Bruce Weigl’s Later Poems

I don’t know if I’ve ever bought a book of poetry because of poems I’ve read in an anthology and had those poems turn out to be my favorite poems in the book. But the Weigl poems I first discussed are still my favorite poems, but I like them even better now because I understand them in the context of Weigl’s life.

As a whole, I do prefer Weigl’s later poems to his earlier war poems, and it seems to me that his best poems can be found in the section entitled “What Saves Us.” In this section, Weigl returns to Viet Nam to meet those he fought in the war. He also visits South America and relates what he discovered from the war in Vietnam to the struggles there.

Most of all, though, his later poems seem to relate what he learned in Vietnam to life in general. Perhaps what he has learned is best represented by the closing lines of “The Confusion of Planes We Must Wander in Sleep: “… we have no choice but to live/ as hard as we can inside the storm of our years/ because even the weaknesses are a kind of beauty/ for the way they bind us into what love, finally, must be.” That is the kind of truth that makes it possible for those who have suffered in life to carry on and, perhaps, even transcend the tragedies of their lives.

Another poem in this section that I liked a lot and seems representative of the kind of sorrow that permeates many of these poems is “May:”


I wanted to stay with my dog
when they did her in
I told the young veterinarian
who wasn’t surprised.
Shivering on the chrome table,
she did not raise her eyes to me when I came in.
Something was resolved in her.
Some darkness exchanged for the pain.
There were a few more words
about the size of her tumor and her age,
and how we wanted to stop her suffering,
or our own, or stop all suffering
from happening before us
and then the nurse shaved May’s skinny leg
with those black clippers;
she passed the needle to the doctor
and for once I knew what to do
and held her head against mine.
I cleaved to that smell
and lied into her ear
that it would be all right.
The veterinarian, whom I’d fought
about when to do this thing
said through tears
that it would take only a few minutes
as if that were not a long time
but there was no cry or growl,
only the weight of her in my arms,
and then on the world.

Perhaps I like this poem merely because it reminds me of feelings I’ve had for my own dogs, and the sorrow I’ve felt when I’ve lost them. In fact, every time I’ve lost a dog I vow I’ll never have another because it is so heart-wrenching, but amazingly enough I always seem to lose my heart to the next one that shows up.

Metaphorically, of course, the poem isn’t about a dog at all but about our attempts to “stop her suffering,/ or our own, or stop all suffering/ from happening before us.” Ironically, of course, this attempt to prevent suffering causes the most profound suffering for those trying to prevent it.

Still, for once the narrator “knew what to do/ and held her head against mine.” And perhaps that is all we can do to counter the suffering of the world, hold each other in the moments of our greatest pain. In the end, though, those left behind, those left to face life are left to feel “the weight of her in my arms/ and then on the world.”