Weigl, Bruce (Allan)
WEIGL, Bruce (Allan)
Nationality: American. Born: Lorain, Ohio, 27 January 1949. Education: Oberlin College, Ohio, A.B. in English 1974; University of New Hampshire, Durham, M.A. in Writing/American and British Literature 1975; University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Ph.D. in Writing/ American and British Literature 1979. Military Service: U.S. Army 1967–70; in Vietnam 1967–68: Bronze Star. Family: Married Jean Kondo Weigl in 1972; one son. Career: Teaching assistant, University of New Hampshire, Durham, 1974–75; instructor, English, Lorain Community College, Elyria, Ohio, 1976–77; teaching fellow, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, 1977–79; assistant professor of English and director of creative writing, 1979–81; assistant professor of English, 1981–85, and associate professor of English, 1984–86, Old Dominion University, Norfolk, Virginia. Associate professor of English, 1986–90, and since 1990 professor of English and director of M.F.A. in writing, Pennsylvania State University, University Park. Reader and consultant, University of Missouri Press, Wamsetter Press, and Longwood Publishers; reader and editor, The Associated Writing Program; associate editor, Intervention, 1982–84; contributing editor and review columnist, Poet Lore; consultant/reviewer, Choice; advising/contributing editor, The James Dickey Newsletter.Awards: Yaddo Foundation fellowship, 1976; Academy of American Poets prize, 1978; Pushcart prize, 1980–81, 1993; Breadloaf fellowship in poetry, Bread Loaf Writers Conference, 1981; Tu Do Cien Kien award for contributions to American culture, Vietnam Veterans of America, 1987; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1988; Best American Poetry prize, 1994. Address: English Department, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, 1251 South Garner Street, State College, Pennsylvania 16801, U.S.A.
Executioner. Tucson, Ironwood Press, 1976.
A Sack Full of Old Quarrels. Cleveland, Cleveland State UniversityPoetry Center, 1977.
A Romance. Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1979.
The Monkey Wars. Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1985.
Song of Napalm. New York, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1988.
What Saves Us. Evanston, Illinois, Triquarterly Books, 1992.
Sweet Lorain. Evanston, Illinois, Triquarterly Books, 1996.
After the Others: Poems. Evanston, Illinois, Northwestern University Press, 1999.
Archeology of the Circle: New and Selected Poems. New York, Grove Press, 1999.
The Circle of Hanh: A Memoir. New York, Grove Press, 2000.
Editor, The Giver of Morning: On Dave Smith. Houston, Thunder City Press, 1983.
Editor, The Imagination as Glory: On the Poetry of James Dickey. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1984.
Editor, with others, Pushcart Prize XI Anthology: Best of the Small Presses 12. Wainscott, New York, Pushcart Press, 1987.
Editor, Not on the Map, by Kevin Bowen. Dublin, Dedalus Press, and vChester Springs, Pennsylvania, Dufour, 1996.
Editor, with Kevin Bowen, Writing between the Lines: An Anthology on War and Its Social Consequences. Amherst, University of Massachusetts Press, 1997.
Editor, Angel Riding a Beast: Poems, by Liliana Ursu. Evanston, Illinois, Northwestern University Press, 1998.
Editor, with Kevin Bowen and Ba Chung Nguyen, Mountain River: Vietnamese Poetry from the Wars, 1948–1993: A Bilingual Collection. Amherst, University of Massachusetts Press, 1998.
Translator, with Nguyen Thanh, Poems from Captured Documents. Amherst, University of Massachusetts Press, 1994.*
Critical Studies: "A Sense-Making Perspective in Recent Poetry by Vietnam Veterans," in American Poetry Review (Philadelphia), November/December 1986, and "'What Shall We Give Our Children?' Fatherhood Poems by Veterans," in The United States and Viet Nam from War to Peace, edited by Richard M. Slabey, Jefferson, North Carolina, McFarland, 1995, both by Lorrie Smith; in American Literature and the Experience of Vietnam, Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1991, and in Vietnam Authors in Their Generation: Re-Thinking America, Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1991, both by Philip D. Beidler; in Fourteen Landing Zones: Approaches to Vietnam War Literature by Philip K. Jason, Iowa City, University of Iowa Press, 1991; "Bruce Weigl: Out of the Landscape of His Past" by Edward J. Reilly, in Journal of American Culture, 16(3), fall 1993; in Radical Visions: Poetry by Vietnam Veterans, by Vincente F. Gotera, Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1993; "Agendas for Vietnam War Poetry: Reading the War As Art, History, Therapy, and Politics" by Stephen P. Hidalgo, in Journal of American Culture, 16(3), fall 1993; "Unmixed Purities" by Nance Van Winckel, in Shenandoah (Lexington, Virginia), fall 1993; in The Art and Craft of Poetry by Michael J. Bugeja, Cincinnati, Writer's Digest Books, 1994.
