War, Poetry and Reconciliation
“Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilles and its devastation…”
So begins The Iliad, one of the first recorded poems in Western literature. Not coincidentally, The Iliad is a war poem, probing the human race’s inability to overcome its rage and lust for conquest.
Since then the theme of war has dominated Western literature. The Old Testament would be a short story without it. Shakespeare would be a comedian, rather than a tragedian and composer of the rousing speech Henry IV delivered to his soldiers on Saint Crispin’s Eve:
“For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile
This day shall gentle his condition…”
Words can be irresistible, like an initiation ceremony into a secret society, a “band of brothers” apart from and above the rest of society.
America’s rhetorical identity as “exceptional” among nations is inseparable from its wars on Native Americans and its War of Independence, and its soldiers are venerated as heroes; for however “vile” they may have been as individuals, they risked their lives to create their country.
Walt Whitman brought a new type of war poetry to the public at that defining moment when America cracked open and turned its aggression on itself. In his Civil War poem, “Beat! Beat! Drums!” war bursts through windows and doors across the nation “like a ruthless force,” scattering people in churches and schools, at weddings and in fields, denying everyone happiness and peace. When fought among brothers, war is not a society for soldiers alone.
Soldiers of North and South were elevated above the politics of the Civil War. Either they had fought to defend their honor and way of life, or they had fought to free the slaves and reassert America’s moral authority in the world. In either case, dying on the battlefield in a just cause was the highest virtue a man could attain, a form of spiritual redemption. And being anti-war had become equivalent with being anti-American.
In the wake of World War One, which generated so much unnecessary death and misery, there was a brief outpouring of anti-war poetry. Many soldiers lost their faith and one of them, poet Edward E. Cummings, asked the overwhelming, irreverent, inevitable question:
“why must itself up every of a park
anus stick some quote statue unquote to
prove that a hero equals any jerk
who was afraid to dare to answer “no”?”
World War II, “the Good War,” elevated the common soldier higher than ever in the American pantheon. In the poetry of James Dickey, firebombing cities became a celebration of slaughter from heaven: “One is cool and enthralled in the cockpit,/ Turned blue by the power of beauty…”
What elated Dickey compelled a small minority, including poet Robert Lowell, to declare themselves conscientious objectors. Poets like Lowell challenged the myth that one must kill to be free and that honor can only be won in mortal combat. And myth it is, for behind the rhetoric of a “land of the brave and home of the free” lurk Jim Crow’s ghosts and segregated ghettos. And the rhetoric of the state never changes; America’s enemies are always cast as sub-human and evil in order to whip soldiers into the frenzy of hate and fear required to kill on an industrial scale. And for some soldiers, killing and surviving means a lifetime of grief.
Following World War Two, America aimed its wrath at godless communism at home and in Vietnam, where “gooks” and “dinks” and “slopes” were said to threaten America’s existence. Set against the tensions of the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War brought America to its knees with the force of Whitman’s bugles and drums, but without the pageantry of a Memorial Day parade, or the majesty of fireworks on the Fourth of July.
Bruce Weigl was one of many young Americans who heard the banshee wail of close combat in Vietnam. As he says in his memoir, The Circle of Hanh, “The paradox of my life as a writer is that the war ruined my life and in return gave me my voice.”
Weigl grew up Catholic and working class among Eastern European immigrants, whose duty it is to fight America’s wars. He arrived in Vietnam in December 1967, on the verge of the Tet Offensive, the turning point in the war. His fantasies about the world and his fellow human beings were soon shattered. As he writes in the first stanza of the poem “The Last Lie”
Some guy in the miserable convoy
Raised up in the back of our open truck
And threw a can of c-rations at a child
Who called into the rumble for food.
He didn’t toss the can, he wound up and hung it
On the child’s forehead and she was stunned
Backwards into the dust of our trucks.
The imagery and action in this first stanza is expressed in the language of the ordinary young men who fought the war. “Some guy,” the poet doesn’t even know by name “wound up and hung it,” like a pitcher throwing a perfect strike. We know what that these expressions mean, and imply, and they reach us in the most familiar way, with the intended effect: we are as stunned as the child.
Across the sudden angle of the road’s curving
I could still see her when she rose
Waving one hand across her swollen, bleeding head,
Wildly swinging her other hand
At the children who mobbed her,
Who tried to take her food.
