Yusef Komunyakaa

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Identify and discuss the effective use of image, and explain how that element contributes to establishing the central theme of “Facing It” by Yusef Komunyakaa.

In “Facing It,” the preponderance of visual images that are often somewhat deceiving in their truthfulness helps to convey the idea that things and people are not always what they seem to be. There is often a depth, a history, or another truth behind what appears obvious at first glance.

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There are many images—or descriptions of sensory detail—in the poem, and most are visual.

The speaker sees his “black face fade” and seem to hide inside the black granite of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. His reflection is “clouded,” and the stone seems to “let [him] go” as he turns away or to show him “inside” the stone again when he turns back. He sees the names engraved, white letters on the black wall, and feels as though he might find his own name there “in letters like smoke.”

When he touches the name of a man he knew, he sees the “white flash” of the booby trap that killed the man. “Names [seem to] shimmer” on a woman’s top as she looks at the memorial, and “Brushstrokes flash” as a “red bird’s / wings” cut across the speaker’s gaze: a flash of bright red color in this scene of black and white. The speaker feels he is “stone,” then “flesh,” then “a window.”

Most of these descriptions help us to conjure up mental pictures of what he is seeing. In the end, he says that a woman is “trying to erase names” before he realizes that she is only “brushing a boy’s hair.”

These images create a sense that what seems to be is not what is. The names do not shimmer on the woman’s blouse; they are on the wall. The woman is not trying to erase names from the wall, but, rather, brushing her son’s hair. The speaker and other viewers do not vanish into the wall or emerge from it, though it appears, when looking at the wall, that this is what happens.

These somewhat deceptive or confusing images, however, help to illuminate the poem’s theme: that it can be terribly difficult to face, or come to terms with, events that appear to be one thing but actually are something else. The Vietnam War sowed division in America; people judged others based on appearances or impressions without really understanding the depth behind those appearances. Perhaps the poet was thinking about this when he wrote “Facing It.”

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