Reading War: Bruce Weigl’s SONG OF NAPALM

41AVQN9F4ZL._SX312_BO1,204,203,200_I’m comfortable telling you that I’ve never quite gotten into poetry.  Which isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy it, but I don’t crave it like some do. I envy the type – you know who I’m talking about – clutching a slim collection of poetry like it’s a brick of gold, nose buried in the folds, and the look of bliss. They’re always pausing to put the book down, and stare, glassy-eyes, off into the distance, at some fleeting memory of the Elysium they’ve just witnessed in a handful of pretty words.

As a writer, I’m not supposed to say things like this. In fact, I should be able to serve up flaming hot lines of poetry a propos to any situation. The more obscure, the better.

Unfortunately, I am the troglodytic writer who ums and ahs his way through interviews and is thoroughly unprepared to dish literary, let alone poetical, references at a moment’s notice. Only just now have I realized that it is National Poetry Month.

I know, I know…I’m hopeless.

By way of apology, however, I will recommend Bruce Weigl’s terrifyingly-named poetry collection, Song of Napalm, which could be considered a kind of memoir in verse. I’ve written about other Vietnam veteran memoirs, to include Tim O’Brien’s and Tobias Wolff’s (which reminds me that I still need to cover Phil Caputo.) And of course, there’s always Michael Herr to consider. But this was the first bit of Vietnam poetry I’d read in quite some time, maybe even since the Academy.

I had this epiphany during one of my MFA Residencies when I attended a poetry workshop, when I realized how much of what poetry exhibits translates to prose. Linguistic economy. Visual form and structure. Tight narrative. It was like someone smacked me upside the head, which is embarrassing to admit. For crying out loud, it took someone pointing out to me that my short essay “When We Played” was a prose poem under the right light.

Like I said, I’m not that bright.

Song of Napalm had much to teach me about writing short pieces, which is where I think there is a direct craft lesson for prose writers looking for poetic inspiration. To wit: if you want to write flash nonfiction, you’d be smart to spend some time reading narrative poetry. Count the number of words, if you really want to be impressed. Hell, even if you’re not inspired to bash your head against Brevity‘s 750-word limit, you would do well to study poetry’s refusal to let a single word go to waste. Aspire to a collection of linked essays? How about a collection of linked poems?

Weigl’s collection is devastating. It’s all there: the strange country we find ourselves inhabiting, the violence, and the difficult return. The wounds, unseen, that never heal. The knowledge that we have been forever changed. Song of Napalm nails it all, and it’s the type of collection that will rip your heart out. Repeatedly. And it’s that last bit that makes me think about emotion in memoir, or at least the way a memoirist chooses to convey their narrator. Weigl talks about some things in his poetry that are uncomfortable — things that polite society chooses to relegate to second-class narrative. I don’t know if it’s the fact that you get so little in the way of word count, but receive so much in the way of emotional impact, but Song of Napalm seemed the most personal and visceral piece of Vietnam writing – fiction or nonfiction – I encountered to date. So, perhaps the last thing the poetry collection has to say to memoir is, have the courage to write the uncomfortable things.


Reading War: Michael Herr’s Dispatches

41v0Ckz825LThe other day, I was talking to Brian Castner, author of The Long Walk, a brilliant memoir of the swath of time that surrounded his time as an Air Force EOD officer in Iraq. Like any discussion between writers, our talk made a left turn at “What are you reading these days?” I ran through two semesters of war memoir, but on the topic of Vietnam, he asked me what I thought about Dispatches. I, of course, bubbled like a fanboy; he on the other hand remarked that he liked it better as Full Metal Jacket, into which Herr folded Dispatches and co-wrote with Gustav Hasford for Stanley Kubrick. His point was that the structure of the memoir – fragmented and jumpy – seemed without a purpose besides self-indulgence.

He had a point – and it’s always tricky to understand the author’s intent from the narrator he creates on the page. Truth is certainly in the eye of the beholder in a case like this.

But I suppose my truth is different. The fragmentation of Dispatches to me was an attempt to get at the truth of not just war, but memory itself. Truth be told, what I call “straight ahead narratives,” or books structured chronologically, grate on me when it comes to memoir. It feels artificial to me, this tidy version of memory on the page. Give me the raw confusion of how the brain really works; jangled webs of brain cells all firing at once, sending our minds at one nanosecond to the third grade, and to our lost car keys the next. One moment the scent of lilac recalls an aunt’s perfume; the next, a vision of flowers that perhaps leads us to an altogether different memory until we find ourselves starting the car wearing one shoe, so distracted we have become.

This, to me, is the truth of memory and therefore, its documentation as memoir. It’s messy, confusing, difficult. A glorious mess. This isn’t to say that I can cruise through Ulysses over morning coffee. Or that I would want to. But I do love love the challenge of a fragmented memoir, which is why I loved both Herr’s and Castner’s. They both felt authentic. Dispatches jumps all over the the place, and his essayistic chapter “Illumination Rounds” is the strongest incarnation of this, literally a mosaic of memories conveyed with only two common threads: the narrator and the Vietnam War. It’s inspired at least two generations of like-minded war writers, and influenced at least two notable offerings: Brandon Lingle’s essay “I Thought You Were in Afghanistan” for Zone 3 and Donald Anderson’s memoir Gathering Noise from My Life. Fragmentation will always feel to me, closest to the experience itself.

Dispatches is not without its controversy — Herr has openly admitted to assembling the characters of Mayhew and Daytripper by stitching together notes taken from interactions with multiple real people — and stretching the limits of “creative” in “creative nonfiction.” Too, there is the matter of how he got there in the first pace; by talking Esquire into sending him to Vietnam simply to “write a story,” which evokes a kind of self-made man mystique that perhaps allows the author to craft a specific kind of narrator. But the controversies have not detracted from Dispatches‘ legacy as one of the key pieces of literature to emerge from Vietnam.

Dispatches is certainly on the must-read list of modern war memoir, but I also believe it has a lot to say to any author looking to cobble a story together from the disparate twines of memory. And about how to position your narrator to have deliver maximum impact. Oh, and just how creative you can get. And profane.

Oh, just read it already, and tell me what you think.