Listen to Yusef Komunyakaa at the 2004 Dodge Poetry Festival recite his poem about visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. for the first time, “Facing It.”
The simple phrase, “facing it” could almost stand for Komunyakaa’s ars poetica. Whether writing about personal, national or ancient history, his wartime experiences, the complexities of human relationships, the nature of spirituality or his own psyche, his poems are attempts to confront unblinkingly what we usually prefer to avert our eyes from.
He knows this is not easy. The speaker of the poem briefly looks away, aware that by simply turning his head he could escape, and not see the black wall of granite etched with the names of the 58,022 war dead. Instead, he faces it, unable to control the emotions, memories, associations and images summoned by the reflection of a passing bird, the mirrored gaze of another vet, the name of a soldier whose death he witnessed. He isn’t even able to control how he sees, the conscious mind requiring a second or two to process what the eye perceives. Rather than provide the comfort of a clear and easy narrative we can follow from a comfortable distance, knowing this is not my story, he suspends the reader in the speaker’s experience, with its disorientation and discomfort.
This, too, is typical of Komunyakaa’s work. He understands there is a disparity between our experiences and actions and how our minds attempt to rationalize or justify them. In poem after poem he suspends the reader in that place where we are most vulnerable, before we have labeled our experiences and safely filed them away. The poems occur in that place where our senses are acute, and we are on the alert because we don’t know what might happen next. It’s the place where we are most likely to confront who we are.
One gets the feeling Komunyakaa himself doesn’t quite know what’s to be discovered as he composes his poems. But we can sense how carefully he listens, to the sound of each syllable, word, phrase, pulse of rhythm, hoping to surprise himself as much as his reader.
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