Back when the Vietnam war was still a poison dream locked in an ammunition box at the farthest corner of the American basement, a guy who'd returned from those environs with some dire memories described a theme park a fellow vet had envisioned.
His buddy wanted to call the place "'Namland"; he'd build it in the coastal lowlands of the south so the park could stay open ten months a year, and grow its own bamboo for hooches and punji sticks. At a stroke, 'Namland would solve the unemployed-veteran and the Asian-refugee problems--just hire 'em all to play soldiers and civilians, Lurps and Cong, NVA and Air America. Rig up a back-lot Tu Do Street, complete with pedicabs and Saigon cowboys. Visitors could take in as many entertainments as they could handle: the Boonies, R&R City, Landing Zone Lyndon, Incoming, Firefight, Rolling Thunder, Tunnelville, Search & Destroy. The refreshment stands would sell milspec rations, with slickee boys out back hawking bootleg Cokes and cold ones, or something stronger if your heart could stand it.
But it was all just blown smoke, the visionary admitted. America would never go for it, he said; nobody wanted to hear about Vietnam.
He was wrong, of course. America loves its wars--once they're at a discreet remove.
From the denial-ridden blankness of the 70s, pulp culture has about-faced so maniacally that it out-'Namlands 'Namland. Instead of a theme park, though, we have Vietomania, an incredible simulation. In this Zen-less arcade, cammie-clad carnies pitch the war from every angle--getcha Born Onna Fourth of July, ya Casualties o' Wah, ya 84 Charlie Mopic. Got some used stuff, hardly any air hours on it: Getcha Platoon, ya Hamburger Hill. Hey, you antique buffs: Getcha Comin' Home, ya Deer Huntah, ya Pockalips Now, ya Who'll Stop da Rain, ya First Blood, ya Green Berets, ya Go Tell the Spartans. Got something tasty for you kiddies, too: Getcha China Beach, ya Toura Duty.
The war is too fresh a dab of history to return as farce, but after that "Surf Vietnam" poster in Back to the Future Part II, is the sunny afternoon so distant when in a trendily industrial loft-style office somewhere a creaseless gent perks up from his take-out order of pho with spring rolls and barks, "I got it! Hogan's Heroes, except with tiger cages! Am I a genius, or what?"
Until the jackals of Hollywood happen onto a carcass as gristly, Vietnam will remain boffo box office. But there are other, truer images of the living-room war, conveyed not in Sensurround and Panavision but by the susurrus of pages turning, whether in the growing body of Vietnam fiction or in books of poetry by writers like Bruce Weigl and John Balaban, who came of age in the war. Weigl fought for the First Air Cavalry; Balaban, a conscientious objector, placated his draft board first by teaching linguistics at a Vietnamese university, then by caring for wounded children. Later he returned to collect Vietnamese folk poems.
Those days are long gone--Weigl was in Vietnam in 1967-68; Balaban, on and off from 1967 until 1972. But both men have forged latter-day careers with as many parallels as their war experiences had dissonances. Both have punched the clock in graduate writing programs, and as writing teachers on the university circuit. Weigl writes criticism and poetry and is at work on a novel. Balaban, now completing a memoir, has published a novel, two collections of his own poetry and one of his translations of Vietnamese folk poetry, the text for a photo book on Vietnam, and a children's book. Both teach at Pennsylvania State University, occasionally making sorties out of State College, Pennsylvania, to share a poetry reading.
Weigl and Balaban belong to an accidental elite; every generation has its writers and its war, but those circles don't necessarily overlap, and despite the belated surge in reporting on, making up tales about, and constructing scripts purporting to represent what might have occurred in Vietnam, the list of those who served there and went on to write well about the experience is brief. Poet-veterans are few, and for the most basic of reasons: When was the last time you looked under "P" in the help-wanteds and saw an opening for a poet? The war may be bankable high concept in LA, but in the groves of academe and in the corridors of publishing power, poetry about it has roughly the same status that the war itself once had, something akin to "You still hung up on that riff?"
For example, Weigl's excellent Song of Napalm, a 1988 Pulitzer nominee, elicited an author's advance from Atlantic Monthly Press of only $2,000.
