Wednesday, May 2, 2012

NPM: Song of Napalm

We have some unfinished National Poetry Month business. I intended two more updates, but it looks like we're going to leave off on the first of the two. My apologies for slacking, and I have two words in my defense: nicotine withdrawal. It's worse than I imagined it could be, and it's somewhat disrupted my other habits.

Anyway, closing out this year's National Poetry Month, we have a couple of pieces from Bruce Wiegl's (1949 - ) Song of Napalm collection. Once again, here is a poet about whom I know next to nothing -- only that he is a Vietnam War veteran and that he's got quite a lot to say about his experience.

Experience. Jay Parini called poetry "a language that is adequate to our experience." The stereotypical experiences of the poet are usually moments of love, heartache, or the perception of the beautiful or the sublime. It is just as effective as creating a language that comes close to conveying ye liveliest Awfulness, to borrow a phrase from HP Lovecraft. (Sublime moments of beauty and wrenching existential panic attacks, I think, are two variations of the same essential experience, and the line between them sometimes appears very tenuous indeed.)


With sleep that is barely under the surface
it begins, a twisting sleep as if a wire
were inside you and tried at night
to straighten your body.
Or it's like a twitch
through your nerves as you sleep
so you tear the sheet from the bed
to try to stop the pounding spine.
A lousy, worthless
sleep of strangers with guns,
children trapped in the alley,
the teenage soldiers glancing back
over their soldiers*
the moment before
they squeeze the trigger.

I am going to stay here as long as I can.
I am going to sit in the garden as if nothing has
and let the bruised azaleas have their way.

* I really wanted to transcribe it as "shoulders," but the book says "soldiers." Hm.

Surrounding Blues on the Way Down

I was barely in country.
We slipped under the rain-black clouds
opening around us like orchids.
He'd come to take me into the jungle
so I felt the loneliness
though I did not yet hate the beautiful war.
Eighteen years old and a man
was telling me how to stay alive
in the tropics he said would rot me——

brothers of the heart he said and smiled
until we came upon a mama san
bent over from her stuffed sack of flowers.
We flew past her but he hit the brakes hard,
he spun the tires backwards in the mud.
He did not hate the war either
but other reasons made him cry out to her
so she stopped,
she smiled her beetle-black teeth at us,
in the air she raised her arms.

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.

Snowy Egret

My neighbor's boy has lifted his father's shotgun
  and stolen
down to the backwaters of the Elizabeth
and in the moon he's blasted a snowy egret
from the shallows it stalked for small fish.

Midnight. My wife wakes me. He's in the backyard
with a shovel so I go down half drunk with pills
that let me sleep to see what I can see and if it's
They boy doesn't hear me come across the dewy
He says through tears he has to bury it,
he says his father will kill him
and he digs until the hole is deep enough and
the egret carefully into his arms
as if not to harm the blood-splattered wings
gleaming in the flashlight beam.

His man's muscled shoulders
shake with the weight of what he can't set right no
  matter what,
but one last time he tries to stay a child, sobbing
please don't tell. . . .
He says he only meant to flush it from the shadows,
he only meant to watch it fly
but the shot spread too far
ripping into the white wings
spanned awkwardly for a moment
until it glided into brackish death.

I want to grab his shoulders,
Shake the lies loose from his lips but he hurts
he burns with shame for what he's done,
with fear for his father's
fists I've seen crash down on him for so much less.
I don't know what to do but hold him.
If I let go he'll fly to pieces before me.
What a time we share, that can make a good boy
  steal away,
wiping out from the blue face of the pond
what he hadn't even known he loved, blasting
such beauty into nothing.

The Last Lie

Some guy in the miserable convoy
raised up in the back of our open truck
and threw a can of C rations at a child
who called into the rumble for food.
He didn't toss the can, he wound it up and hung it
on the child's forehead and she was stunned
backwards into the dust of our tracks.

Across the sudden angle of the road's curving
I could see her when she rose,
waving one hand across her swollen, bleeding head,
wildly swinging her other hand
at the children who mobbed her,
who tried to take her food.

I grit my teeth to myself to remember that girl
smiling as she fought off her brothers and sisters.
She laughed
as if she thought it were a joke
and the guy with me laughed
and fingered the edge of another can
like it was the seam of a baseball
until his rage ripped
again into the faces of children
who called to us for food.

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 would not understand,

but he did not cry out,
and he was very difficult to kill.

And I guess we're done!

Apologies to Jeff for not closing out with Dr. Seuss or Shel Silverstein, like he suggested:

I decided while celebrating NPM with my class that you should write about children's poetry in your blog. I have a whole list of reasons why, but mainly because it's clever and holds up better than prose when you go back to read it as an adult. Seuss and Silverstein are a great place to start and my personal favorites. Let me know if you want to do this, or want me to give you the in-depth version of why this is a good idea.

I haven't even begun to think about posting poetry throughout next April -- I have no freaking idea where I'll even be next April -- but whatever happens, I plan on kicking off the festivities with some Silverstein.

One last thing.

If I go down to floor below me and stand more or less under my room, the scene looks like:

I live directly above a library. It's a luxury I'll be very reluctant to give up.

Most of the stuff posted here during the month came off that shelf against the wall. It's unlikely I would have discovered these collections and authors otherwise.


I was planning on giving a pedantic little speech about why libraries and stores selling a wide spectrum of printed books are such a valuable resource and how they perform a service that their digital counterparts cannot yet adequately match, but instead I think I'm going to pace around, drink a lot of water, and try not to think about cigarettes.

'Til next time!

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