Horrors of war - in chapter and verse

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Vietnam War vet uses poetry to confront his past and find a future


Bruce Weigl plays with a little boy in Quang Tri Province.

In Vietnam, he lost his soul but found his voice.

Bruce Weigl is said to have made a remark to this effect to fellow poet Charles Simic.

The Vietnam War vet seems to have found more than his voice on the former battlefield.

In his own words: "The war has robbed many things from me, but it has given me poetry, a Vietnamese daughter, a love for Vietnam and its people."

He has returned to Vietnam several times since the war ended. His latest trip this month was to launch his newest book, "After the rain stopped pounding," a poetic memoir.

"I found my way to poetry as medicine for my soul; poetry gave me the space to cry, to laugh and to allow the imagination to try to come to terms with the terrifying experiences from the war and the good fortune that had saved me from death," he says in "Returning to the Vietnamese Home," the second part of the two-part book.

The first part is a collection of poems entitled "Song of Napalm."

Local poetess Phan Thi Thanh Nhan said such a work could only have been written by a person who experienced first-hand the horrors of war. "We understand, forgive and sympathize with the poet. The book will contribute to reconciliation and strengthen relations between the two former enemies."

The book is at once an artistic expression and an exploration of the fear and angst that Weigl and others experienced as they arrived in Vietnam in the late 1960s, and it is done with almost painstaking attention to details of physical surroundings.

 PROFILE

Bruce Weigl, born in Lorain, Ohio, in 1949, was in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968. Since his first full-length collection of poems, "A Romance," came out in 1979, 10 other collections of poems have been published. His works also include "The Circle of Hanh: A Memoir," in which he writes, "The war took away my life and gave me poetry in return... the fate the world has given me is to struggle to write powerfully enough to draw others into the horror."

He is a former president of the Associated Writing Program and Poetry Panel Chair for the National Book Award. Weigl has received two Pushcart Prizes and the Lannan Literary Award in Poetry. He was also nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for "Song of Napalm."

Weigl has said that he will continue to talk about the sorrows and horrors of the war, but that he is also ashamed when he does it, because his sorrow pales in front of that experienced by the Vietnamese people. Decades after the war ended, it continues to maim and claim the lives of Vietnamese citizens through unexploded ordnances and Agent Orange victims

He has published 13 books to date, but the memoirs "The Circle of Hanh" and "After the Rain Stopped Pounding," translated by adopted daughter Nguyen Thi Hanh Weigl and Nguyen Phan Que Mai respectively, are his most important works, Weigl said.

He hopes that his works will help people know that there are many Americans who sincerely love Vietnam.

Vietnamese poet Tran Dang Khoa said: "With his poems, Bruce Weigl has built a museum of the Vietnam War."

Weigl said he also wants readers to understand more about a developing Vietnam. Hanoi was a poor city with empty shops and no hotels when he returned to Vietnam for the first time in 1985, and it was very difficult to travel across the country. However, he was amazed at how rapidly and how much everything had changed on his next visits. Weigl has returned to Vietnam 13 times.

Returning a Vietnamese lady

In 1996, Weigl adopted a girl from an orphanage, telling the officials: "Today I receive from you a Vietnamese child. I promise that in the future, I will return a Vietnamese lady to you. I will never change her into an American."

His family has tried their best to help the adopted daughter Nguyen Thi Hanh Weigl preserve her Vietnamese heritage, including the language. There were times he was afraid that his daughter would forget her language, origin and memories. However, his own love for Vietnam has helped prevent that from happening.

Hanh, 24, can speak Vietnamese fluently. She is also proficient in both writing and reading. After graduating university in 2009, Hanh translated Weigl's "The Circle of Hanh."

Weigl has any number of interesting stories to tell about his trips to Vietnam after the war, including an impromptu poetry exchange with a group of cyclo drivers, and he is sure to have gathered more during his latest trip, when he visited Quang Tri, where he'd fought earlier, and met up with writers, poets and war veterans in Hue.

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