Facing the Horror
by David Cope
Song of Napalm, by Bruce Weigl. The Atlantic Monthly Press, 70 pages, hardcover. $13.00.
NAM, Selected Poems by Bill Shields. P.O. Press, 35 pages, chapbook. $3.00.
When I published Robert Borden's famous Vietnam poem, "Meat Dreams," in the Nada Poems anthology, I did so because I believed his work revealed firsthand that pain that only half of my generation knew: their pain was not the anguish of college students realizing for the first time that their government was not always just, or the anger of a young man seeing his childhood friends come home in a box. Their pain was the dioxin their bodies absorbed, the physical and mental wounds that come from daily rounds of bullets and blood. I believed in Borden's poem, but was quite unprepared for the number and quality of Vietnam poems that have appeared in my mailbox since that publication.
The news has, for years, told us about the tortured vets diving under their beds screaming every time a truck backfires, the slowly dying dioxin-sprayed dutiful ones, the men and women struggling in their nightmares to come to terms with their experiences; but here, finally, some of them have made those experiences into art. The best of these—Borden's poem, Song of Napalm by Bruce Weigl, and the little pamphlet, NAM, by Bill Shields, are all poignant examples of this Vietnam vet poetry. These poems come out of the same tradition of first-hand testimony that made Whitman's war poems and prose so eloquent; they carry the same scars as the poems of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, and like them, they do not flinch at what they see.
Shields' little book, published by P.O. Press in Long Beach, California, features poems mostly written in a similar small form to that practiced by Borden; the poems are often brief, deftly objectivist in their approach, and collectively form a single larger poem that completes the vision:
We wouldn't let him fall
the M-16 rounds swept him off his feet
dancing, his newly-dead body
swayed with the impact of each bullet
then blown back
flimsy as a scarecrow
in a tornado
his blood misted around his dancing feet
till someone blew a claymore
& scattered the body for acres
this evening I washed the dishes & the kids
put everyone to bed
& had a beer to my own sadness
swaying out there in the perimeter
with a dead Viet Cong
one eye wide open
Shields' poems are often little cinemas of past horrors invading his present life. There is no resolution; the poems do not complete the circle to find peace beyond that horror, but perhaps that is the message he intended: once we have opened the door to horrors such as these, they do not go away. Some will never find peace, and others will find it only by harrowing their own souls after the physical experiences pass. Thus:
She had me dead on my feet
the grenade no more than a yard away
in those little hands
laughing she threw it
at my feet
I leaped back
falling into her closet
the urine running down my legs
& she said, 'Do it again, daddy"
do it again
Weigl's Song of Napalm, published by the Atlantic Monthly Press, completes the circle, but only in the most intense and frightening way:
Into the black understanding they marched
until the angels came
calling their names,
until they rose, one by one from the blood.
The light blasted down on them.
The bullets sliced through the razor grass
so there was not even time to speak.
The words would not let themselves be spoken.
Some of them died.
Some of them were not allowed to.
The author leads us through his tour of duty, remembering the man who blew himself to bits in the temple near Quang Tri, his own horror at watching his companion slamming a woman to her knees, "the plastic butt of his M-16 crashing down on her." He recalls the bar girl he paid for, her fingers running up and down her terrible scars, and, of course, the title poem:
. . . the girl runs only as far
as the napalm allows
until her burning tendons and crackling
muscles draw her up
into that final position
burning bodies so perfectly assume.
The latter part of the book focuses on Weigl's difficulty coming home. In "The Soldier's Brief Epistle," he addresses those who "think you're better than me" because he did what they may only have imagined, coming to terms finally with the memory of those he killed as his real brothers. In "Dialectical Materialism," he returns to Hanoi in 1985, to a peaceful market scene of smoked ducks strung up in a row, and old men and children, "their black and white laughter all around us." He recalls the intense American bombardment of the city, and the poem settles, finally, on a conversation with a man filling buckets to water his crops:
He doesn't say
how he must have huddled
those nights with his family,
how he must have spread himself
until the village bell
called them back to their beds.
There are questions which
people who have everything
ask people who have nothing
and they do not understand.
It has been said that war is the price people pay when their leaders are unjust or incompetent, or that lack of territory or food drives men to kill. A prominent psychologist, Dr. Anthony Stevens, argues in The Roots of War that certain archetypal imperatives in our personalities drive us to that frenzy. Stevens feels that unless we learn to recognize and transcend those imperatives, understanding what drives us, we are doomed to repeat this most insane failing of our common humanity. Perhaps the first step toward peace—whether in the community as a whole, or individually, for these wounded men and women among us—is to recognize that horror as a part of ourselves we'd pretend is not our own, to face it and take responsibility for it. As with Borden's "Meat Dreams," the poems of Weigl and Shields begin that process; at the same time, these works serve as poignant warnings to those growing up now in their GI Joe and Rambo dreams of fighting as a great adventure.