The Abundance of Nothing: Poems

The Abundance of Nothing: Poems

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by Bruce Weigl

Finalist, 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry

Throughout his award-winning career, Bruce Weigl has proven himself to be a poet of extraordinary emotional acuity and consummate craftsmanship.  In The Abundance of Nothing, these qualities are on full display, animating and informing poems that combine rich, metaphoric imagery with direct, powerful language.&

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Finalist, 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry

Throughout his award-winning career, Bruce Weigl has proven himself to be a poet of extraordinary emotional acuity and consummate craftsmanship.  In The Abundance of Nothing, these qualities are on full display, animating and informing poems that combine rich, metaphoric imagery with direct, powerful language.  Deftly weaving history and everyday experience, Weigl transports readers from the front lines of the Vietnam War and all the tangled cultural and emotional scenes of that time to the slow winds of the American Midwest that softly ease the voice of the veteran returning home.  Though the poems struggle with themes of mortality and illness, violence and forgiveness, the poet’s voice never wavers in its meditative calm, poise, and compassion.  Elegiac yet agile, ethereal yet embodied, The Abundance of Nothing is a work of searching openness, generous insight, and remarkable grace.

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Northwestern University Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
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5.90(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.30(d)

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The Abundance of Nothing

By Bruce Weigl


Copyright © 2012 Bruce Weigl
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8101-5223-6

Chapter One

PART I My Dimension

Quiet Fountain

I love the guest house on Nguyen Du. I slept
inside the linen net, my windows open wide
to let the spirits in who come to visit
from the lake. I've seen them in a chorus,
their white shapes in the garden where the lotus blossom
has to be content to swirl in

just one place, the fishpond crowded, the quiet fountain
only barely there. I share my room
with geckos on the wall who chirp their discontent—
the lack of bugs, my modern pesticides—
and with a rat who visits when I shower;
he cleans himself beside me on the floor,
and soon, I wash like him, beyond the gaze
that knows there's room for both of us to live.

    The End of My Career in Dance

    What I have in my head is a wail of words that sometimes makes sense if I can
      hold on to their wildness long enough
    to tell you how the air around your face in the half-light Texas evening
      shone. The only way around the truth is to lie. I am nothing
    without you
, should be more difficult to say,
      or it must mean that there's some riff
    in the flow of how things ought to be,
      some disruption that needs mending with a kiss,
    followed by a thousand more kisses,
      and a light only eyes can share
    across the distance named longing.
      There were witnesses to this,
    including angels,
      so you don't have to take my word alone.
    There's love, and then there's nothing, and it took my breath away
      like a hand around my throat, or like a pistol
    pressed to my head, is how I remember it.


    Late winter storm makes it all white again; late March and so cold I

    can't get warm in my skin, and although I wanted to sing outside,

    I pissed instead a circle into the snow because I could. I don't know
    if this is a conundrum or not, but my brain is free of hardware
    so the words come in a new order, like laps of waves to the needy shore, oh boy.

    I married the wife of the sky, and I don't know if that means trouble or not,
    but secrets course through her skin.
    On the road inside her, her love wildly grows. No exits. That love.

    My Checkered Past

      A painted dog keeps coming to my head;
    he's red and black, no bigger than your hand,
      as if he's painted on a piece of wood.
    I don't know who the dog in question is;
      there are so many in my checkered past
    including those that I betrayed sometimes
      to death. I left one in an angry field with an angry man
    I knew would want to kill the dog for nothing more
      than nothing else to do.
    He said he couldn't hunt; he might as well be dead.
      I took the easy way because I wasn't brave. I turned away,
    I could not watch his face. A painted dog keeps coming to my head.

    Thank You for Thinking of You

    I stood in the dirty snow, the slag soot-stained snow
    around the steel mill neighborhood
    in a too-thin jacket
    shivering for my shabby sins.
    Thank you, nurse, who let my heart bleed out
    one lonely post-neurological night.
    I could swim or I could drown,
    depending on your illegitimate care.
    Thank you Sgt. X, for leaving me
    behind on the abandoned LZ,
    where all night small arms fire
    crackled in the trees along the river,
    night of my downfall that won't go away.
    Thank you teacher, coach,
    who fondled my dick and my balls,
    telling me I had to be checked.
    Now are the lost days
    I calculate with the digits of your cold hands.
    Thank you for thinking of you.

    I Almost Didn't See

      The toad was trapped; the drain was overflowed
    from flooded downspouts in a summer storm.
      He was a young and handsome toad, still lean from tadpole days,
    so I wanted to reach down
      to lift him from the whirlpool he struggled to survive, but I wavered there.

