“The Vietnam War,” a 10-part documentary, aired this month on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). After the program’s run on public television, it is slated to appear on Netflix. Documentarian Ken Burns provides a glimpse of the heart of the social awakening, political activism, music, upheaval and everything else that changed U.S. culture forever during this period.
The first episode is a powerful introduction to the series, concluding with Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” It provokes a feeling of hopelessness, capturing a dark, chilling mood reminiscent of the one captured in “Facing It” by Yusef Komunyakaa. The poem addresses his experience visiting the Vietnam Memorial Wall.
My black face fades,
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.
hiding inside the black granite.
Yusef Komunyakaa is an African-American native of the New Orleans area, born as James William Brown Jr. A professor at New York University, he originally taught in the creative writing department at the University of New Orleans.
Like many highly regarded artists, Yusef endured darkness and incredible adversity. Growing up in a place and time where racism was more alive than ever – his home town of Bogalusa was struck by the violent ignorance of the Ku Klux Klan – he unfortunately witnessed one of the nation’s most severe periods of injustice.
A Vietnam War veteran, Komunyakaa was left with a bloodstained consciousness forever. Going into the war and coming out the same person is impossible. The poem “Facing It” could only be written by someone who had experienced the Vietnam War.
He presents the activities and routines of the normal post-war world, yet gives the reader insight to the chaos and realness of the barbarism. When things could not get any worse, his own child and loved one died. Komunyakaa was eager to get past all this trauma and misfortune. However, channeling the negative energy into his work rewarded him with more recognition than ever. He turned this continuous agony into a Pulitzer Prize, one of poetry’s most prestigious accomplishments. Agony became power in grasp of Yusef Komunyakaa, who held a shaman’s power.
The power of the shaman is a mythical idea. Theoretically, the person who has suffered a life of aching madness is able to heal others. Komunyakaa displays this shamanic identity in his entire body of work. Struggle is not the only thing that aids Komunyakaa’s ability to assemble masterpieces; he possesses a creative talent. He glides through compelling personal narratives with experimental and jazzy styles, partially influenced by the densely musical culture of his home city.
For example, in the first few lines, Komunyakaa rhymes “granite” and “dammit” with no certain sequence or rhythm, which actually creates the rhythm. It relates to the art of improvisation by a jazz musician. Though incredibly original, he is still able to relate to his audience with familiarity. Komunyakaa has written books in addition to poetry, and will always be remembered as a pioneer for the world of literature.