In the poetry of Bruce Weigl, two themes emerge, seemingly at cross purposes. First is the horror of war, especially its effect on the psyches of young men who were ill prepared for what would come. The second is the primacy of love that at once underscores that horror and attempts to atone for it. The love poems undercut the rules of the society that would control the course of love, as war situations do.
Weigl describes the impetus for his work by saying that a writer must come to terms with his or her background, as it is the major source of the writer’s subject matter. Weigl grew up in and around industry, amid steel mills and the working class. Weigel was born in industrial and agricultural Middle America, and his working-class background informs his poetry and shapes the way he perceives the Vietnam War. The speaker of these poems is often a young, fairly naïve man who gets caught up in an unpopular cause and who must find a way to transcend the limitations of mere survival. The poet, therefore, finds himself trying to bring his imaginative sensibilities to a hostile environment in an attempt to transform it and make it livable, with as little cost to his psyche as he can manage. Weigl’s poetry clearly demonstrates the care that the poet takes to render a full account of the situations in which he finds himself and to do so with a high degree of craft. The artistic development of his style does not take a backseat to his important message, however.
Influence of the Vietnam War
Except for the American Civil War, no war in American history has been as controversial or as divisive as the Vietnam War. Soldiers did not come home to the welcoming crowds that filled World War II newsreels. Called “baby killers” and generally reviled, soldiers had few official support systems to help them return to a society that disowned them. Sometimes, families themselves embodied national divisions, with members for and against the war living under the same roof. Thus, Weigl’s poetry reflects a common reality of personal and familial rupture.
Poems speaking about familial life stateside seem to present a conclusion to the struggle to relate. In some poems, when Weigl speaks with great tenderness about his wife and child, about chance encounters in a supermarket, or about memories of work, a pervasive sadness still informs the poems. However, an emotional salvation occurs for the poet when he is able to ground himself in those relationships that are stronger than his nightmares about the war. “The Happiness of Others,” the poet says in the poem of that name, “is not like the music I hear/ after sex/ with my wife of the decades.” He refers to her as “my wife my rope my bread.” His wife is the rope that holds him firmly tethered to the present, the bread that nourishes his existence. Without her, the horrible trauma of his war memories could overtake his soul.
Although his private world is forever marked by his war experiences, it is beauty (found in his familial attachments, the natural world, and language itself) that provides the safe haven necessary to access those memories without being overwhelmed by them. The great body of work results from the poet’s willingness to go into a darkened landscape and emerge wholly creative.
Weigl’s poetry serves to give voice to thousands of soldiers who saw action in the Vietnam War during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. If Tim O’Brien may be considered the prose writer of the horror, trauma, and regret of the Vietnam War, Weigl could be rightly called the poet. War casts a deep shadow over Weigl’s writings, and the disillusionment generated from his experiences in Vietnam seep into even his more hopeful lines. Although he is often considered a Vietnam War poet by literary critics, Weigl’s extensive use of irony and craft with blank verse elevate his poetry beyond such a label. While the sincerity of these poems provides a forum of discourse so that these experiences may benefit from national attention, their high literary quality merits the esteem in which they are held as literature.
“Song of Napalm”
“Song of Napalm,” from The Monkey Wars, begins with a bucolic description of horses that the speaker and his wife watch. The initial description of the poet and his wife lifts them beyond the concerns of this world into a holy realm. However, this domestic scene foreshadows a frightening darkness that the poet experiences: “Trees scraped their voices in the wind, branches/ Crisscrossed the sky like barbed wire/ But you said they were only branches.”
The speaker pauses as if to catch his breath and take stock of himself, believing that the “old curses” have gone. However, visions from his war experiences intrude once again:
Still I close my eyes and see the girlRunning from her village, napalmStuck to her dress like jelly,Her hands reaching for the no oneWho waits in waves of heat before her.
These lines evoke the famous photograph of a young Vietnamese girl burned by napalm, running naked along a road toward the camera that immortalized her. The poet is alienated from both the domestic tranquility that his wife represents and the haunting visions that his memory brings; however, he forces a door to open between these two worlds.
The girl runs with wings of escape beating inside her, using a freedom that she does not possess. In fact, she is able to run only a few feet before her burns and wounds bring her down, as she dies in a fetal position: “Nothing/ Can change that, she is burned behind my eyes.” The poet is forced to accept the world as something that his words alone cannot change. Not even the redemptive, healing love of his wife fades this vision. A persistent theme in Weigl’s other poems is the poet’s struggle to find solace in the love of family and friends to dispel the power that his war experience exerts.
“On the Anniversary of Her Grace”
In “On the...
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