Facing It

My black face fades,   
hiding inside the black granite.   
I said I wouldn't  
dammit: No tears.   
I'm stone. I'm flesh.   
My clouded reflection eyes me   
like a bird of prey, the profile of night   
slanted against morning. I turn   
this way—the stone lets me go.   
I turn that way—I'm inside   
the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
again, depending on the light   
to make a difference.   
I go down the 58,022 names,   
half-expecting to find   
my own in letters like smoke.   
I touch the name Andrew Johnson;   
I see the booby trap's white flash.   
Names shimmer on a woman's blouse   
but when she walks away   
the names stay on the wall.   
Brushstrokes flash, a red bird's   
wings cutting across my stare.   
The sky. A plane in the sky.   
A white vet's image floats   
closer to me, then his pale eyes   
look through mine. I'm a window.   
He's lost his right arm   
inside the stone. In the black mirror   
a woman’s trying to erase names:   
No, she's brushing a boy's hair.

Yusef Komunyakaa, “Facing It” from Pleasure Dome: New and Collected Poems. Copyright © 2001 by Yusef Komunyakaa. Reprinted with the permission of Wesleyan University Press.
Source: Pleasure Dome: New and Collected Poems (Wesleyan University Press, 2001)

Writing Ideas

1. For Komunyakaa, looking at the Wall is a catalyst. Recall a moment in your own life in which seeing something concrete (such as the Vietnam War Memorial) led you to a deeper, psychological revelation. Write about that experience, describing in detail both what you saw and what you now know as a result of seeing it.

2. Visit the Vietnam War Memorial website names list, and research those who died. Choose one person, then write a poem about this person and the experience of seeing his or her name on the Wall.

3. Think about other, more recent wars and the ways in which they’re memorialized. Write a poem that explores what has or hasn’t been said about those who died.

Discussion Questions

1. The poem describes a visit to the Vietnam War Memorial, but what is the “it” that Komunyakaa asks himself and us to face? When he writes at the poem’s beginning, "black face fades,/hiding inside the black granite," what is he hiding from?

2. In what ways do the poem’s line breaks suggest the speaker’s complicated and conflicting emotions in the poem? How does the poem’s form mirror the speaker’s experience of looking at the Wall?

3. How and where does the reflection confuse what’s literal and what’s metaphorical in the poem? What does this confusion say about the speaker’s memory of Vietnam?

4. The poem’s final image—“In the black mirror/a woman’s trying to erase names:/No, she's brushing a boy’s hair”—is especially powerful. How is it similar to previous images and how is it different? Why might Komunyakaa have chosen this particular description to end the poem?

Teaching Tips

1. Ask students to recall a time when a text (maybe a love song or horror story) evoked powerful mental images. In pairs, ask them to share how the experience of mental movie-making shaped their experience of these texts. Ask them to reflect on why the piece was so vivid in comparison to others. Review the idea of imagery or the literal and figurative language authors use to help readers visualize. Then allow students explore images of the Vietnam Veterans memorial before viewing Komunyakaa’s reading of the poem.

2. Have students read the poem as a set of directions for visualization and create a numbered list of images. Then have them discuss the reasons why the speaker selects and arranges the images in this way. What do these images reveal about what the speaker faces, how does one experience lead him to another, and how does visiting the wall help him face these experiences? You may extend the discussion to explore associations to other conflicts in American culture that each image evokes and discuss the role this national monument plays in telling the story of the U.S. (A Strong Clear Vision, a documentary about Maya Lin, the architect of the monument, is available in many public libraries.)

3. Have students make notes about the speaker’s experience of the wall, particularly the play between past, present, and future that the wall creates for him. Then using choral, dual, and individual voices, have students stage a reading that dramatizes the memorial’s impact on the speaker. Extend the performance to include other poems by soldier poets that illuminate the experience of war, and discuss the role of image and memory in each. “Beat! Beat! Drums!,” “Shiloh: A Requiem (April, 1862),” “The Man He Killed,” “Dulce et Decorum Est,” “The War in the Air,” and “At the Vietnam Memorial” each explore an aspect of war.

More Poems by Yusef Komunyakaa