Planes, Trains, and Poems


Sometimes poems do the jobs of planes, trains, and automobiles by taking us places we’ve never been, then giving us a taste (a sight, a smell, a sound, a touch) of what that location is like.

This is what happened for me in one of the poems included in Jane Hirshfield’s Ten Windows. It’s called “Facing It,” a poem where Yusef Kanunyakaa has me standing in front of a memorial I’ve never seen: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Notice the images, how some the figurative language mirrors what many of these names went through in that faraway land, that faraway folly instigated by old men back home. This is but one thing that poetry does–and does well.

Facing It by Yusef Kanunyakaa

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.

From Dien Cai Dau by Yusef Komunyakaa. Copyright © 1988 by Yusef Komunyakaa.