Analysis

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 488

"Facing It" is a poem that encapsulates numerous themes and points of view regarding the Vietnam War and related issues.

The speaker is a Vietnam veteran visiting the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial in Washington, D.C. He interacts with the Memorial itself and implicitly with the other people surrounding him who are...

(The entire section contains 1751 words.)

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"Facing It" is a poem that encapsulates numerous themes and points of view regarding the Vietnam War and related issues.

The speaker is a Vietnam veteran visiting the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial in Washington, D.C. He interacts with the Memorial itself and implicitly with the other people surrounding him who are also viewing the huge granite structure. The poem raises the question of the meaning of this memorial and any monument of its nature. What, the poet asks, is it that viewing such a thing unleashes within the souls of those who experience it, and what sort of "release," if any, does it bring about within them? Does it help the veteran or hinder him in his attempt years later still to deal with the lingering effects of war?

The speaker clearly feels a degree of survivors' guilt:

My clouded reflection eyes me

Like a bird of prey. . . .

And later:

I go down the 58,022 names

half-expecting to find

my own in letters like smoke. . . .

It's not only the survivors' syndrome but also the sense that a part of any soldier has died, even if he has lived through the conflict, that these lines attest to. The speaker's reaction partakes of both sorrow and a kind of numbness when he says, "I'm stone. I'm flesh." He identifies with the inanimate nature of the Memorial, perhaps because he thought he had ceased to feel the violence and horror of the conflict. But he senses simultaneously that it is only with an effort that he is keeping his emotions in check.

The duality of his response to the monument is emblematic of the nature of this war, and of war in general. Men, and women, return home unsure of what the meaning of the conflict was, both overall, and in its personal significance for them. The images of the war return for the speaker and are conflated with those of the people now surrounding him. It is a negation, in the speaker's mind, of the separation of the home front from those who actually were sent to war—a separation many people sensed was much worse during the Vietnam War than in any other conflict in US history.

A subtext of the poem is the ongoing racial divide of America and the corresponding divide that was present among the men serving in the war. The speaker describes his black face "hiding" within the black granite of the Memorial. Later he notices a white veteran who has lost an arm also in attendance. The fact that in a brief poem such as this these striking references to race are made is an indication not only of how persistent the issue of race is in America. It perhaps also shows the war itself as having been linked in some way to the same dysfunctional racial dynamic that haunted the US at that time, and unfortunately still into the speaker's present, and ours today.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 630

“Facing It” has been widely anthologized in textbooks, in part because it deals so powerfully with the Vietnam War. The poem provides few answers to the complex questions the war has raised in the United States, but it approaches the subject in ways that can help heal the multiple scars the war has left.

The poem describes a visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., by an African American veteran who plainly saw action in the war, but its lines hardly provide the kind of psychological closure readers might expect from such a visit. The first-person narrator sees his “black face” fading, “hiding inside the black granite” of the Memorial, and a series of crucial oppositions is established at the opening which will work throughout the poem: outside/inside the wall, now/then, reality/illusion, life/death. This first visit to the Memorial is clearly an emotional experience for the narrator, and he has promised himself he will not cry; however, and in another binary opposition, he is “flesh,” he reminds himself, not “stone.” Everything is distorted in the surface of the black granite: his own reflection “eyes [him]/ like a bird of prey,” like the opposition of night to morning. When he looks away, he is freed (“the stone lets me go”), but when he looks at his reflection, “I’m inside/ the Vietnam Veterans Memorial/ again, depending on the light/ to make a difference.” This last line suggests that the visit is a little less fearful in the day, perhaps, for the “light” reminds him that he is outside the black granite, not trapped inside it as in a tomb, or, symbolically, inside the darkness which is Vietnam, in both the American experience and its collective memory of that war.

These first thirteen lines act as a kind of prelude to the subject, mood, and manner of the whole poem; at line 14, the narrator starts reading through the names on the Memorial, “half-expecting to find/ my own in letters like smoke.” The war was so awful, that on one level he did die, or went through warfare so violent that it was as if he had. This visit thus represents his attempt to move beyond his own history. He finds and touches “the name Andrew Johnson” and immediately sees the “white flash” of the exploding booby trap that killed his comrade. The central opposition between inside and outside continues, however, for he sees the names of the dead reflected in a woman’s blouse, “but when she walks away/ the names stay on the wall.”

