Sometimes words fail me. When that happens I turn to the words of others. They can provide peace, thoughtful reflection, or a window into the experiences of people who are unlike me. That’s why, following recent events, I’ve been rereading some of the poetry of Yusef Komunyakaa.
We are from very different backgrounds. I’m a white guy who was brought up in and have spent my entire life living in some level of middle class suburbs. Other than college in Indiana and a brief study overseas I’ve spent my time in Tennessee.
He’s an African American man born to a poor family in the deep South—Bogalusa, Louisiana. He’s from an earlier generation and served in the Army in Vietnam. His birth name is James William Brown. He changed his name to that of his Trinidadian grandfather. He writes about a wide range of subjects, including race.
I didn’t start reading his poetry because we come from different backgrounds. I started reading his poetry because a friend who’d read some poems of mine said, “You write like him.” And when I read his poem Blackberries I felt that way too. With a dog of my own I’d been in those places he describes. But then our experiences diverge. He describes feelings I’ve felt but in a situation I’ve never experienced—a situation he might have experienced several times.
No single person represents an entire group. No matter how we join together, or join others together, we’re still individuals. But a single person can articulate the feelings and experiences of a group.
With that in mind I re-read Facing It. History can alter context, and recent events have left me feeling that this is more than a poem about a veteran’s feelings as he stands before the Vietnam Memorial. An African American man standing before a black wall, seeing his own reflection as he reads names of those who lost their lives—this speaks to me of something I haven’t yet experienced but something I too have to face.
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.
Audio of Yusef Komunyakaa reading Facing It: