The Onyx: Life of the Niess

The poem “Facing It” by Yosef Komunyakaa has taken precedence in my mind since we were asked to recite it a couple class periods ago. The power struggle that is described between the viewer and the memorial was one that unnerved me despite the complete rationality of its presence. After all, was that not the purpose of a memorial? To make you remember? To initiate the process of reflecting? To remind us of how we got to where we are now?

(WARNING: Analyzing poetry is not my strong suit so proceed with caution)

When describing the experience of engaging with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial a sense of losing oneself to the memory of this event is presented: “My black face fades, / hiding inside the black granite” (1-2). Following this line of thought, a deepened relationship is established between the viewer and the memorial: “I’m stone. I’m flesh.” (5), until (and here I imagine the word “finally” escaping through a relieving sigh not sure by who or why) there seems to be a complete shift in power, a submersion: “I turn / this way—the stone lets me go. / I turn that way—I’m inside / the Vietnam Veterans Memorial” (8-11). This experience of—in some way—becoming a part of the memorial acknowledges the weight of influence that exists between remembering and living. To be fully reminded of something we must consider where we are now—as scholars, parents, procrastinators, children, dreamers—and how we got here.

N.K. Jemisin applies a similar concept in The Stone Sky through the use of the onyx—a (sentient?) being whose life results from/ is a collection of the suffering of a people.

When Hoa describes his first successful connection with the onyx it is also through submersion that he is able to recognize the life that it possesses: “when I offer my and the onyx claims me, suddenly I know. The onyx is alive… It sesses me. It learns me, touching me with a presence that is suddenly undeniable” (Jemisin 332).  After engaging with the onyx in the way he is allowed to do—notice the power dynamic that exists here—Houwha is then led to recognise the source of the onyx’s life in the form of an equation of sorts. Stay with me! : “Put enough magic into something nonliving, and it becomes alive. Put enough lives into a storage matrix and they retain a collective will.” (Jemisin 332). To simplify this thought process I made an equation where “magic” + “nonliving” vesicle = life, so that, in terms of the onyx, the (source of) lives of the Niess + a lifeless obelisk = the onyx. This personifies the thought process that life can be related to—if not reliant on— retaining the past.

It is following these realizations that Houwha makes a striking observation about the “collective will” which exists in the onyx: “They remember horror and atrocity, with whatever is left of them—their souls, if you like” (Jemisin 332). The onyx then becomes so much…more. It is a collection of “souls” that—of all the things they experienced while they were alive—”remember horror and atrocity”. It is a powerful mass of memory. A life built on never forgetting the suffering of this race of people. It feels the pain and craves justice for a civilization that was drained of all life.

This justice is achieved by the end of the trilogy when we are made aware that: “The onyx…instead drifts out to sea, its hum deepening as its altitude decreases…It also puts the last remnants of the Niess to rest, finally, deep in a watery grave” (Jemisin 389). I don’t think the onyx is itself a memorial, but rather the personification of the experience a memorial might push a viewer to engage in. It’s disappearing into the sea by the end of the trilogy was at first (selfishly) difficult for me to grapple with, but I then remembered: (a) the history of the Niess would be remembered by those who engaged with the onyx’s power and know the story (b) the Niess deserved to rest.

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