My black face fades,
hiding inside the black granite.
I said I wouldn’t,
dammit: No tears.
I’m stone. I’m flesh.
This is something that all of us who have been in combat eventually have to do. We may put it off, even for many years, but inevitably, we have to face our memories, our anxieties, even our angers that we came home with from our wartime experiences. It is only when we face it that we begin to heal, to free ourselves from those memories, or at least, to put them into their proper perspectives in our own lives.
A Common and Shared Reality
PTSD is our common and shared reality. It is there in all of us who have been in or near combat. It takes many forms: from the lesser experiences of discomfort in crowds to the uncontrollable anxieties; to the reflexive and immediate responses to loud noises or helicopters flying over; to the alcohol and drug addictions where we attempt to quiet the memories. In the end, it is when we finally are able to “face the memories” when we finally name them, that is when we begin to take power over them and take our lives back from them.
Yusef Komunyakaa, a Vietnam veteran and poet, wrote the poem below. He is following in the long tradition of war poems going back to Homer’s Iliad, to those of warriors returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. The poem below is called “Facing It.” The speaker of the poem is standing before the Vietnam Memorial that has come to be known to we Vietnam veterans as The Wall.
The Polished Black Granite
Those of you who have been there will get the imagery immediately. The Wall is made of polished black granite. The names of all those who fell in Vietnam are deeply etched, tattooed, into that surface. Its surface is highly polished and becomes a mirror, reflecting back all those standing before it, and the sky. Komunyakaa’s poem is, on one level, simply a description. But on another level, it becomes more than a mirror. It causes the Vietnam veteran speaker of the poem (and the reader), to reflect inwardly as well. He is naming all of his memories. He is, in a sense, seeing them in the wall, or in a particular name, but he is also leaving them there in that wall too.
It is a powerful poem, and I offer it to my fellow Vietnam veterans and to all who know that experience. Maybe, for Yusef Komunyakaa, this was the beginning of reconciling his memories. Maybe you can find your own beginnings in it too.
I have been to The Wall only once, in 1988, twenty years after I had been in Vietnam. It was such a powerful experience. I could not speak. Tears ran down my face without restraint. A fellow veteran simply came up and stood next to me, to be with me in my grief. We never exchanged a word, but I felt the brotherhood, and it felt good and right. I will remember that experience until the day I die.
I’m glad I did it.