Seeing in the Dark

Many, many years ago when I was in ROTC summer camp, Army instructors taught me how to see in the dark. Although there were several techniques, the advice that has remained the longest was that you should never look directly at an object in the dark. Instead, keep your eyes moving back and forth, seeing the object just at the edges of your vision. Look directly at the object and it simply disappears into the darkness.

Perhaps not coincidentally, I was reminded of this advice while reading Bruce Weigl’s Archeology of the Circle, a collection of his poems that begins with his experiences in Vietnam. I doubt that if I hadn’t first discovered him through “What Saves Us” that I would be reading this volume now, because I have consciously avoided books and movies that focused on Vietnam.

I’ve only seen one Vietnam War movie, Apocalypse Now, and that was because it was based on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, one of my favorite novels. On one hand, I figured that having been there I didn’t need some writer or movie director trying to tell me what I experienced. I knew all to well what the war was like and the effect that it had on soldiers. On the other hand, neither did I want to be reminded of what I discovered about human beings, and about myself.

That ‘s probably why to this day I have never been to a Vietnamese restaurant, despite the fact I’ve learned to love Thai food and Chinese food. However, hearing Vietnamese spoken sends the same chill down my spine that the sound of a helicopter does. There’s something about such sounds that strikes primitive nerves, nerves unprotected by all the layers of rationalization that keep me sane.

I also thought of this way of seeing the world in connection with my recent discussion of child abuse. I have little stomach for the kind of graphic revelations that are sometimes made about child abuse. As a caseworker and ex-spouse of a child protection caseworker, I already have too much direct knowledge of the kind of inhuman abuse that adults are capable of inflicting on children, and others, for that matter.

I think that’s why I admired Marie Howe’s portrayal of abuse. Although she revealed the kind of abuse that was going on, she generally focused on how that abuse affected her way of seeing the world and on her attempts to come to terms with the abuse and, ultimately, to overcome it.