Song of Napalm
by Bruce Weigl
Rhetorical turns are especially important to Bruce Weigl’s “Song of Napalm,” since it achieves its success by reenacting an authentic process of realization. Not that less dramatic, more meditative poems that share a sequence of thoughtful retrospection don’t employ such strategies—they can and do—but Weigl’s approach demands it and provides a particularly instructive illustration.
The blend of past and present tenses, coupled with stances of both indirect and direct address, create a doubling effect in which the reader can experience Weigl’s speaker as poet, as husband, and as troubled veteran with immediacy and urgency. The poem’s rhetorical movement seeks less to convince the reader or the wife it addresses than to allow us to participate and feel engaged by the speaker’s perceptions and apperception. We are allowed into the mind’s process within a present moment that utilizes memory but does not seek, as a more ruminative poem might, to merely mirror the process of memory.
To appreciate its success, first imagine the poem framed differently. Say a first-person, past tense address, but as a purely internal monologue or an address to some other outside the margins of the page in which the moments of realization and explanation to the wife are recounted. This added layer of distance would force the poem back into thoughtfulness, back into the reconstruction of an event for the reader’s benefit as opposed to the speaker’s, undermining the poem’s drama. As it is written, present tense moments of self consciousness open the process of explanation to reader engagement. “Okay. . . I am trying to say this straight,” the speaker says. And later, “So I can keep on living, / so I can stay here beside you….” The speaker recognizes, even as he’s doing it, the temptation to revise history in order to escape its effects and to protect his wife from the very real presence of those images. But even more important to our experience of the poem–and to its insistence that there is no separation between past and present–the poem’s movement reenacts the speaker’s initial process of realization. Throughout the poem, the speaker vacillates (turns), seeing through alternate lenses of life and death. When he waxes poetic, sanitizing what happened with a romanticism that extends from the poem’s opening, almost idyllic, pastoral scene, he catches himself. So, it is not long before “the lie swings back again” and he sees that he has no choice but to write it as he truly knows it—a past that can never be past, but is indeed always present in its effects on him. At this point, the speaker’s shared imagery turns gruesomely realistic, direct and stark. His diction levels and word choices reflect–as the turning of sentences do–the shift to this next plateau of realization: “And nothing can change that….or deny it.”
Because of its complexity, and the turns that mirror the speaker’s process, we are allowed to experience what Weigl’s speaker has undergone. The poem’s closing lines hold two strong notes next to each other like tuning forks. One, the horrific, naked reality that the girl suffered and that our speaker must bear; the other, an almost transcendent understanding of the necessity of truth–of bearing honorable witness to human brutality and the girl’s tragic fate. It is a cross to bear, the poem says, but it is one that must be and should be borne honestly, not sanitized or romanticized. Most importantly, the structure of this poem, by mirroring as best it can the speaker’s authentic human struggle with knowledge as it unfolds and effects him, allows us as readers to pass through the artificial skin of paper and ink into that struggle, for ourselves.
Mark Cox’s latest books are Natural Causes and Thirty-seven Years from the Stone, both published in the Pitt Poetry Series. Recently, he edited Jack Myers’ posthumous poetry collection, The Memory of Water (New Issues, 2011). He teaches at UNCW and Vermont College.