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.”

"Inside me the war had eaten a hole."

As I’ve read Bruce Weigl’s Vietnam poems, I have begun to realize just how difficult it is to accurately convey the feelings of soldiers who fought there. Part of that difficulty stems from the simple fact that not everyone experienced the same war.
Obviously Weigl’s experiences, or at least the ones described in his poems, were more traumatic than my own. Thank God that I never had to witness the effects of napalm on enemy soldiers and civilians and that I am not constantly haunted by the effects described in one of his oft-noted poems, “Song of Napalm.” Although my platoon was shot at nearly every day while I was there, I never witnessed the kind of carnage that is reflected in many of these poems.

That said, there still aren’t too many of his early poems that reach out and grab me, certainly not like the two poems I referred to in an earlier entry. That’s not to say, though, that the poems haven’t affected me enough that I have lost more than a few hours of sleep over the last few days.

The poems do bring up old memories, memories that have never been entirely resolved, and may never be. The “Last Lie,” for instance, certainly conveys a feeling that I shared with Weigl:


Some guy in the miserable convoy
Raised up in the back of our open truck
And threw a can of c-rations at a child
Who called into the rumble for food.
He didn’t toss the can, he wound up and hung it
On the child’s forehead and she was stunned
Backwards into the dust of our trucks.

Across the sudden angle of the road’s curving
I could still see her when she rose
Waving one hand across her swollen, bleeding head,
Wildly swinging her other hand
At the children who mobbed her,
Who tried to take her food.

I grit my teeth to myself to remember that girl
Smiling as she fought off her brothers and sisters.
She laughed
As if she thought it were a joke
And the guy with me laughed
And fingered the edge of another can
Like it was the seam of a baseball
Unfit his rage ripped
Again into the faces of children
Who called to us for food.

Now, as an officer I never witnessed an event like this and would probably have reprimanded the soldier if I had. I did, however, share Weigl’s feeling that those sentimental war movies showing GI’s lovingly caring for war orphans were simply promoting one more lie in a long string of lies about war. Vietnam was nothing like those movies.

The God-awe-ful truth was that there were so many children begging in Vietnam that you quickly learned, if you were going to maintain any resemblance of sanity, to ignore them and, at the worst, to resort to the kind of tactics the guy in the poem resorted to get rid of them. Knowing you should feel sorry for them, you ended up hating them because they reminded you how futile it was to try to help them.

Unfortunately, this poem also reminded me of an incident that deeply disturbed me early in my tour of duty. Part of our job was to escort engineering convoys. While doing so, one of the trucks ran over a small child in the middle of the road. The convoy we were escorting never slowed; to do so in that place and time was probably to risk a worst disaster, but we did send South Vietnamese agents back to enquire about the child and to make reparations if necessary. After all, these were the people we were trying to protect from the Viet Cong and trying to win over to our side. I later learned that, after considerable haggling, we had paid the princely price of $25 to the parents of the child. I knew life was cheap in Vietnam, but it wasn’t until then that I realized just how cheap it really was, and I felt dirty offering that kind of money for a child’s life.

Interestingly, some of my favorite insights in this book come from Robert Stone’s introduction to “Song of Napalm:”

Wars are meant to be forgotten, the Vietnam War like any other. Memory resists them. Their reality bleeds away, surviving in fragments. The fragments are elusive, drifting apart. The mist that covers Dak To this morning covers them. They are enfolded in their own darkness.

Sometimes a single recollected moment lights up the sky of memory and brings it all back. The mind’s eye fills with broken sunlight and soiled rain. Pieces of time assemble, counting off, strung along the pulse, in breaths, in heartbeats. It’s all burned in; the dream’s inseparable from the dreamer.

This describes not only my own memories of that time and place, but the greatest strength of Weigel’s poems which are embedded with sharp images that convey the pain of that war, a pain that affects every relationship since.

For instance “Song for the Lost Private” ends with the lines “I couldn’t sleep so I touched her/ Small shoulders, traced the curve of her spine,/ Traced the scars, the miles/ We were all from home.”

Those who were in Vietnam and suffered the stress of never knowing when someone was suddenly going to try to kill you will be moved by “Temple Near Quang Tri, Not on the Map” which ends with the image of a man who appeared to be praying suddenly being recognized as a suicide bomber: “His face becomes visible, his eyes/ Roll down to the charge/ Wired between his teeth and the floor./ The sparrows/ Burst off the walls into the jungle.”

“On the Anniversary of her Grace” captures the alienation many of us felt when returning home in the powerful lines “I could draw leeches from my skin/ With the tip of a lit cigarette/ and dig a hole deep enough to save me/ before the sun bloodied the hills we could not take/ even with our lives/ but I could not open my arms to her/ that first night of forgiveness./ I could not touch anyone./ I thought my body would catch fire.”

Uniquely Blog

In my last entry I commented that I wasn’t interested in reading poetry that dwelled on the horrors of Vietnam or on literature that just portrayed the horrors of child abuse. I want the books I read to go beyond the simple revelation of such horrors. I expect them to inspire me or, at the very least, to give me new insights into the problems.

Shelly, commented “But I think your desire, if that’s the proper 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?” My reply was that it was a personal choice on my part to look for literature that inspired me to do better than I am already doing, to overcome my weaknesses rather than give in to them.

Strictly speaking, Shelly’s later comment revoked this comment, but, like any perceptive comment, it got me thinking about what I really expect from literature and whether I expect the same from bloggers.

I suspect that I put literature on a pedestal. In a very real sense, it has taken the place of religion for me, and, just as I would not attend a church where the sermons depressed me with a constant emphasis on sin and damnation, I won’t return to an author who depresses me or fails to inspire me to go beyond my limits.

Perhaps it seems strange, then, that I don’t apply the same standard to the blogs I visit. While alot of the blogs I link to do focus on a positive view of the world, some of my favorite bloggers go through periods of depression, just as I did after my recent surgery.

I certainly don’t try to avoid these blogs when the writers are depressed. Instead, I’m usually moved to offer my condolences or make encouraging remarks. Sometimes I even check back more often than usual to find out how the writer is doing.

Some might argue that is because I’m not paying to visit their page, but I don’t think that’s the difference. In a very real sense I consider the people whose blogs I visit regularly “friends,” or at least “virtual friends.”

And friendship places different demands on you than buying a book does. When I heard that a old friend from school was suffering from depression, I immediately contacted him, even though I hadn’t seen him for years. I couldn’t imagine doing less. I wanted to help him through that depression because he was a friend.

Despite the fact that my blog focuses on literature, particularly poetry, I value friendship far more highly than literature.

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.

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