“Facing It” is a poem by Yusef Komunyakaa about visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC.
Komunyakaa was deployed in Vietnam from 1969-1970 as a war correspondent for the military newspaper The Southern Cross, and witnessed the war’s brutality firsthand. He served with the Americal Division, whose name today is most often associated with the My Lai massacre of hundreds of unarmed Vietnamese citizens, committed by a platoon of the Americal Division in 1968. Komunyakaa has recalled that at the time of his enlistment, the My Lai Massacre had been reported by The Southern Cross as an American victory; it was while he was in Vietnam writing for the paper that the truth of the massacre came to light. One of his nightly responsibilities was to walk over to the Tactical Operations Center to get that day’s body count. He has described his memories from that time as an “endless nightmare.”
“Facing It” was published in the poetry collection Dien Cai Dau (1988), his first poetry collection to address his experiences in the Vietnam War, which won The Dark Room Poetry Prize. The poem has been included in other notable collections, including Pleasure Dome: New and Collected Poems (Wesleyan University Press, 2001), and is perhaps Komunyakaa’s best-known work. It details his encounter with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial over a decade after his deployment. At its initial completion in 1982, the memorial had the names of 57,939 dead soldiers engraved in its granite façade. At the time of Komunyakaa’s visit in the poem, there were 58,022 names.
Komunyakaa has described his poetry as “personal and public at the same time.” This poem visibly straddles the “personal” and “public,” centering on the reflection of his face in the polished surface of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The private-public duality in this poem is encapsulated by the flux between memory and memorial, and in the discrepancy between a soldier’s private experience of a war and the public’s monuments to it.