In the second stanza, the road takes a sudden turn into the future away from the past. It is a moment of awakening, a new knowledge of reality, as Wallace Stevens said: not an idea about the thing, but the thing itself. What was witnessed was an act of aggression, of hurting for pleasure – and not just hurting another human being, but hurting a hungry child, whose circumstances are so wretched that she battles other children for the object that hurt her.
I grit my teeth to myself to remember that girl
Smiling as she fought off her brothers and sisters.
As if she thought it were a joke
And the guy with me laughed
And fingered the edge of another can
Like it was the seam of a baseball
Unfit his rage ripped
Again into the faces of children
Who called to us for food.
Weigl, as he does in so many poems, assembles the archetypes of war and presents them with a ruthless force that shatters our assumptions about ourselves, and what we represent, and he does it in such an effortless way, it’s as if we were speaking to ourselves. This is the last lie we are ever going to tell. We weren’t there to help them, to make their lives better, to save them from communism. Truth be told, there is no “we,” there is only the individual taking or avoiding personal responsibility.
Weigl’s poetry is acknowledged for its eloquence and flawless delivery. It is also acknowledged for the seriousness and depth of its subject matter. These qualities are evident in “Snowy Egret,” a war poem about a neighbor’s boy who steals his father’s shotgun and shoots a symbol of peace and beauty, while it feeds on the banks of the Elizabeth River. Here is the complete poem:
My neighbor’s boy has lifted his father’s shotgun and stolen
Down to the backwaters of the Elizabeth
And in the moon he’s blasted a snowy egret
From the shallows it stalked for small fish.
Midnight. My wife wakes me. He’s in the backyard
With a shovel so I go down half-drunk with pills
That let me sleep to see what I can see and if it’s safe.
The boy doesn’t hear me come across the dewy grass.
He says through tears he has to bury it,
He says his father will kill him
And he digs until the hole is deep enough and gathers
The egret carefully into his arms
As if not to harm the blood-splattered wings
Gleaming in the flashlight beam.
His man’s muscled shoulders
Shake with the weight of what he can’t set right no matter what,
But one last time he tries to stay a child, sobbing
Please don’t tell…
He says he only meant to flush it from the shadows,
He only meant to watch it fly
But the shot spread too far
Ripping into the white wings
Spanned awkwardly for a moment
Until it glided into brackish death.
I want to grab his shoulders,
Shake the lies loose from his lips but he hurts enough,
He burns with shame for what he’s done,
With fear for his hard father’s
Fists I’ve seen crash down on him for so much less.
I don’t know what to do but hold him.
If I let go he’ll fly to pieces before me.
What a time we share, that can make a good boy steal away,
Wiping out from the blue face of the pond
What he hadn’t even known he loved, blasting
Such beauty into nothing.
I had the honor to ask Bruce Weigl about this beautifully crafted and intricate poem, about war poetry in general, and the direction his life has taken toward reconciliation.
DV In “Snowy Egret,” a boy is lying about his intentions. The troubled man in the poem knows this, and he knows this “lie in the soul” is very dangerous, for how can we understand justice, and be just, if we aren’t honest with ourselves? At the same time, the man knows the boy has been abused, as we have all been abused by “hard father’s fists” hammering us into what we think we must be. So rather than shake the truth from the boy he was in Vietnam, the troubled man holds him. Why does the troubled man choose compassion?
BW Very few poems have come to me intact in a dream the way this one did. So let me tell you that story first. I was teaching at Old Dominion University in Virginia, and living with my wife and baby son. Norfolk was beautiful, and I would often take my son out for long walks around some marshes to see the egrets that gathered there. When I would see them I was always reminded of the war because I’d seen egrets there too, and they had been always shockingly white against the green of the Vietnamese landscape. One morning I woke up with the memory of a dream so vivid that I told my wife at breakfast about it. In my dream a neighbor boy (there was no neighbor boy by the way in my waking world) is standing next to the body of a white egret that he has shot with a shotgun. In the dream the boy is crying and I want to comfort him. I don’t remember now if there were any words shared in the dream because it was all more a knowing by feeling than by talk. Because I’d told the dream to my wife, I was able to remember it and a few evenings later, I decided to try and put the whole thing down in a poem draft to see what would happen. I worked on it for a while and thought it was pretty good. Sometime later I sent the poem with some others to my friend and editor then, the poet and translator Reg Gibbons, whose help has been absolutely significant to my development as a poet. He was editing TriQuarterly at the time and I thought he might like a few of the poems. He wrote back and said that he particularly liked the Vietnam poem. I paused when I read this because I knew I hadn’t sent him any poems about Vietnam. When I pursued it, he said it was the “Snowy Egret” poem. I was stunned at how unconsciously I had approached the subject and after my conversation with him, the poem took on an entirely different life; that had never happened before or since. All of that is to say you’re right about what you say. I would add that in my mind I believe I am the man who wants to help the boy, and I’m the boy who wants to be held and protected, and I’m the egret too, bloody on the ground. That sounds melodramatic, I know, but it’s also helpful within the realm of poetry to allow yourself to feel all of those different perspectives. The troubled man choses compassion because he understands that it’s the only antidote for suffering.
