On the Shores of Welcome Home by Bruce Weigl

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It has been a long wait for this new book of poetry from Bruce Weigl as his previous collection, The Abundance of Nothingcame out in 2012. The great poet (and fellow Vietnam War veteran) Yusef Komunyakaa said then that Weigl’s poems often gazed into “the hellish, heavenly mechanics of life and death.” The poems in his new book, On the Shores of Welcome Home (BOA Editions, 104 pp., $17, paper; $9.99, e book), continue that scrutiny.

Weigl—who now has written more than twenty books of poetry, translations, and essays—served in Vietnam with the First Cavalry Division from 1967-68 and his work is heavily influenced by his participation in the war. All of his poems are of high quality and all should be purchased for any collection of literature dealing with the Vietnam War. This latest group deals with the difficulty of returning from war and adapting to a new life; all deal with life and death matters.

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Bruce Weigl

On the Shores of Welcome Home, in which Weigl meditates on the ghosts and the grace one encounters in life’s second act, justly received the Isabella Gardner Poetry Award for 2019.

The poem that follows from the book is “Modern Paradox Sutra Fragment,” which exemplifies Weigl’s skills:

 

A sex offender father broke the jaw

Of his four-year-old cerebral

Palsy son in an unspecified act

Of rage. Change yourself the teacher tells me

Again, and again because you can’t change anyone else.

Knowing things ensures heartbreak.  Not knowing

Is worse. Change yourself the teacher says;

Make more room for the suffering of others

Is what he means. Make more room and then let it

Flow through you. Let the broken-jawed little

Palsied boy who couldn’t even understand

His own poor life flow through you, and let his

Blurred screams flow through you and not through you

To feel them deeply and then to let them go.

 

I found it hard to let this poem go. It lingered in my consciousness as do many of Bruce Weigl’s poems. They have a way of sticking in the brain like jungle thorns in the torn flesh.

–David Willson

The Secret of Hoa Sen by Nguyen Phan Que Mai

Nguyen Phan Que Mai, the author of The Secret of Hoa Sen (BOA Editions, 208 pp., $16, paper), was born in 1973 in a small village in what was then North Vietnam. She has published many poetry books and has won many honors.

I could not read the Vietnamese versions of her poems, but had to depend on the translations she did with Bruce Weigl, who also translated this volume. Weigl, who wrote Song of Napalm (1988) and other books of poetry, served with the 1st Air Cavalry in Vietnam from 1967-1968. He is one of the most honored poets who took part in the Vietnam War.

In The Secret of Hoa Sen we first get a poem in Vietnamese and then, on the next page, the English translation.  Many of the poems deal, directly or indirectly, with the American war in Vietnam.

“With a Vietnam Veteran, for BW,” is my favorite in this small book. Two people are eating pho with chopsticks, and steam rises from those bowls of hot noodle soup.

“He can’t explain the reasons for the war

the reasons why my relatives had to fall,

and why so many children are imprisoned

in the pain of Agent Orange.

Nguyen Phan Que Mai

“Quang Tri” is another powerful one, a poem of loss and death. It should be read by those who are ignorant of the human cost of the war for the Vietnamese.  “Babylift” also brings home, in a hard-hitting but poetic way, how good intentions often sow tragic consequences.  “Vietnam Veterans Memorial” mentions Agent Orange, as well Nick Ut’s iconic photograph of Phan Thi Kim Phuc, aka, “the girl in the photograph.”

I agree with the poet that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is “Black, silent,/the silent answer for thousands of questions.” But the questions must still be asked.

Poetry is an effective and beautiful way to deal with the horrific aspects of war that have marked all of us. Those who have been avoiding Vietnam War poetry should try this book. You might find it surprisingly affecting.

—David Willson

 

 

Between Here and Monkey Mountain by Laren McClung

Laren McClung is a poet from Philadelphia. Her poetry has appeared in War, Literature and the Arts and other serious journals. In Between Here and Monkey Mountain: Poems (Sheep Meadow Press, 64 pp., $14.95, paper) she thanks the William Joiner Center and the poets Yusef Komunyakaa, Vinh Long, and Bruce Weigl, among others.

McClung also thanks her family “for their conversations, which made many of these poems possible.”  These thank yous are clues to her connections to the Vietnam War.

This poetry book has a creepy-beautiful cover from a famous painting that has nothing to do with the Vietnam War, but is suitably grotesque. The back cover has a long cryptic blurb from the great poet Bruce Weigl, who has written a Vietnam War poem or two.

The title contains the clue that made me hope and suspect that this book was a book of Vietnam War poems, even though the back cover showed McClung to be a very beautiful young woman for whom the Vietnam War is likely an event that concluded long before her birth. That is surmise. I also surmise that her father is a Vietnam War veteran.

The book has a large number of fine Vietnam War poems, perhaps having their roots in the above-mentioned family conversations or perhaps coming from the same wellsprings of imagination from which Stephen Crane pulled The Red Badge of Courage.

Section three, entitled “Monkey Mountain,” is all Vietnam War poetry. It consists of thirteen pages of excellent poetry dealing with the tour of duty of a grunt. Friendly fire, bouncing betties, morning ambushes, LZ’s, the red-brown clay of Khe Sanh, the South China Sea, R&R in Bangkok, Pleiku, and Qui Nhon all make appearances.

Laren McClung

There is also plenty of the Vietnam War and fine poetry elsewhere in the book. I loved “Lined up on Their Backs” and also “A Fable of Tuy Hoa.” Here is the latter:

Someone was shot in the free zone.

He said maybe a farmer, maybe

carrying a rucksack.  As he walked up to check

He saw her wedged under the Viet Cong.

Did she know enough to play possum in the grass?

When he rolled the body from hers

he said he caught sienna of eyes opening.

This one was alive.  He carried her

from the field to the firebase, his only

prisoner.  She was four, he said.

I wouldn’t have thought that a young woman who had never been anywhere near the Vietnam War could write that poem, but what do I know?  Not just anyone can write a truly great Vietnam War poem, but Laren McClung has done it. In fact, she has written several.

“Many of the poems are mysterious, passionate love poems,” the poet Stanley Moss says on the back cover, “and there are war poems.” That’s an understatement.

Buy this book and read it and add it to that small shelf of Vietnam War poetry books that are worth reading, savoring, and saving.

—David Willson