The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 497 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.