"And that was a lot," Weigl told me in a telephone interview. "For a first novel, a $10,000 advance is nothing, but for poetry you mostly don't get any advance; the only reason I got the $2,000 was because I was with a commercial press, and they saw possibilities."
Weigl operates on the assumption that, for a writer, the absence of money is the root not of evil but of honesty, particularly as regards the Vietnam war. Impecuniousness frees the poet to speak truth to power; he may be economically invisible, but he's got nothing to lose, and no secrets to conceal.
"People are too desensitized to the war by movies and television," Weigl said. "Like China Beach or the other one . . ." he called to nine-year-old son Andrew, who snappily filled in the blank. "Yeah, Tour of Duty, see, the kids all know it--they're busy trying to make the war fit in between the beer commercials and the soap commercials. Literature doesn't have as great a responsibility to render palatable.
"Especially poetry. Fiction is still highly commercial, the marketing people are in on every step of the game. But poetry makes no money, so it has no responsibility to commercial needs."
Weigl didn't go to Vietnam to find grist for the writer's mill. He joined the Army in 1967 straight out of Admiral King High School in Lorain, Ohio, as much to escape the steel mill that had captured his father and grandfather as anything else, and wound up in the helicopter-borne Air Cavalry. During his tour as a forward communications specialist (read: combat radioman--extremely popular target), he kept a rudimentary diary but, in his own words, "wasn't literary at all." He barely wrote letters.
After mustering out in 1971 with a sergeant's stripes and a Bronze Star from action near Khe Sanh, Weigl enrolled at Oberlin College, part of the wave of young veterans that began to arrive on American campuses as the conflict was wearing down. It was an odd time to be riding the GI Bill; on the home front, the war had become background noise, resistance to it had mushroomed--especially at colleges--and here across the quad and into the student union cafeteria came guys who'd been to see the elephant, as Civil War soldiers put it, except no one much wanted to talk about the beast, least of all the fellows in the field jackets that they hadn't bought at a surplus store. The turned head, the averted glance--Weigl saw them, in fact looked away himself, for a time. He'd decided to study writing, but had no particular place to go with it, until a chance remark during a bull session.
"It hadn't occurred to me to write about Vietnam. People were sick of the war," he said. "But one night in 1972, after I'd written many poems, I was in a professor's office sharing a beer. He said something that reminded me of a story about Vietnam, and I told it. He said, 'That's a poem, right there. You should write it down just the way you told it to me.'
"I thought that was nonsense, but I did it, and as I did I got a great rush of something--maybe the realization of what a resource I had. It gave me a subject, and a lot of writers don't have subjects. It was also a way to let some of the stuff out. I don't believe in art as therapy, but I did go through something."
During the next decade-plus Weigl finished college, went to graduate school, and began teaching to pay the bills, all the while answering a muse that hovered over his evenings like a lift ship. He wrote and published five books of poetry--A Sack Full of Old Quarrels, The Executioner, A Romance, The Monkey Wars, and Song of Napalm--diving again and again into a well that in other men's lives has gone undug or been capped. Eventually, his war became a matter of meter and nuance, horror transmuted by scrutiny from an emotional problem into one of aesthetics. The bad dreams continue, but in less stark relief.
"I did it for so long and for so many nights that the emotion began to wane. For me as an artist, the war is receding, although there's never any turning away from it," Weigl said. "Even in my other writing, it shapes and colors what I do. I need to begin to write past it, and I am--my next book, The Hand That Takes, only has two Vietnam poems. I didn't have any choice about writing about the war. I write what the world gives me."
What the world gave Bruce Weigl was an eye for mortal detail, and a warrior's memories. Robert Stone, who knows a thing or two about words, calls Weigl's poetry "a refusal to forget . . . an angry assertion of the youth and life that was spent in Vietnam with such vast prodigality, as though youth and life were infinite." In subject and style, Weigl's poems are scary little unblinking monsters that hold the eye to the page like beautifully composed photographs of atrocities. He remembers his father's hard kiss on the day that he flew off to the war, the cans of C rations fired like fastballs from the back of a truck into the foreheads of children, the smell of soldiers' shit burning in a hole at An Khe, the echo as a booby trap went off in a temple that appeared on no map, the way napalm draws a burning limb up into a claw. And remembering these things, he insists on committing them to paper, as in "The Soldier's Brief Epistle":
You think you're better than me,
cleaner or more good
because I did what you may have only
imagined as you leaned over the crib
or watched your woman sleep.