Bruce Weigl comments: Why I Write Like I Write: Notes toward an Ars Poetica.
"Fanatics have their dreams …"—John Keats
The paradox of my particular pathology as a writer is that the war ruined my life and in return gave me my art. The war robbed me of my boyhood and forced me, at eighteen years old, to bear too much witness to the world, to what men were capable of doing to other men, to children and to women.
The war took away my life and gave me poetry in return. The war taught me irony; that I among the others would survive is ironic. All of my heroes are dead. That is the particular paradox of my experience as a writer. The fate the world has given to me is to write so beautifully as to draw the others into horror.
I was up North on Highway One past Hue. I must have had some bad water because I got sick. I shit and vomited. In my stomach a black snake grew. They sent me to the rear, to An Khe, where I slept in twisted sheets on a cot until some man threw a book at me and said, "Read this boy." I was eighteen. This was called the Republic of Vietnam. Republic. God save us.
I had never read a book straight through in my life. I could not say the names in this book even out loud to myself, but I kept reading, the dream of the suffering horse pulling me into the story. I read Raskolnikov's letter over and over. Something snapped into place in my brain.
"I fear in my heart that you may have been visited by the latest unfashionable belief," Pulcheria wrote to her son. Somehow she was writing to me as well. I do not know why the words made sense, in 1968, the war raging all around us, the air filled with screams. The world conspired to put me there, in that war, in that province of blood, at that moment, so the man could drop that book into my bunk without looking at me. Book that was my link to another world, that was my bridge into a space blown wide open with light that filled my brain.
I came from a house of no books. I ran away from the steel mill town and its grit to the war. I was not headed in the direction of books, but there was a moment reading and rereading Crime and Punishment that morning, my stomach raw from bad water, my nerves blown out, my life on a kind of wire or string, that I must have glimpsed the enormous possibilities of expression because I was jarred out of one way of thinking into another, and from that moment the enormity and the impossibility of the struggle at hand revealed itself as a kind of splendor or order that vanished as quickly as it appeared. I have looked for it ever since. It has become my way to find it in the darker corners where it wants to weld something hurtful to something human. I come from a long line of violence. In my poems I try to find a shape for the litany of terror in order to bring it into comprehension. The impossible. The terrible beauty of our lives: that we use them up, that the hunger fades. The impossible. Say it clearly and you make it beautiful, no matter what.* * *
Bruce Weigl's special gift is an ability to bring a scene immediately to life, as in the opening lines of the title poem of What Saves Us:
We were wrapped around each other
in the back of my father's car parked
in the empty lot of the high school
of our failure, sweat on her neck
This narrative gift informs Weigl's poems about growing up among the coal mines and blast furnaces of Pennsylvania and Ohio and, later, among the battlefields and street women of Vietnam during the Tet offensive. These are the subjects and settings of his earlier poems, but he later moves to the struggle to reclaim his life.
The married narrator of one poem tells his wife that "not even your good love" can blot out the war. He still lives among the victims, the boys who "fell before me in heaps, their arms / and legs flailing ridiculously through the smoke and flash," and the Vietnamese girl in the famous photograph,
running from her village, napalm
stuck to her dress like jelly,
her hands reaching for the no one
who waits in waves of heat before her.
These lines are from the title poem of Weigl's fifth collection, Song of Napalm, accurately described by Russell Banks as "the story of an American innocent's descent into hell and his excruciating return to life on the surface" amid breakdown, recovery, and a return to Hanoi twenty years later. To this body of work Weigl has added a substantial and fascinating collection of poems by Vietnamese soldiers, translated into English.
"Inside me the war had eaten a hole," says the voice in "On the Anniversary of Her Grace." In harsh times at home and abroad, the narrator of "The Forms of Eleventh Street" concludes that what saved him
were the Latin prayers
come back from the years
and the many mouths
open in absolution,
and the nakedness,
the belt flashing,
the fists from nowhere
the abandonment of love.
The world of Weigl's poems is harsh, even brutal, where ugliness and beauty flare out in unlikely places and are inextricably intertwined with
one heart robbing another
in a rented room, a great sadness
and a great happiness, at the same time, descending.
The continual juxtaposition of present circumstance and memories from the past, such as his young son's bed-wetting and his own experience years before ("The Confusion of Planes We Must Wander in Sleep"), gives resonance to his rather sparse narratives. Characteristically, his poems conclude with a brief reflection exactly appropriate to the scene:
what we pass on is not always a gift,
not always grace or strength or music, but sometimes a
because even the weaknesses are a kind of beauty
for the way they bind us into what love, finally, must be.
In such poems Weigl conveys the precise tone and character of a era that left an indelible mark on the American psyche. It is an impressive poetic achievement.