Temple near Quang Tri, Not on the Map by Bruce Weigl

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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 650 words.)