Yusef Komunyakaa 1988
Yusef Komunyakaa’s poem “Facing It” describes a Vietnam War veteran’s painful experience of visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. From interviews and biographical details, we can assume the speaker of the poem is Komunyakaa himself. Komunyakaa served in Vietnam from 1965 to 1967, and his memories of those years haunt him when he visits the memorial, causing him to question his own identity as a black, Vietnam War veteran and the kind of survivor he has become.
Told in the first person, Komunyakaa’s poem draws on the physical properties of the memorial sculpture itself to create a symbolic setting. He uses the capacity for the memorial’s mirror-like surface to create ghostly reflections of all that surround it to underline his own incapacity to reach emotional resolution concerning his war experience. Ironically, the memorial is popularly referred to as “the wall” because it is shaped like a wall; however, its “nickname” also signifies the emotional dead end many survivors of the war come up against when visiting the site. Throughout the poem, the speaker does double takes, thinking he has seen one thing but then seeing something else. His perceptual “mistakes” are actually memories from the war that get in his way of experiencing present time and space. Though he pledges to himself to be hard as stone, the speaker is overcome by grief as he looks at the more than 58,000 names of soldiers who died in the war or are missing in action.
“Facing It” is included in Komunyakaa’s 1988 collection, Dien Cai Dau, which tackles other difficult Vietnam-War subjects as well. Written one year after Komunyakaa first visited the memorial, “Facing It” was the second poem of the volume that the poet finished. In an interview with William Baer in Kenyon Review, Komunyakaa claimed that “Facing It” became the standard for the rest of the collection. “Tonally, I believe, it informed the other poems,” he said. “I wanted to deal with images instead of outright statements. That’s pretty much how I remember the war—imagery that we sort of internalized, that was informed by the whole vibrations of the body.”
Though a writer’s work should never be reduced to (or explained as) the result of childhood circumstances, Yusef Komunyakaa’s own upbringing provided him with more than enough emotional lighter fluid to get his poetic fire roaring. Born on April 29, 1947 in Bogalusa, Louisiana, a small paper-mill town 100 miles north of New Orleans, Komunyakaa was the oldest of six children. He owes his unusual last name to his grandfather, who emigrated to Louisiana from the island of Trinidad. Komunyakaa recounts the story of his grandfather’s trip to America in his poem “Mismatched Shoes.” Growing up as a black man in the American South in the 1950s meant that you learned about despair and hope in a very particular way, as segregation and racism formed the background of daily life.
Komunyakaa served in Vietnam from 1965 to 1967 as an information specialist and an editor for a military newspaper titled The Southern Cross; he also received a Bronze Medal for his tour of duty. Though opposed to the United States’ participation in the war, Komunyakaa made the best of his circumstances. About that time, Komunyakaa has said, “The pressures of survival were so woven into who I was, into who we are as humans, that if placed against a war, one reacts to survive.” His 1988 volume of poems, Dien Cai Dau, which includes the poem “Facing It,” tackles the conflicting feelings that the poet had about taking part in the war. Literally translated, “Dien Cai Dau” is Vietnamese for “crazy,” which was how locals referred to American soldiers fighting in the war. Komunyakaa began writing the poems in Dien Cai Dau in earnest more than fourteen years after his tour in Vietnam ended. He was remodeling his house in New Orleans, scraping the paint away on a hot, muggy day, when images and words began coming to him, quite unexpectedly. Komunyakaa partly attributes this sudden explosion of memory to the almost-tropical heat that day that reminded him of Vietnam. It is no coincidence, then, that the dialectic between memory and forgetting, past and present, informs so much of Komunyakaa’s writing.
Komunyakaa published his first book, Dedications and Other Dark Horses in 1977, and he has maintained a steady output of books ever since. Lost in the Bonewheel Factory came out in 1979; Copacetic in 1984; I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head, which received the San Francisco Poetry Center Award in 1986; Magic City in 1992; and Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems, which received the Pulitzer Prize for 1994 and the $50,000 Kingsley Tufts. He has also coedited The Jazz Poetry Anthology (1991) with Sascha Feinstein and cotranslated The Insomnia of Fire by Nguyen Quang Thieu with Martha Collins. His poems have also been widely anthologized, appearing in W. D. Ehrhart’s groundbreaking collection Unaccustomed Mercy: Soldier-Poets of the Vietnam War, among others.
Komunyakaa’s working life as a poet has been fortunate. After taking an master’s degree in creative writing from Colorado State University and then an master’s of fine arts from the University of California at Irvine, Komunyakaa began his teaching career at the University of New Orleans, where he met and then married Mandy Sayer, an Australian fiction writer. He has since taught at a number of universities and colleges, including Indiana University (where he held the Lilly Professorship of Poetry), the University of California at Berkeley, and Washington University. He is currently on the creative writing faculty at Princeton University.
My black face fades,
hiding inside the black granite.
I said I wouldn’t,
dammit: No tears.
I’m stone. I’m flesh. 5
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 10
the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
again, depending on the light
to make a difference.
I go down the 58,022 names,
half-expecting to find 15
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 20
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 25
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: 30
No, she’s brushing a boy’s hair.
In the first two lines of “Facing It,” the narrator suggests that one of the poem’s themes will be identity. He does this by making his “black face” the first image of the poem. The face is literally both the first thing we show to others and to ourselves. When it hides, as it does here, we know that the speaker has lost not only his self-image in the black granite, but his own sense of who he is. The speaker’s reflection is a “doppelganger” or ghostly double of a living person. From this first line we can also infer that the speaker is an African American, like Komunyakaa himself.
We are introduced to the governing emotion of this poem: (barely) restrained grief and shock. The speaker is being literal and metaphoric when he says that he is both stone and flesh, as he is referring to both his body and its double as reflected in the granite. Being stone also suggests that he is hardening himself against the powerful emotions he feels.
The poet further develops the image of the split self, as the reflection now is given intention of its own, eyeing the speaker “like a bird of prey.” This tells us that the double is an adversary of sorts for the speaker and someone we can expect will haunt the speaker further as the poem continues. The reflection is a “profile of night” because it is on the black granite; but this image also hints that it is a potentially dangerous self being reflected. The reflection appears and disappears depending on how the speaker moves in relation to the sun and the granite.
The speaker locates himself at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Originally designed as a student project in 1981 by Maya Ying Lin of Yale University, the memorial is located northeast of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. The memorial is a long black granite wall, in the shape of the letter “v,” on which the names of the American military dead and missing are inscribed. When the speaker says that he is “inside” the memorial, he means his reflection. But he also suggests that a deeper part of himself is enmeshed with the past that the monument represents. Again, he continues using light as a metaphor for the appearance and disappearance of his two selves.
The speaker refers to the memorial’s list of 58,022 names of the American missing and dead. By “half-expecting” to find his own name among those listed, the speaker underscores just how alienated from himself he feels—how dead he feels. The letters are like smoke because smoke is itself a vague and transitory substance, which is what the speaker himself feels like.
