The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 479

Bruce Weigl’s poem “Temple near Quang Tri, Not on the Map” is a narrative poem set in Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Through the description of a temple and of a “small man” inside it, Weigl creates a tense, tightly woven poetic illustration of an essential misreading of Vietnamese culture and custom. The misreading costs men their lives and costs a nation a war.

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The poem consists of thirty-eight lines divided into four stanzas. The title serves to locate the scene as a place “not on the map”; such a statement suggests that the temple is somehow outside the realm of Western understanding. In addition, the title reveals that the setting of the event is a traditional sacred space.

In the first stanza, the narrator, who is a member of a patrol of American soldiers, approaches a Buddhist temple. The time of day is dusk, and there are birds in the ivy climbing the temple wall. The word “ivy” is repeated three times in the first stanza, suggesting that the temple is somehow hidden behind the green vegetation.

The speaker and his group move into the temple in the next stanza, following the lead of the “point man,” the member of the patrol charged with going first in dangerous situations. Once inside, the men handle a variety of sacred objects, including a “white washbowl,” “stone lanterns,” and “carved stone heads.” It is not clear whether or not the men handle the objects with respect. The narrator says that everything they investigate “is clean.” Because these are soldiers looking for the enemy, it would seem that Weigl’s use of the term “clean” here has nothing to do with cleanliness and everything to do with the absence of the enemy.

The last line of the second stanza introduces a “small man.” In the next stanza, the narrator describes the man in what can be interpreted only as an act of prayer: “He is bent over, his head/ rests on the floor and he is speaking something.” The gaze of the narrator shifts from the man to the commanding officer (“CO”), who fires at the wall of the temple to see if there is rice hidden there by Viet Cong.

The last stanza begins with the word “But,” often an indication that the poem has reached some sort of turning point. In this case, although the CO has ordered the men to leave the temple, some of the men approach the small man and force him to sit upright. When they do, however, they discover that the man has booby trapped himself: “his eyes/ roll down to the charge/ wired between his teeth and the floor.” In the last sentence, the birds “burst off the walls,” indicating that there is an explosion and implying that the small man has killed himself in order to kill several members of the patrol.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 475

Weigl very carefully chooses a series of images to describe the temple in the jungle. The cumulative effect of the images is to render the temple inscrutable and hidden. For example, in the first stanza, the ivy covers the outside of the temple thickly. Hidden within the ivy are sparrows. In a very potent image, the birds’ wings become “calligraphy.” Calligraphy, artistic or creative handwriting, both reveals and hides the meaning of the words it renders. The image, then, is an early clue that the temple is not necessarily as it appears. The ivy is also “thick in the grottoes.” A grotto is a structure that appears to be a cave but is really of human construction. As the jungle hides the Viet Cong and their tunnels, so too does the ivy hide the sparrows and the temple.

Further sacred images appear in the second stanza, when the Americans make their way to the interior of the temple. The objects the Americans handle have little meaning for them. They search the objects for evidence of the enemy, but the stone faces reveal nothing. The Americans search the entire temple, declaring it clean. Weigl plays on the word “clean” here. On the one hand, the Americans view the area as secure, clean of enemy contamination. To the Vietnamese, the temple is clean in the sense that it is a place of prayer and holiness; soon it will be clean of the American presence as well.

Two important auditory images contribute to the contrasting depictions of the small Vietnamese man and the Americans. In the first, the small man speaks as he rests his head on the floor. The sound of his voice quietly fills the temple with words that the Americans cannot understand. Because this is a temple, the reader might assume that he is whispering prayers. The second auditory image is that of the commanding officer’s gun; “he locks and loads and fires a clip into the walls.” The CO does this to check for rice hidden in the walls, a sign that the temple is a Viet Cong supply station or hideout. The noise of the gunfire, however, seems somehow at odds with the silent temple, save for the sound of the small man’s prayers.

In the last stanza, Weigl uses irony and surprise to complete his portrait. When the men, who have declared the temple “clean,” get close to the small man, they discover that he has a charge in his mouth, ready to blow them all up. Nothing in the poem has prepared the reader for the shock of this moment, as the small man’s “eyes roll down to the charge.” Like the Americans, readers fail to understand the importance of the small man’s prayers. Ironically, the detail the Americans fail to take seriously leads to their deaths.

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