Thursday, January 21, 2010

Review of Bruce Weigl's Latest Book of Poems, Declension in the Village of Chung Luong

Language falls short of truth. In Declension in the Village of Chung Luong, the most recent book of poems by Bruce Weigl, as the poems explore the pain of the Vietnam war and its aftermath, language cannot do what it claims to do, and words, though the medium of expression, are ever cut down as poor and flimsy representations of reality. In the poem “Poor Excuse,” Weigl writes “We try and try/ but the word can never be the thing,/ and only nothing comes… .” This nothing, these “highly suggestible nerves in fits of lonely laughter” serve as markers of identification: “I am/ open to the raw sky. I am spinning planet and solo flight. I am/ sacrifice, and poor excuse.” The highly abstract representation of the word becomes the only thing left to the speaker to claim, and in claiming identity in word images, the speaker claims nothing and tells us nothing. This realization that language cannot fully name or express fills the poems throughout Declension in the Village of Chung Luong with an aching sense that something cannot be said, and yet must be.

The poems seem restless and searching. There is a longing in them to move beyond language and into truth, but their abrupt endings and emotional distance indicate that the search is painful and, perhaps, fruitless. This longing for some truth or goodness beyond language is crystallized in “The Abandonment of Beauty at Allen Memorial Hospital.” Death lies in a corner, waiting, and the medical staff do not need words to convey to the patient what is coming: “they said it with their grim countenance,/ and with the weight of their bodies in the space we shared. “ The truth, that death is coming, is lurking nearby, is not spoken “because words make you accountable.” The truth or falsehood of words requires evidence, but knowing and showing what is known through the body are proof, and so the knowledge of death’s coming is transferred to the patient, who longs for protection, for there to be a need for beauty in this stark reality.

“Oh where was beauty when I needed it.
How it had turned away;
how it had loved me through my life like no one else,
then in the end meant nothing.”

Beauty here is artifice – the words we create to both shield ourselves from darkness and to reveal it to others – and when it is needed, it evaporates. The poem “Le Filme” examines war both in art and in memory, both individual and collective. The war in the poem could be any war, with guided missiles, screaming children, and missed targets. The bodies “pile up/ as if on my shoulders/…We can’t keep up with the names anymore.” The universality of loss and violence live in our collective memories. As a society, we know on some level that this is what war is. To those who have experienced war, the individual memories can cut deeply:

“I am pulled inside the war. I am pulled inside the war.
Nothing I can do
Can stop even one fucking death; not one.”

The hopelessness that marks these thoughts reflects the feelings of powerlessness on the part of the speaker, who cannot write war away, and who cannot save its victims through his words. Finally, art enters the picture, a black and white war movie that shows clearly the consequences, but “one day will be ‘lost.’” The benefits of the collective knowledge, of the voice of the veteran, and of the advocacy of art seem to be ignored in the final moments of “Le Filme.” Once again, beauty, in the form of art, fails us.

Declension spans decades and continents. It is politically relevant and urgent, with poems like “The Prisoner of Ours,” and “Iraq Drifting, July 2003.” It has moments of playfulness, particularly in “How I Like It.” It pushes for connections between cultures, and mediates on moments in those cultures (“Departing Galway,” “Elegy for Biggie Smalls,” and “Say Good-Bye”). It is intensely personal, with poems like “My Uncle Rudy in Sunlight” providing a devastatingly beautiful background for the more recent tragedies the book explores. But mostly, Declension searches. It searches for justice, for truth, and for a beauty that does not fade, but remains faithful, never meaningless, never lost.

Declension in the Village of Chung Luong is the subject of a poetry discussion this evening at the George Washington University, sponsored by Split This Rock and the Writer's Center. You do not need to have read the book to participate in the discussion. For details, click here.

Bruce Weigl—an award-winning poet, translator of Vietnamese poetry, Vietnam War veteran, and Distinguished Professor at Lorain County Community College in Ohio—will be a featured poet at the 2010 Split This Rock Poetry Festival. Declension in the Village of Chung Luong is his 13th book of poetry.

Katherine Howell is a poet, the Communication and Development Assistant and Blog Goddess for Split This Rock, and a Lecturer in Writing at the George Washington University. She lives, writes, and teaches in Washington, D.C. You can read her reviews of Split This Rock featured poets here.

A review copy of Declension in the Village of Chung Luong was provided by Copper Canyon Press. You can purchase the book at Copper Canyon Press for $14.00.

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