I stood nervously in front of my eighth grade English class praying that nobody would laugh at the poem I was about to read aloud. My peers were used to reading Langston Hughes, Edgar Allen Poe, or Maya Angelou, and I did not want to disappoint them by trying something new. The assignment given to our class was for everybody to choose a poem, read it aloud, and explain why it relates to them. How was I going to explain to a class filled with 13 and 14-year-olds that a poem about the Vietnam War was significant to me? I had no relatives that I knew about who went to war and I myself surely had never been to war. The thought of it didn’t even interest me, but I was eager to let the class know how I felt about this piece because I was attached to it.
So attached—that I sometimes still ponder over what drew me to Yusef Komunyakaa’s poem “Facing It,” in the first place. I was always the student who preferred to sit back, relax, and read R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, or Louis Sachar’s Holes, rather than figure out the complexities of somebody’s poem. Poetry to me was still just a flow of beautiful words that were used to lure readers, but I wanted stories. It didn’t take long for me to realize that poems were stories as well. Shortly after receiving my assignment, I was in my school’s library surfing the web for famous poems and stumbled across “Facing It.” At first I thought it’d be similar to the previous poems I had read, but this one was different.
Yusef Komunyakaa’s poem is about his visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, DC. During the visit, he is reflecting on his experiences as an editor for the military newspaper. At 13-years-old, I didn’t comprehend Yusef’s message about the wall reflecting his brutal war experiences. I didn’t understand that he was making a personal connection between the wall and himself. But I did know that he was lonely and I empathized with him. I may not have witnessed a historical war, but I too felt lonely. Everything seemed like a big blur to me. I’d come home every weekday to nobody. I couldn’t share my accomplishments in school at home because my mother was too tired after work to hear anything I had to say. Prior to “Facing It,” I only focused on novels that told stories about adolescents who had problems I was familiar with. Problems such as feeling rejected, and seeking affection. The only difference about this piece was the narrator.
As I got older, my perspective of the poem changed. I remember a research project I was assigned in the eleventh grade. During my research, I remember thinking that it must have been difficult for Yusef to convey his true feelings to readers. For example, in the opening stanza, he makes sure the reader understands his situation:
My black face fades,
hiding inside the black granite.
I said I wouldn’t,
dammit: no tears.
I’m stone. I’m flesh.
I noticed not only is he lonely, but this wall represents something much more profound. He is introducing the reader to his inner conflict from the very beginning, which is why he tries not to cry, and convince himself that he is stone, but reality settles in. He is human and understands that this visit was going to be emotional, but it’s obvious he wasn’t expecting this. I sometimes walk to my old neighborhood park trying to recall memories that I know will eventually make me sad. That park meant everything to us. We spent hours each day playing tag and spider until we couldn’t run anymore. My first football game took place on the same turf. I learned how to ride a bike and got my first kiss in the park as well. Now I’m left to reminisce on moments that have come and gone. I’m only getting older and my past is just my past. Those moments were so sweet that I wish I could do more than just imagine them. I want to relive them, but my friends and I have moved on. Friends...
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