You think you're far away from me
but you're right here in my pants
and I can grab your throat
like a cock and squeeze.
And you want to know what it's like
before I go. It's like
a bad habit, pulling the trigger,
like a dream come true.
And he did not hide well enough
I would tell his family
in a language they do not understand,
but he did not cry out,
and he was very difficult to kill.
"Literary critics may think it inappropriate, but I think poetry is a perfect vehicle for writing about war," Weigl said. "Poetry has an immediateness about it, a compactness that is very like combat, which happens very quickly. Wars can last for years, but they're made up of battles that can last for seconds. That may be what led me to poetry, which seemed to be the form in which I could best express myself about that experience."
I asked Weigl whether he ever hears from other veterans about his work.
"My fellow ex-warriors generally don't read poetry," he said. "And there's a curious phenomenon among men my age who didn't go--a funny jealousy, they don't want to hear about it. It happens especially in the business I'm in. Academics who didn't go really don't want to hear about it. I've had people on peer-review bodies tell me to 'move beyond Vietnam.' I'm suspicious of their motives, but I understand the impulse; American society places such unreasonable and pathological demands on men to prove their manhood, and going to war is an easy fix for that."
John Balaban's analysis of his Vietnam experience and how it came to shape his writing is elegant and wry, like his poetry. A Philadelphia native who went to Harvard to study writing, Balaban opposed the war but found his student deferment a rankling thing, and by May 1967 was in country, albeit as a conscientious objector.
"I'm awfully glad I did it, although it's brought certain difficulties into my life and career," he said. "If I'd stayed at Harvard in Robert Lowell's class, I'd have had a different life, but I felt compelled to go to Vietnam. I wanted to deal with my conscientious objection to the war and go to Vietnam. I'd marched against it, but before I went over I had no idea of what it was."
Unlike Weigl, Balaban arrived in Vietnam at the relatively ripe age of 23, in his own eyes already a writer, and as interested in experience as any young writer, conscientious objections or no.
"I had a plan," he told me on the phone. "None of it turned out, but at least I had an idea--teach linguistics at a Vietnamese university. I thought it was an alternative service I could perform competently and at the same time bear witness to the war. What I did was collect folk poetry and work with war-injured children. I dealt daily with children burned by napalm and white phosphorus, riddled with bullets. Many of them died before we could help them. It's not an easy set of memories."
Balaban began working with the wounded children when his university was bombed out of business. Seeking succor and at heart still a scholar, he happened onto ca dao (pronounced "ka yow" in the south, "ka zow" in the north), a uniquely Vietnamese strain of folk poem.
Like the blues and other unlettered yet artful oral forms, ca dao blend strict structure and economy of language. The tradition dates back a millennium. Ca dao appear most often as combinations of a couplet of six-syllable lines followed by one of eight-syllable lines--an Indochinese haiku, if you will. Another haikulike trait: Vietnamese verbs themselves don't indicate tense, and ca dao's taut structure leaves scant space for time-marking expressions such as "today," "yesterday," "a hundred years ago." The result is that the poems are in the eternal present, exuding a timeless, meditative quality.
As Balaban notes in his pellucid introduction to a bilingual collection of 50 ca dao that he translated (Ca Dao Vietnam, Unicorn Press, 1980), the six pitches with which a Vietnamese syllable can be pronounced convey six different meanings. The 5,000 or so classical ca dao, passed from singer to singer, vary in melody by region. New poems are invented all the time. Many are brief, although the most famous, a 17th-century epic called The Tale of Kieu, consists of 3,250 lines of six-eight couplets.