DV In your memoir, you say the war ruined your life, but through it you found your voice. How did the war enable you to find your voice? What is it you wish to say, and can it only be said in poetry? What is it about poetry that enables poets to reach inside human nature and make it clear?
BW For years after the war I was practically silent. It seemed that I simply had nothing left to say, to anyone, about anything. Words had become treacherous things to me because I had learned how words can twist and bend things to suit one’s needs and how that can so easily lead to murder and suffering. Once I found poetry, I began to see that I could also repair some wrongs simply by telling the truth about my experiences in the war. My teacher Charles Simic told me one day that the world had given me a subject – the American War in Vietnam – and it was now my responsibility as a poet, like it or not, to make sense of things again. I was eager to take on that challenge, and it freed me up in a way I’d never known before. That’s what I mean by finding my voice. “What is it you wish to say” you ask as if it was possible to answer that question, and perhaps if I did know the answer I wouldn’t be motivated to write poetry. For me it’s largely a process of discovery, learning things I didn’t know I knew, about myself and about our world. The nature of the saying is much more complicated in poetry than most folks think. I go back to the master, Charlie Simic again, who talked a great deal about “the said quality” of a poem, that quality that allows the reader to be drawn into the mystery of the poem because the voice is real and is trustworthy somehow. In my classes I have to remind my students again and again that what a poem means is what it says; I always insist on a literal reading first, because that’s essential to our understanding. Poetry “means” in a way that’s different than the way prose means, largely because of the formal options available to the poet, but also because poetry needs to be nurtured much more intimately by the imagination. Poets can make human nature seem clear through the gesture of craft, but at the same time the poem can reveal unfathomable mysteries about the objective world around us. What I eventually learned was the value of a thing said straight, and in a rhythm that was most appropriate for the experience.
DV For many Americans, especially in the military, it is politically incorrect to associate with former enemies. The prohibitions against fraternizing with the enemy are profound, and yet ten years after the war, you returned to Vietnam. What motivated you to do this? How did the experience affect you and your poetry?
BW Okay, here it is. I was offered the opportunity to go to Hanoi as the guest of a retired North Vietnamese General named Kinh Chi, it’s a long story that I won’t tell fully here, but I agreed to go because I thought the trip would never happen. The embargo was still on and we had no diplomatic relationship with the Hanoi regime. Months later I got a call one morning saying that the trip was on and there was no way I could get out of it. I was afraid to go because I was afraid of what I hadn’t remembered. The trip changed me forever. We were warmly welcomed and treated as guests the entire trip. Our host, the General, became our good friend and even travelled with us when we went south to Saigon. That trip led to more trips and eventually to my study of Vietnamese and my work on the translation of Vietnamese poetry. I’ve also been fortunate enough to have become a part of the Hanoi literary community thanks to the generosity of my friends Nguyen Quang Thieu and Huu Thinh. I’ve done a great deal of work in Hanoi writing, editing and translating, and I’ve also made dear and sweet friends there for life. I never though of any of them as my enemy, even those I knew I had fought against some of them. That was never an issue for me because early on the Vietnamese taught me this lesson: there was a war, we were soldiers so we had to fight, and now the war is over so we can be friends. It’s that simple and that complicated at the same time. My spirit has been nurtured by my friendships there, and my writing has been influenced by their fierce prizing of life and by the beauty of their literature.
