Weigl, a veteran of the Vietnam War, has a long history of interest in the Vietnamese language and culture. In 1994, along with Thanh T. Nguyen, he helped to select and translate a group of poems from the diaries and letters of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers. This project reveals his long-standing desire to render the Vietnamese culture intelligible to Americans.
In his poem, Weigl leaves clues that “Temple near Quang Tri, Not on the Map” is about the ways Americans repeatedly made mistaken assumptions about Vietnamese history, culture, and people during the Vietnam War. Misunderstandings such as those alluded to in the poem led to the loss of lives, time and time again, as Americans stumbled into situations of which they had insufficient knowledge.
The title is the first clue. That the temple is “not on the map” suggests a viewpoint other than that of a local resident. The map referred to is one constructed by American cartographers, based on incomplete knowledge. Further, because the temple is “not on the map,” it is located somehow outside the realm of Western rules and law. The American patrol is on foreign soil, not graphed nor charted by American mapmakers.
In the second stanza, Weigl describes the birds’ wings as “calligraphy.” This word has important meaning in the poem. As noted earlier, the image hints at the hidden or esoteric nature of the temple. At a deeper level, calligraphy also refers to the way most Asian languages are put on paper. The beautiful symbols are painted onto paper with a special brush and with the calligrapher’s special skill. French missionaries, however, many years ago rendered the Vietnamese language into Western-style text, using their own Roman lettering rather than the Asian pictographs, which fell out of use. Consequently, the birds’ calligraphy suggests that the spirit that inhabits the temple is precolonial, before the European invaders turned Vietnam into a colony. The man who waits inside is the spirit of Vietnam, hidden, waiting to destroy all invaders.
The men also fail to read the sacred symbols in the second paragraph. Although they open the stone heads, all they see are carved stone faces, faces that reveal nothing to them. Likewise, Americans have been reported as saying again and again that they never knew who the enemy was during the war. They were unable to read the faces of the Vietnamese people.
Not only do the Americans fail in their reading of the calligraphy and the stone faces, but they also fail to understand the sacred nature of the temple. They choose to fire into the walls, looking for Viet Cong stash, thereby violating the rule of sanctuary associated with sacred space. They further fail to understand the prayers uttered by the small man. Again, the Vietnamese language confounds them. Perhaps they believe that the small man is a monk praying for his own safety, frightened by the American guns. Indeed, during the war, the small stature of Vietnamese people often led Americans to discount them or stereotype them as helpless children.
Finally, the Americans in this poem are guilty of the biggest mistake made by Americans during the war: their failure to recognize that the Vietnamese would rather face death than endure the French and American presence on their soil. The small man in the poem is indeed saying his prayers, but he is saying prayers in anticipation of his own suicide. He represents the Vietnamese people, seemingly harmless or “clean,” but ready to take their own lives if it means taking a few Americans with them.
“Temple near Quang Tri, Not on the Map,” then, is a poem about one culture’s inability to read another. The Americans could not read the symbols, the language, or the people of Vietnam. This failure leads the American patrol in the poem to their deaths and, ultimately, the American forces in Vietnam to their defeat.
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