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, from Dien Cai Dau (1988)
Yusef Komunyakaa’s poem, “Facing It” is full of strong, ghostly imagery that transports you to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on an emotional wave of grief, self-doubt, forgotten identity to the point that you too lose yourself in the mirrored stone with over 58,000 names etched into the granite.
The effects of war are difficult to cope with—for those directly and indirectly involved. Many soldiers don’t return home—either killed in action or missing, lost in the trenches, the jungle, the desert. Those who do return are never the same. They’ve seen things, experienced things, felt things we could never understand. The uncertainty in the speaker’s words, the choppiness in the lines illustrations this. His face disappears into the wall, and he expects to see his name alongside the missing and departed. Touching a comrade’s name invokes a horrific memory crashing back into his mind in a white explosion. While he is mentally and emotionally lost in the war, another veteran has the physical scars, a missing arm.
We don’t always show our veterans the respect they deserve. They put their lives on the line for our freedoms to return home in many cases to criticism, systematic racism and hatred, homelessness. Even today our veterans can’t even get proper medical care without a fight. What good is a Medal of Valor if the recipient is dying from his sustain injuries (mental and physical) on the side of the road? Those 58,022 names aren’t the only ones lost.
Today’s Black Poetry Writing Month prompt is to write a poem for the lost soldier, the one facing his soul in the black mirrored granite and finding nothing, lost in his own purgatory after having died in battle. Connect with his pain and sorrow. Dig deep into the carvings on his skin and try to reconcile him with life.