DV You and your wife adopted a Vietnamese child, and you have learned Vietnamese and now translate the poetry of Vietnamese, including veterans of the American War. What do you learn from their poetry? Would you please share one of the poems you have translated?
BW Most significantly what I’ve learned from Vietnamese poetry is the way in which it is possible to rise above the worst human tragedies that you can imagine through the power of love of family and of country. During the long years of war in Vietnam, those who fought often found solace in poetry. When they missed their home villages, they would write poetry about this longing, even in the midst of battle. The great poems of Nguyen Du and others were inspirational to those in the struggle for independence against the Japanese, French and Americans. Poetry in Vietnam is much more generally and deeply embedded in the culture than it is in America; the Vietnamese value poetry as an important way to understand the world and our own humanness. I’ve also learned something about how to reduce a text to its most essential elements and cut everything else out. I have a book of translations coming out in the fall from BOA. It’s called “The Secret of Hoa Sen”; Hoa Sen is Vietnamese for Lotus flower. The poet’s name is Nguyen Phan Que Mai, a Vietnamese poet and writer with whom I’ve worked on a variety of translation projects for several years now.
Here’s one of her poems:
Lifted high, thrown into another world,
another country, another embrace,
this was the fate of the bewildered children,
their skin still fuming from the fire of their evacuation.
They come home, their hair not blond, their skin not white,
their tongues without Vietnamese,
but no diet of milk and butter can answer the thirty-five year old question
Who am I?
No adopted arms can replace the parents’ embrace.
No DNA test can link them to their origin,
and black hair cannot think in Vietnamese.
Babylift. Over twelve thousand days of tears.
Over thirty-five years of pain,
and still the questions have their eyes wide open.
*“Operation Babylift” was carried out during the last days of the American War in Vietnam. According to information from the American side, more than 3,300 children considered to be orphans were airlifted from the South of Vietnam in 1975, and were adopted in the US and several other countries such as Australia, France, and Canada. However, some of those children were not orphans and many have returned to Vietnam to find their birth parents, with very little hope.
DV A new generation of Americans has returned from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, fighting a new enemy that is said to threaten our freedom and security. These veterans were volunteers, not draftees like most soldiers sent to Vietnam. But like veterans from Vietnam, they have been traumatized and many suffer from PTSD. Why do America’s political leaders, many of whom fought in Vietnam, continue to send young people off to kill and die, rather than seeking peaceful means of resolving conflicts? Is there a way to change human nature and America’s reliance on violence; its celebrated “hard fists” culture of violence?
BW It’s useless to ask for a logical explanation for why people do the bad things that they do in samsara. People do things because they do, and it’s a waste of time trying to figure out why. I teach a two-semester class called Great Books; the first half begins with Homer and ends with Shakespeare, and the second half begins with Swift and ends with some literature from the 21st century. One of the things that we learn along the way is that practically every culture we encounter writes about their war or wars, and present is that writing is typically a kind of dismay at war and the consequences of war; that, and the fact that the war is usually presented as some kind of anomaly that can’t really be explained away. The conclusion that we always come to is this: how many times can war happen before we stop calling it an anomaly? Since we do it and have done it since the beginning of our existence, it must be part of who we are. The only solution is teaching and living a life of compassion. I don’t think it does any real good to tell the so-called truth about war because in the case or war and the terrible consequences of war, words finally fail. Remarkably though, it’s that failure of language to say a thing straight, what Dante felt when he came out of hell, that compels us to write poetry. The impossibility of the act is what is most alluring for me.
DV Thank you Bruce Weigl for sharing your experiences and insights into poetry and war.
Bruce Weigl (born January 27, 1949, Lorain, Ohio) is an American contemporary poet who teaches at Lorain County Community College. Weigl enlisted in the Army and served in Vietnam for one year, beginning in December 1967. He was awarded the Bronze Star and returned to his hometown of Lorain, Ohio, where he enrolled in Lorain County Community College. He is the author of more than a dozen books of poetry, including The Abundance of Nothing (2012), one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize; and Song of Napalm, which was nominated but was not a finalist.
One of Bruce Weigl’s poems will appear in the forthcoming anthology, With Our Eyes Open: Poems of the New American Century (West End Press, 2014). For information about pre-ordering the anthology, please contact John Crawford at firstname.lastname@example.org
Please visit Doug Valentine’s Political Poetry series at http://www.douglasvalentine.com/disc.htm