Bruce Weigl is More than Just a War Poet

Luckily I had read several poems by Bruce Weigl in an anthology of 90’s poets before I read on the internet that he is often classified as a Vietnam War poet. Despite the fact that I served there about the same time he did, I generally avoid writers who write about the war.

Although I consider combat duty a crucible of the human soul, I’m not interested in dwelling on the past. It’s what we bring forward from the past, the character that has been forged through adversity, that is truly important.

Judging from the five poems included in this anthology, Weigl has gained new insights into himself and into human nature from his life experiences. Though “What Saves Us” has a reference to Vietnam, the poem has much more to do with “love” than it does war:

What Saves Us

We are wrapped around each other in
the back of my father’s car parked
in the empty lot of the high school
of our failures, the sweat on her neck
like oil. The next morning I would leave
for the war and I thought I had something
coming for that, I thought to myself
that I would not die never having
been inside her long body. I pulled
her skirt above her waist like an umbrella
inside out by the storm. I pulled
her cotton panties up as high as
she could stand. I was on fire. Heaven
was in sight. We were drowning on our
tongues and I tried to tear my pants off
when she stopped so suddenly
we were surrounded only by my shuddering
and by the school bells grinding in the
empty halls. She reached to find something,
a silver crucifix on a silver
chain, the tiny savior’s head hanging
and stakes through his hands and his feet.
She put it around my neck and held
me so long the black wings of my heart
were calmed. We are not always right
about what we think will save us.
I thought that dragging the angel down would
save me, but instead I carried the crucifix
in my pocket and rubbed it on my
face and lips nights the rockets roared in.

People die sometimes so near you
you feel them struggling to cross over,
the deep untangling, of one body from another.

In some ways the narrator almost seems like the stereotypical Vietnam soldier, young, barely a high school graduate, impatient. The phrase “the empty lot of the high school of our failures” probably aptly describes his life to this point. Like most young soldiers, he thinks of life in immediate, physical terms.

Luckily, for both the narrator and the reader, a unique moment takes place in the poem when the girl pulls out a crucifix and gives it to the narrator. The savior with “stakes through his hands and feet” seems an appropriate symbol for what the narrator will shortly have to endure when the rockets roar in. The amazingly powerful image of the “black wings of my heart were calmed” provides a powerful contrast to the image of the savior and the “angel” who he wanted to drag down to save himself. Those of us who have lived awhile, as well as those of us who fought in Vietnam, would certainly agree that “We are not always right/ about what we think will save us.”

But what really transforms this from a “war” poem to a “life” poem is the last three lines. Anyone who has experienced the death of someone close understands “the deep untangling, of one body from another” that must be done before we can move on in life.

In “The Confusion of Planes We Must Wander in Sleep” the narrator describes a humiliating childhood experience that helps him become a good parent:

The Confusion of Planes We Must Wander in Sleep

I stood naked in the corner as my mother

changed the wet sheets and clucked her tongue though spoke

as kindly as she could, my,father stirring angrily

in the bed across the hall. Lost, my legs sheened in piss

I stumbled, drugged with the kind of grieving

children practice to survive. I was apart from

the cold and the heavy smell. I was not attached

to the world though I followed my young and weary

mother into the timeless dark,

and tonight I

pull my own son’s blankets back and speak to him:

how nice a dry bed will be, how good to get up

without a fuss and go. I lift him to stand, his

penis a wand waving its way magically

before us, and something makes sense for once in my head,

the way that what we pass on is not always a gift,

not always grace or strength or music, but sometimes

a burden and that we have no choice but to live as

hard as we can inside the storm of our years and

that even the weaknesses are a kind of beauty

for the way they bind us into what love, finally, must be.

Bruce Weigl in New American Poets of the 90’s

Although there’s no direct condemnation of the parents’ handling of the bed-wetting incident, there are certainly hints of long-term negative effects. The narrator stands “naked” his “legs sheened in piss,” suffering the “kind of grieving children practice to survive” as he and his mother head into the “timeless dark.” It is not an abusive relationship, but it is anything but positive.

Thankfully, the narrator does a much better job than his parents did of dealing with his son’s bedwetting, emphasizing the positives of not wetting the bed rather than shaming the child. The narrator realizes that what we pass on to others may be not a blessing but a “burden,” but we have no choice but to live as well as we can “inside he storm of our years.” However, even this can “bind us to what we love.” True love is based on shared joys and shared “burdens.” Love that cannot survive burdens is not love at all.

Five poems are hardly enough to judge a poet by, but I put one of Weigl’s books on my wish list at Amazon.

There are a number of on-line resources.

Two poems are presented here.

The poem "Rapture" is reprinted here.