When Balaban began inquiring about ca dao, he found that a few had been arranged for western-style chorales (think of the Osmonds singing Robert Johnson). City-bred Vietnamese told him that otherwise ca dao were extinct, rendered obsolete by radio and television and the war. But Balaban persisted, and learned that in the countryside the tradition was alive and well. After completing his CO work--in the process collecting a wound from a stray round--Balaban spent 1971-72 recording ca dao. Even with the best of intentions and the most conscientious of objections, an American had no business being in the war zone armed only with a fledgling fluency in Vietnamese and a tape recorder; Balaban hopped that hurdle by traveling to Con Phung (Phoenix) Island, a sort of open city in the Mekong River delta 60 miles southwest of Saigon. Balaban describes it in the introduction to his book of translations:
"Con Phung was then a haven for the followers of Nguyen Thanh Nam, better known as Ong Dao Dua, the "Coconut Monk,' a wizened, S-shaped (back broken once in a fall from a tree) little man with a chirpy voice, a practitioner of 'crazy wisdom,' who organized--if that is the word--the island community through a kind of wacky amalgamation of Taoism, Buddhism, and Christianity. Huge figures of the Virgin Mary and Quan Om, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy (hand in hand), Christ and Buddha (arm in arm), and a Taoist patriarch (potbellied, laughing) hovered over the prayer circle which was divided into Yin and Yang sections and built on pylons above the Mekong. Plaster of paris dragons with light bulbs popping from their stalk eyes danced on all the columns. At night, the whole place was lit by Christmas lights, and day and night the island resounded with the gongings of two massive bells made from spent artillery casings. Strange as this all sounds, this was the only place in the South which both sides left alone and which the war never ravaged. Peasants fled to Con Phung from all over the war-torn Delta--country people, farmers, fishermen, shipwrights--and luckily for me I could go and meet them on Con Phung where they inevitably pooled their various repertoires of ca dao."
I asked Balaban how his experience with Vietnam's language and poetry has affected his writing. He demurred.
"I don't know if it's influenced me. I don't have a great facility with Vietnamese, and it's an area in which any English department has no interest," he said. "The translating is a curious enterprise. I've never devoted full time to it, but now and then I'll read Vietnamese to my students, and I do find that the act of translating raises interesting questions that have to be regarded when you translate any Vietnamese poem, or any poem in another language."
(Later Weigl, who is careful to note that although they're colleagues and have collaborated on half a dozen readings, he and Balaban aren't exactly Penn State's Rambo twins, set me straight about Balaban's translating. "The Vietnamese consider him the best translator of Vietnamese poetry," said Weigl, who returned to Vietnam in 1985 with Balaban and another veteran-poet. "While we were there we were in a discussion with some Vietnamese poets, and one of them pointed out that in an article about ca dao a Vietnamese essayist had footnoted Balaban, so there you are.")
As a poet in his own right, Balaban is much more the classicist than Weigl, employing Dido and Raleigh in walk-ons, introducing book segments with slices of Suetonius and Milton and Marvell and poems with bits of Brecht and Ovid. His language is lush and laden with shading, his musings on the war elliptical but sharp, as in "Crossing on the Mekong Ferry, Reading the August 14 New Yorker":
Near mud-tide mangrove swamps, under the drilling sun
the glossy cover, styled green print, struck the eye:
trumpet-burst yellow blossoms, grapevine leaves,
--nasturtiums or pumpkin flowers? They twined
in tangles by our cottage in Pennsylvania.
Inside, another article by Thomas Whiteside.
2, 4, 5-T, teratogenicity in births;
South Vietnam 1/7th defoliated, residue
in rivers, foods, and mother's milk.
With a scientific turn of mind I can understand
that malformations in lab mice may not occur in children,
but when, last week, I ushered hare-lipped, tusk-toothed kids
to surgery in Saigon, I wondered, what did they drink
that I have drunk. What dioxin, picloram, arsenic
have knitted in my cells, in my wife now carrying
our first child. Pigs were squealing in a truck.
Through the slats, I saw one lather the foam in his mouth.
Like Weigl, Balaban would like to write past the war, but hesitates to say he's done with it just yet.
