POET BRUCE WEIGL inhabits two places in his life, in his work. Two places that could not be more different. But in the course of our conversations, I come to think of them as a single place, the way two hands are part of a single body. One place is Lorain, Ohio. The other is Vietnam.
Ever since the Vietnam War ended, the life of this mill worker’s son has swung between those two far-flung poles.
I met Weigl at a Starbucks in Manhattan’s East Village. I was interviewing a friend of his, Adrie Kusserow, about her book of poems on South Sudan. Weigl was content just to drink his coffee and listen to us talk. He intervened only once, when Kusserow and I began decrying public indifference to South Sudan’s pre-independence history of slaughter, enslavement, and banishment by Sudan.
“If I may defend my fellow human beings here, there are so many places in the world today where there is suffering. It is understandable that people may miss one or two,” he said.
The suffering of the Vietnamese, and of soldiers like himself who fought in Vietnam, is still burned into his psyche like some gory tattoo. It is to be found in every one of his 13 books.
In his poem “Ice Storm,” from The Abundance of Nothing (TriQuarterly Books), short-listed for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize, he writes:
I got my own personal Jacob’s ladder, buddy, reader, listener to this sad song. I built a temple for the ghosts because they just kept coming.
Weigl’s work is strewn with ghosts: ghosts of Vietnamese children hit by American fire (but also the cherished non-ghost, his adopted Vietnamese daughter, Hahn), the ghosts of a soldier’s legs severed by a Bouncing Betty, the ghost of his own lost self, inflicted miserably on bar girls. He constructs a stairway of ghosts that empties into a redemptive space. A space that has prevailed over the ghosts, while being unable to actually evict them.
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Late last Thursday evening, getting one final fix of news before going to bed, I saw it. Anthony Shadid, the New York Times correspondent and Beirut bureau chief, had died from an asthma attack while ending a clandestine reporting trip into Syria. He apparently suffered the attack in a reaction to horses being used by smugglers helping him and a photographer leave the country.
When you read the news as much as I do, you learn which bylines to look for if you want the most comprehensive and well-written coverage of a story. Mr. Shadid was one of those correspondents.
In a career that included stints with the Associated Press, Boston Globe, Washington Post, and The Times; Mr. Shadid covered one of the most dangerous parts of the world — the Middle East. He was shot in the West Bank in 2002, kidnapped and beaten in Libya in 2011. He won two Pulitzer Prizes, in 2004 and 2010, for his reporting on the Iraq war; and has been nominated by The Times for a 2012 prize.
When John Steinbeck's classic novel The Grapes of Wrath was published in 1939, it caused a sensation. It won the Pulitzer Prize and was the best-selling novel of the year. Just months later, in 1940, the book was turned into a film by John Ford, which was nominated for seven Academy Awards.
For readers today, Steinbeck's migration saga remains relevant as a piece of (dramatized) social analysis. It's essentially a road novel about the Joads, a poor Midwestern migrant farming family. Throughout the novel, the Joads fight to keep their family intact while fleeing the 1930s Oklahoma Dustbowl for the hope of farm work in California.