Facing It: Metanoia

Facing It is Yusef Komunyakaa’s most well-known poem. In it, the speaker has a profound emotional experience while reading the names at the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial (Komunyakaa himself is a Vietnam Vet). The names of those lost in the war are engraved on a black granite wall, and the poem relies heavily on the reflections in the granite, allowing for the interplay between the speaker’s intimate experience of the war and the seemingly mundane reality around him. I’m particularly fond of how powerfully this poem ends:

“…In the black mirror
a woman’s trying to erase names:
No, she’s brushing a boy’s hair.”

Part of what makes this ending so powerful is a rhetorical device called metanoia. Metanoia is when a statement is retracted and then requalified. For example, “He was as big as a bear; no, a whale!” Because the device is a self-referential negation, it is common for the speaker to interject with “No,” but not necessary.

In the example of Komunyakaa’s Facing It, its function is to show how deeply the speaker is immersed in war reveries, and how easily he is brought back to reality. It is a mechanism for disillusionment. However, given the heavily-loaded image of the woman brushing the boy’s hair, one might argue that the illusion, in this case, is never actually broken. No, it’s one and the same with reality.

See what I did there?

Here is the full text:

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.

by Yusef Komunyakaa (b. 1947)

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