Trying to erase the past in Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Facing It”
by Carol Miller
The wall is tall, and black, and resembles a massive tombstone. One cannot help but be reminded of death when visualizing the Vietnam Memorial. The setting in the poem “Facing It” is at this very place. The author, Yusef Komunyakaa, wants his readers to empathize with the catastrophic events that took place during the dreadful Vietnam War. He uses sharp imagery and dark colors to aid the reader in sensing how it must have been to be there in person and to stare death in the eye. The speaker relates, “My black face fades, hiding inside the black granite” (lines 1-2) and “My clouded reflection eyes me like a bird of prey, the profile of night slanted against morning” (6-8). The speaker of this poem utilizes his theme of trying to erase the past in order to bring his readers to the realization of just how permanent the past is, and how difficult it is for a veteran of the Vietnam War to cope with everything that went on there.
When examining the title of this poem, the question “facing what?” may arise. “Facing It” is a very general title that leaves much to the imagination. However after closely examining the poem, several possibilities arise. The speaker is facing death, his past, and trying to cope with his emotions. He admonishes himself by saying, “I said I wouldn’t, dammit: no tears. I’m stone. I’m flesh”(3-5). Here the speaker is showing that he is not capable of holding in his emotions anymore. He is human and the tears just come. He is facing a wall that reveals everything. It reflects the memories of the war and the lost futures of the ones who died. The speaker refers to the wall as a “black mirror” (29). He is facing the reality that what has been done is done, and the men who died are gone forever. They are trapped inside the wall. The past is inescapable and inerasable.
After researching the author, it is safe to say that the speaker and the author are one in the same. Yusef Komunyakaa, the speaker and author, is a Vietnam Veteran who has seen everything and remembers everything from the war. He recollects images of the booby traps exploding. “I touch the name of Andrew Johnson; I see the booby trap’s white flash” (17-18). He has stared death in the eye, and he finds himself, again, staring at it in the wall. He explains, “I go down the list of 58,022 names, half expecting to find my own in letters of smoke” (14-16). They were once names with faces, but now they are faceless, lifeless, names stuck in an enormous, black grave.
There is no getaway. In lines fifteen through eighteen the author ends his lines with the words find, smoke, Johnson, and flash. He creates an image for the audience. One can almost envision him crawling on the ground through the smoke, looking and calling for someone named Johnson, but then flash! A bomb goes off and all hopes of him finding his friend are gone. At the memorial, the speaker is watching a woman trying to erase a man’s name off of the wall. “In the black mirror a woman’s trying to erase names: No, she’s brushing a boy’s hair” (29-31). She, like he, is trying to erase the past, but no matter which way he turns, there are constant reminders of the war.
There is one small section in the poem where the reader senses that there may be some hope for the veteran. In lines twenty-four through twenty-seven, Komunyakaa ends his lines with the hopeful words: sky, floats, eyes, and window. This leads one to believe that perhaps the speaker is coping with his tribulations and he can see clearly into the future. However in the last four lines he reverts back to using hard, dark images such as black, mirror, and stone. The reader can conclude from this that no matter where a person goes, one’s memories will always be with them and they cannot be erased.
“Facing It” is a personal statement from the author, who wants readers who were not present during the war, to understand how hard it is to cope with the past events of Vietnam. He also would like his readers to be aware of how permanent the past is and to see that it cannot be taken back. He writes in order to educate his readers on an historical period of time, but, he does not just want them to know the facts. He works to make the audience empathize with the veterans. There are two main images in the poem that help the reader to comprehend what the speaker means by not being able to erase the past. One image is of the names on the memorial reflecting on a woman’s shirt. “Name’s shimmer on a woman’s blouse but when she walks away the names stay on the wall” (19-21). The speaker wants his readers to notice that this particular woman can walk away from the wall, but the names on the wall stay there. She cannot take the names with her, they are there to stay. The second image is of a veteran who had lost his arm in battle. “He’s lost his right arm inside the stone” (28-29). The man has not literally lost his arm in the memorial, but the memory of where he lost it lies in the memorial, much like the memories of the men who died. Their families cannot come and take them back. They are gone, and only their names etched in stone remain.
The speaker makes use of dim and gloomy images to help the reader identify with his own feelings and memories of the war. He not only desires for his audience to understand him, but he wants his audience to walk away enlightened, having learned a lesson. He wants people to understand that the past cannot be erased and although we must look toward the future, our memories will always remain. One cannot simply walk away from the past because reminders are all around.