Bruce Weigl, Poet and Memoirist
2001 CLEVELAND ARTS PRIZE FOR LITERATURE
Bruce Weigl’s journey away from Northeast Ohio, and now back to it, is an archetypal American story. Born and raised in Lorain, and sent to Vietnam after high school, Weigl survived to become one of America’s most admired poets: an eloquent spokesman for an entire generation of Americans whose lives were broken by the war and a country whose moral confusion has desperately needed addressing. His unflinchingly honest poems, about Vietnam and about America, have brought him critical praise and a wide readership; his recent volume of new and selected poems, Archeology of the Circle, and prose memoir, The Circle of Hahn, have confirmed his eminence.
Growing up in a blue-collar environment in Lorain, Weigl never saw himself as a budding writer, much less a poet. It was his Vietnam experience, coupled with the opportunity to enter a lively undergraduate writing scene at Oberlin College, that shaped his vocation. He taught for many years in Pennsylvania State University’s writing program with growing success as a poet, and deepened his relation to Vietnam through the study of its history and culture, friendships with Vietnamese writers, a growing interest in Buddhism, translations of Vietnamese poetry and finally the adoption of a Vietnamese daughter.
In 1998, he accepted a part-time position as Distinguished Visiting Writer at Lorain County Community College, with the hope of being able to devote more time to writing. Returning to Ohio, at first in his writing and then in his decision to settle here, he has reacquainted himself with the landscape and people of his early years, writing with eloquence and grace about a world whose innate poetry had not previously found a voice.
Song of Napalm, published in 1988, brought Weigl’s Vietnam poems together in a single volume and revealed him as one of those rare writers who are able to show the rest of us what it was like to be there, in the peculiar horrors of a modern war. Now he also began to map the painful return of soldiers who were at first neither welcomed nor acknowledged—an invaluable gift. Archeology of the Circle revisits those Vietnam poems and places them in the larger context of the American experience. The book embodies the search for enlightenment that has characterized Weig’s own life. He has never denied the pain and loss of his generation, but by finding both beauty and meaning in some of the most painful episodes of our recent history, he has authenticated the resilience of the human spirit.
The Circle of Hahn weaves several stories into one moving whole, linking his growing up in Lorain and his war years to his recent efforts to adopt a Vietnamese child. Weigl’s use of the circle as a central image in both books is an affirmation of the insight that we can return to the sources of our pain and loss and, by confronting them honestly, find redemption.
Encountering Dostoevski in Vietnam
I graduated high school in June and by December I was in An Khe, the Republic of South Vietnam, and with the 1st Air Cavalry I gradually moved north towards trouble of such dimensions that the most powerful army in the history of the world would be brought to its knees.
The paradox of my life as a writer is that the war ruined my life and in return gave me my voice. The war robbed me of my boyhood and forced me, at eighteen years old, to bear too much witness to the world, and to what men were capable of doing to other men, and to children, and to women, and to themselves, trapped in the green inscrutable intention of the jungle.
The war took away my life and gave me poetry in return. The war taught me irony: that I instead of the others would survive is ironic. All of my heroes are dead. The fate the world has given me is to struggle to write powerfully enough to draw others into the horror.
I ended up north on Highway One past Hue. I must have drunk some bad water from the Ca Lu River because I got sick. I shit and I vomited, and in my stomach a black snake grew. They sent me to base camp at An Khe where I slept in twisted sheets on a cot until a man from the Red Cross threw a book at me from a box of books and said Read this boy.
That morning as I lay sick on a cot, holding the paperback, I could not say the names that I read there, even out loud to myself. I had been born into the house of my working mother and father, the house of no books, but I kept reading, the dream of the suffering horse pulling me in. I read Raskolnikov’s letter over and over. Something snapped into place in my brain.
“I fear in my heart that you may have been visited by the latest unfashionable belief,” Pulcheria wrote to her son.
don’t know why the words made sense to me then: 1968, the war raging
all around us, the air filled with screams. The world must have
conspired to put me there, in that war, in that province of blood, at
that moment, so the man could drop that book on my bunk without looking
at me. That book was my link to another world, my bridge to a space
blown wide open with a light that filled my brain.
—The Circle of Hanh (Grove Press, 2000)
Cleveland Arts Prize
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