The narrator experiences a flashback when he touches a name on the monument, reexperiencing the death of a comrade. We can now infer unequivocally that the speaker was a participant in the Vietnam War. Simultaneously, he sees the names on the memorial reflected on a woman’s blouse. Such rapid shifts in perception underscore the narrator’s dream-like state of mind. While he sinks deeper into the memories of his own painful experiences in the Vietnam War, he is also jarred out of those memories by what is happening in the present. This in-between state of mind and perception is reminiscent of surrealist verse and art, which attempted to show the dream-like quality of existence through its juxtaposition of seemingly disparate, unrelated elements.
The “brushstrokes” here refer to the narrator’s experience of being jolted out of his reverie about the war. The red bird’s wings (flying by) are like a brushstroke. That he is lost in his memories is emphasized by the fact that he is staring. Human beings frequently stare when they are daydreaming or obsessed with a particular memory, as they are focused on what is happening inside rather than outside of them. The speaker is now aware of the external world of the present tense, of the sky above him and the plane crossing that sky.
The narrator sees the reflection of a white veteran, or vet, in the memorial. The fact that the image “floats” and that the narrator refers to himself as a window reminds us of how fragile the speakers feels—how lost in time and how lost to his body he feels. That he represents the vet as seeing through his eyes suggests that the speaker sees himself as transparent, both literally (in his own reflection) and metaphorically (what he feels and what the two of them share is obvious in his expression and eyes). Describing the vet by his race (“white”) allows Komunyakaa to underline his own similarity to (they are both survivors) and difference from (the speaker is African American) the man. The blackness and whiteness of appearances also ironically contrasts with the grayness of memory, and of war itself. Komunyakaa continues to play with ideas of appearance and reality when he says, in line 28, that the vet has lost his arm. He could mean that the veteran is literally an amputee. But, given that in the very next line we are told that the arm has been lost “inside the stone,” the poet could also mean that the man turned a particular way and the light made his reflection appear as if he had lost an arm. The poet is more clear with the poem’s last image when he sees one thing and then corrects himself, seeing something else. That the speaker’s initial perception is of a woman attempting to erase the names from the monument highlights the speaker’s enormous grief. If only the names weren’t there, then the deaths they represent wouldn’t have happened. In both cases and throughout the poem, the speaker’s perceptions move between the past and the present, the desired and the real, from what he remembers to what is actually there in front of him.
When we finish reading the poem we can finally understand some of the varied meanings of its title. “Facing It” refers quite literally to the speaker looking at his face. However, “facing” something also means to confront it with awareness; and the word “facing” is, of course, a verb form of the noun “face,” which refers to that part of ourselves most visible to others and what we visualize when we think of someone. The “it” is also richly ambiguous. “It” refers to the speaker’s past
- In association with BBC Television and Time Inc., Planet 24 Production produced a video on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Art critic Robert Hughes wrote and directed the documentary titled The Republic of Virtue
- In 1990 the Heritage America Group released the video documentary All the Unsung Heroes: The Story of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
and the tortured emotional legacy it has left him, but also to the Vietnam War itself and the memorial that represents it.
“Facing It” addresses one of the most powerful questions of Vietnam veterans: How do they incorporate their memories of the war into their lives without letting those memories destroy them? Throughout the poem, the speaker attempts to ward off the overwhelming emotions associated with visiting the memorial. He tells us he won’t cry: “I said I wouldn’t, / dammit: No tears.” Soon after that declaration, he sees that the reflection of himself in the memorial is stalking him “like a bird of prey.” Regardless of the defenses he puts up, however, the memories flood over him. As he literally loses (the reflection of) himself in the memorial’s surface, he experiences a series of flashbacks and perceptual “mistakes.” He remembers the explosion that killed one of his comrades; he thinks he sees a vet who’s had his arm amputated; and he imagines a woman who is combing her son’s hair is actually erasing the names on the memorial. Wherever he turns, he is met with the brute fact of his brutal memories. At one point toward the end of the poem, he says that “I’m a window,” underscoring the fact that he has lost a deeper, more coherent, sense of self. Indeed the speaker’s unrelenting memories and the grief that accompanies them have shouldered out any other sense of self. In attempting, futilely, to
Topics for Further Study
- Maya Ying Lin, the architect who designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, said that the names on the memorial, though “seemingly infinite in number, [would] convey the sense of overwhelming numbers, while unifying these individuals into a whole.” Think of an event or idea that involves a number of people that you would like to memorialize and describe a structure you would like seen built to serve that purpose.
- Research the effects of the Vietnam War on the war’s veterans and write an essay arguing for whether or not you think the U.S. government has met its moral obligations toward those veterans
- Research the war memorials (for any war) and monuments in your own state or city and, comparing and contrasting them, write an argument for which one most effectively represents the veterans of that war.
ward off these memories, the speaker has, in essence, become a new incarnation of the war he initially thought he had escaped. Seeking peace or some sense of resolution by visiting the memorial has, ironically, resulted in the eruption of a new war—this one with himself. And as with the war in Vietnam, there are no clear winners. What the speaker experiences in confronting himself and his past at the memorial is what hundreds of thousands of Vietnam veterans have also, no doubt, experienced. This fact, though it is not a pleasant one, nevertheless provides at least acknowledgement of the hardships that so many vets have experienced and continue to experience as they try to find peace with the past.
Since the seventeenth century, an elegy has denoted a lament for the death of a particular person. Often that person would be a loved one, and the poem would be a form of consolation for those who remained. In Yusef Komunyakaa’s poem “Facing It,” however, the lament is as much for himself as it is for the Vietnam-War dead, with whom he quite literally identifies. The speaker mourns his own loss through representing himself as two people: the observing self, which attempts to ward off any emotional response to his memories, and the reflection in the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. These two selves “fight” each other during the poem, each trying to force its version of reality on the other. Using doppelgangers (a German word meaning “doubled self”) to comment on the ways that stable human identity itself is a Western myth has become fairly common in both fiction and poetry. Edgar Allan Poe regularly made use of this motif—most popularly in his short story “William Wilson”—in the nineteenth century, and in the twentieth century, writers such as Jorge Luis Borges and Mark Strand have made their entire careers mining the literary possibilities of the idea. In his own use of the doppelganger, Komunyakaa demonstrates the ways in which certain parts of ourselves mourn the passing of other parts. Throughout the poem, his past self—represented in the memories that erupt whenever he looks at the memorial—insistently intrudes upon his present self, causing the speaker anguish and doubt and to question the physical world in front of him. When the speaker does manage to live in that world (for example, when he becomes aware of a plane flying overhead), he is just as quickly pulled out of it again by the image of a vet whom he thinks has lost his arm. Such relentless battling between his multiple selves causes the speaking self to surrender. Toward the end of the poem he states, “I’m a window,” in essence creating yet another self, whose only duty is to witness the inability of his other selves to reach resolution. That the poem ends with yet another misperception and correction suggests that this battling will see no resolution.
“Facing It” is written in free verse, a form of poetry that does not use meter or rhyme in any conventional or prescribed way; rather, this poem relies on prose rhythms to give it momentum. A catalogue of “I do this” and “I do that” statements of description, “Facing It” asks the reader to see the same things as the speaker. The poem succeeds because the poet has succeeded in letting his images carry the emotional weight of his experience. We are shown, rather than told, what the speaker feels. That Komunyakaa imbues his images with so much resonance makes sense when we understand that two of his other passions are painting and photography.
