Sep 16, 2011

Henry Reed and Yusef Komunyakaa on War

Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Facing It” is an excellent companion to the Henry Reed war poems discussed here Sept. 6 and 8.  Here are all three poems:

Facing It by Yusef Komunyakaa : The Poetry Foundation
In the literal, primary, temporal moment of "Facing It," the speaker is a black Vietnam vet standing at the Vietnam Veterans’ memorial wall in Washington, D.C.  But his images morph as he becomes more and more involved in the names and memories he sees etched in stone. The mind of Komunyakaa’s speaker slides in and out of past and present settings, in and out of reality, whatever that might be--there are mirages.

This shape-shifting forces us out of the comfort of our own selves, out of our of linear rationality, and into the consciousness of the speaker. We experience his psyche as it absorbs scenes and images, without clear, neat transitions. Staying tuned to that channel, or mix of channels, might require at least a second reading, but of course that’s true of any poem that’s worth much. 
In each of Henry Reed’s poems, there are actual changes of speakers, without clear notation by word or punctuation; but I think most readers will see what’s going on if they give it a second, slower effort. Even though the young speakers are not presently under fire, Reed’s two recruits are stunned, dazed, and more or less brutalized by the mechanization in military thinking. 

Both of Reed’s poems present training for war as the enemy of beauty, sensitivity, sensuousness, love, and a sense of belonging. Flowers, bees, and human sexuality are presented as the opposites of war—and they are war’s victims, before a shot is ever fired. The drill sergeant’s instructions might be clear; they might even seem rational compared to the recruit’s daydreaming. But the sergeants' words are also as cold and hard as the machinery they describe.

Similarly, Komunyakaa’s speaker is adrift, mesmerized by the surreal contrast between a cold, stone monument and the human flesh, the life stories, the monument tries to honor. So it’s fitting that we readers are dragged into the speaker’s daze if we are to move even an inch toward understanding his experience with the monument. Komunyakaa makes us participate in a state of mind that is perhaps beyond our capacity for empathy. 
The three poems present complex psychological situations, so it makes sense that confusion might be part of our reading experience. Preparing for or participating in combat, or trying to make sense of a connection between actual war and a stone memorial—those are complex experiences that we should hope to understand as much as any bystander can.  


Brenda's Arizona said...

Your last photo is awesome. LOVELY.
Nice focus, nice play on what is there vs. what is REALLY there.

I have to work my way through the poems one at a time. I love the mind/thought jumping in Komunyakaa's. It is real. It is how a mind leaps then unleaps. It isn't planned, it isn't deliberate. It is your thoughts, running faster and recalling faster than you, the mortal human, can control. Thanks for sharing this one, Banjomyn. Now, back to your photos and to Henry Reed.

Banjo52 said...

Brenda, thanks. I was surprised at how much color there was in early September, though it was much more evident on the ground than in the trees.

Also, re: questions from you and others over a week ago on how I chose Henry Reed . . . I saw the bees, got 'em on "film," wondered about a poem with bees, and "Naming of Parts" came to mind. I used to teach it and "Judging Distances" for the lessons in change of speakers and what an impact we can feel from changes in tone and connotations of words. I still think either poem is a good lesson on the old, true notion that the How is at least as important in poetry (and all communication?) as the What or the Why.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

for me the power in the poem is in how Komunyakaa places emphasis on the here and now, through the reflections occurring across the surface of the memorial wall. A nice blending of past and present. Similar to creating something where the goal is not only the object but the shadow it casts.

It amazes me that this wall was ever built. Ross Perot with his cluck bucks did all in his power to stop it in favor of some dated bronze figures.

film recommendation. . ."Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision" netflix

Banjo52 said...

PA, I like this a lot: "something where the goal is not only the object but the shadow it casts." I'll check on that film.

Anonymous said...

There's something unpolished about this, and that's not necessarily a complaint. I stood outside, though, until the last two lines.

Rune Eide said...

The shifting focus works very well as illustrations for the situations you describe. The impact of war on the soldiers is not included under the heading of "collateral damage" (the worst expression I know)

Banjo52 said...

AH, I like "I stood outside" to describe writing one might like, but just cannot become involved in.

RuneE, yes, I've always thought "collateral damage" was a chilling phrase. Talk about de-humanization! In my mind, Aristotle's "tragic waste" is similar, but more compassionate. For Aristotle, at least the loss of innocents is tragic.

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