The Power of the Unsaid in Komunyakaa’s ‘Facing It’

Yusef Komunyakaa’s poem ‘Facing It’ is a poem of pain and healing. Yet there is no emotional language in the poem. Words like pain, trauma, sadness, loss, grief do not appear. In the third line, a word linked to emotion does appear: ‘tears’. However, even then, it comes in the context of the speaker telling himself to not feel, to repress his emotion: ‘ I said I wouldn’t / dammit: No tears’, which is followed by the dialectal line ‘I’m stone. I’m flesh’ apparently suggesting that the speaker is attempting to become ‘stone’, non-human, like the ‘granite’ his face fades into.  The speaker has flashbacks to his traumatic experience in the Vietnam war as he stands in front of the memorial which lists the names of fallen soldiers. Again, there is a scarcity of emotional language, a dearth. Rather, fleeting images are offered of the past. The speaker communicates his pain through these images and through the final one where he imagines that a woman is trying to erase the names of the dead, but then he realises she is ‘brushing a boy’s hair’. This final image of a mother caring for her son represents gentleness, healing, sanity, reality. The emotion is potent yet the language of emotion does not exist. The unsaid is the crux of this poem, the engine, the epicentre. Reticence and restraint drive the emotion — the speaker seems vulnerable precisely because he refuses to enlist emotional language. He can’t bear to use those kinds of words. It would be too much for him. And they would fall flat on the reader. Denial, repression, metaphor and fantasy pervade the poem. The unsaid allows him to face ‘it’, allows the reader to face it, allows him to communicate his pain and healing to the reader more than direct language ever could.

Facing It

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.

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