Komunyakaa accomplishes his aim of showing us his feelings by using an extended metaphor throughout the poem. The speaker’s changing capacity to see and not see what is literally in front of him represents his alternating ability to see and not to see what is inside of him: that is, his emotional response to his past, which the memorial symbolizes. Critic I. A. Richards’s model of dividing the metaphor into its tenor and vehicle can help us grasp Komunyakaa’s technique. The vehicle of the extended metaphor, which refers to the images used to signify meaning, is the speaker’s acts of looking; the tenor of the metaphor, which refers to the actual subject of the comparison, is the speaker’s acts of understanding the significance of what he sees. However, because we are not explicitly told what he does or does not understand, the tenor is implied. For example, the situational and verbal context of the speaker’s first seeing a woman trying to erase the names of the Vietnam War dead, and then correcting himself and seeing the same woman brushing a boy’s hair, serves as the vehicle for the implied tenor, which is the speaker’s desire to erase or escape the memories of his past.
The kind of metaphoric imagery that Komunyakaa uses is often described as surrealist. Surrealist imagery attempts to evoke an otherworldly state of mind by embodying the logic of dreams. The speaker’s experience of the hallucinatory world of war is reenacted in his experience at the memorial, as the past and the present meld into a new reality, a surreality.
When “Facing It” appeared in Dien Cai Dau in 1988, the United States was still grappling with the meaning and the painful legacy of the Vietnam War. Though the Vietnam War had officially ended in 1975, Americans remained as divided over the war’s significance as they were during the height of the conflict in the late 1960s. This division was no more apparent than in the controversies surrounding the United States’ involvement in the Latin-American conflicts of the 1980s. Upon assuming office in 1981, President Ronald Reagan suspended economic aid to Nicaragua, arguing that democratically elected president Daniel Ortega aimed to establish a communist state allied with the Soviet Union; soon after this, Reagan authorized the CIA to support “contra” rebels who fought to overthrow the Ortega government. In 1986 Congress voted to give $100 million to these “freedom fighters” in economic and military aid. In 1983, under the pretext of rescuing more than 1,000 American medical students, the Reagan administration invaded the island of Grenada, whose president had just been murdered by Marxist dissidents. The Reagan administration also stepped up U.S. military assistance to El Salvador, which was in the midst of a bloody civil war pitting the right-wing militaryled government against leftist insurgents. Government security agents and death squads targeting rebel groups helped account for the more than 30,000 El Salvadoran deaths between 1980 and 1983. The arguments that the Reagan administration voiced to justify its policies in Central America echoed the arguments the United States had used in support of its policies during the Vietnam War. Sensing that America was repeating the same mistake it made during the Vietnam War, many Vietnam veterans joined protestors demonstrating against increased U.S. involvement in Central America.
During the United States’ involvement in Central America, in what many were beginning to term “another Vietnam,” the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund started to work on a project to honor the men and women who died in that war. While money was being raised for the project, a competition for the memorial’s design was held. Maya Ying Lin, a graduate student at Yale University won with a design that focused on the concept of names. She conceived of a structure that would be shaped like the letter “v” and have two walls; the east wall would point toward the Lincoln Memorial and the west wall would point toward the Washington Monument, thus drawing on the historical import of two of America’s most prominent monuments. Reactions to the memorial were mixed when it was unveiled in 1982. Some felt that it was inherently conservative and sought to put to rest the memory of the war; others believed that it was unheroic and even impersonal. Some praised its simplicity and understatement. Daniel Abramson, a professor of art history and architecture at Connecticut College, thought the memorial nothing less than inspired genius. Abramson maintained, in a Critical Inquiry article, that Lin’s use of a time line
Compare & Contrast
- 1964: As a response to the increased military clashes in the waters off the coast of Vietnam, the House and the Senate unanimously pass The Tonkin Gulf Resolution with only two dissenters. The resolution states that “Congress approves and supports the determination of the President as commander-in-chief to take all necessary measures to repel any attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.”
1965: American troops begin full-scale offensives against the Vietcong, engaging in search and destroy missions.
1968: By this date President Johnson has ordered approximately half a million troops to Vietnam.
1968: The Vietcong launch their Tet Offensive, a coordinated attack targeting every major South-Vietnamese city. More than 4,000 Americans and 32,000 North Vietnamese are killed.
1969: The United States changes its war strategy and begins to withdraw ground troops while escalating its air attacks.
1972: The United States conducts the most intensive air attack in military history against the Vietcong.
1973: Nixon announces a peace agreement that would provide for the withdrawal of 25,000 American troops in exchange for the repatriation of 587 American prisoners of war.
1982: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is built.
1982: The first of a series of Rambo movies starring and produced by Sylvester Stallone is released. These movies fantasized daring rescue of soldiers missing in action in Hanoi. As showcases for Stallone’s own testosterone-driven machismo, these movies deeply influenced young males, encouraging them to romanticize the war.
1986–87: Vietnam War films such as Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, and Hamburger Hill are released. These movies explored the ethical dilemmas soldiers faced during the war and heightened public awareness of the emotional and moral conflicts many soldiers had to live with.
Today: War movies continue to be a box-office draw, and two acclaimed films are Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line. The setting for these pictures, however, is not Vietnam, but World War II.
“is altogether new in the history of monument design” and claimed that using chronological, rather than alphabetical, order in listing the dead and missing was brilliant because it symbolized closure of the Vietnam war without suggesting that we should ever forget it.
The 1980s also witnessed a flood of films about the Vietnam War and returning Vietnam veterans. Americans were both angry and guilty, and many remained confused as to how to treat veterans. Sylvester Stallone’s series of Rambo films tended to romanticize the war, representing Vietnam vets as misunderstood and neglected heroes whose mission was incomplete until every last soldier was rescued or accounted for. Stallone’s veteran-as-macho-hero has been duplicated in a number of other action adventure films, including Chuck Norris’s popular Missing in Action series. Aiming for more realistic treatment of the Vietnam War, films such as Birdy, Jackknife, Gardens of Stone, Distant Thunder, and Born on the Fourth of July showed the ongoing emotional trauma vets suffered from and their painful attempts to put their lives right again. These films picked up themes initially introduced during the 1970s in movies such as Coming Home and The Deer Hunter.
“Facing It” is included in Komunyakaa’s collection of poems titled Dien Cai Dau, which in Vietnamese means “crazy.” Published in 1988, the book investigates the poet’s experiences in the Vietnam War and his ongoing attempts to come to terms with his memories of the conflict. In her article “A Poet Who Danced with Death,” Susan Baxter argued that the poems in Dien Cai Dau, “more than editorials, movies, or documentaries, make us understand the searing, personal pain that lies beneath the rage that came with the Vietnam War. Reading ... [Komunyakaa’s] work, we accept that physical survival was the order of the day during the war, and understand how serious a challenge it was to remain human afterward.” Reviewing Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems, which includes a selection from Dien Cai Dau, Matthew Rothschild assessed, “For Yusef Komunyakaa, the experience that seared him into poetry was serving in Vietnam ... Vietnam stalks Komunyakaa.” Often this stalking takes the form of haunting memories, which Komunyakaa writes about in “Facing It.”
The fact of death permeates Dien Cai Dau. In “We Never Know,” the speaker discovers a corpse, whose hands clutch a photograph: “When I got to him, / a blue halo / of flies had already claimed him.” Toi Derricotte has observantly pointed out that the poems in Dien Cai Dau “are held together by the excruciating tension between memory and forgetting.... This is a book about seeing and not seeing,” Derricotte writes, “about not being there in order to be there. It presents the paradoxes of a psyche, of an art that is compelled to examine itself, and yet is determined to control reality in a way that makes it able to be endured.” The relationship between sight and insight form the central theme of “Facing It,” as the speaker struggles to understand his own responses to the past, just as that past intrudes upon what he sees in the present. Kirkland C. Jones claims that the comparative devices Komunyakaa uses in the poem allow him to “make order of a war that has no moral clarity.” William Baer writes that “Facing It” “demonstrates that combination of sharp, telling images and dialectic complexity that uniquely marks ... [Komunyakaa’s] work,” and R. S. Gwynn calls the poem “the most poignant elegy that has been written about the Vietnam War.”
Sharon Kraus is a poet who teaches creative writing, literature, and poetry at Queens College, CUNY. In the following essay, Kraus analyzes “Facing It,” praising the effectiveness of the poet’s juxtaposition of disparate images in the work.
Yusef Komunyakaa’s poem “Facing It” is the concluding poem of his 1988 book Dien Cai Dau (which means both “crazy” and “American soldier” in Vietnamese), a book of poems that deals with Komunyakaa’s experience as a black soldier during the Vietnam War. In its dizzying sequence of images that juxtapose violence and beauty, the poem gives us Komunyakaa’s central themes: the brutal experience of war, the potential of race-based discrimination to fracture human relationships among Vietnam soldiers and in daily life, and the jarring contrast between external identity and interior emotional life. What makes the poem powerful, though, is not merely the range and importance of these themes, but the poem’s emotional use of imagery and its focus on one black soldier who is reporting to us his personal experience.
In fact, that focus gives the poem an apparently simple structure. The speaker of the poem relates to us what he sees while looking at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. It is important to remember that, throughout the poem, the speaker is looking only at people and things reflected in the monument’s glossy surface, not at the actual people and things. The minimalist monument, designed by Maya Lin when she was a twenty-one-year-old architecture student, sparked a great deal of controversy when it was chosen, because, unlike traditional monuments, it has no sculptured representations of soldiers in a battle posture. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, unveiled in 1982, is extraordinarily unadorned: a V-shaped, 500-foot-long black granite wall, on which is carved the names of soldiers who died or were missing in action. We see through the speaker’s eyes that the black surface is so glossy that it functions as a smoke-colored mirror. To look at the inscribed names, one must also look at oneself. Part of the monument’s message, therefore, like the poem’s message, is that the viewer is “literally” among the fallen; it compels even the civilian viewer to regard him- or herself as part of the war.
Just as the Wall compels viewers to see themselves as they look at it—to perceive the Wall as a dynamic rather than static symbol—the poem also
What Do I Read Next?
- Norman Poderhetz’s Why We Were in Vietnam provides a conservative’s explanation of the reasons the United States became involved in the Vietnam conflict.
- The Vietnam War was the basis for many protests and demonstrations in the late 1960s. Alexander Kendrick’s study The Wound Within: America in the Vietnam Years, 1945–1974 examines the relationship between the war and the unrest at home.
- Probably the best anthology of poetry about the Vietnam War, W. D. Ehrhart’s Carrying the Darkness: American Indochina: The Poetry of the Vietnam War includes poems written by soldiers, conscientious objectors, draft dodgers, flag burners, and relatives of the men and women involved in the war.
- Todd Gitlin’s The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage provides an unapologetically leftist view of the events of that turbulent decade and how they related to the Vietnam War.
- Alan Oskvarek’s search engine (www.goodnet.com/thewall/) lets you search the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial by name, hometown, and branch of service. When a name is returned, it tells you at which panel and line the person’s name can be found, along with the birthdate, length of service and how the individual died.
compels us to do more than read. We must, in fact, watch the poem unfold as though it were a movie. We see the cinematic images through the speaker’s eyes. The poem delivers a jolt in its opening lines, the way a suspense movie might open with a closeup: “My black face fades, / hiding inside the black granite.” Then, slowly, the poem pans away so that the viewer can gain perspective: The speaker sees his own face and his own blackness, but, with a trick of the eyes, these disconcertingly fade, as though his very identity were mutable and could melt into the polished granite. Moreover, we don’t yet know what that granite is: at this point, it could be the granite of a tombstone. We are not told until after that initial image, in line 11, to be exact, that this is the granite of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The jolt of seeing one’s own face, and then seeing it disappear, has the effect of locating the speaker in his identity as a black man and as a mortal being, and it simultaneously remarks how impossible it would be for a person to lose those identities.
“[W]e cannot crawl out of our skin,” Komunyakaa has said in an interview with scholar Muna Asali, “even when we try to lie to ourselves or say that race doesn’t matter, that art and artists are color-blind.... And I couldn’t escape the prison of my skin, which has also been the source of my strength.” For this poet, identity is about an individual’s constellation of experiences in the personal and social worlds. For example, most of the poems in Dien Cai Dau deal with the speaker’s relationship, as a black soldier serving in Vietnam, with white soldiers and Vietnamese civilians. “Facing It” faces not only the experience of war, which is now in the speaker’s past, but also faces the speaker’s continuing relationship with white men, as is shown in the poem’s penultimate image. As we shall see, the image is ambiguous and indicates the problematic and complex quality of that relationship.
As a whole, the poem’s organization mirrors in miniature the book’s organization: in short order, we meet the speaker in his public identity (“my black face fades”) and then more intimately, as a feeling human being (“dammit: No tears.”); we move through a series of disorienting images depicting violence and beauty side by side; we see the speaker encountering a “white vet” who may or may not rightly perceive the speaker in his full (“flesh[ly]”) humanity; and we are given a single image of nurture and care that the poem seems to offer as the underlying reason for life.
Most important, though, is that the speaker perceives and misperceives that series of images. Komunyakaa’s poem captures the confusion and longing that comprise so much of this speaker’s experience of life: “I turn / this way—the stone lets me go. / I turn that way—I’m inside / the Vietnam Veterans Memorial / again.” It is important to notice the skillful, elegant line breaks in the poem. Here, they work cumulatively, and each line stands as a single entity, yet gains information and emotionality from the next. For example, the line “I turn that way—I’m inside” depicts the speaker as moving from the outside world to the inside that is the stone of line 2, namely the unspecified black granite that might well be a tombstone. It is not until we proceed to the next line that we find the stone’s identity narrowed, or localized in the historical and social moment that was the Vietnam War.