The narrator notes other differences between the images in the granite and reality: what look like “brushstrokes” on the granite wall turn out to be “a red bird’s/ wings cutting across my stare.” He sees the reflection of a white veteran, but the man is looking “through” the narrator’s eyes, seeing through the narrator’s reflection in the wall to the names beneath. This confusion prompts the narrator to recognize he’s “a window,” in other words, a clear and transparent perspective into the Memorial. He is right in another sense as well, for readers are experiencing the Memorial through his eyes. The white veteran has “lost his right arm/ inside the stone”—and perhaps in the war. The two have become interchangeable for the speaker.

In the final striking image, however, a woman appears to be “trying to erase names” in “the black mirror” of the Memorial, but the narrator realizes that instead she is only “brushing a boy’s hair” on this side of the stone. This last image captures a trivial, everyday gesture, but it takes reader out of the deadly grip of the Memorial to a restorative action being played out among the living.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 497

“Facing It” describes a particular experience, but it is neither a narrative nor dramatic poem because it relates only a few particulars of the visit and instead focuses on the images that come out of that experience. The poem is deceptively simple in both denotative and figurative language, and this is undoubtedly part of its power. Many lines are monosyllabic in their vocabulary, which adds to the directness of the poem. Even the images—tears, stone, flesh, a bird of prey, a red bird’s wings, a plane in the sky, a window—are almost elemental in meaning. Yet beneath this simple surface of word and picture is the complex idea of what the Memorial celebrates: the soldiers who were killed in one of the most controversial conflicts in American history.

As in many of Yusef Komunyakaa’s poems, sound is important here, and he works the sense of his lines through both alliteration and assonance, such as in line 1, “My black face fades.” He also varies the rhythm of the poem by employing both caesuras, on one hand (lines 4 and 5), and enjambment or run-on lines (lines 6, 7, and 8), on the other.

Those who have visited it in Washington, D.C., can testify to the power of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial itself: The black granite is sunk in several acres of ground in a large V shape. There is something awesome about the Memorial, like a cathedral or some other religious site. The simplicity of the structure allows visitors to experience its power immediately; there is no ornate or stylized structure to work through to the experience itself. One walks up to the wall, and the names of the dead are there. Form, in short, frees function. The poem resembles its subject in style as well as content.

At the same time, the poem, like the Memorial it describes, captures the complexity of the experience and conveys it through its imagery as well. The central opposition in the poem—the confusion between inside and outside the black walls—represents perfectly the contradictory feelings veterans may experience visiting the site: wondering why they are alive while their comrades are dead. Komunyakaa works that opposition from the opening lines of the poem, when his “black face fades” into the black granite, to the closing lines, when he realizes the woman is not erasing names but brushing a boy’s hair. The tension between opposites in the poem leads the reader to identify with the speaker in the poem and to realize that the simplistic notions that often operate when people talk about the dead in war will not work in the experience here: The Memorial is both a mirror that gives back the viewer’s reflection, even the confusion about the Vietnam War, and a window that allows the viewer to glimpse again the violence of the war. Language and metaphor thus function in the poem to challenge the reader’s assumptions about that war and to work toward resolution.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 136

Aubert, Alvin. “Yusef Komunyakaa: The Unified Vision, Canonization and Humanity.” African American Review 27, no. 1 (Spring, 1993): 119-123.

Collins, Michael. “Staying Human.” Parnassas: Poetry in Review 18/19, nos. 1/2 (November 1, 1993): 126-149.

Ehrhart, W. D. “Soldier-Poets of the Vietnam War.” In America Rediscovered: Essays on Literature and Film of the Vietnam War, edited by Owen W. Gilman and Lorrie Smith. New York: Garland, 1990.

Gotera, Vicente F. “’Depending on the Light’: Yusef Komunyakaa’s Dien Cai Dau.” In America Rediscovered: Critical Essays on Literature and Film of the Vietnam War, edited by Owen W. Gilman and Lorrie Smith. New York: Garland, 1990.

Salas, Angela. “Race, Human Empathy, and Negative Capability: The Poetry of Yusef Komunyakaa.” College Literature 30, no. 4 (Fall, 2003): 32-53.

Stein, Kevin. “Vietnam and the ’Voice Within’: Public and Private History in Yusef Komunyakaa’s Dien Cai Dau.” Massachusetts Review 36, no. 4 (December 1, 1995): 541-561.

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