Themes and Meanings

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Throughout the body of Weigl’s work, and most particularly in the poems found in the volume Song of Napalm (1988), the poet’s experiences in the Vietnam War erupt into the heart of his poetry. Regardless of the intensity of his subject matter, however, Weigl never tries to substitute content for craft. His poetry is lean, spare, and carefully crafted, and he displays an acute awareness of the role art plays in the production of truth. “Song of Napalm,” widely anthologized and considered by many critics to be one of the best poems to come out of the Vietnam War experience, is just such a poem, careful in its craft and brutal in its message. Like Yusef Komunyakaa in “You and I Are Disappearing” from the poetry collection Dien Cai Dao (1988), Weigl conjures the image of a burning girl to remind readers of the terrible cost of the Vietnam War. At the same time, Weigl questions the possibility of life after the war: How does someone continue to live with the image of a burning girl permanently etched behind the eyes? In “Song of Napalm,” as in many of Weigl’s Vietnam War poems, home and Vietnam do not exist as separate entities but rather coexist as contiguous realities; that is, even when he is contemplating an American scene, images of Vietnam intrude, changing the scene before him. The two locations, war and home, fuse and become the unit of Weigl’s life. Just as in John Balaban’s poem “After Our War,” collected in Blue Mountain (1982), images of the war follow the poet home, raising questions about life after war.

“Song of Napalm” is a poem with three characters: the speaker, his wife, and the burning girl. By opening the poem with a dedication to his wife and returning to the plural pronoun “us” in the final line, Weigl starts and ends in the present, which includes life with his wife. The present, however, encapsulates the memories of the past. Furthermore, the use of the present tense to describe the scenes from Vietnam suggests that the past may exist more immediately for the poet than does his present reality. Yet the past that Weigl remembers is “altered by the distance” of years and miles. Likewise, his vision of the present is altered by the past. A simple meditation on a pasture with horses after the rain turns into a memory of a charred, dead girl.

The central question of the poem, then, is: How can one live with the double vision of home and war? Weigl suggests that his ability to live in the present somehow depends on his ability to either reimagine the past through lies or confront the past’s intrusion into the present through art. In “Song of Napalm,” Weigl briefly attempts the first: He tries to reconstruct his memory of the burning girl in order to ease her pain, his pain, and the pain of his wife. Yet this attempt fails as “the lie swings back again.” Without a solution, he admits that he cannot change the past or deny it. What he does, however, is resurrect the child as art, the image of her charred body serving to remind readers that although their vision is “altered by the distance,” the war really happened, and home can never be the same again.

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