The trials and tribulations of war are things that are not easily forgotten by those involved, and are also things not easily understood by those not involved. It is impossible to truly understand the emotional toll that something as devastating as a war can have on a person. In the poem “Facing It” by Yusef Komunyakaa, it centers on an African American man who served in one of the most trying wars of all time, the Vietnam War, and is visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.
In this poem, an understanding is gained of the unrelenting grief and emotional toll that resulted from this overwhelming experience through the presentation of the emotions evoked from the man by the memorial, his feelings and experiences during the war, and also the apparent connection between him and another survivor. From the very beginning of the poem it is clear that visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall is evoking very strong emotions from the man. He states that his “[B]lack face fades, / hiding inside the black granite” (Komunyakaa, lines 1-2).
This is a good indication that this man feels that due to his racial identity and also the ambiguous reasons for the war in general, his purpose in the war was insignificant and likely he feels cheated by it. Immediately it is also apparent that this war maintains its emotional hold on him, as he states “I said I wouldn’t, / dammit: No tears” (lines 3-4). He then says “I’m stone. I’m flesh. ” (Line 5) which tells us that although he wanted to be strong and hard like the granite wall he was looking at and fight the emotions, he could not contain the emotions he felt.
He is simply flesh, and cannot overcome the memories of the war. These few opening lines convey so much about this man’s emotional state and viewpoint of his time spent in the Vietnam War, and prepare us to understand exactly what kind of experiences he had during this war. It’s very obvious throughout the rest of the poem that the war, and in turn this granite memorial he is standing in front of, still has a tight hold on him and that this causes him to reflect on his experiences. The man says “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” (lines 8-13). The man is describing the feeling he gets when facing the memorial; it is as if it pulls him inside and forces him to relive his experiences, and that it is dark because not only is the wall made of black granite, but also because his experiences were dark and tragic. When he turns away from the wall, it releases him from its grasp and the dark images of the war.
He describes how he searches through the “58,022 names, / half-expecting to find / my own … ” (lines 14-16). This is another indicator of the war’s hold on him, and that in fact he feels as if he has lost part of himself in the war and expects to see his name listed among the casualties. Instead of discovering his own name on the wall, he finds the name of a friend, Andrew Johnson. Simply seeing his name plunges him into an intense flashback, and he states “I see the booby trap’s white flash” (line 18) which indicates how his friend died.
When he comes out of the flashback, he sees the names from the wall reflected on a woman’s blouse; however, when she walks away the names remain on the wall. This indicates that the names cannot be removed from the wall, and the lives lost, including that of his friends, cannot be brought back. It is apparent that despite the fact that the war is long over, the incidents and experiences of this war live on as vividly as ever within this man.
It is not only this man who feels the effects of the war, but all survivors; this is demonstrated when he develops an instant connection with a stranger who also was a fellow soldier despite the fact that there was no verbal communication. As this man is looking into the wall he sees the reflection of a white man; a fellow soldier who is also looking at the wall. As this man gets closer, they are able to look each other’s reflection in the eye and the African American man states that “his pale eyes / look through mine. I’m a window” (lines 26-27). These two men share an understanding that bridges the gap between strangers. They both experienced a tragic war, and despite their many differences they are able to feel familiarity between one another. The African American man observes that the white man had “lost his right arm / inside the stone” (lines 28-29). What he means is not that the man’s arm is literally inside of the stone, but that he too had lost something to the Vietnam War much like the man had lost his friend.
These points indicate that not only is it this one man who feels the negative effects of the Vietnam War, but likely that all soldiers who had risked their lives in the war do. Through the imagery and figurative meaning of this poem, “Facing It,” an understanding is gained of the unrelenting grief resulting from this war, as demonstrated by the emotions evoked by the memorial, the memories of the tragic experiences of the war, and the shared connections that these survivors have.
The Vietnam War was clearly a troubling time of grief and loss. The heartache knew no boundaries and affected people in all walks of life, and it is obvious that these intense feelings remain within a person’s heart, mind, and soul forever. Works Cited Komunyakaa, Yusef. “Facing It. ” Dien Cai Dau. Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1988. N. Pag. Internet Poetry Archive. Web. 23 Feb. 2009.