Of all the literature to have come out of the Vietnam War, little will be read after the twentieth century. Curiosity about the war has led to the publication of scores of memoirs and novels, a few collections of short stories and poems, a handful of plays and miscellaneous anthologies, and a growing number of critical studies. Yet few of these books will transcend the fashionable interest in the war to become permanent parts of American literary culture. Song of Napalm is one of those few. The time will come when it will be valued as a powerful achievement in American poetry that just happens to be about the Vietnam War. The permanence of many of these poems will shape our understanding of what war is and what man is. Weigl’s achievement is to have found a language that is deeply personal without being neurotically private. The vision released by that language is not only filled with horror and loathing, fear and trembling, innocence and guilt, but it is also—with the gentlest and sweetest of surprising ironies—filled with love and beauty. These poems sting and sear, but they also insist that there is hope—that there is more to the human condition than the ugliness let loose in war’s insanity. Not many of them assert this hope directly, but the hope is implicit in the poet’s care, in the loving-kindness of making and sharing.
Song of Napalm is an orchestration of poems that appeared in Weigl’s earlier books, with several pieces collected for the first time. In A Romance (1979) and The Monkey Wars (1985), Weigl’s Vietnam poems alternated with poems of domestic life. Though the Vietnam experience focused those collections, it was subordinated to a larger vision of contemporary American experience. The questions of what we do with our love and our cruelty, of how we become responsibly engaged with others in a world whose beauty is agonizingly real and constantly threatened, of who we are as agents and victims of a nation’s destiny, linked the persona’s wartime and peacetime sensibility.
In bringing the Vietnam poems together in one book, Weigl has stripped them of a special power and relevance that grew out of their former contexts. Yet there are obvious gains, too. The cumulative impact of his protagonist’s Vietnam story and memory is available only here, and that impact is almost overwhelming. Weigl’s art survives this narrowing of scope, even thrives on it, as the intensity of vision builds from section to section, poem to poem.
Weigl’s poems remind the reader of simple truths: that the Vietnamese people, like all people, like the reader himself, are miracles of creation. So is their land. Whether enemy or compromised friend, each shares in the beauty of humankind that moves men to love and, strangely, to the utmost violence. In “The Girl at the Chu Lai Laundry,” the war is almost put on hold for the laundry girl’s insistence that the soldier cannot have his clothes because they are not dry yet. Though his platoon is moving out, the girl’s practical pride in the perfection of her task contends with the immense momentum of the war. Weigl tells the reader that she is “beautiful with her facts”—and she is, as she twists “the black rope of her hair in the sun.” What does a war have to do with this innocence and charm?
A few pages further, in “Surrounding Blues on the Way Down,” an older soldier who “did not hate the war” brakes his jeep and backs up to “a mama san/ bent over from her stuffed sack of flowers.” Before the eyes of the eighteen-year-old narrator who “was barely in country,” he slams the woman to her knees, “the plastic butt of his M16/ crashing down on her.” For this soldier, the war has fed an appetite and in the process increased it. For the speaker, the moment has become a turning point, at least in memory: Up until then he “did not yet hate the beautiful war.”
“The Last Lie” tells a similar story, this time of a soldier hurling C-ration cans at the heads of children begging for food: the final betrayal of the newsreel image of benevolence. Yet this is not a narrow political sequence, another instance of American misconduct. It is the age-old tale of how humans can find themselves turned inside out. Where did this man’s rage come from?
The design of Song of Napalm suggests answers. One such suggestion is in “Snowy Egret,” a poem about a boy who shoots at the beautiful bird only to “flush it from the shadows/ . . . to watch it fly.” Or so he tells the speaker, whose wife has wakened him upon hearing the shot. The boy is truly sorry; he is trying to bury the blood-spattered egret because if his father finds out he “will kill him.” The speaker knows, however, that there is a lie in the boy’s protestations and that there is something in all of our lives that, like the father’s history of excessive punishments, leads us to violence. This is the something
that can make a good boy steal away,wiping out from the blue face of the pondwhat he hadn’t even known he loved, blasting