    I'd come outside to watch the storm roll in its black and roiled clouds,
      the rain we needed, rare as peace.
    He had to learn how not to die himself.
      He didn't drown; I didn't reach to pull him out.

    In the Rest of the World, the Worry Is Very Big

    As if this is the world
      you would make: nakedness,
    captionless photographs,

    grim motels drenched in night
      rain, love in foreign places,
    like where the soldiers

    cry, and hold your hand down
      Bernauer Strasse, by the small
    lake on which you watched

    the eclipse, holding the little
      girl's hand, and shading her
    eyes, all those suffering

    years ago, the memory
      of murder (themselves and
    the others) hanging

    in the air like a mist. Some of us
      think we're not dead,
    only chagrined, all propaganda reduced,

    like everything else,
      to metaphor.
    Some people make up

    reasons to kill you
      in your sleep, while you
    face the door, wall at your

    back (or like the day the
      old man butchered
    the coop full of pigeons

    because they kept flying
      back home). Anything murdered
    makes a horrible cry.

    Ice Storm

    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. When I try
    to sing, I have a lark in my throat.
    I like it when the words are little
    daggers, flying through the air like frozen rain.

    My Dimension

    Beautiful weather here now,
    if you're blind. Summer,
    with that fall bite in the night air,
    and through my window,
    the tree frogs hum like a flood.
    We don't like redundancies.
    We think only other people repeat their stories.
    I thought I saw a world.
    I thought I saw someone's
    boot on someone else's neck.

    Elegy for the Dead, Whom I Love

    The cemetery walls in disrepair,
      some markers even toppled by the roving boys
    who come at night to damage what they can,
      as if to leave some wreckage in their wake.
    And it's not right to do this to the dead;
    not even stupid idleness should lead them here.
      Yet they have come and gone; the day will soon
    forget their names; the dead will bear it all
      and won't complain, their headstones knocked away.

    Self-Portrait After "Hotel Insomnia"

    I wanted my little planet,
      its heart eating the brick patio,
    yet sparing the guests.
      Next door was a peacock.
    A few cities ago,
      a crippled infant came to dine—
    my blue baby.

    Mostly though, it was brilliant:
      each bosom with its spider of heavy jewelry,
    bathing its ax in a tub
      of cigarette lies and insignificant loss.
    So sweet,
      I could not ease my pain, even with the moving van.

    At 5 A.M., the twist of bare bodies
      everywhere, and the murderous nanny,
    whose tunnel is in the ghetto,
      longs to vote after a campaign of lies.
    Once too, the "eek" of a toy, breaking.
      So near it was, I surrendered
    my body. I waited for the vision.


    I've walked all day through corn stubble fields of snow
    hunting rabbits, and killed more than a few,
    and later cooked and ate them too
    with my friend who killed many rabbits beside me.
    I loved him. We wrestled like brothers
    in the summer grass and slept together
    in a sleepover bed. Now he's alive
    inside his dream of an airplane

    crashing into mountains, his friends dead and bloody
    in the wreckage, and he safe at home
    in the West Virginia of his guilt. I grieve
    for the frozen bodies in the snow.
    I grieve for my friend who believes
    he should have been with them no matter what you say.
    I grieve for the rabbits I blasted
    painfully into death; like me,
    they were only souls,
    being something in the world, ever after.

    The Caves at Bai Non Nuoc

    The children want to take me to the caves;
    they grab my hand and lead me in the dark.
    The story in the village says two soldiers,
    who were lost and without guns, had wandered
    down the village road, perhaps to see
    what light it could have been that shined ahead—
    the temple where the students wrote their prayers.
    The people's soldiers owned the night; they knew
    that they had visitors: the word passed all
    along the beach and village road. A boy
    who's only four or five warns me to watch
    my head. Inside the cave it's cool. He shines
    his light and says, that's where they died. They tried
    to hide inside the cave
, he says, and laughs.


    Someone had left him in the cold,
    the black and white cat I found at the pound,
    and the kind people took him in
    once they had reported to work.
    They put him in a cage with a blanket, some food and water,
    where I found him,
    and how could I have said no to Bill,
    named to honor my uncle
    who'd won a Silver Star
    for glider landings in the dark, and who asked the nurse,
    the last time I took him to the VA hospital, in Lorain, Ohio,
    which is another kind of story, just days before he died,
    "You don't work for that Kevorkian, do you?"
    Bill lies across the table where I try to work. He stretches his long body
    precisely out across the paper
    so it's impossible to write a single word.

