Por: Bruce Weigl
I didn’t know then or would not allow myself to know that she was trying to find a way to say goodbye to me. Outside in the cold, December snow one night we had a stupid argument about something stupid, and let it go past certain boundaries, I think, of hurt. I didn’t know what the problem was. I tried to talk to her, but then during all of that, she lost an earring in the deep snow when she slammed her head into one of the historic elms where she had run into the dark to get away from me, or from her own longing. For a long time, I couldn’t find her, not until she came back, crying and begging me to help her find the earring. Her sister had given it to her many years before, she said, but I wasn’t sure why someone would cry so hard over a lost earring. I was still a boy, although I’d seen the war and some hard things, so I promised her I’d find her earring. She is cold and shaking. I’m on my hands and knees in the dark among huge elm trees. I can feel the rhythm of the night beat and pulse like a heart. I make a grid and then feel my way with gloveless hands through the snow as if I was feeling for the edge of a landmine trigger.
The snow continues to fall on me, and on the elm trees already heavy, and on the whole landscape of our dreams, so everything is white again, transformed into mute monuments of itself. My knees soak through and begin to freeze. My fingers I can no longer feel, but still, out of love I stay out there, looking for the tiny spray of gold in the tons of snow, as if finding it would somehow insure her love for me, but then the wind blows hard for a fool, and in that chill I get a good look at myself, on my hands and knees, searching for a tiny gold earring in the snow, and there is joy inside of my tears when I find the earring, buried there, among the elm trees that you could hide behind, in ambush.
Tale of the Tortoise
I don’t know how the tortoise got in through the fence and past the neighborhood dogs that run loose once the sun is down, but I found her near a nest of her eggs where the garden had already begun to turn to autumn. It seemed she’d found a home there, and who was I to tell her otherwise, so I brought her straw to make a better bed, and food I never saw her eat but that disappeared from the tin plate where I put it. I don’t remember now how long it took, but she kept the eggs warm until they hatched, and her many babies scrambled out in every direction until she rounded them up again into her care. Now I have to tell you that there never was a tortoise, only one that I wanted to be there. There never was a fence to crawl under, or neighborhood dogs for someone to step around down the dark alley. There was no dark alley. There was no nest or eggs, no straw, no hope for anything. But I did find a tortoise in my yard one morning where it had laid its eggs in a nest it had made with mowed grass. I don’t know where she came from but perhaps she was a neighbor’s pet, and there was a zoo nearby. I called the police to see if they knew what to do, and they came quickly, and confirmed that it was a tortoise, with eggs. Sometimes you need to tell a story to fill a hole in your mind, or to try and mend something that’s been torn by a violent wave that washed through you once. There was no tortoise, and no policeman. I know, I have to stop doing this. I want you to believe me. It’s all about the story. It’s all we have.
The Man in the Chair
The man in the chair is screaming his life away. No one cares that his bathrobe has fallen open, exposing the white skin of old age. No one cares that he’s screaming until the screams float down the hallway, and then out into the night that cares even less.
The maple trees I’m watching die have so much more freedom in their dying then the man in the chair. Someone who looks like me whispers in his ear that it will be alright, but for now he doesn’t stop screaming, each scream a wave that comes from far away then breaks onto our rocky shore.
I don’t know if the maple trees know that they are dying. Nothing can be done, so I watch them die and trim the dying branches and carry them away. The man in the chair wants someone to carry him away. He won’t stop screaming in the nursing home where my demented mother keeps her eyes closed but manages a Shut up on her own. This is what a life may come to after all, this is what a life is, and means, and smells and tastes and sounds like.
The Problem with Shapes in the Night Trees
On guard duty one night and as stoned as I could be, I took my place, mumbled to the guy I was replacing and settled into my position. The same thing was happening all up and down the perimeter so there was more noise than there should have been, but soon things quieted down and after a few more minutes I looked out at the rice fields that stretched out like a graveyard as far as I could see. I’d done this before and sometimes under much more duress, but the Viet Nam reefer had a hold of me, so I was reeling a bit, and glad I could sit down. I needed to focus so I squinted into the dark to get my night vision straight.
At first, I could only barely make out the line between where the rice fields ended, and the sky began, but as my eyes became more and more accustomed to the dark, I began to see more details. I looked and shook my head and looked again. I saw an entire platoon of Viet Cong soldiers moving almost imperceptibly in my direction through the dark, which was everyone’s direction, and my simple duty to defend, my sacred duty to defend the LZ which I did, with all of my heart. I needed to alert the guy down the line, but I couldn’t see him in the dark, and I didn’t want to make any noise, not a sound.
The problem with dark shapes in the night trees is that sometimes they’re bodies. I squinted again into the dark rice fields and put my nose to the breeze until I saw that the Viet Cong were water buffalo, easing through my line of fire. I could be easy as well and breathe again. But that’s not the end of the story because someone down the line at three a.m. pulled his claymores when some trip flares lit up our position and I heard the sputter of rifle fire nearby, all up and down the line. As the trip flares descended among us, you could see the shapes of water buffalo in that too sharp light; here and there and then so quickly gone. A few more rounds cracked, and then it was quiet again, so I could hear a frightful bellowing coming from the darkness,
sharp cries that sounded a lot like pain to me. All I could do was stay in my position and hope whatever it was would die soon so the sound of its dying would stop, and maybe that would be the end of it for the night. It’s from our links with other things that memory occurs, that’s why they won’t let go sometimes, no matter what you think or pray. The farmer found the bodies even before first light and dragged one calf to our bunker. Its eyes were still open, so it seemed to look at me I thought, its stilled gaze including me in the difficulty surrounding us all. I was eighteen years old and didn’t know much. I heard some voices raised in anger in the background; money was involved, and then some deals made I think, that would allow everyone safe passage out of the wreck of waste the war had become, but I wasn’t thinking about that. I was thinking about the bawling sound the calf had made after being torn to shreds by the claymore when it tripped the flares in its playful romping just off some ancient path through the rice. How human the voice had sounded, and how full of longing for peace. Any kind.
