Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 401
“Song of Napalm” is a free-verse poem of forty-five lines divided into five stanzas. The title is ironic: “Song” suggests something lovely and lyric, while napalm, on the other hand, is a deadly, incendiary jelly that the United States military dropped on villages during the Vietnam War. When dropped as a bomb, napalm ignites, and the burning jelly sticks to its victims and burns them to death. Because of the title, the reader knows that Bruce Weigl will once again be exploring the Vietnam War, a subject he treats frequently.
The opening stanza presents an idyllic scene of a pasture after a storm told in the past tense. Because the poem is dedicated to the poet’s wife, it is easy to assume that the two people watching as horses “walk off lazily across the pasture’s hill” are the poet and his wife. However, the image, although pastoral, also contains the germ of foreboding: The narrator stares through a “black screen,” he describes the grass as “scarlet,” and he associates tree branches with barbed wire. The image of the barbed wire seems to propel the poet into the flux of past and present in the next stanza. The storm has passed, and he asserts that he has “turned [his] back on the old curses.” However, his belief is mistaken; in the first line of the third stanza, he shifts to the present tense although he describes a scene from the distant past. The thunder from the storm becomes a “pounding mortar” in his flashback, and, when he closes his eyes, he sees a “girl/ running from her village, napalm/ stuck to her dress like jelly.”
In the fourth stanza, the poet tries to imagine that the girl somehow escapes the burning napalm. He does this so that he “can keep on living.” Yet he acknowledges the lie and once again returns to the vision of the burning girl. She not only burns to death in the flashback but also is permanently “burned behind” the poet’s eyes. This vision from the past continues to haunt the poet. In the last lines of the poem, Weigl connects the pasture and Vietnam by describing the pasture as “jungle-green.” This connection between home and Vietnam acknowledges the burning girl’s presence in the present, an indication that the experience of the Vietnam War is not something that can remain hidden in the past.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 540
Weigl uses a variety of sensory images and metaphors to take the reader on a round trip from a rain-swept pasture to the horrors of the Vietnam War and back again. The poem opens with an image of a storm replete with pounding rain and thunder. Although the storm has passed, its aftereffects can still be seen in the pasture, in the color of the grass, and in the moisture that the retreating horses kick up with their hooves. Likewise, as the poem moves forward, readers realize that the “storm” of Weigl’s Vietnam War experience continues to make its effects felt in the present. Thus, the pounding rain and the thunder become the pounding of a mortar in an auditory image that links the pasture and the Vietnam War.
A second powerful metaphoric image occurs in lines 4 and 5: “We stared through the black screen/ our vision altered by the distance.” Literally, the black screen is no more than the screen door of the poet’s home. However, readers are reminded of what looking through a screen door is like: People ignore the mesh as they view a scene beyond, yet their vision is subtly shifted by the presence of the screen. Metaphorically, the screen serves two purposes: First, the “black screen” is the canvas on which Weigl’s memory plays out its visions of the Vietnam War; second, the black screen serves as a filter or a mesh that screens the memory of the burning girl in a particular way. Thus, Weigl’s vision of the horses in the pasture is “altered by the distance” in much the same way that his vision of the past is altered by the distance of time.
In stanza 3, Weigl uses visual, auditory, tactile, and kinesthetic images as the scene from the present melts into the scene from the past. Even with his eyes closed, Weigl sees the burning girl “running from her village, napalm/ stuck to her dress like jelly,/ her hands reaching for the no one/ who waits in waves of heat before her.” Readers can feel the heat on their skins as they too watch the girl burn, the mortar pounding in the background. Furthermore, Weigl emphasizes that the past continues into the present by his choice of the present participles “running” and “reaching” to form a kinesthetic image describing the girl’s actions. In the final stanza, Weigl presents the ghastly image of the child burning to death:
and the girl runs only as faras the napalm allowsuntil her burning tendons and cracklingmuscles draw her upinto that final positionburning bodies so perfectly assume.
Again, Weigl has chosen to use the present participles “burning” and “crackling” as kinesthetic images. Used as adjectives, the present participles inject gruesome movement into the poem. Furthermore, the word “crackling” is also an auditory image: Readers not only see the girl burn, but they hear it as well. Ironically, the “final position” the burning body assumes is also the fetal position, the posture of the body in birth as well as death. With his final image, Weigl returns the reader to the opening scene with one important difference: At the very end of the poem he folds home and Vietnam together in the “jungle-green pasture.”
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2133
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, blastingsuch beauty into nothing.
How far is it from a young boy taking aim and shooting a beautiful egret to a young man finding a mysterious, secret pleasure in killing other humans—especially if they look just like those labeled enemy?
Alongside of Weigl’s awareness of the violence hidden in everyone is another, more romantic perception. In desperate moments, even anonymous, transient sexual giving is a part of a larger coming together—a sheltering recognition of mutual suffering. “The Way of Tet” provides a memory of a young American soldier making love to a Vietnamese bar girl. Some hints are given that they have met before, that some kind of relationship has begun. Still, there is nothing to define it or grant it a future. There is nothing between them: not language, certainly not culture or sense of purpose. Amid the deaths of Tet, at his touch, in the reflected glow of illumination rounds on her skin, “the automatic shape of love unfolds.”