Just as each line has its own integrity, so too does the poem. It does not rely on the rest of the book, which preceded it, to supply its subject, which is, in part, the speaker’s relationship to the war. The lines “I go down the 58,022 names, / halfexpecting to find / my own” let us know that the speaker also fought in this war and feels somewhat surprised—astonished, with its etymological root of “stone”—to find himself still alive. The “halfexpecting” is ironic in multiple ways, playing as it does on the absolutely precise numerical quantity in the line above it, and in its recognition that the speaker, against all odds, has survived the war, when so many of his fellow white and black soldiers died there. The ironic tone is transient, though. Once the speaker has that recognition of his own survival, his attention necessarily snaps back to the terrible fact of mortality: “I see the booby trap’s white flash.” The poem does not specify whether the speaker knew Andrew Johnson or is surmising that dead soldier’s fate; perhaps the ambiguity indicates that such knowledge is, now, immaterial. The speaker knows how easily Andrew Johnson’s fate might have been his own—he himself might have stumbled onto that booby trap and been killed in a “white flash” of “smoke.” The poem links the two men’s fate at the same time that it comments on the startling relief linked with finding oneself alive.
That feeling of relief informs the next image. “The names,” which are like and unlike the speaker’s own, “shimmer on a woman’s blouse.” In the midst of a vivid flashback of the war’s horrific violence (the murderous “white flash”), the poem gives us a startling, weirdly beautiful image: the names shimmer on the blouse, much like the reflections of dragonflies would shimmer on a still pool of water. The image subtly depends on our realizing
“The poem delivers a jolt in its opening lines, the way a suspense movie might open with a closeup .....”
that the blouse is itself shimmering, reflected, in the glossy Wall. The poem watches the world through the Wall and thereby sees the world in its historical accuracy; if the poem looked at the world directly it would not gain such insightful “misperceptions.”
The “but” of the subsequent line (“but when she walks away / the names stay”) mitigates the prior image of beauty, however, as it points out that its very beauty is contingent on a misperception. The woman’s departure indeed signals that such beauty is a misperception, relying as it does on a confusion of the outside world with the reflected one, “real life” with symbolic life, past with present. It turns out, the poem cautions us, that such distinctions are not to be ignored. As the speaker’s gaze remains fixed on the Wall, the outside world intermittently reflected in it becomes jarring: “Brushstrokes flash,” the speaker reports, the “flash” echoing that violent white flash of four lines ago. The speaker is only subsequently able to identify the flash as coming from the outside world: “a red bird’s / wings cutting across my stare.” That the reflected image of mere feathers is said to be “cutting” suggests how violent present-day experience feels to this veteran of both war and race conflict. As the speaker continues narrating what he sees of the outside world reflected in the Wall (“The sky. A plane in the sky.”), he catches sight of a white vet whose face is also reflected there; the speaker’s perception of this image, as mentioned above, is ambiguous. Perhaps the poem’s greatest skillfulness is its ability to put us in the speaker’s position here. We too must attempt to understand this image. Is the white vet feeling himself to be a witness at the Wall, as the speaker is? Does the white vet notice the speaker, or the reflected speaker, and feel confusion? Does the white vet see the speaker as someone with whom he has some shared history? In other words, does the white vet recognize the speaker to be a black vet and an equal? When the speaker reports that the white vet’s eyes “look through” the speaker, as though he were a window, we must wonder, as must the speaker, why: has the white vet recognized the speaker as a fellow vet or, even if not, has he learned, as writer Kevin Stein suggests, to look through another person’s eyes, in empathy? Alternatively, has the vet even registered the speaker’s existence? Is the speaker, a black man, in fact invisible in a white world? Or has the white vet looked away from the speaker, and if so, is that due to discomfort, hostility, or distraction?
These questions are raised, as they must be for the speaker, and not resolved. Instead, the speaker recognizes that the white vet may have been irremediably damaged: “He’s lost his right arm / inside the stone,” an image of the war’s capacity to maim, physically or spiritually. The poem looks elsewhere, with that knowledge, and offers us a final, generous image, of compassion and nurture. Significantly, the speaker initially misperceives this image to be of a woman “trying to erase names”—a gesture of grieving beyond rationality. The most subtle rhetorical touch, “No,” allows us to take the closing line as a resolution to that misperception. “She’s brushing a boy’s hair” points to the next generation, with a hopefulness that the boy will be cared for, rather than damaged.
The poem’s strategies, of reporting perceptions in a vivid, unmediated way, and of juxtaposition (“I’m stone. I’m flesh.”; “letters like smoke ... the booby trap’s white flash”; “Brushstrokes flash, a red bird’s / wings”) point out to us, as critic Vicente Gotera has noticed, that meaning depends on point of view, and that the speaker’s experience of “depending on the light” to see the Wall’s full significance is our experience, too. In fact, the poem tells us, the significance is a life-or-death one: the speaker could, after all, find himself to be inside the stone—nightmarishly, inside the past that is the war. The outside world is also jarring in its own right: in this world, birds’ wings may cut, and another visitor to the Wall may or may not recognize you as a fellow soldier or fellow human being—perhaps because of that other juxtaposition which is race. The poem’s ultimate strength is its mastery at depicting the disrupting, surreal, indeed absurd quality of such juxtapositions. Distinctions such as black/caucasian are shown to be strange and possibly frightening, inescapable, and dependent on individual point of view. The human’s ability to perceive is constrained and flawed, the poem teaches us, and it is all we have.
Source: Sharon Kraus, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1999.
Jeannine Johnson received her Ph.D. from Yale University and is currently a visiting assistant professor of English at Wake Forest University. In the following essay, Johnson discusses how Komunyakaa, in order to better understand the relationships between art and history, examines the Vietnam Veterans Memorial as a kind of poem.
Yusef Komunyakaa served as a reporter and editor for a military newspaper during the Vietnam War, and his experiences there have proved a fruitful, if painful, source for poetic material. Writing for the armed forces publication The Southern Cross from 1969 to 1970, Komunyakaa chronicled the activities of American soldiers both on and off the battlefield. In “Facing It,” he creates another record of the war. In his poem Komunyakaa, a recipient of the Bronze Star, recalls viewing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., and the many conflicting sensations he feels in its presence. This time removed temporally and geographically from Vietnam, Komunyakaa explores possible methods of representing and memorializing the war: in particular, he deals with the conflicts between private and public expressions of mourning and memory. Throughout “Facing It,” the poet’s identity fuses with the wall and the wall unites with its visitors, a circumstance that for Komunyakaa is at once disturbing and comforting.
The poem dramatizes the ways that art is both a necessary and an inadequate medium through which to disclose the history of war. In the opening lines, Komunyakaa announces, “My black face fades, / hiding inside the black granite.” Immediately, the poet demonstrates his personal investment in both his poem and in the other artwork, Maya Lin’s granite war memorial. He is pulled into the wall—“I’m stone”—but in the following instant disengages himself from it, reassured that “I’m flesh.” The poet’s identity becomes uncertain in the presence of the wall. Its polished stone surface acts as a mirror, reflecting the images of those who look at it. This feature establishes a sense of intimacy between the viewer and the art, but it also reinforces a sense of alienation. For Komunyakaa, this alienation is compounded by his race: the repetition of the word “black” in the poem’s first two lines subtly underscores the fact that his experiences in Vietnam differed from those of white soldiers. In any case, the poet informs us that his reflection is not clear and illuminating but “clouded” and, furthermore, that it “eyes me / like a bird of prey.” His reflection seems to have an existence separate from his own, and its intentions appear quite menacing. The bird of prey symbolizes his memory (and its attendant grief), and its autonomy suggests that Komunyakaa exercises little control over it.
