Yusef Komunyakaa's poem "Facing It" describes a Vietnam-War veteran's painful experience of visiting the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. From interviews and biographical details, we can assume the speaker of the poem is Komunyakaa himself. Komunyakaa served in Vietnam from 1965 to 1967, and his memories of those years haunt him when he visits the memorial, causing him to question his own identity as a black, Vietnam-War veteran and the kind of survivor he has become.
Told in the first person, Komunyakaa's poem draws on the physical properties of the memorial sculpture itself to create a symbolic setting. He uses the capacity for the memorial's mirror- like surface to create ghostly reflections of all that surround it to underline his own incapacity to reach emotional resolution concerning his war experience. Ironically, the memorial is popularly referred to as "the wall" because it is shaped like a wall; however, its "nickname" also signifies the emotional dead end many survivors of the war come up against when visiting the site. Throughout the poem, the speaker does double takes, thinking he has seen one thing but then seeing something else. His perceptual "mistakes" are actually memories from the war that get in his way of experiencing present time and space. Though he pledges to himself to be hard as stone, the speaker is overcome by grief as he looks at the more than 58,000 names of soldiers who died in the war or are missing in action.
"Facing It" is included in Komunyakaa's 1988 collection, Dien Cai Dau, which tackles other difficult Vietnam-War subjects as well. Written one year after Komunyakaa first visited the memorial, "Facing It" was the second poem of the volume that the poet finished. In an interview with William Baer in Kenyon Review, Komunyakaa claimed that "Facing It" became the standard for the rest of the collection. "Tonally, I believe, it informed the other poems," he said. "I wanted to deal with images instead of outright statements. That's pretty much how I remember the war--imagery that we sort of internalized, that was informed by the whole vibrations of the body."
In the first two lines of "Facing It," the narrator suggests that one of the poem's themes will be identity. He does this by making his "black face" the first image of the poem. The face is literally both the first thing we show to others and to ourselves. When it hides, as it does here, we know that the speaker has lost not only his self-image in the black granite, but his own sense of who he is. The speaker's reflection is a "doppelganger" or ghostly double of a living person. From this first line we can also infer that the speaker is an African American, like Komunyakaa himself.
We are introduced to the governing emotion of this poem: (barely) restrained grief and shock. The speaker is being literal and metaphoric when he says that he is both stone and flesh, as he is referring to both his body and its double as reflected in the granite. Being stone also suggests that he is hardening himself against the powerful emotions he feels.
The poet further develops the image of the split self, as the reflection now is given intention of its own, eyeing the speaker "like a bird of prey." This tells us that the double is an adversary of sorts for the speaker and someone we can expect will haunt the speaker further as the poem continues. The reflection is a "profile of night" because it is on the black granite; but this image also hints that it is a potentially dangerous self being reflected. The reflection appears and disappears depending on how the speaker moves in relation to the sun and the granite.
The speaker locates himself at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Originally designed as a student project in 1981 by Maya Ying Lin of Yale University, the memorial is located northeast of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. The memorial is a long black granite wall, in the shape of the letter "v," on which the names of the American military dead and missing are inscribed. When the speaker says that he is "inside" the memorial, he means his reflection. But he also suggests that a deeper part of himself is enmeshed with the past that the monument represents. Again, he continues using light as a metaphor for the appearance and disappearance of his two selves.
The speaker refers to the memorial's list of 58,022 names of the American missing and dead. By "half-expecting" to find his own name among those listed, the speaker underscores just how alienated from himself he feels--how dead he feels. The letters are like smoke because smoke is itself a vague and transitory substance, which is what the speaker himself feels like.
The narrator experiences a flashback when he touches a name on the monument, reexperiencing the death of a comrade. We can now infer unequivocally that the speaker was a participant in the Vietnam War. Simultaneously, he sees the names on the memorial reflected on a woman's blouse. Such rapid shifts in perception underscore the narrator's dream-like state of mind. While he sinks deeper into the memories of his own painful experiences in the Vietnam War, he is also jarred out of those memories by what is happening in the present. This in-between state of mind and perception is reminiscent of surrealist verse and art, which attempted to show the dream-like quality of existence through its juxtaposition of seemingly disparate, unrelated elements.
The "brushstrokes" here refer to the narrator's experience of being jolted out of his reverie about the war. The red bird's wings (flying by) are like a brushstroke. That he is lost in his memories is emphasized by the fact that he is staring. Human beings frequently stare when they are daydreaming or obsessed with a particular memory, as they are focussed on what is happening inside rather than outside of them. The speaker is now aware of the external world of the present tense, of the sky above him and the plane crossing that sky.
The narrator sees the reflection of a white veteran, or vet, in the memorial. The fact that the image "floats" and that the narrator refers to himself as a window reminds us of how fragile the speakers feels--how lost in time and how lost to his body he feels. That he represents the vet as seeing through his eyes suggests that the speaker sees himself as transparent, both literally (in his own reflection) and metaphorically (what he feels and what the two of them share is obvious in his expression and eyes). Describing the vet by his race ("white") allows Komunyakaa to underline his own similarity to (they are both survivors) and difference from (the speaker is African American) each other. The black and whiteness of appearances also ironically contrasts with the grayness of memory, and of war itself. Komunyakaa continues to play with ideas of appearance and reality when he says, in line 28, that the vet has lost his arm. He could mean that the veteran is literally an amputee. But, given that in the very next line we are told that the arm has been lost "inside the stone," the poet could also mean that the man turned a particular way and the light made his reflection appear as if he had lost an arm. The poet is more clear with the poem's last image when he sees one thing and then corrects himself, seeing something else. That the speaker's initial perception is of a woman attempting to erase the names from the monument highlights the speakers enormous grief. If only the names weren't there, then the deaths they represent wouldn't have happened. In both cases and throughout the poem, the speaker's perceptions move between the past and the present, the desired and the real, from what he remembers to what is actually there in front of him.
When we finish reading the poem we can finally understand some of the varied meanings of its title. "Facing It" refers quite literally to the speaker looking at his face. However, "facing" something also means to confront it with awareness; and the word "facing," of course is a verb form of the noun "face," which refers to that part of ourselves most visible to others and what we visualize when we think of someone. The "it" is also richly ambiguous. "It" refers to the speaker's past and the tortured emotional legacy it has left him, but also the Vietnam War itself and the memorial that represents it.