Less obviously, this same motif runs through a companion poem, “Song for the Lost Private.” Even though the speaker is drunk (the reader imagines either that his buddy has just been killed in action or that the speaker’s own innocence has been lost) and has haggled with the bar girl over money; even though he cannot perform and is embarrassed by the girl’s attempt to give the money back; even though he tries again and is paralyzed by his reflection in the mirror; even though this is a poem of exploitation and smallness, it resolves in a gentle moment of grace:
I couldn’t sleep so I touched hersmall shoulders, traced the curve on her spine,traced the scars, the mileswe were all from home.
In poems such as these, the war’s agony brings people together in selfish intimacies that, because they are so desperately needed, transcend the decadence of the situation. Between the poems of violence and the poems of gentleness runs Weigl’s dialectic of feeling, the story of the narrow distance between love and violence and the duality in human nature.
Weigl insists that the violence does not begin out there in the war, but in the warrior. He also insists, as in “The Soldier’s Brief Epistle,” that the warrior is in all of us. The particular things this poet has to tell us about the Vietnam War are, finally, less important than what he has to tell us about ourselves. “You think you’re far away from me/ but you’re right here in my pants” he tells the smug statesiders who do not wear the killer taint of war. With terrifying understatement, the speaker answers the omnipresent what’s-it-like question: “It’s like a bad habit, pulling the trigger,/ like a dream come true.” (Remember the boy in “Snowy Egret” and the boy’s father.) The utter triteness of the response levels all the wished-for distinctions, withers the reader’s safe righteousness.
Weigl’s poems explore human conduct in the war environment as if it were a laboratory for the soul. He conjures dreams that blend fragile beauty with pain—perhaps the dreams of painkilling drugs or self-protecting denial. Poems such as “Sailing to Bien Hoa” and “Amnesia” involve images of flight in which both the wish to escape and the reasons for the wish are delicately suggested. In a related poem, “Him, on the Bicycle,” the speaker imagines himself transported from the circling helicopter to the man below fleeing on his bicycle. The soldier first rides behind the cyclist, then jumps off and pushes. The man
lifts his feet,we don’t waste a stroke.His hat flies off,I catch it behind my back,put it on, I want to live forever!
In “LZ Nowhere,” the soldier strokes the blades and moves the rudder and flaps of the liftship “so it felt like legs parting/ or someone’s arms opening to me.” The dream of sexual embrace is every lonely, scared soldier’s dream, and, as has been shown, the mind’s transformation of prostitutes into lovers is a necessity.
The Vietnam experience as Weigl has recorded it in these poems is not one color, one tone, one emotion. While many poems interact to deepen themes such as loneliness, guilt, and lost innocence, others sound single notes. One of the most finely crafted poems is “Temple near Quang Tri, Not on the Map.” A brief narrative with lyric intensity, it tells of a squad’s twilight entry to search this sacred space. Its cleanliness, beauty, and atmosphere of peace are all focused on the small Vietnamese man sitting bent over against a wall and speaking something barely audible. The commanding officer fires into the wall to check for enemy rice stores. Finding nothing, he signals the squad to leave. One soldier approaches the bent man, however, and begins to straighten him up only to find that he is wired to an explosive device; he cannot move further without setting it off.
The reader is not told exactly what happens next—or when. With consummate skill, Weigl redirects his reader’s vision: “The sparrows/ burst off the walls into the jungle.” Louder than any explosion is this eerie mixture of anticipation and imagined climax. The decorum of the poem is so exquisite, the truth of dismembered bodies a horror of greater, unspeakable magnitude. The sudden awareness of death’s proximity hits with heart-stopping power.
The overwhelming, all-encompassing, sickening foulness of the war is expressed in “Burning Shit at An Khe,” a story of a familiar duty from which the speaker tries to flee. But the latrine pit is a metaphor for the larger condition from which flight is impossible. Recognizing this, the speaker lays down in it and finger-paints
the words of who I am across my chestuntil I’m covered and there’s only one smell, one word.
“Monkey” describes the addictiveness of war that affects both the veteran’s habits and the habits of those who try to relate to him. The frantic rounds of repeated behavior, the intensity of those experiences, remake the individual by etching new habits into his nervous system in a relatively short period of time. The monkey in the poem is the enemy without, the enemy within, and the drug-slang monkey on one’s back. Weigl acknowledges the epidemic of drug use by servicemen in Vietnam, making it into a metaphor of personal and national blood lust. The monkey in each of us is the near-human animal—the thing that “apes” our human gestures but is driven only by appetite and survival instinct. It also represents our racist attitude toward the enemy, seen as little more than monkey by those conditioned to take lives.
There is anguish and pity in these poems, and there is even love. There is courage. But there is not glory. Hope stands in its place. Song of Napalm is a book of redemption, or at least of possible redemption. Of all the poets who have treated the Vietnam War, Bruce Weigl is the one most polished in his craft and the one with the most comprehensive vision of what war tells us about ourselves. The Vietnam War is Weigl’s vehicle. Through it, he reminds us not only of how far we can fall from our better selves but also that our better selves are real and that we can become worthy in spite of our past deeds.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8
Source for Further Study
Booklist. LXXXV, November 1, 1988, p. 446.