This post brings to you a summary and analysis of the poem ‘Facing It’ by Yusef Komunyakaa. The poem is inspired from the experiences of the poet during the Vietnam War, where he worked as a correspondent and managing editor of a military newspaper.
Did You Know?
The Vietnam War was one of the longest wars in the history of the United States of America, in which around 10% of the total population had served.
Yusef Komunyakaa is an American poet who has served for the army as well. He worked for the military newspaper Military Cross during his stint with the armed forces in the Vietnam War. He is also a winner of many prestigious awards, that include the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, Ruth Lily Poetry Prize, and Louisiana Writer Award.
He wrote the poem ‘Facing It’ almost a decade after the war. The speaker, a war veteran, visits the ‘Vietnam Veterans Memorial’, which has been built to commemorate the personnel who were killed or have been missing in action in the war. A visit to this structure sparks off flashbacks of the war that haunt him and invoke many painful memories. These lead the speaker to question his identity. Here is the summary and analysis of the poem.
My black face fades,
hiding inside the black granite.
I said I wouldn’t,
dammit: No tears.
I’m stone. I’m flesh.
The speaker experiences a loss of identity when he looks at the memorial, which is a granite wall, and his ‘black face’ is no longer differentiate from the wall. He reminds himself that he is strong and has no emotion, like a ‘stone’. He, however, ends up breaking down as he is a human, ‘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.
The meaning of the ‘clouded reflection’ here is the events that the speaker had to face in the past, the memories of which are back to haunt him. These experiences are dangerous, dark, and they threaten to return. They form an imagery for him from which he wants to get away.
I turn that way–I’m inside
the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
again, depending on the light
to make a difference.
He is too involved with the past that comes flooding back when he is inside the memorial. He has doubts raised over his identity when he sees his reflection on the war memorial, which keep on appearing and disappearing depending on the ‘light’.
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.
The speaker skims through the names of 58,022 personnel who had lost their lives or were missing since the war, half-expecting to find his name to be on that list. He finds a familiar name on the memorial wall, and is reminded of how the person, Andrew Johnson, had died. The lines between past and present begin to blur, as his memories from the war begin to resurface.
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.
His train of thought is broken because of the flapping wings of a bird, which he compares to a ‘brushstroke’. Soon, he drifts back to what he thinks are his days on the field, but soon realizes that he is remembering motherly affection.
The speaker is very sure of his identity, but later on, he thinks of it as a facade over which a few questions are raised as soon as he reaches the memorial. He says that he found his ‘black face’ fading into the granite of the memorial wall. This is also about the speaker identifying himself being similar to the granite wall in some ways, along with having a major difference, his fallacy as a human being. He is reminded that, as much as he can try to ignore or mask his emotions he was going to fall prey to them.
There is a conflict and internal struggle depicted that the speaker has to face due to the resurfacing of past experiences. One can notice a ton of survival’s guilt, as he begins to see familiar names among the many names on the wall. He is deeply lost in his thoughts, and his overwhelmed mind starts having flashbacks, which reduce the difference between memories and reality. Metaphor and visual imagery are heavily relied on literary devices in ‘Facing It’, by Yusef Komunyakaa.
The theme of this poem, through the speaker, gives us a peek into one of the most difficult phases a person can face in a lifetime. The experiences of the speaker during the war, which has been subjected to a critical analysis for a long time, and after the war, can be construed as the challenges that the poet himself had to overcome.