    The Room

    I didn't want to ever lose your face,
    the way you found me in the darkened room,
    my brain an open wound and me not sure
    of anything. The gurney wheels brought me
    here to you; the morphine freely came,
    yet it was more the sweetness of your voice,
    the way your hand felt on my brow, the way
    you leaned the weight of you against the pull
    of other duties waiting down the hall
    that eased me back, the anesthesia gone.
    Then I awoke, and you no longer there,
    and what I wanted has the name of everything:
    the brain relieved, the pretty scar, the room
    whose dark I lavished in, and you in me.

    My Life with Cats

      Cats are easily inhabited by the dead.
    If you call a new cat by the name
      of a recently dead,
    the dead will come back inside of that cat.

      I've seen this happen in my own family.

    I've seen cats curl around cancer
      not yet diagnosed, night after night.

    Cats will prolong the kill
      like no other animal
    except humans.

    Pastoral as Complaint

      The robin is so quarrelsome. He barks
    to no one in the trees; he fluffs his body
    twice its size and rattles in the leaves.
    He doesn't know or won't accept
    the nest is empty now; the eggs are broken
    on the ground. The storm was quick, we didn't
    see it come; no sound above the hum
      a summer morning makes when god is in
    her place and we are free of tragedies
    that pile up along the way. The robin
    is so quarrelsome; he thinks his life
    is gone just like the nest, but he is like
    the rest of us, it's only now begun;
    his life without her, only now begun.

    My Mother, Fading

      The skunks tear up the yard for grubs,
    but I will not wait up;
    they are too many, and what could you do?

      Cold, but the sun out all day, and my mother
    in her new forgetfulness
    says over and over,

      how lovely it is that it's cold,
    but that the sun is out too.
    In her eyes for the first time,

      the terrified look the lost
    almost imperceptibly assume,
    mad beyond our maddening, irrelevant care.

      I take her by her hand, to show her
    where the skunks had fed for grubs
    and tore my lawn to shreds; she laughs.

    One Lie

    The light suffuses me, dearest ones,
    you who expect me to live forever; the light
    shoots straight through my body, although I can
    grit my teeth now to almost any pain, and even

    miss the pain when it's gone, as when the light is gone
    at the boundary between things. That's all I want to say
    about that now, because the howls and the cries of
    all the people abandoned in the storm Katrina

    are like the radical flaw of reason, like
    the insufficiency of reason, as seen
    in the bodies of people floating in the floodwaters
    of the Mississippi. You can tie things together

    if you like. You can say that one thing is connected
    to the other, and so on, and so forth, on past our wildest
    imaginings, so that you may believe that the world is
    held together somehow, and that the shapes of things,

    and the million dialogues, and the billion monologues
    all add up to something discernible, sometimes something even holy.
    Anyhow, it's a beautiful lie. It's a lie you can strap on
    and live with for a long time, and imagine is your life.

    My Nymphomaniac

    Too young to know any god
    damn thing about women I stood in the
    alley with one Karen Mendez who
    told me she was a nympho and who said she
    had a rubber, neither of which I could
    identify but I could tell from the
    way her eyes lit up in the dark alley
    and the way she moved her thirteen-year-old
    body in the fractured light that came
    to us there that something important
    was about to happen then she reached her
    long fingers under the legs of my shorts and
    found me so my legs straightened out on their
    own as if I were at attention then
    she kissed my mouth so I couldn't breathe my
    god and she pulled her own shorts off and tried
    to climb up on top of me there in the
    alley and I began to think that I'd
    made a mistake and set myself up for
    some trouble as the alley closed in on us
    like night and she rubbed against me
    in a rhythm I remembered from some other
    time and place and I could hear voices from the
    corner where my pals hung out whom I longed
    for, and I could hear music from someone's
    record player leak out into the night
    sky and seem to settle there for a moment
    and then disappear

    For My Neighbors

    The faux stone naked torsos in my neighbor's garden must signify something,
    as this coffin I carry around on my back means something—
    my bed, or my field to lay myself down in—you know. I love my neighbors,
    even the ones I don't know, and so must imagine lives for; even those
    who hide behind their curtains in the heavy odor of their secrets
    that spread and tangle like vines until there is nothing left to see or to love.
    We are all in this together, this lawn mowing and leaf raking until death,
    this trash hauling and gutter cleaning metaphysics; it's what we have
    in common, and I am grateful for the dogs walked past my house,
    and for their shrill barking in the early morning cold, like today for example,
    and even though you don't know my name, I am happy to be among you,
    safe in our unspoken village, the walls of our courtesy
    like broken glass–embedded stone.