Despite his uneasiness, the poet is not entirely estranged from the wall. He is intrigued as he moves around it, altering his view and manipulating his reflection: “I turn / this way—the stone lets me go. / I turn that way—I’m inside / ... depending upon the light / to make a difference.” Komunyakaa sports with his mirror-image, and in the poem he performs a parallel verbal action by playing with various meanings of “reflection.” He is literally describing the visual phenomenon of seeing one’s image in a two-dimensional surface, but the poet also invests other meanings of reflection. He invokes the idea of reflection as a thought process, such as contemplation, meditation, or recollection. Komunyakaa reflects on the past and on its present-day significance. However, these kinds of reflections, too, are clouded: the poet’s memories of Vietnam are still keen, but his relationship to them are conflicted—complicated by the time that has passed and by his own imperfect powers of recall. Moreover, Komunyakaa is well aware that his experiences are in no way the sum total of the experiences of all Americans—or even of all African Americans—in Vietnam. Likewise, his poem and the wall reflect a part of history, but these reproductions of the past are necessarily incomplete. Neither the poet nor art can ever fully recover or replace what has been lost.
In the next lines, Komunyakaa makes more clear the connection between the wall and poetry: “I go down the 58,002 names, / half-expecting to find / my own in letters like smoke.” Etched into the Vietnam Veterans Memorial are the names of the war’s dead and missing. The inscriptions comprise more than a simple catalogue of casualties: for many visitors, the act of touching the wall or copying a reverse image of a name on a piece of paper constitutes an important part of their encounter with the monument. Nevertheless, language—whether it be in the poem or on the wall—provides only a tenuous connection between art and people: “Names shimmer on a woman’s blouse / but when she walks away / the names stay on the wall.” Komunyakaa affirms the power of art to honor sorrow and memorialize sacrifice, and yet
“The poem dramatizes the ways that art is both a necessary and an inadequate medium through which to disclose the history of war.”
that very promise of permanence or comprehensiveness is undermined when we inevitably turn our attentions elsewhere.
Even when we do attend to the public reminders of history, we must confront their (and our own) imperfections. The figure of incompleteness appears literally in the form of a white veteran who has “lost his right arm / inside the stone.” Komunyakaa’s vivid and compelling phrase makes the obvious remarkable, as it informs us that the vet’s missing arm is not reflected by the wall. The granite will release neither the man’s arm nor his arm’s reflection, as both are trapped within the space and time that the wall commemorates. This physical, individual injury goes unreflected, symbolizing the limits of representative art. Yet art proves serviceable to society, at least as a lens through which people can view the lives of others and review their own lives. The veteran’s reflection intermingles with the poet’s, and in the process, the poet becomes a “window” through which the vet looks. This incident unsettles the poet, but it affirms their common bond. It also helps prepare the poet to illustrate the importance of the human imagination and to testify that art’s value exceeds its public serviceability.
Like many of Komunyakaa’s poems, “Facing It” concludes with a surprising turn. In a 1994 interview, he confirms the value of the unexpected in poetry: “If I don’t have surprises, poetry doesn’t work for me. What gives my poetry its surprising element is that I have not systematically planned out in a directed way what I am going to say. It is a process of getting back to the unconscious.” In “Facing It,” Komunyakaa purposefully retreats to the world of the unconscious and surprises us with the abrupt shift in perspective from that of the poet to that of another mourner. The poem ends as he looks away from his own dim reflection in the wall to watch another visitor: “In the black mirror / a woman’s trying to erase names: / No, she’s brushing a boy’s hair.” The poet describes the woman’s actions in two ways: first from his own conceptual viewpoint and then from hers. His initial description involves a verbal metaphor, comparing the woman’s gesture to blotting out letters, something a poet might do. But then Komunyakaa corrects himself, reprimanding his imagination with a simple “No,” and in so doing, he transports us into the mind of this woman. Now writing from her perspective, the poet correlates her action with a maternal caress that has little, if anything, to do with artistic production. This woman is not cognizant of her visible movements, nor does she consciously reflect on their meaning. In this way, she stands in stark contrast to the poet who has shown himself to be all too aware of his surroundings. The woman offers an alternative way to confront the past, a way to achieve consolation—and perhaps even temporary compensation—for the sorrows of history.
“Facing It” is the last piece in Dien Cai Dau, a collection of poems mostly about Vietnam. This book was published in 1988, nearly twenty years after Komunyakaa’s return from the war. “Dien cai dau” means “crazy” in Vietnamese and was very often used by the Vietnamese people to describe American soldiers. Komunyakaa’s use of this phrase for the title of his book is in part accusatory, implying that American military efforts in Vietnam were unwise, misguided, or even corrupt. His title also suggests that there is something intellectually and emotionally disconcerting about using poetry to recuperate memories of the war. But ultimately Komunyakaa does not believe it is crazy to use art to understand the Vietnam conflict; instead, he would likely think it crazy for a poet to willfully ignore the past. In fact, Komunyakaa has said that it was not until after he had returned from the war and written “Instructions for Building Straw Huts”—another Vietnam poem—that he felt sure of his poetic calling. Paradoxically, with this external vocational certainty came a need to permit particular instabilities to reside within his poetry. Komunyakaa shows that in composing his poem about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, his own identity and imagination are composed and discomposed by the wall. But this mutual interdependence between the public world and the private, between history and art, is compulsory and ultimately beneficial to the poet.
Source: Jeannine Johnson, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1999.
A widely published poet and fiction writer, Chris Semansky teaches literature at Portland Community College in Portland, Oregon. In the following essay, Semansky comments on the role of memory in self-identification in the poem “Facing It” and in the larger category of confessional poetry.
Philosophers, anthropologists, and cognitive psychologists have long maintained that two of the defining features of human beings are language and memory. Through using language to represent our past (both to ourselves and to others), we are building a coherent identity—a sense of who we are in relation to who we’ve been. In “Facing It,” his poem about a Vietnam veteran’s traumatic visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Yusef Komunyakaa draws attention to how this inescapable relationship between memory and language acts to construct a self-image. When the speaker of the poem attempts to ward off undesired memories, or at least the potential emotional impact those memories might have, he denies a part of himself. This denial results in the splitting of his identity.
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 the morning ...
The speaker’s dilemma is knowing with which self to side—knowing, literally, to whom he should turn. On the one hand, he wants to remain “stone” against the potential effects of such memories. Yet that very self that he desires becomes represented in his reflection in the black granite as a “bird of prey,” turning what he wants against himself. The stone that the speaker wants to be metaphorically (e.g., hardened against memories of the past) when realized literally (e.g., in his reflection in the granite) becomes an enemy whose job it is to destroy the very self who desired it into existence. By describing this now-adversarial reflection as “the profile of night” and his embodied observing self as “morning,” the speaker details both how the Memorial physically reflects his image and what his future stance will be in relation to these memories and this self that he could no longer bear. By detailing the ways in which the speaker deceives himself, these opening lines set the tone for the rest of the poem.