"Obviously if you look at my writing you see how preoccupied I am with Vietnam," he said. "I've written two books of poetry and one of translation--and I still try to translate Vietnamese--and the text for a book of photographs, and now I'm working on a memoir. I'd like to think that that would be it, but each time I learn something new.
"The hard thing is to convince editors. For a long time they'd say, 'Vietnam? No one wants to hear about that!' Now they say, 'Vietnam? Everybody's heard about that!'"
Ken Lopez is a rare-book dealer who specializes in Vietnam-related material. He tells me his next catalog will have a separate section of poetry--about 50 entries.
"The most prevalent stuff is antiwar poetry, mostly by activists who were writing about their experience of the war from New York or Los Angeles," Lopez says. "The only poetry in the 60s by Vietnam veterans was a little book called Boondock Bards, published in 1968 by Pacific Stars and Stripes, a subsidiary of the service newspaper of the same name. It's horrible poetry, really bad sentimental doggerel--as much propaganda as anything else--but it's important because it was early and distinctly Vietnam-related."
Lopez dates the first appearance of quality veteran poetry to the early 70s and Listen, the War, an anthology of writing by veterans of all stripes that was published by the Air Force Academy Association of Graduates. Other anthologies began to appear--Poetry of Vietnam Veterans, Long Island #2, Mouth: Poetry by Vietnam Veterans. But the first individual books of poems by veteran poets to attract critical praise came in 1972: Michael Casey's Obscenities, part of Yale University's Younger Poets series, and D.C. Berry's saigon cemetery, published by University of Georgia Press.
The same year saw a watershed anthology, Winning Hearts and Minds: War Poems by Vietnam Veterans, a $1.95 olive-drab paperback put out by First Casualty Press, which took its name from Aeschylus ("In war, truth is the first casualty"), its mission from the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (of which coeditor Jan Barry was a founding father), and its tenor from the times.
"This is more than a book of poetry. It is meant to be used in many other ways than simply to fill a small corner of your bookshelf, or to lay like a badge of social conscience on your coffee table," Barry and cohort wrote in the afterword. "Read it aloud to friends and family, at PTA meetings, Rotary meetings, VFW meetings, American Legion meetings, Military Order of the Purple Heart meetings, your next military Reserve meeting, City Council meetings, coffee klatches, peace demonstrations, political rallies, Sunday School classes, School Board meetings, WCTU meetings; read it to the Mayor, the Governor, your Congressman, your Senators, to visiting Presidential candidates; read it from soap boxes, speakers' platforms, pulpits, and from your own armchair; read it in class, read it to your class, read it to school assemblies, college convocations, between half-times at sports events; read it over the air on radio, on television, over the telephone; read it into the Congressional Record, read it every time you make a speech; as you run for re-election, for President, for PTA Chairman, for Class Orator. Read part of it, read all of it. Read some of it, everywhere two or more people congregate."
The poetry in Winning Hearts and Minds is far more subtle, and more affecting, than its accompanying agitprop might suggest. Sometimes reflective, sometimes slashing, the poems give flesh to the bones once shown nightly on the news. The first printing sold well, a rare feat for any book of poetry but especially rare for a 10,000-copy edition of poems dissecting a war as unloved as Vietnam. A volume of short stories, Free Fire Zone, followed soon after. Eventually acquired and reprinted by McGraw-Hill, these books introduced veteran writers who later would make bigger marks: Larry Heinemann, who wrote the fine novels Close Quarters and Paco's Story. Gustav Hasford, whose contribution to Winning Hearts and Minds, a grim wisp called "Bedtime Story," was written during the February 1968 storming of the Citadel in Hue City--the setting to which Hasford returned in his novel The Short-Timers, eventually Kubrickated onto the big screen as Full Metal Jacket. And William Ehrhart, who went on to write a substantial body of poetry and nonfiction and edited a pair of poetry collections, Carrying the Darkness and Unaccustomed Mercy, recently reprinted by Texas Tech University Press.
