial

Flowers at the memorial

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.


Anwar Jafar Khalil on February 10, 2018:

I study in a university in Palestine and me as a citizen in a war zone understand what emotions the poet had but a question why didn't you talk about the figurative language and sound devises in the poem i looked in every website i could for my research paper and i found nothing so i did it myself don't know if its right but isn't there anyone that's good at these stuff help!!!!

Will on September 07, 2017:

I think another noteworthy aspect to take into account is how ambiguity adds meaning to the poem. There are so many ambiguous statements that can make Komunyakaa's statements be both a reflection of his time in Vietnam and things he experiences while at the memorial itself.

Salina Bujosa on November 25, 2016:

Beautiful poem.

Schatzie Speaks (author) on November 05, 2012:

Thanks everyone for your positive feedback and comments!

I am glad Brian shared another interpretation, and I invite everyone else to do so also! It will only help each of us view the poem in a way that makes the most sense to us personally. :)


Suparna on September 19, 2012:

This is truly wonderful and very helpful. The analysis is thoroughly done and you have made us understand the double layer so intricately woven into the poem by Yusef. I was surprised to see Brian's comment because that's exactly what I felt about those lines in particular ! Thanks again.

Zitsha on March 20, 2012:

I love to write myself. I read this poem four times and only got some of it. When I read this the words jumped off the page. I could feel and see what it was about. Thanks Ineed to write my paper now. Great

Alan1993 on March 16, 2012:

Great analysis of this amazing poem. It really helped me tremendously in understanding this poem. Thank you very much.

catsandsuch on March 08, 2012:

oh, didn' fully finish that- this analysis other then that is AMAZING. helped A LOT.

catsandsuch on March 08, 2012:

I feel like your analysis of lines 22-23 don't fully address what's going on. Maybe further elaborate on that? i don't understand the brushstrokes part.

Schatzie Speaks (author) on March 02, 2012:

SX, i love that you disagree but still took the time to read my essay. i believe that reading multiple analyses from multiple points of view will only give you a new, better awareness of what each line means to you! i try to do the same before each paper i write. :)

Schatzie Speaks (author) on March 02, 2012:

thank you t2, i'm glad.

Schatzie Speaks (author) on March 02, 2012:

thanks for your kind words, Amin!

Schatzie Speaks (author) on March 02, 2012:

that is wonderful to hear, ari! i'm so glad i could help you in any way with your assignment. :)

Schatzie Speaks (author) on March 02, 2012:

thanks for taking the time to read and comment, Monique!

Schatzie Speaks (author) on March 02, 2012:

thanks so much Peter! :)

Schatzie Speaks (author) on March 02, 2012:

haha, thank you cory

Schatzie Speaks (author) on March 02, 2012:

I'm glad you shared your interpretation, Brian! I by no means believe that my analysis is the only way to look at it!

Brian on November 14, 2011:

thnx for posting

very helpful

Mado on October 08, 2011:

what analysis would you give for the line

"My clouded reflection eyes me

like a bird of prey, the profile of night

slanted against morning."?

Nesrine Aldaikh on January 30, 2011:

i like the analysis , Yusef Komunyakaa through his poem we see and feel how much pain he has been going through and still deal with ! we always look at war as numbers of dead bodies , and we forget that these bodies once were a living people with their likes and dislikes . this poem makes me revalue a lot of conceptions about war and how horrifying the war is

Kierra on October 03, 2010:

This really helped me a lot but i am still kind of confused...........what is the real purpose?????????

ryan on September 25, 2010:

I like Brian's explanation of "brushing the boy's hair."

Megha Bhaduri on August 19, 2010:

this was brilliant. you elaborated on every point and i appreciate the help :)

Natasha on May 10, 2010:

olright, Cory? get some education))))

SX on April 19, 2010:

Excellent, i dont necissarily agree with your central ideal, i believe that this poem is chiefly Yusef's regret on not dieing in Vietnam, and the internal conflict he feels is that. either way its top notch ^^

Keshia on March 14, 2010:

Thanks, this was very insightful and thorough. You made this poem a lot easier to understand.

t on October 07, 2009:

very nice analysis. this helped me quite a lot. thank you.

Amin on March 09, 2009:

You are fantastic (the analysis with the choice of words, made it incredible and understandable). I appreciate your kindness. Keep it up

Ari on January 29, 2009:

I really enjoyed your analysis of this poem. I have to write an analysis of it for my poetry class, but we had a snow day the time we were going to go over it in class! It was really great to still be able to get someone elses perspective. I read a few different ones, but your analysis is my favorite. I definitely think you are dead on about the ending, too. I'd explain further, but I should start my paper now. It's due tomorrow!

Monique on January 27, 2009:

Wonderfully perceptive!

Peter on January 25, 2009:

Wow, I'd say that's quite good

cory on January 12, 2009:

it was olright

Brian on December 17, 2008:

i saw another way to interpret the ending about the woman...i think he was trying to show that he was not the only one to feel as he did...i think you could see her as a mother of a son she lost in the war...and what he saw was her fubbing her sons name "trying to erase it" as if he were still alive but then he realizes that she is trying to connect w/ him through the wall as if it was almost real if it had feelings the way he did...and she was doing a very motherly thing "brushing his hair" as if he was in the wall just as Yusef had become part of the wall......but idk that's what i think :) i like your explination too :)

o on December 11, 2008:

This is great, thanks

Jay on December 04, 2008:

I have to agree with Chris.

This analysis helps me to understand the poem better and provides good information about the poet and the background of the poem. Thank you so much for posting this! :)

chris on May 04, 2008:

Great analysis, I really enjoyed reading this, "Facing It" is such a powerful poem.