This poem about memory and language reminds us of the connection between the sensuous world of things and the power those things have to evoke powerful feelings in us. As might be expected for a poem about seeing, all of the imagery in the poem is related to sight. Just as our feelings are able to fool us so often, so too can the physical world of appearances. The perceptual mistakes that the narrator makes in the poem—seeing things not as they are but as they are affected by his memories and emotional state of mind—are echoed by the narrator’s own emotional mistake of thinking that he could remain a “stone” against the onslaught of memories and emotion when at the Memorial.
Perhaps the most telling illustration of the ways that emotions can cloud both memories and sight happens when the speaker is reading the names of the war dead.
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.
The speaker is so overwhelmed by grief and loss and so alienated from himself that he cannot think rationally. Not only does he expect to see his own name listed among the dead “in letters like smoke,” but his flashback of the death of a fellow soldier allows him to vicariously experience his own demise. Johnson was a member of the army infantry from Komunyakaa’s hometown of Bogalusa, Louisiana, and was killed in action in Vietnam in 1967. The “booby trap’s white flash” that the speaker sees after touching Johnson’s name is both a literal memory of a past experience and a metaphor of sorts for the way that that very memory is a “booby trap” for his own life in the present.
Mistakes are not only in the eyes of the beholder of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, but a part of the Memorial itself. Out of the more than 58,000 names of the Vietnam War dead listed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, twenty-five do not belong; they are still among the living. G. Burkett, whose book Valor details this fact, says that these living veterans form the wall’s “honor guard.” When he found out his name was listed among the dead, war veteran Robert Lee Bedker said, “We were so close to being one of the actual victims. It really makes you feel humble.”
Survivor’s guilt is a common response by veterans who have lived through a war or other catastrophe, and the speaker of “Facing It” illustrates
“Ultimately, the poet’s ability to translate the terror of his wartime experiences into an aesthetic object speaks to the potentially therapeutic function of poetry ....”
this response in his repeated, though unsuccessful, attempts to stave off the past. Dr. Matthew J. Friedman, a professor of psychiatry at Dartmouth Medical School, says that this guilt is often symptomatic of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which many war veterans experience. Friedman notes that intrusive recollections often accompany PTSD. “For individuals with PTSD, the traumatic event remains, sometimes for decades or a lifetime, a dominating psychological experience that retains its power to evoke panic, terror, dread, grief, or despair as manifested in daytime fantasies, traumatic nightmares, and psychotic reenactments known as PTSD flashbacks,” Friedman says. “Furthermore, traumamimetic stimuli that trigger recollections of the original event have the power to evoke mental images, emotional responses, and psychological reactions associated with the trauma.” Though we don’t know if Komunyakaa suffered from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, the responses of the poem’s speaker while at the Memorial certainly suggest the possibility.
But because this poem itself is told about an experience the speaker had about other experiences, and because it is told in a coherent well-organized manner, we can assume that the speaker has survived and that his awareness of his own capacity to fool himself is, at least by the end of the poem, well developed. He is battered and emotionally scarred, but he has managed to find a place for those memories—even if just in a poem. Ultimately, the poet’s ability to translate the terror of his wartime experiences into an aesthetic object speaks to the potentially therapeutic function of poetry, a role that critics often scorn. Such critics like to separate art from the messiness and drama of human life, even if that very same art remains inextricably entwined with that messiness. They object to confessional poetry because of what they believe to be its inherent “artlessness,” that somehow the unadorned utterances of the human heart do not qualify as poetry because they are not sufficiently “aestheticized.”
Contemporary confessional poetry itself grew out of psychoanalysis, with Robert Lowell, Allen Ginsberg, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath and others—from the 1950s on—using verse as a tool with which to explore their own traumatized lives. Poetry became the means through which to understand experiences deeply locked in memory. For better or worse (and there’s plenty of very good and very bad confessional writing), this mode of writing has come to dominate American poetry in the last four or five decades, and Komunyakaa’s work represents some of the very best being written today. This is because so many of his poems, including gems such as “Facing It,” don’t dwell merely on moments of private grief or confusion, the daily surrenders that each of us make every day of our lives (but don’t feel compelled to write about); rather, they explore the ways in which public events become the stuff of our private lives. They show how awareness of social history is indispensable for achieving awareness of our present selves.
Source: Chris Semansky, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1999.
In the following excerpt, Ringnalda discusses the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, the centerpiece of Komunyakaa’s “Facing It.”
A familiar sight at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (VVM) in Washington, D.C., is people tracing onto a piece of paper the name of a relative or friend who was killed in Vietnam. Anyone who has visited the memorial has observed this practice. On one hand, this gesture is sadly poignant; likely it’s even cathartic. On the other hand, it also seems symptomatic of the perceptions many Americans hold of the Vietnam War, whether in the 1960s or the 1990s: when we have the name of something, we somehow also possess the thing named. Even though there is obviously an enormous semiotic gap between that symbol, etched in stone, and its object, long gone, the symbol nevertheless acquires a powerful ontological status. A traced symbol of a symbol on a symbol becomes reality. Whenever I witness this scene, I can’t help asking myself, “just what kind of legacy is this reification of a purely human construction?”
It is difficult to know the thoughts of those people doing the tracing, and coldhearted to denigrate their actions.... [I]t needs to be stated at the outset that these actions, at the very least, seem to run counter to the design and spirit of Maya Lin’s troubling and humbling black wall, one of the greatest postmodern “texts” to come out of the war. Because the VVM “begins” and “ends” on dates in 1968—the middle of the war—when the killing and destruction reached the most intense level, the memorial offers viewers who pay attention no entrance or exit. The “circularity” of the wall precludes closure as well as any pretense of “kicking the Vietnam syndrome.” Therefore, any catharsis derived from the experience will at best be ambivalent, convoluted, and hard-earned. More likely, however, it will be misappropriated through denial or ignorance of the wall’s treatment of space and time....
... Lin’s memorial courageously, brilliantly, and literally gathers, faces, and makes new use of more than 58,000 unpleasant facts. The problem Lin had to face is the same one faced by any memorialist of any war: how to commemorate the war without conferring dignity on it, how to elicit thought, rather than goose bumps and sentimental tears....
What makes the VVM a great piece of art, though, is not just what it precludes (or tries to), but the ways in which it provokes the visitor to attain Perry’s third stage of interrogative affirmation. The iconography of the memorial is well known to almost everyone; so I will reiterate and interpret only those aspects of its design that are pertinent.... I’ve already mentioned that the memorial both “begins” and “ends” in 1968, during the heart of the war. This lack of closure makes the interaction of viewer and monument a dynamic event—almost a mobile experience. When we try to make an end to our visit, we are pulled back into the war’s insane middle. Further, as we approach the vortex of the two wings, we are whiplashed either forward or backward sixteen years, always moving in a 1959–75 / 1975–59 interface. Regardless of the direction we choose to move in, the flashbacks and flashforwards force us into a much more complex relationship with time and history than our future-oriented, narrative-obsessed sensibilities are used to.
