There's a bar girl on Trung Hung Do who has half a ten piaster note I tore in my drunken relief to be leaving the country. She has half and I have half, if I can find it. If I lost it, it wasn't on purpose, it's all I have to remember her. She has a wet sheet, a PX fan, PX radio, and half a ten piaster note, as if she cared to remember me. She thought it was stupid to tear money and when I handed it to her she turned to another soldier, new in her country, who needed a girl. I hope I burn in hell.

As you can see, the passage has many of the elements of a good poem —including epiphany —and as such is self-contained. It lacks the added meaning and power of poetry attained via line break and stanza, perhaps, but it simplifies the creative process. It also can be argued that, depending on the anecdote, a vignette may be the best vehicle for the work. For instance, Weigl's vignette succeeds because it resembles a journal entry — as if he is showing us something personal and painful, a private moment of sharing.

Sharing, of course, is the goal. If you have trouble expressing your idea on paper, even in your journal, try tape-recording yourself speaking to another veteran or friend and then transcribe what you said.

This will represent an idea for a poem, and you will have gotten it down on paper.

Getting the poem on the page may be painful, but there are payoffs, too. Says Weigl, "I do know that for me the war was an enormous paradox. On one hand it practically ruined my life; it took away my innocence and gave me twenty years of nightmares in exchange. But on the other hand, I'm quite sure that given my background, if I hadn't been in the war, I would have never become a writer."

Experience, of course, is the backbone of the best poetry. But when experience approaches the traumatic, the best way to express it is to tell your story image by image, scene by scene without commenting on it. The more traumatic the episode of war, the less need you have to put it into perspective.

The episode will speak for itself.

Here is an example by Weigl that transports the reader to the scene of war without delving into the horror of aftermath:


Dusk, the ivy thick with sparrows

Squawking for more room

Is all we hear; we see

Birds move on the walls of the temple

Shaping their calligraphy of wings.

Ivy is thick in the grottos,

On the moon-watching platform

And ivy keeps the door from fully closing.

The point man leads us and we are Inside, lifting

The white washbowl, the smaller bowl For rice, the stone lanterns And carved stone heads that open Above the carved faces for incense. But even the bamboo sleeping mat Rolled in the corner, Even the place of prayer is clean. And a small man

Sits legs askew in the shadow The farthest wall casts halfway across the room. He is bent over, his head

Rests on the floor and he is speaking something As though to us and not to us. The CO wants to ignore him;

He locks and loads and fires a clip into the walls Which are not packed with rice this time And tells us to move out.

But one of us moves towards the man, Curious about what he is saying. We bend him to sit straight And when he's nearly peaked At the top of his slow uncurling His face becomes visible, his eyes Roll down to the charge Wired between his teeth and the floor. The sparrows

Burst off the walls into the jungle.

Weigl does not have to illustrate the violence that accompanied the explosion. All he has to show are sparrows bursting in flight into the jungle. We know that the charge has been triggered and now soldiers are dead or suffering, as the memory may evoke. But Weigl resists that scenario by leaving the reader with a visual, suggestive ending, eliminating the impulse to elaborate on horrific events. Poetry has that power.

"I wish I could say I believe that poetry can stop war," Weigl says. "It can't, but it may be able to jar a few people out of their complacency and encourage them to at least think for themselves more and to not be so willing to accept the 'official' versions of what happens in war and afterward to veterans."

To illustrate Weigl's remark, I've included these firsthand accounts of war in the mini anthology section:

• In "A Boom, a Billow," Lady Borton describes the devastating effects of napalm in a before/after format. Moreover, she emphasizes the unique view of women who have experienced war. Borton, who served with the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker group, says of her Vietnam tour: "American men in ground combat fought and then moved on. In contrast, most American women hovered over the mangled, living a horror (and seeing futility) that the men who kept moving on kept moving past." She observes that for Vietnamese women, the mangled included their own children. "For the Vietnamese, there was no end of tour."

• In "Playing Basketball With the Viet Cong" by Kevin Bowen, the initial image "comes from a very vivid memory of watching a gunship stalk an old couple and their water buffalo in a free fire zone," he says. "I carried that image for years in my head. It seemed to hold some truths about the war. But I had nothing to connect it with until the day I was teaching Nguyen Quang Sang (a Vietnamese writer) how to play basketball in my backyard. Standing back I could see both images— events — merging to somehow complete each other and say something together." Bowen says he often unlocks war memories by linking them to the present.

• In "The Last Lie," Bruce Weigl harkens one of his most intense memories, writing about the rage of American soldiers and the desperation of Vietnamese children.

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