Thursday, April 22, 2010

Review: Song of Napalm by Bruce Weigl

Song of Napalm is a collection of poems by Vietnam veteran Bruce Weigl, another one of the books I read in a college course on literature of the Vietnam War.  Weigl came to our class and read from the book, explaining the inspiration for some of the poems.  Like Yusef Komunyakaa's Dien Cai Dau, Song of Napalm is a powerful testament to the brutality of war and its long-lasting impact.

Memory is a common theme in Weigl's poems.  He recalls his time in Vietnam -- as a soldier, a grieving friend, a man seeking release with a bar girl.  In "Surrounding Blues on the Way Down," he learns that a seemingly innocent Vietnamese woman could be carrying weapons, and he remembers struggling between a desire to help her and the need to learn the ropes as a soldier.
I have no excuse for myself,
I sat in that man's jeep in the rain
and watched him slam her to her knees,
the plastic butt of his M16
crashing down on her.
I was barely in country, the clouds
hung like huge flowers, black
like her teeth.
(pages 13-14)
Song of Napalm is divided into three sections, each of which deals with memories of his war experiences and indicate a progression toward dealing with the ghosts he carries with him and striking a balance between the need to remember and the need to return to the land of the living.  Weigl's memories are so vivid and filled with emotion that they bring the war to life, and I could feel some of his pain.  "Song of Napalm," a poem dedicated to his wife, stands out from the rest.
But the lie swings back again.
The lie works only as long as it takes to speak
and 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.  Nothing
can change that, she is burned behind my eyes
and not your good love and not the rain-swept air
and not the jungle-green
pasture unfolding before us can deny it. (pages 34-35)
If I am haunted by the images in that poem, I can't imagine how those who witnessed such tragedies deal with the memories.  Weigl's poems have given me a new respect for those who have served our country and an understanding that many of them do not truly know what to expect when they go to war.  In "Elegy," Weigl writes:
Into the sunlight they marched,
into dog day, into no saints day,
and were cut down.
They marched without knowing
how the air would be sucked from their lungs,
how their lungs would collapse,
how the world would twist itself, would
bend into the cruel angles.

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.  (page 70)
Song of Napalm is full of pain, sadness, and grief, but it also is about survival, strength, and endurance.  It feels as though Weigl wrote these words to stay sane, that he needed to write about his memories so that he could live with them.  The poems are easy to understand, so readers who tend to steer clear of poetry for fear they won't "get" it need not worry.  This is a must-read collection, with poems that hit you in the gut, make you grieve for the loss of innocence and the loss of life, and make you appreciate the human spirit and desire to live.

Song of Napalm is the 4th book I've read for the Vietnam War Reading Challenge at War Through the Generations.

Disclosure: I purchased my well-worn copy of Song of Napalm.  I am an Amazon affiliate.

© 2010, Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not copy or reproduce content without permission.


Suko said...

Anna, I had no idea that there's been so much poetry written about the Vietnam War. Your recent posts have changed that. You present Song of Napalm very well.

Serena said...

I love this collection of poems about the Vietnam War as well. Thanks for the review; see you can review poetry.

bermudaonion said...

This sounds like such a powerful book, but boy is the cover and title disturbing. I guess that's the point, though.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

Wow, that's some poem about the M16! Awful, but it seems appropriate, cover!

Stephanie said...

This sounds like a collection of powerful poems. I really like the cover. It is bleak and haunting -- like the memories these poems describe.

Anna said...

Suko: I'm only aware of a few collections of Vietnam War poetry, mainly because I studied them in college. I'm sure there are lots more; I'll have to look some up.

Serena: Glad to see you re-read this one, too.

Bermudaonion: I agree that the cover is disturbing, but it certainly fits the subject matter.

Rhapsodyinbooks: I agree! His poems all hit you hard like that.

Stephanie: Haunting definitely is a word to describe these poems and, of course, the cover.