The Circle of Hanh by Bruce Weigl

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 24)

Bruce Weigl’s life changed irrevocably in 1967, the year he enlisted in the Army and went to Vietnam. For Weigl, this year divided his life into a “before” and an “after” that could not be integrated into a coherent narrative until Weigl and his family decided to adopt a Vietnamese child. This decision gave Weigl the impetus to craft his story and to bring his life full circle.

For those familiar with the literature of the Vietnam War, Bruce Weigl’s name is a familiar one. A noted and prolific poet, critic, and essayist, Weigl has published many books. By the time The Circle of Hanhappeared in bookstores, Weigl had published ten volumes of poetry and edited three collections of critical essays. Song of Napalm (1988), What Saves Us (1992), Sweet Lorain (1996), and Archaeology of the Circle(1999) are among his best-known works. In addition, he has coedited and cotranslated three volumes of poetry from the Vietnamese and Romanian. His own work has been widely translated and published internationally. Further, his work has been anthologized in a number of important collections, including The Best American Poetry (1994), The Morrow Anthology of Younger American Poets (1985), The Bloody Game: An Anthology of Modern War (1991), edited by the noted scholar Paul Fussell, and Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness (1993), edited by the poet Carolyn Forché.

In The Circle of Hanh, Weigl turns to a different genre—the memoir—to explore the early years of his life, his Vietnam War years, his return from Vietnam, and the experience that finally made his life whole, the adoption of a young Vietnamese child in 1996. Throughout, Weigl demonstrates his respect for the story, for the way that words can take shape into a narrative that brings structure and meaning into a life. This respect did not come easily to Weigl. He did not grow up in a home that valued academics or the written word. Nonetheless, as he writes early in the book:

What endures is the story. The story circles back on itself if you let it have its way, and if you care for the words as if they were living things whose care your own life depends upon, because it does.

Like fellow Vietnam War writer Tim O’Brien, Weigl looks for the story to save him.

The story Weigl tells is not a pretty one, although there are moments of great beauty and love woven in the painful tapestry of Weigl’s life. He grew up poor in a working-class neighborhood in Lorain, Ohio. His people were immigrants from Serbia, Slovakia, and Poland who worked in the hot and dirty Ohio steel mills. Living in rented apartments that smelled of urine from the communal toilets, Weigl found himself born into a community and a family he loved. Most of all, he loved the stories.

The book opens with a brief prologue in which Weigl describes the arc of his story—from boyhood in Lorain to the war—and back again. He also reveals that his love of the story did not come naturally or easily. In the opening sentence of the book, he tells the reader, “I want to resurrect something ancient from inside me because I was not raised to be a man who cares for words as if they were living things.” The prologue prepares the reader for the journey that takes Weigl from this oral storytelling background to the writing of stories, a kind of a circle that allows him to recapture his youth and his heritage.

After the prologue, Weigl begins his story in October of 1996 when he was in Vietnam to finally meet the daughter he had been trying to adopt for two years. In the rush to leave for Hanoi, Weigl did not notice an error in his visa, an error that nearly cost him his chance to bring home Hanh, the little girl waiting for him in the Vietnamese orphanage. Weigl deftly uses the story of his 1996 trip back to Vietnam and the terrible frustrations that he encountered there to provide a framework for his memoir. Thus, on one hand, the “circle” referred to in his title is the circle of his...

(The entire section is 1,883 words.)