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.

3 thoughts on “Seeing in the Dark”

  1. I can understand your disinterest in hearing gory details — who wants to hear about other’s tragedy? But I think your desire, if that’s the property word, to see the ugliness gently wrapped in a ‘positive’ outcome and amidst lovely poetry does somewhat of a disservice to those who are still having difficulties with their own ‘stories’. Should they just then keep their stories to themselves?

    Sometimes there are no happy endings. And sometimes there is no poetry.

  2. Get away with my bad self. I must stop dropping dark bits of gloom wherever I go.

    Actually, this was a wonderful posting Loren. And I’m looking forward to your new poet.

    However, I really like Vietnamese food. One of my favorites.

  3. I agree that my aversion to violence is my problem, not the poet’s problem or the movie director’s problem, Shelley.

    As a consumer, though, I get to choose what I see, and I particulaly dislike violence as a form of entertainment. I’ll have to admit, though, that I was impressed with the western Soldier Blue, which had some of the most graphic violence I have ever seen. But that violence was used as a means of protesting war, not glorifying it.

    I suspect that all of us who went to Vietnam are still having some problems dealing with it, and I can’t imagine writing about it without dealing with those problems.

    I certainly don’t demand that those problems be ignored or glossed over.

    Personally, though, I’m still more interested in reading about someone who is overcoming them and how they overcame them than in watching a person be destroyed by them — not that both aren’t equally valid realities.

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