Can The Present Shape The Past?

In light of the poem we read recently in class by Yusef Komunyakaa, “Facing It”, I began to contemplate the relevance of the past, present and future, both within Jemisin’s books and within this class as a whole. In his poem, Komunyakaa is giving his experience a voice, as he faces traumatic experiences of the past, being a Vietnam War veteran, during a visit to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., which rekindles past emotions.

As we know, the past is very important in shaping and bettering our present and future. We can use the past as a learning tool, and if we do not learn from the past there can surely be consequences. The relevance of the past is clear in Komunyakaa’s piece, and in what I interpreted as something straying a bit from the ordinary, it is frequently touched upon about how easy it is for the present to influence the past. This isn’t always a conventional way of thinking, but I think it makes an important point. These lines are what sparked my interest:

…In the black mirror
a woman’s trying to erase names:
No, she’s brushing a boy’s hair.
Komunyakaa is referencing here the names of fallen soldiers engraved into the stone of a memorial. A woman’s reflection makes it seem as if she is trying to erase the names, in which the realization occurs that it is only her reflection as she is brushing a boy’s hair, completely ignorant to the image the narrator had experienced. However, this illuminates the problem of how easy it is for the past to be erased because of everything that goes on in our present. It may not be physically or legitimately erased in the situation of the poem,  but with the mindset of the narrator being in a state of sadness, agony and pain as he revisits the pain of war, it was easy enough for him to see just how easily the past- that is incredibly relevant to him- can be virtually nonexistent for others.

Throughout The Broken Earth Trilogy, we as readers, as well as the characters of the story, are constantly reminded of the relevance of the past through the implementation of the stonelore of The Stillness. Characters would reference it frequently, and readers were faced with it recurrently at the end of chapters. Like any civilization, The Stillness heavily relies on stonelore in order to keep important information of the past alive, just as we do with history books, memorials, museums and important documents. However, when times become tough and other situations start arising that go against the grain of what is stated in the stonelore, it is erased from the minds of many just as easily as the woman erases the names engraved in stone in “Facing It”.

Both Yusef Komunyakaa’s poem and Jemisin’s work sets an example of how the present state of a civilization can manipulate and change the way we look at our present situations. We may believe that the past is set in stone, but that stone can also become buried under the debris of a changing world.

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