The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Walter McDonald’s “After the Noise of Saigon” consists of nine three-line stanzas that present a lyrical, first-person description of a hunting trip. The prey is ostensibly a wounded cougar, but more significant, the speaker is creating a space to confront a wounded part of himself. That crazed, wounded aspect of his psyche, the result of his Vietnam experience, must be faced alone and in the wilderness. Though little hope for complete healing is suggested, the poem convincingly portrays a veteran doing what he must do to persevere in the present.

The poem begins with a conditional sentence that focuses attention on the reason behind this particular strenuous pursuit: “If where we hunt defines us,” the speaker posits, “then stalking this steep hillside/ dark with spruce makes sense.” The hunt, then, is in part for self-definition, and to that end it makes more sense than the speaker’s other way of experiencing his past: the dreams he has “floundered in/ for years” and which have left him only “disgusted.” However, progress is difficult. When he looks back for any “spoor” (blood from the wounded animal) he might have missed, he is flipped in the face by switches. When he swings his head “face-forward for clues,” he is stung by evergreen needles.

“The strangest nightmare of all,” more threatening even than the ardent struggle of the hunt, is the fact that he has chosen a method of hunting that places him in...

(The entire section is 491 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The point of view of the poem is that of a first-person narrator relating immediate experience. The present continuing verb in line 8 (“Switcheskeep flipping me”) grounds the experience in the here and now and causes the rest of the present-tense verbs to do likewise. In contrast, the speaker’s Vietnam experience is presented as the distant past: He has dreamed of it “for years.” This temporal distance reveals the seriousness of his struggle. Though it began in his distant past, it maintains a grave significance in his present.

McDonald writes tightly controlled free verse. His lines contain three or four accented syllables each, arranged in a loosely iambic pattern frequently varied with dactyls and anapests. His stanzas do not break with the meaning, but instead often break against the sentence structure. In this way they work like measures of music. As a result of such techniques, his work is deeply rhythmic, but with the subtle pulse and flow of speech. The rhythm is complemented by the poet’s consistent attention to sound. Internal rhyme is a frequent enhancement, sometimes full, as in “Switches dripping sap/ keep flipping me,” “needles sting when I swing my head”; and sometimes partial, as in “knowing my aim with a bow” and “see me as a friend, not some damned/ madman.” More pervasive are assonance (“simple” and “bitter,” “strangest nightmare,” “climbing until I’m dizzy”), consonance (“dark” and “makes,” “no better at twenty,” “simple bitter...

(The entire section is 621 words.)