Facing It

by James Willie Brown

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, 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 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.

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