There are at least two levels of meaning to “Facing It,” as there are several levels of experience on which its action takes place. On the simplest level, the poem is a meditation by a soldier returning to the Memorial of the Vietnam War, in which he has served. On that level, he fights back tears, finds the name of a fallen comrade (among the 58,022 names of the dead), and observes others standing at the black granite wall. On another level, the poem sets up an opposition between what happens “here,” in the light of day, and what happens “there,” inside the Memorial, which is dark and threatening. The opposition on this level is between death and history inside the wall, and life and reality outside it.
“Facing It” is thus a complex and challenging meditation on the experience of war—and the memory of it. For the veteran in particular, the black granite brings the war back or, in the central metaphor of the poem, draws him or her back into its violence and horror. In certain ways, however, the poem challenges readers as well to contemplate that experience for themselves, for people can become trapped inside the Memorial (as inside the past, or inside history), or can escape to the present, to life, to the plane and the red bird that are flying free in the sky above the black wall. The choice, Komunyakaa implies, must be made.
The narrator’s reflection on the wall is “like a bird of prey,” but outside the wall “a red bird’s/ wings” fly free. The very title of the poem carries the notion that readers can “face” or confront the experience the Memorial represents and move beyond it, or they can remain trapped like the names of the dead on the wall. The speaker touches the name of his comrade, but the last image describes a mother touching her son: Death has given way to life. The narrator experiences his own catharsis in the poem’s brief thirty-one lines, in his figurative choice to focus finally not on the death the Memorial represents, but on the life that is still being lived outside its black walls.