Trading Ohio Blast Furnaces For the Jungles of Vietnam

The landscapes of Bruce Weigl's poetry

THE two essential landscapes of my life and of my poetry are those places where my self was formed and then reformed: the slag heaps and the open-hearth stacks and the mile of steel mill where I grew up in Lorain, Ohio, and the central highlands of South Vietnam. I did not choose these places. In both cases they chose me. When I began to write poems these landscapes would emerge as a kind of force you feel but cannot quite understand.

At first I turned away from the tug of these landscapes. One represented a dying way of life among the working class that I'd tried to escape as a young man. The other was the place I'd escaped to, the Vietnam war that had become a perpetual nightmare for me and for many of my generation.

In those days I knew even less than I know now. I could not imagine how the fouled air and the slag-dusted company houses of my steel mill town could actually be the subject of poetry.

And though the lush hills pock-marked with bomb craters, and the small villages where I'd imagined I'd walked with kings, and the sprawling base camps and shadowy landing zones of Vietnam also called to me when I tried to set a place for poetry, I did not have the necessary distance to see it all as clearly as poetry demands.

But at the same time I'd somehow learned that poetry needed a context, a place - a ``triggering town,'' as Dick Hugo said - in which our humanness may be exposed and dramatized. For a long time I rejected both Vietnam and the slag piles of my childhood.

I don't believe in luck. But I do believe in prayer and the possibilities prayer invites. One day I discovered my country. It turned out to be the country of my heart split in two: on one side the blast furnace of home rumbles; on the other the green war beats back.

When I was a boy we climbed the slag heaps. We played war games in the slag beyond the grind of the mill. We dreamed of being heroes. I don't know why we were so restless and in such need of violence, the sons and grandsons of immigrants. We longed our whole lives to get out. We swore we wouldn't become like our fathers, punching the card in and out every day until the grit builds up in the cracks of your face and your back is bent forever.

We spent half of our lives in cars, cruising the drive-ins, shouting a kind of love young men practice from a distance to women we could never have, the war a vague and insistent news report. We were edgy, restless, crazy to be something we couldn't name.

And now that I'm away from that life, safe within the cocoon of my professor's occupation and my books, now that the people who were the chain of being for me as a boy are spread out all over, I burn to go back. The bleak, flat landscape of the mill and the mill town and the air thick and yellow with slag waste is my home and it is beautiful.

As beautiful as Vietnam: the lush green, vast open space that became my heart's second home. I feel deeply connected to these two places of my life. When I am away from them, I long to be back there.

I try to take annual trips home. My family is still there, what's left of them. A few friends stay close enough in spirit so we can still make sense of each other. But more than that, I return to Lorain to hear the peculiar rhythm of people at work and love trying to make a life. The raw version of that story. I go back to smell the air rifted with the waste of the mill. To feel the grit on my skin and the burning in my stomach that tells me, in spite of it all, this is where I belong.

It is more difficult to return to my other home of the heart, Vietnam. But I've remembered enough to make me a writer somehow. Still, I wanted to go back and find the boy I had been and lost.

After 16 years I returned to Vietnam in the winter of 1985. With two other writers I was the guest of a retired North Vietnamese general named Kinh Chi. The general had fought against the French and the Americans.

During our three weeks together we became friends. He held our hands the way men do in countries that don't demand a constant state of manliness. He kissed our cheeks when we left.

During our first three or four days together he was stern. He lectured us in the grim offices of the War Crimes Commission in Hanoi on a sweeping and exhaustive range of subjects including a detailed history of Vietnam beginning in the 12th-century.

Through General Chi's kindness we met other Vietnamese: writers, workers, veterans, children. We went to the Bach Mai hospital bombed during the war by our planes. We ate lunch with workers at a factory that employs only those wounded seriously in the war; the machinery there was designed to be operated by amputees.

Gradually as I met people who were my enemy 16 years before, the self began to lose its importance. In the face of the enormous struggle that these people had endured all of their lives, my self-involvement, my sacrifices, seemed less and less significant.

This was especially true when I met Miss Tao. She pushed me over the edge into understanding. I met Miss Tao in Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon. She is sweet and shy and pronounces her English sentences carefully. Despite what she experienced, she is still somehow able to smile and even laugh out loud. But there is also a great sadness in her eyes.

During her student days at Madame Curie School she joined the student opposition to the war and eventually became an activist. Arrested at 18, she spent a year in a tiger cage and two more years in a brutal prison on Puolo Condor Island.

We sat in the mock tiger cage at the War Crimes Museum - it measures six feet by four feet - and talked. I could hardly keep my heart from beating wildly away. Miss Tao wore a lovely ao dai, the long silk dress worn by the women of the south, hand-embroidered with many white and red roses and delicate leaves. She told me of her imprisonment and her nightmares.

LATER we sat together in the museum office to listen to our friend General Chi. She fingered the flowers of the ao dai, stretching the silk as if to make the flowers come alive there. It was as if she were seeing them for the first time, a particular kind of vision she has the tiger cage to thank for.

During my return trip to Vietnam I saw glimpses of the boy I was in the war. Here and there a fleeting and foreign shadow would pass.

But after meeting Miss Tao I knew that Vietnam would never be the same to me. The old songs are gone now. And the boy I was, the boy I'd been reaching back to all those years, was gone too.

He is not lost exactly, but he is drifting in a green, misty place that is neither his world nor anyone else's. During these 15 years as a writer I have given what remains to Vietnam inside me to my imagination.

I have no choice about this. This is the subject the world has given me. Like the steel mill town, Vietnam is the country of my heart split in two. Miss Tao taught me that once and forever.

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