War and Aftermath: Bruce Weigl’s Expanding Aesthetic

With his new collection On the Shores of Welcome Home, Bruce Weigl brings his expansive proclivities to a striking culmination, the poet balancing fervor and reserve, trepidation and aplomb, indignation and acceptance. In poem after poem, Weigl reexamines his Vietnam experiences, post-war realities, and the perennial effects of PTSD, offering commentaries on human nature, history, and the mystical life.

The book opens with “The Elephant Gift in the Room”:

Sun refuses the last nanosecond before night,
stars explode in your cold head—old, nostalgic bombs and rockets,
          classic mortar rounds—
but no one understands, and no one hears you speak, and no one
          even sees you
standing there in your sixty-two years, soldier.

The speaker exists in a state of pseudo-invisibility and encroaching oblivion. Such is the lot of the survivor. One’s quest for emancipation is undertaken alone. Redemption—spiritual and aesthetic—takes place in an empty room. That said, while the “rounds” still “explode” in the poet’s “cold head,” he has developed an ability to observe them more soberly, cultivating an invaluable, albeit precarious equanimity. In this way, he continues to re-envision the “bombing” of his psyche, engaged in an autohypnotic re-assemblage of his thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and memories.

In “Modern Paradox Sutra Fragment,” we witness the poet encountering the unencounterable (“A sex offender father broke the jaw / of his four-year-old cerebral / palsy son ...”). In the domain of the poem, “the father” represents a personal and archetypal sire and serves as a psychodramatic stand-in for God, Weigl’s contemporizing of the psychotic Zeus or Old Testament Yahweh. Additionally, the phrase “the father” metaphorizes the unique genetic, sociological, and environmental conditions into which each person is born. The “sex offender father” is tantamount to karmic cause, “the cerebral palsy son” to karmic effect. The poem proceeds: “Change yourself ... / because you can’t change anyone else.” And: “let [the boy’s] / blurred screams flow through you and not through you / to feel them deeply and then to let them go.” Weigl alludes to the continuum of intergenerational rage: what happens to us, what we do to others. Yet, the poet asserts, we have the capacity to experience and process our lives organically, in real time, to allow grief and anger to “flow through [us]” and “then to let them go”; to release what is not ours, and ultimately, what is ours. Freedom, Weigl suggests, is possible.

In “The Failure of Cognitive Therapy on April 26, 2015,” Weigl addresses a fundamental tension: the rupture of self and identity—in this case, endured amidst the ravages of combat—is the poet’s creative impetus. The syndromic pain that threatens to destroy him also provides a distinct raison d’être:

I think I’ll pass on certain details,
and let the fragments of memory
continue to have their morbid,
their unorderly charming way with me,
and burst through my head
like tracer rounds
in a moment otherwise given
to peaceful work or quiet meditation.

“The fragments of memory” are “charming” and sirenic. For the poet to speak of his brokenness (i.e., the source of his inspiration) too linearly, prosaically, or diffusely is, on a psychological level, to betray a confidence, the purpose that has been bestowed by The Fates; it’s to risk being abandoned by the muse. Later in the same poem, Weigl concludes:

I know how well you mean,
your compassion
a rising tide of warm water around me,
but you weren’t there.
You don’t know how we felt.
Kill everything
they told us, kill them all.

While the statement “you weren’t there” is directed toward the “compassion[ate]” therapist, the reader recognizes that he, too, is being addressed in this line. A reader is paradoxically riveted by the unequivocal directness of the poem’s conclusion and denied admission into an implied and more sinister interiority. The passage underscores Weigl’s sophisticated craft, the reader issued an invitation and a rejection, enrolled by the poem and emphatically turned away—a rebuff which, ironically, further piques the reader’s voyeuristic curiosity.

The title poem shows Weigl embracing his most panoramic tableaux to date, operating as aerially as he has in any poem he’s written. “The moral center’s out of whack,” he writes, vernacularizing Yeats’s pronouncement from “The Second Coming” (“the centre cannot hold”). Throughout the poem, he grounds himself in the refrain of his entrancing recollections, employing language reminiscent of his 1988 collection Song of Napalm: “Flesh of chaos. Flesh of green jungle, / ... voices from the bush at night ... / antagonistic fear / reeling outward through the years / like a sharp wire.” He then zooms out to a broader view: “There used to be a greater kindness, / there used to be a thing you could feel inside that binds us, / the holy sameness that we are.” And: “I don’t care what you say; I don’t hear what you pray; / it’s just your own dismay at the dying gods / and the churches turned to malls.” These rhythmic and Whitmanesque segues between the micro- and macro- are virtuosically navigated, forging contrasts between fine and broad brushstrokes, and between memoir and what occur as ontological narratives. Toward the end of the poem, he braces himself against the hucksters, the exploiters, and the corporatization of the human spirit:

Don’t preach to me, don’t teach me any remedies
to restore the dualities
in my brain. I know what to do with my ghosts
once the party is over,
and I know how to set an ambush and some claymore
if the need arises ...

The poem, having navigated the Dantean horrors of “bottomless life,” “people picking through a garbage pit for pieces of fruit or bread,” and school shootings (“Dead children wait in their classrooms / for their mothers and fathers to view / their small bodies”), among other contemporary apocalypses, wends toward its closing:

What went wrong is not a question you should ask people like me.
What went wrong is the name of a way of being,
an evolution towards the entropic and the nuclear,
a requiem for the bad angels, clogging the highway,
a towering catastrophe of lies ...

The species has gravitated from its inception toward selfishness, territorialism, and war: a “catastrophe of lies.” Driven by self-destructive and homicidal impulses, we subject ourselves and others to myriad oppressions of the body and mind, spiraling into a profound and ineluctable isolationism. Building on the metaphysical insights and alt-biblical depictions of 1999’s After the Others, Weigl conjures The Fall from inclusion, the collapse into separateness, and the neurohistorical coronation of the ego. The supersedure of me/us over you/them. The speaker closes with a heartfelt wish, for the “long night” of soldiering and “discipline” to reach its appointed cessation, for “godliness” to be teleologically regained. He yearns for a death; not physical demise, but death of the self as a conditioned construct. He prays, aesthetically rather than religiously, to transcend the psycho-social I, for a state of mind that resembles the selflessness often associated with heaven, paradise, or nirvana:

All I want is a peaceful mind, and a spirit who
longs to stay close,
and some great arms that wrap around me,
and hold me still for a moment of something
that feels exactly like love,
the long night of disciplined emotion
over, the godliness to the nth degree
a cool mist, drowning us in peace.

Throughout his career, Bruce Weigl has transmuted profound suffering into objects of poetic beauty, lines replete with invocatory music, visceral imagery, and compelling wisdom. With On the Shores of Welcome Home, he continues to spotlight various aspects of our human condition, including the causes and effects of war and PTSD, from numerous vantage points: confessionally, via portraiture, and through Miltonian inquiries into the connection between human craving and the concept of God. How did we become what we’ve become? Weigl seems to ask in so many poems. In what direction are we heading? Providing answers to these questions is not, of course, Weigl’s primary intent. His mission is geared toward evocation rather than instruction. Poetry, however, affords a centering; it is, to reference the title of his 1992 collection, what saves him. It may be what saves us too.


John Amen is the author of several collections of poetry, including Illusion of an Overwhelm, a finalist for the 2018 Brockman-Campbell Award. His poetry and prose have appeared recently in American Literary ReviewColorado ReviewLos Angeles Review, and Prairie Schooner, among other publications. He founded and edits The Pedestal Magazine.