Yusef Komunyakaa served as a reporter and editor for a military newspaper during the Vietnam War, and his experiences there have proved a fruitful, if painful, source for poetic material. Writing for the armed forces publication The Southern Cross from 1969 to 1970, Komunyakaa chronicled the activities of American soldiers both on and off the battlefield. In "Facing It," he creates another kind of record of the war. In his poem Komunyakaa, a recipient of the Bronze Star, recalls viewing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., and the many conflicting sensations he feels in its presence. This time removed temporally and geographically from Vietnam, Komunyakaa explores possible methods of representing and memorializing the war: in particular, he deals with the conflicts between private and public expressions of mourning and memory. Throughout "Facing It," the poet's identity fuses with the wall and the wall unites with its visitors, a circumstance that for Komunyakaa is at once disturbing and comforting.
The poem dramatizes the ways that art is both a necessary and an inadequate medium through which to disclose the history of war. In the opening lines, Komunyakaa announces, "My black face fades, / hiding inside the black granite." Immediately, the poet demonstrates his personal investment in both his poem and in the other artwork, Maya Lin's granite war memorial. He is pulled into the wall--"I'm stone"--but in the following instant disengages himself from it, reassured that "I'm flesh." The poet's identity becomes uncertain in the presence of the wall. Its polished stone surface acts as a kind of mirror, reflecting the images of those who look at it. This feature establishes a sense of intimacy between the viewer and the art, but it also reinforces a sense of alienation. For Komunyakaa, this alienation is compounded by his race: the repetition of the word "black" in the poem's first two lines subtly underscores the fact that his experiences in Vietnam differed from those of white soldiers. In any case, the poet informs us that his reflection is not clear and illuminating but "clouded" and furthermore that it "eyes me / like a bird of prey." His reflection seems to have an existence separate from his own, and its intentions appear quite menacing. The bird of prey symbolizes his memory (and its attendant grief), and its autonomy suggests that Komunyakaa exercises little control over it.
Despite his uneasiness, the poet is not entirely estranged from the wall. He is intrigued as he moves around it, altering his view and manipulating his reflection: "I turn / this way--the stone lets me go. / I turn that way---I'm inside / ... depending upon the light / to make a difference." Komunyakaa sports with his mirror-image, and in the poem he performs a parallel verbal action by playing with various meanings of "reflection." He is literally describing the visual phenomenon of seeing one's image in a two-dimensional surface, but the poet also invests other meanings of reflection. He invokes the idea of reflection as a thought process, such as contemplation, meditation, or recollection. Komunyakaa reflects on the past and on its present-day significance. However, these kinds of reflections, too, are clouded: the poet's memories of Vietnam are still keen, but his relationship to them are conflicted--complicated by the time that has passed and by his own imperfect powers of recall. Moreover, Komunyakaa is well aware that his experiences are in no way the sum total of the experiences of all Americans--or even of all African Americans--in Vietnam. Likewise, his poem and the wall reflect a part of history, but these reproductions of the past are necessarily incomplete. Neither the poet nor art can ever fully recover or replace what has been lost.
The poem dramatizes the ways that art is both a necessary and an inadequate medium through which to disclose the history of war.
In the next lines, Komunyakaa makes more clear the connection between the wall and poetry: "I go down the 58,002 names, / half-expecting to find / my own in letters like smoke." Etched into the Vietnam Veterans Memorial are the names of the war's dead and missing. The inscriptions comprise more than a simple catalogue of casualties: for many visitors, the act of touching the wall or copying a reverse image of a name on a piece of paper constitutes an important part of their encounter with the monument. Nevertheless, language--whether it be in the poem or on the wall-- provides only a tenuous connection between art and people: "Names shimmer on a woman's blouse / but when she walks away / the names stay on the wall." Komunyakaa affirms the power of art to honor sorrow and memorialize sacrifice, and yet that very promise of permanence or comprehensiveness is undermined when we inevitably turn our attentions elsewhere.
Even when we do attend to the public reminders of history, we must confront their (and our own) imperfections. The figure of incompleteness appears literally in the form of a white veteran who has "lost his right arm / inside the stone." Komunyakaa's vivid and compelling phrase makes the obvious remarkable, as it informs us that the vet's missing arm is not reflected by the wall. The granite will release neither the man's arm nor his arm's reflection, as both are trapped within the space and time that the wall commemorates. This physical, individual injury goes unreflected, symbolizing the limits of representative art. Yet art proves serviceable to society, at least as a lens through which people can view the lives of others and review their own lives. The veteran's reflection intermingles with the poet's, and in the process, the poet becomes a "window" through which the vet looks. This incident unsettles the poet, but it affirms their common bond. It also helps prepare the poet to illustrate the importance of the human imagination and to testify that art's value exceeds its public serviceability.
Like many of Komunyakaa's poems, "Facing It" concludes with a surprising turn. In a 1994 interview, he confirms the value of the unexpected in poetry: "If I don't have surprises, poetry doesn't work for me. What gives my poetry its surprising element is that I have not systematically planned out in a directed way what I am going to say. It is a process of getting back to the unconscious." In "Facing It," Komunyakaa purposefully retreats to the world of the unconscious and surprises us with the abrupt shift in perspective from that of the poet to that of another mourner. The poem ends as he looks away from his own dim reflection in the wall to watch another visitor: "In the black mirror / a woman's trying to erase names: / No, she's brushing a boy's hair." The poet describes the woman's actions in two ways: first from his own conceptual viewpoint and then from hers. His initial description involves a verbal metaphor, comparing the woman's gesture to blotting out letters, something a poet might do. But then Komunyakaa corrects himself, reprimanding his imagination with a simple "No," and in so doing he transports us into the mind of this woman. Now writing from her perspective, the poet correlates her action with a maternal caress that has little, if anything, to do with artistic production. This woman is not cognizant of her visible movements, nor does she consciously reflect on their meaning. In this way, she stands in stark contrast to the poet who has shown himself to be all too aware of his surroundings. The woman offers an alternative way to confront the past, a way to achieve consolation--and perhaps even temporary compensation--for the sorrows of history.
"Facing It" is the last piece in Dien Cai Dau, a collection of poems mostly about Vietnam. This book was published in 1988, nearly twenty years after Komunyakaa's return from the war. "Dien cai dau" means "crazy" in Vietnamese and was very often used by the Vietnamese people to describe American soldiers. Komunyakaa's use of this phrase for the title of his book is in part accusatory, implying that American military efforts in Vietnam were unwise, misguided, or even corrupt. His title also suggests that there is something intellectually and emotionally disconcerting about using poetry to recuperate memories of the war. But ultimately Komunyakaa does not believe it is crazy to use art to understand the Vietnam conflict; instead, he would likely think it crazy for a poet to willfully ignore the past. In fact, Komunyakaa has said that it was not until after he had returned from the war and written "Instructions for Building Straw Huts"-- another Vietnam poem--that he felt sure of his poetic calling. Paradoxically, with this external vocational certainty came a need to permit particular instabilities to reside within his poetry. Komunyakaa shows that in composing his poem about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, his own identity and imagination are composed and discomposed by the wall. But this mutual interdependence between the public world and the private, between history and art, is compulsory and ultimately beneficial to the poet.