Ehrhart may not be a household name, but as I enquired further into the poetry of Vietnam he began to cast a long shadow. Weigl had mentioned him, as had Balaban--Ehrhart, it turned out, was the third man on that 1985 trip to the once-bloody ground. At a 1989 symposium in Hadley, Massachusetts, at which book dealer Lopez gave the opening remarks, Weigl, Balaban, and Ehrhart had all read. Bibliographers John Newman of Colorado State University and John Baky of LaSalle University also mentioned Ehrhart as a key figure in veteran poetry.
I got hold of Ehrhart in Boston, where he's spending a year as a visiting professor at the University of Massachusetts's William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences. I asked about his war and its consequences.
"I grew up in Perkasie, Pennsylvania. My father was a Protestant minister; there were four boys in the family. I enlisted in the Marines in 1966, when I was 17, which meant that I had to get parental consent," he told me. "They put me in air intelligence with the First Battalion of the First Marines. I wasn't a rifleman, but I spent a lot of time in the field with the scouts. I was there between February '67 and February '68, when I was wounded at Hue City during Tet. I had a three-year contract; after Vietnam I was stationed in North Carolina, then Okinawa, Japan, and the Philippines.
"When I got out I spent four years at Swarthmore College, a year as a crewman on an oil tanker, and two years with the Pennsylvania Department of Justice, working as a legal aide for a special prosecutor investigating police and political corruption during the Rizzo era. That was an interesting job; here I am, I've had it up to my ears with the national government, then I get my face rubbed in how rotten it is at the local level.
"I'd been writing since I was 15, so I don't know whether Vietnam made me a writer. After leaving the prosecutor's office I got a master's in writing at the University of Illinois, and since 1979 I've been teaching off and on, mostly at Quaker secondary schools. I teach when I have to, I write when I can."
Through the 70s Ehrhart published poetry exclusively, first via Samisdat, a mimeo guerrilla imprint in Berkeley, California, then with more established houses. After producing The Outer Banks and Other Poems and To Those Who Have Gone Home Tired, he joined Jan Barry to edit Demilitarized Zones, a sequel to Winning Hearts and Minds. He edited another collection, Those Who Were There, and began branching into nonfiction: Vietnam-Perkasie is a memoir of the war; Passing Time covers his subsequent five years; Going Back, his 1985 trip with Weigl and Balaban. He decided to assemble Carrying the Darkness, and later Unaccustomed Mercy, to fill a void.
"After all the years of no one wanting to hear about it, in the 80s people started to ask about the war. Today's younger generation knows about Vietnam almost entirely from Hollywood and television, which is to say they know almost nothing and that what they know is wrong," he said. "I wanted to make this material available under one cover. The stuff had been written, but just wasn't around. For example, Balaban's first book, After Our War, had come out in 1974, but by '77 it was out of print, like a lot of other books.
"I'd been working with American poetry about Vietnam since '71, so I knew what I wanted. A lot of it I had in my personal collection, stuff I'd been grabbing over the years. I also put notices in writing journals. Some of it came in over the transom."
Carrying the Darkness, as its title implies, takes the American experience in Vietnam past May Day 1975 into the present, with nods in the directions of Grenada, Central America, and other outposts of imperial desire. Many of the poems date badly, but others, like Ehrhart's own "The Blizzard of Sixty Six," resonate:
Snow came early here, and hard:
roads treacherous; wires down.
School authorities should have cancelled
the annual high school Christmas dance:
two couples died on the way home.
"Tragedy," the local papers declared,
but the snow kept falling.
Somewhere in a folder in a file
is a photograph of me in a uniform:
one stripe for PFC girl in a yellow gown.
I took her home through the falling snow,
kissed goodnight, and left for Asia.
All through that year, snow
fell and fell on the green rice,
on gray buffalo, thatched huts, green
patrols, and the mounting yellow dead.
Randy, class of '65, died
of permanent cold in the Mekong Delta;
Kenny, class of '66, died in a blizzard
of lead in the Central Highlands;
I came home with permanent chills,
the yellow nameless dead of Asia
crammed into my seabag, and all of us
looking for a reason.
We never found one. Presidents
come and go like snowdrifts
in driveways; generals come and go;
the earth goes on silently turning
and turning through its seasons,
and the snow keeps falling.