    Self-Portrait in the Third Person at Fifty-Eight

    I knocked on the door of his forehead, but there was nobody home,
    so I looked into his eyes and saw straight through to another time.
    I shouted into his ear, but only whimpers came back, only cries,
    because that's his nature, as it's the scorpion's

    nature to sting the frog who lets it ride its back across the river
    so they both drown. When he drowned, he later remembered it
    as only a slightly uncomfortable moment or two of confusion,
    because that's the way he's come to love the body's frail way,
    the winding down to dust along the road, bui doi.


    As the popular girl walks among us with the microphone,
    most of our stories are about loss,
    or include exquisitely precise
    medical and pharmaceutical details,
    as if the words could suture the wounds, or save us even one last breath.

    I came to dance with the Puerto Rican women
    of my class of 1967, and to remember a few pals lost in the war,
    who had been so beautiful, you were happy just to look upon them,
    and one more boy
    lost to his own drunken wildness
    under a moon who doesn't remember us.

    It's not a going back we long for, but a staying still
    for one incomparable moment, all the lost loves' faces
    spinning in the mirrored ball.

    The Country That We Love

    Before the stand that sold peaches and sweet corn in the summer,
    someone had stood up a mannequin,
    dressed in a gold lamé bikini and red wig
    with tiny American flags in each hand that undulated in the breeze,
    and I thought, isn't this the country that we love,
    isn't this perspective of clouds and despair deeper than usual,
    vultures circling lazily in the distance, as if at the end of a long tunnel.

    At the end of the day, it rains through some sunlight. Birds gather.
    They gather and swarm and make their biometric shapes against a white sky.

    Elegy for Anna N.

    That mad urge to pull words up my throat and out of my mouth
    can be no more than a passing fancy,
    especially when it's so cold outside; even for the spirits
    it's cold, but a body is floating inside of our heads
    and her lovers won't put her into the ground,

    or even set her on fire. Look what we made of her
    are not the words of a song
    although they sound that way, I know.
    If you sing your life in a certain way,
    it can sound like a song of the blue and opiate water.

    The Way Dante Moved Virgil Through Hell

    Please, your words fly past
    so quickly I am dizzy, sick,
    like when clouds
    zoom past so quick,
    like at the carnival, remember
    the dying shopping mall,
    horrific in the archive of somehow,
    but it was not a strange gratuity of clowns,
    and had more to do with
    some roughnecks who ran the rides,
    but I can't remember,
    so don't walk me down that
    alleyway between tents,
    muddy from the recent rain;
    (why have they let us
    out so late, and alone?).
    There's scurrying,
    but I don't know if it's
    in my head or not;
    I don't know if it's
    inside of time or not;
    the Tilt-a-Whirl was not my last escape,
    so into the rubber night I crept,
    nothing in my mind but thoughts,
    then later, behind the sodden, artsy
    warehouse of random longing,
    behind the invasion of
    certain thoughts (like having soup
    later, with the girl from Binh Luc)
    that have the will to lift you up
    right off your feet into contrails
    above the stadium
    where I found some words
    whispered from blowing limbs of willow
    trees far away, but also alive in night sky
    right above our heads as we tried
    to get over the strangeness
    that lingered like a thing lingers
    when there's been some
    hurtful problem
    that sends you reeling
    into thoughts of dying's
    bright and faithful enterprise,
    and even at the Sheetz
    twenty-four-hour coffee bar,
    my dying body fell in love with strangers.
    Oh, the light off of that lake is so inviting
    that I think of this as the end of my life,
    as in the phrase
    "the end of his life,"
    and it could happen to you
    that some cool air
    blows through the window
    extravagantly open to the
    unattended night,
    so you're delivered,
    rapture style,
    to another place. It
    happens (to me) all the time.

Excerpted from The Abundance of Nothing by Bruce Weigl Copyright © 2012 by Bruce Weigl. Excerpted by permission of NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Bruce Weigl’s previous collections include After the Others (1999), Sweet Lorain (1996), and What Saves Us (1992), all published by TriQuarterly Books/Northwest­ern University Press. His poetry, essays, articles, and reviews have appeared in such magazines and journals as The Nation, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and Harper’s. Weigl has been awarded the Pushcart Prize, fellowships at Bread Loaf and Yaddo, and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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