by Hanh Weigl
|With friends: Nick Ut (second right) is noted for his photograph of Kim Phuc, the so-called "Napalm Girl".
Song of Napalm
By Bruce Weigl
For my wife
After the storm, after the rain stopped pounding,
We stood in the doorway watching horses
Walk off lazily across the pasture's hill.
We stared through the black screen,
Our vision altered by the distance
So I thought I saw a mist
Kicked up around their hooves when they faded
Like cut-out horses
Away from us.
The grass was never more blue in that light, more
Scarlet; beyond the pasture
Trees scraped their voices into the wind, branches
Crisscrossed the sky like barbed wire
But you said they were only branches.
Okay. The storm stopped pounding.
I am trying to say this straight: for once
I was sane enough to pause and breathe
Outside my wild plans and after the hard rain
I turned my back on the old curses. I believed
They swung finally away from me ...
But still the branches are wire
And thunder is the pounding mortar,
Still I close my eyes and see the girl
Running from her village, napalm
Stuck to her dress like jelly,
Her hands reaching for the no one
Who waits in waves of heat before her.
So I can keep on living,
So I can stay here beside you,
I try to imagine she runs down the road and wings
Beat inside her until she rises
Above the stinking jungle and her pain
Eases, and your pain, and mine.
But the lie swings back again.
The lie works only as long as it takes to speak
And the girl runs only as far
As the napalm allows
Until her burning tendons and crackling
Muscles draw her up
into that final position
Burning bodies so perfectly assume. Nothing
Can change that; she is burned behind my eyes
And not your good love and not the rain-swept air
And not the jungle green
Pasture unfolding before us can deny it.
Among the musical pieces that premiered at the Los Angeles New International Music Festival in May was Song of Napalm by composer Vu Nhat Tan. The piece was inspired by Viet Nam war veteran and poet Bruce Weigl's famous poem Song of Napalm, which was itself inspired by Nick Ut's photograph of Kim Phuc, the so-called "Napalm Girl". From America, Hanh Weigl (Bruce Weigl's adopted Vietnamese daughter) writes the following about her special experience reading the Vietnamese version of the poem on stage:
I had never met composer Vu Nhat Tan. Honestly, I didn't much care for that genre of music, so I didn't pay much attention to his work. But last year, my father came home from one of his many trips to Viet Nam waving a CD in my face with great enthusiasm. "You must listen to this right away," he said. "It's Viet Nam's newest music." Of course, when I learned that the album didn't contain the newest Vietnamese pop songs, I didn't care to listen to it.
But one day in the car, when we couldn't decide what to listen to, my father rolled down all the windows and cranked up Tan's music.
"Are you kidding me, Dad?" I asked. "What kind of music is this? Could you please turn it down? Everyone is staring at us."
My father didn't pay attention. He had his hands up in the air, eyes closed, and was dancing in the car. When he saw my face, he said: "You don't know how to understand art. I am going to collaborate with him."
Six months later, my father had news for me about his "collaboration" with Tan. He said Tan would write a piece of music to go with his poem Song of Napalm, and that the composition would be performed by the Southwest Chamber Orchestra, accompanied by Vanessa Van Anh Vo on two Vietnamese traditional instruments, dan tranh and dan bau. In addition, my father would read his poem in English and I would read the translated version by Nguyen Phan Que Mai in Vietnamese.
I stood frozen. For the first time in my life I would have to read a poem in public – in Vietnamese – in front of an audience in a big city. What if I got so nervous that I read the wrong word in the poem? What if, all of a sudden, I forgot my Vietnamese?
"Just find a Vietnamese professional reader to fill in for me," I said.
But in the end, because my father has this special power to persuade me, and because I love him, I agreed to participate.
Only a month before my flight to Los Angeles did I begin to read the poem Song of Napalm in Vietnamese. I had tried to read it years ago when my father had first written it, but because I was so young and it was so complicated, I never understood it.
I read the poem again and again, in English and in Vietnamese, but I still couldn't understand. I only knew that the poem alluded to a famous photograph by Nick Ut, Napalm Girl. I wondered why my father alluded to that particular photograph, why he dedicated the poem to my mom, and why the poem included such intimate moments between my mother and my father.
After speaking to my father, I understood what the poem was actually about: the consequences of war. More specifically, post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Currently, my father suffers from seizures so bad he couldn't go to Los Angeles to read the poem with me as originally planned. Recently, a neurologist told him that his seizures are a symptom of PTSD.
After speaking to my father, I gained a renewed relationship to the poem that was more personal and more intimate. I imagined my father living on a pitch-black deserted island after a long war. His hand reaches for someone, anyone, like the small and fragile hands of the napalm girl, reaching out, praying for someone to come to her, to ease her burns and her overwhelming pain.
Then my mother appears. She paints the sky blue, cuts out a bright yellow sun to glue on onto the blue sky, plants trees and grass, and builds a warm nest for him. No matter how bright and colourful the island becomes, however, my mother still cannot change the truth about the war and its consequences.
I was very nervous on the night of the performance because we had only rehearsed three times. I was worried that I would read the poem wrong and waste everyone's hard work.
I think I stopped breathing for a long time. My heart beat rapidly, as though I was going to pass out. But when Vanessa began playing her dan bau, all of my fears disappeared. The musical notes were clear and pure and deep, and the sky was very blue. I even heard the birds chirping.
Then I heard footsteps, running, gunshots, and the sound of thunder roaring, and then a loud scream. I saw the girl running from her village, screaming in agony. I saw my father as a young soldier holding a mortar, aiming in her direction. I saw Vanessa plucking out human screams and cries from the dan bau string. I even saw Nick Ut preparing to snap a photograph, and I saw the orchestra and the conductor in the near distance, and then I saw composer Tan standing in silence, alone, watching.
When I read the last verse of the poem and Vanessa plucked the final musical note on the dan bau, I exhaled a breath of relief. I couldn't believe that the song was over. I wanted to run up to my father and Tan to tell them what I saw and felt.
|First outing: Song of Napalm is premiered at the LA Music Festival. — VNS Photos Nguyen Phan Que Mai
Only then did I dare to look down at the audience. They were all standing. Their applause was so loud and long that I thought it would never end. I saw some of them crying. I knew that they saw what I saw, and I wanted to believe that they felt what I felt. Finally, I could see the real power of Song of Napalm.
I began to understand our relationships and why we came to meet each other; me, my father, Nick Ut, and Tan. We are all living proof of the consequences of war.
And now in my dreams there is a world in peace, a world without war and without the sounds of bombs or gunshots. In that world, we walk together to the song of the Napalm Girl, singing to Tan's music about the beauty of peace. — VNS