The Poem

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 491

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.

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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 mortal danger. He is pursuing not with a rifle but with a bow, and he intends to get as close to the creature as possible, though his “aim with a bow/ is no better at twenty yards/ than forty.” The difficulty and the danger are essential to his purposes, and he continues for hours even as the climbing makes him dizzy.

Purposeful though the hunt may be, the role of the woods and his place among them remains somewhat ambiguous even to the speaker himself. “These blue trees,” he tells readers, “have nothing/ and all to do with what I’m here for/ after the noise of Saigon.” At the least, they provide the isolation and the struggle that he needs; they may even recall another experience of stalking through dense foliage. Though his reasoning is not precise, the “noise of Saigon” has clearly left a “bitter sap” that rises within him, “bad blood” that he needs to spill alone and in the forests. By persevering through the woods—and possibly by shedding blood—he can address his own woundedness. There he may, without endangering his friends or their perceptions of him, allow himself to meet or even to become that “damned/ madman stumbling for his life.” Recalling the first line—the proposition that “where we hunt defines us”—it is clear that, because of “the noise of Saigon,” this madman is an intrinsic part of the speaker, as much so as the respectable man who sometimes goes hunting alone.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 621

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 sap”), and alliteration (“stalking” and “steep,” “might have missed,” “cougar” and “climbing”). In concert, these devices create a lush tapestry of interwoven sound.

The poem is also rich in metaphor. The speaker’s fruitless dreams are compared to floundering in deep water, and because they too are a way of experiencing the past, they are also compared to this hunt. The “noise of Saigon,” or the effect of it, is likened to the energy force in the trees, the “simple bitter sap that rises” in the speaker. The metaphor is compounded by comparing that sap to “bad blood” that the speaker needs “to spill/ out here alone in the silence.” “Bad blood” may be understood in two complementary ways. If understood as an ongoing grudge, it is between two aspects of the speaker’s self: the sane, respectable citizen and the “damned madman.” “Bad blood” may also be understood as an evil strain fundamental to an individual, something dark and violent at the very core. Such an understanding would suggest that “after the noise of Saigon,” a dark tendency persists in the narrator that he cannot exorcise and can barely control. A war continues within, and keeping the darker self from striking out seems to be the purpose of the hunt. If he must spill blood, he will do so “far from people [he] know[s].”

McDonald’s syntax also presents an engaging ambiguity in stanzas 7-9. Read strictly, the last two stanzas are an appositive that defines “the noise of Saigon” of the seventh stanza. If so, that “noise” is the bitter sap that rises within the poet. The stanza may also be read as referring to “what I’m here for/ after the noise of Saigon.” If this is the case, the “what I’m here for” is the bitter sap caused by the noise of Saigon. Either way, the effects of his Vietnam experience have driven him to the woods. Just as sap rises in the blue spruce, a “simple bitter sap” rises in the narrator, and he must confront it. The poem ends, then, exactly where its suggestive opening line (“If where we hunt defines us”) directed: The narrator has discovered a definition. He is both a respectable “friend” and a “damned/ madman stumbling for his life.”

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Themes