The Problem with Desire
I wanted the storm this afternoon somehow to come and be inside my body and everything I say and do. I wanted the green shock of trees in summer to fill me up, and the roots and worms and beetles underneath everything in their own webs of wonder, their own universe, to be my blood. I believe it is possible for something like this to happen, spinning as we do at the ends of sharp sticks, over the river of voices.
Tell Them Everything
Tell them everything, they said. Tell them about the sick hands of some evil people or the evil hands of some sick people. Tell them about the one who most betrayed, although a river appears now, so tell them about the river and forget her, whitewater and fat shad wiggling in death at the ends of our gigs, three prongs and waist deep between rocks where we had to wade our way carefully. More than one of us drowned in that river. We sold the shad to a Russian neighbor who paid ten cents a fish and we were so fucking rich we didn’t know what to do. Tell them what you did, they said. Can there be sin without punishment, I asked the father at catechism on Saturday, my parents too poor for Catholic school, and you had to learn the routine somewhere. I loved the Father, and when I went to war, he wrote to me once a month, but that Saturday morning when I longed only to be on a baseball field, or in the arms of Sister Mary Katherine, fat chance of that, he told me there were questions better left unasked. He didn’t say “unanswered,” as I had expected, but “unasked.” I was disappointed nearly to tears although he never knew that. Afterwards I stayed inside the church alone. I wanted to pray, but nothing would come to my lips, or to my heart which felt heavy for the first time. I could still hear the stern voice of the father, warning me about questions my life depended upon me asking. If you have the need to know, there’s nothing you can do except open a vein and bleed it out of you. Tell them about the bleeding they said, as if it was easy to pull a hook from a fish’s gills. Dome of blue sky is all that we have left between us and one catastrophe or another to wipe it all out, but that’s alright with me. Blue sky beyond a green line of old trees bending into the breeze but never letting go, beyond a small house and its many lives that come and go like bats to the last river in the night. Tell them about the night, about the church bells that won’t stop ringing, so many dead the rope pulled morning to dusk, no rest for anyone. I wanted to pray under the dome of blue sky, but nothing would come to my lips, and I think it must feel like when a spirit or something like a spirit dies inside of you.
For Carolyn F.
Sometimes How It Feels
Crucify me but don’t leave me alone tonight with nothing but the data. Everyone is awakened by the loud instructions shouted over the PA system. So delightful our excesses: spring fever among the mad, auto-asphyxiation in the doorway of an old sexual pleasure, the enema bag hanging like an exposed heart against the white porcelain, but this is all ancient history. Nothing can be brought back from there.
For Doctor J.
Bruce Weigl was born in Lorain, Ohio, USA, in 1949, the grandchild of immigrants. His most recent poetry collection, On the Shores of Welcome Home, won the Isabella Gardner Poetry Award and was published by BOA Editions in 2019. Forthcoming from BOA in 2020 is a collection of short prose, Among Elms, in Ambush: Fables and Parables. Previously Weigl published The Abundance of Nothing (TriQuarterly Books), one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 2013, a memoir – The Circle of Hanh (Grove Press, 2000) – as well as more than twenty-five other works of poetry, essays, and translations from the Vietnamese and the Romanian. His poetry, prose, essays and translations have appeared widely in magazines and journals across the united states as well as in Europe, and in Southeast Asia. He lives in Oberlin, Ohio, and in Ha Noi, Viet Nam.
About his work Carolyn Forche has written that “few poets of any generation have written so searingly of the trauma of war, inscribing its wound while refusing the fragile suture of redemption. In this and in the breadth of his accomplishment, Brue Weigl is one o the most important poets of our time,” and Denise Levertov has written that “Bruce Weigl’s unique verbal music is a song indivisible from its experiential roots. Events of childhood in the industrial Midwest, of young manhood flung unwitting into another land and culture, of the years of ongoing pain, of rare joy, of striving and illumination, are one fabric, not episodic. About his most recent poetry collection, the Pulitzer Prize winner Yusef Komunyakaa wrote that “Bruce Weigl’s On the Shores of Welcome Home deals with life and death matters, embracing earthy questions but always sighting a bead of true light. The mind and flesh of the soldier, of the survivor, of the seeker is laid bare as brotherly love. Weigl is always in at least two worlds at once – present and past: here and beyond. He poses questions of motion and emotion without easy Western answers. In fact, there’s nothing in this map of naked truths that’s easy. And, at times, the speaker of lyric reckoning holds himself accountable for the moments he said ‘I dare you.’ That is, On the Shores of Welcome Home underscores how we are indeed connected – responsible for and to each other. This collection pinpoints days and nights of everyday life under fire, with penetrating grace notes.”