I asked Ehrhart what the differences were between the poems that came out of Vietnam and other war poetry.
"War poetry traditionally has been very romantic stuff--the poets bought into the cultural mysticism with which we surround war itself," he said. "Even much of the great poetry of World War I is really very romantic. The English poets follow the rules, make it familiar, make it fit into the English literary tradition. What Vietnam poetry does is destroy tradition. There's virtually nothing romantic in poetry about Vietnam; to have attempted to harness traditional forms would be to contravene what we've learned, which is that the tradition is bullshit. It's also safe to say that among the people who have been writing well--not the Boondock Bards stuff--of thousands of poems, I've seen almost nothing that has anything good to say. I didn't go out looking for antiwar poems, but whatever the authors' attitudes, they've got nothing good to say about Vietnam."
My next question was the same one I'd put to Weigl and Balaban--basically, when is a writer through with his war? I could hear Ehrhart's hackles rising right through the telephone wires.
"I often wonder if people used to ask James Jones why he was hung up on World War II," he said with no small trace of bitterness. "Vietnam is an ugly unresolved dilemma in the American consciousness. People like us who write about it make people like them uncomfortable. It's the job of the poet to write down whatever he can get his hands on. In the writing of the very best poets to come out of Vietnam, like Weigl and Balaban, you find a great deal of work that doesn't deal with Vietnam, but Vietnam continues to resurface. It's always going to be there; it's not going to go away."
After reading the poetry of Vietnam and speaking by telephone with some of its creators, I finally met two of the poets, Weigl and Balaban, in Washington, D.C., at a reading they gave at the Folger Library. Any images I might have formed of them vanished quickly. Both wore blacks and grays, but like sidekicks in a movie, Weigl was the tall, thin, hero-handsome one in the horn-rims, grave and courtly despite his wild-style squiggly wide tie; Balaban, shorter and rounder and jollier, wore a mustache that accentuated his raffish mandarin charm.
The evening was to have three parts: a seminar, a buffet dinner, then the reading.
The seminar, a gathering mostly of students, arts patrons, and interested bystanders, never quite caught fire. The poets sat at a table in a low-ceilinged basement room, behind them a mural of one of those rotted-out imaginary ruins.
Weigl read a personal essay, "Towards a Biography of Place," about growing up working-class in a steel town, playing war on the slag heaps, part of a pack of teenagers "edgy, restless, crazy to be something we couldn't name." He explained how though he often longs for the "flat, bleak landscape" of Lorain, visiting his hometown each year to immerse himself in the "peculiar rhythms of people at work," he is as in thrall to Vietnam, to which he travels more often--in dreams. Until December 1985, that is, when he and Balaban and Ehrhart returned as guests of a retired NVA general. During the trip, they visited a museum in Ho Chi Minh City that displays a faux tiger cage, attended by Miss Tao, who had spent a year in the real thing during the war.
"A tiger cage is a cube made of bamboo, four feet high and six feet wide," Weigl explained. "People were held in it with iron shackles. The bars were four or five inches apart, so there was no protection from the weather. When it was hot the guards would jam more people inside; when it was cold, they would spread the prisoners out. She and I sat in the mock tiger cage at the museum and talked, and I saw that she stayed on earth by keeping a part of herself in the tiger cage." The dedication of Song of Napalm reads: "To Miss Tao of the tiger cage."
Balaban began by quoting Dante, to the effect that the only proper subjects of poetry are love, virtue, and war. He dipped into a little Emerson, some William Carlos Williams, some Wallace Stevens. Then he told of a trip last December back to Vietnam, when he drove the road to Can Tho from Ho Chi Minh City and saw the country as if the United States had never been there, dazzling green, swept clean of barbed wire and guard towers. He looked up some of the children he'd evacuated stateside for medical treatment 20 years before, fearing that he might have set them up to be injected full of Disneyland and the Top 40 only to be sent home to live lives of hopeless division.
"There was no cultural damage," he said. "I was the ghost, dwelling on the war they'd forgotten."
