If there is such a thing as a famous contemporary poem, this is it. Political poetry is notoriously difficult to write well because the writer already knows what s/he thinks of the subject, and these personal opinions often preclude discovery for the writer and, therefore, for the reader. But Yusef Komunyakaa, M.F.A. ’80, understands the kind of poem he’s writing here and plays against the genre’s inclination to be tendentious by welcoming the oppositions and self-corrections within the speaker, from “I’m stone. I’m flesh” to the poem’s stirring, dramatic final sentence: “In the black mirror/ a woman’s trying to erase names:/ No, she’s brushing a boy’s hair.” As he faces Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, he manages to speak movingly and articulately about the charged subjects of race and war by allowing us into a profound inner drama in which all feelings are shadowy, elusive and ambiguous – except grief, which, in vivid contrast, is absolute. To fully experience what you learn and feel through the agency of this remarkable poem, I suggest you listen to Komunyakaa himself read it on the Poetry Foundation website: http://bit.ly/ucimag_spring2017_FacingIt.
By Yusef Komunyakaa
Director, M.F.A. Program in Poetry
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.
Reprinted with permission from Pleasure Dome: New & Collected Poems (Wesleyan University Press, 2001).
Yusef Komunyakaa, M.F.A. ’80, was born in Bogalusa, Louisiana. He served in the U.S. Army as a correspondent during the Vietnam War and was managing editor of the Southern Cross newspaper, for which he earned a Bronze Star. He received a B.A. from the University of Colorado Colorado Springs on the GI Bill and an M.A. in writing from Colorado State University. Komunyakaa has published 16 books of poetry, including Neon Vernacular: New & Selected Poems, which won the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award and the Pulitzer Prize in 1994. He has taught at the University of New Orleans, as well as at Indiana University and Princeton University, and is currently Distinguished Senior Poet in New York University’s graduate creative writing program.