But more needs to be said about the “beginning,” “middle,” and “end” of this memorial. It is peculiar not only that the beginning and end of our walk represent the middle of the war, but that those representations are at first so small—just inches high. Yet, at the vortex of 1959–75, two seemingly unimportant dates, because almost no killing was taking place, the Wall reaches its greatest height—ten feet. One explanation for this, if I may return to Severo and Milford, is that Lin’s “text” is “parenthetical.” Like The Wages of War, the VVM turns parenthetical material into main clauses. In a sense, 1959 and 1975 are the Wall’s two most important dates: in 1959 almost no one had started to pay any attention to the dangerously myopic, solipsistic thinking of U.S. military and political leaders; in 1975, heavily into denial, almost everyone stopped paying attention. Drawing our attention to these two dates, the VVM, as Charles L. Griswold reminds us [in 1986 article in Critical Inquiry], is a “monument” in the true sense of the word, derived as it is from the Latin monere, meaning “to admonish,” “warn,” “advise,” “instruct.”
There are other ways in which the VVM is “parenthetical,” thereby warning us to pay attention to details. First, its very location seems “bracketed” by the landscape. If one were to approach it from the north, one would almost literally have to fall into it to see it. Even from the standard approach routes, it is so inconspicuous that one can nearly miss it. People often do. By contrast, the Washington Memorial is visible from many miles away. Does this mean the VVM lacks power? Yes and no. When asked by Elizabeth Hess [who wrote “Vietnam: Memorials of Misfortune”] if the memorial has a female sensibility, Lin answered: “In a world of phallic memorials that rise upward, it certainly does. I didn’t set out to conquer the earth, or overpower it, the way Western man usually does. I don’t think I’ve made a passive piece, but neither is it a memorial to the idea of war.”
Actually, the memorial is anything but passive and powerless. Grant F. Scott comments [in a 1990 Journal of American Culture article]: “Whereas the other monuments are eerily self-sufficient, boasting forms that are clearly closed, the VVM necessitates our existence and our gaze for the completion of its aesthetic. Its form is wonderfully open and unfinished.” Scott also refers to the monument’s “choreography” and to the fact that it “makes us work.” Again, we see that sense of the granite’s “mobility.” This is due in part, as we’ve seen, to the Wall’s nonlinearity and lack of temporal closure. As many people have noted, it also is due to Lin’s decision not to arrange the names alphabetically, but instead, according to the date of death. This requires the visitor to search, ask for
“Because the VVM “begins” and “ends” on dates in 1968—the middle of the war —when the killing and destruction reached the most intense level, the memorial offers viewers who pay attention no entrance or exit .... Therefore, any catharsis derived from the experience will at best be ambivalent, convoluted, and hard-earned.”
help, even get up on a ladder to find a name. Like a postmodern novel, Lin’s text doesn’t offer a completed plot to entertain the passive reader. Its power thereby resides in what it engenders, not in what it is.
The power also resides in the scope of what it embraces. Its polished black granite reflects its surroundings—visitors, grass, trees, water, clouds, airplanes taking off overhead, and both the Washington and Lincoln memorials. In other words, it integrates the visitor in a complex mobile collage in which the viewer watches himself look as others watch him look at names of the dead, which are conjoined by the landscape and a compression of history stretching from the Revolutionary War to the Civil War to the Vietnam War. In this sense, the VVM is a metamemorial, a metafictional reflexive text compelling us to check out Doc Peret’s wires and circuits and filters.
I should add that the Wall is self-reflexive as well, particularly at night. It watches itself. Standing at the vortex, one notices that the two wings not only reflect each other but that the footlights along each wing place one in the middle of a lighted runway, an eerie corridor that seems both to rise and descend to those two troubling dates when America didn’t pay and stopped paying—stopped paying and didn’t pay—attention. The effect is overwhelming. Still standing at the vortex, the viewer’s metamemorial experience is further enriched by a slight movement of the head to the left or the right. An inch to the right brings the Lincoln Memorial into view; an inch to the left produces the Washington Monument. The effect transforms linear history into a spatial collage that almost gently reminds us to contextualize and interrogate our history, not to celebrate certain parts in isolation.
There is much debate regarding Lin’s intentions in having the Memorial reflect the Washington and the Lincoln....
But to point fingers, to indict, is to impose an exit on the Memorial. It is to rearrange the furniture of stage one. It is to forget our own reflection in the Wall. If Washington and Lincoln are implicated in the march to Vietnam, then so are we. We’re all family—an extremely dysfunctional one, to be sure. And, indicting two different old uncles named Sam won’t change that fact, unless we indict ourselves along with them....
Only one thing is wrong about the VVM; but it’s a big wrong.... Where is any recognition of the millions of dead and maimed Indochinese? Why isn’t it even possible to trace the Vietnamese people onto a piece of paper and take that home? Lady Borton, a frequent visitor to Vietnam and the author of Sensing the Enemy: An American Woman Among the Boat People of Vietnam, has asked this question many times for many years. In an Akron Beacon Journal editorial, she said,
It was years before I could visit the Wall. In the early ‘80s, I often read about the Vietnam Wall.... I would read by my living room stove, surrounded by photographs I had taken during the war. The photos were faces of Vietnamese civilians—mostly children— who had lost legs or arms. Surrounded by those photos, I felt angry about the Wall.
The combat veteran Dan Reeves seems instinctively to have recognized that the Vietnamese are missing on the VVM. He both begins and nears the end of his video Smothering Dreams (a phrase from Wilfred Owen’s poem “Dulce et Decorum Est”) being interviewed by Susan Stamberg by the Wall. The film surrealistically replays, over and over, both the games and the rhetoric that send eager boys to war and the actual horrors of a platoon almost wiped out in an ambush. After he replays the ambush for the final time, ending it with an offcamera soldier, desperately trying to stay alive without squares and rectangles, screaming “Which way?” he displays the kind of graphic missing from Maya Lin’s memorial: “This work is dedicated to the men of the 2nd Platoon Company A 1st Amtrac Battalion and the North Vietnamese soldiers who died on January 20, 1969 along the Cua Viet River.” In a simple yet powerful gesture, Reeves takes the first step in carrying out what Borton called for this nation to do in her editorial: “It seemed to me that stories behind the names etched into that granite must someday press through the earth to Vietnam itself. Perhaps only then, when we reach through with our own wall of sorrow to theirs, can we all be healed.”
Source: Ringnalda, Don, Fighting and Writing the Vietnam War, Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994, pp. 3–4, 233–41.
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Shrapnel in the Heart is a heart-wrenching collection of more than 100 letters left at the memorial—and the stories of the wives, children, and buddies who wrote them.
Lanning, Michael Lee, and Lee Lanning, The Only War We Had: A Platoon Leader’s Journal of Vietnam, Ivy Books, 1987.
A platoon leader’s diary of his tour of duty, Lanning’s experiences are alternately gruesomely fascinating and predictably mundane, just like war itself.