Then Balaban talked a bit about ca dao, and sang one, a verse intended to be in the voice of a 12-year-old girl complaining about a bigamous man's second wife:
A breeze stirs banana leaves behind the house.
You're crazy about your second wife and neglect the children.
The children: well, with one on each arm,
with which hand shall I draw water,
which hand rinse rice?
In Vietnamese the poem has a plaintive lilt, an echo of the eternal. Balaban reiterated things he'd told me on the phone: with more than eight million Americans walking around with live memories of serving in Vietnam, the war will remain an important theme in spite of itself; although most of the movies being made about the war are indecent to the memory of the Vietnamese and Americans who fought there, he'd still like to cash in on the trend. He admitted that he's sent his novel, Coming Down Again, to Oliver Stone, getting a laugh when he added that he draws the line at selling the option to Sylvester Stallone.
After a few meandering questions, there was dinner, and then the reading, set in the aged oak and red plush of the Folger Theater. The stage was raked steeply for a production of The Tempest ("Teach me your language and I'll curse you," Weigl cracked, quoting Caliban).
Balaban read first, selecting poems inspired by objects he keeps at hand, like Proust with his tin of madeleines: a Vietnamese dictionary with the smell of the place embedded in its pages, an opium smoker's stone pillow, a watch once worn by a failed Vietnamese diplomat. He talked about ca dao, which perked up the Vietnamese in the sparse audience. One woman smiled conspiratorially as he sang an old entendre-thick poem about a sea snail ("It's just as filthy in English as it is in Vietnamese," Balaban said), nodding and smiling as the American's voice took on the tentative inhaling quality of her language. He switched to his own work, documenting in "Words for My Daughter" the casual meanness of ordinary life, of war, of memory. "I want you to know the worst and be free from it," the poem concluded. Balaban's last offering was an exercise in self-reference--he was in it, along with Weigl, and Ehrhart, and Mr. Giai, a Vietnamese bureaucrat who told a story about fighting the French in 1945:
The French ships shelled Haiphong then took the port.
Mr. Giai was running down a road, mobilized,
with two friends, looking for their unit in towns
where thatch and geese lay shattered on the roads
and smoke looped up from cratered yards. A swarm
of bullock carts and bicycles streamed against them
as trousered women strained with children, chickens,
charcoal and rice towards Hanoi in the barrage lull.
Then, Giai said, they saw just stragglers.
Ahead, the horizon thumped with bombs.
At an empty inn they tried their luck
though the waiter said he'd nothing left.
"Just a coffee," said Mr. Giai. "A sip
of whisky," said one friend. "A cigarette," the other.
Miraculously, these each appeared. Serene,
they sat a while, then went to fight.
Giai wrote a poem about that pause for Ve Quoc Quan,
the Army paper. Critics found the piece bourgeois.
Forty years of combat now behind him
--Japanese, Americans, and French,
Wounded twice, deployed in jungles for nine years,
his son just killed in Kampuchea,
Giai tells this tale to three Americans
each young enough to be his son:
an ex-Marine once rocketed in Hue,
an Army grunt, mortared at Bong Son,
a C.O. hit by a stray of shrapnel,
all four silent now in the floating restaurant
rocking on moorlines in the Saigon river.
Crabshells and beer bottles litter their table.
A rat runs a rafter overhead. A wave slaps by.
"That moment," Giai adds, "was a little like now."
They raise their glasses to the river's amber light,
all four as quiet as if carved in ivory.
Weigl's reading was less chatty, intent on matters of death and sex and with few witty asides except for his ironic pitch on behalf of his book, Song of Napalm. He read from that book and from the yet-unpublished The Hand That Takes in the flat, chopped tones of the midwest, cheekbones high and hard under the spotlights, his height combining with the raked stage to cause him to loom. He ended with "Elegy":
Into 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 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.
As usually occurs at such events, copies of the writers' work were offered for sale after the reading. I was waiting my turn to purchase when a pair of jeunes filles joined the line beside me.
"I don't know about these Vietnam movies," one said, tossing her bangs. "I've seen China Beach a bunch of times. . . . That Bruce Weigl, he's intense."
"Yeah," said her friend. "And cute."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Charles Steck.