Posted on Sun, Nov. 28, 2010

A poet's portraits, colored by Vietnam

The Bodies Beneath the Table
By W.D. Ehrhart

Adastra Press. 83 pp. $18


Reviewed by Helen W. Mallon

Find an angry teenager and recruit him into the Marines. Break him down, build him up, ship him off to Vietnam. Let him survive the war with body intact; let him discover poetry, let him marry, become a teacher at the Haverford School.

What can he teach us? "The Bodies Beneath the Table," the title poem in W.D. Ehrhart's new collection, is set in "Hue City, 1968 - (or was it Fallujah, Stalingrad, or Ur?)." For Ehrhart, the Vietnam memoirist and widely published poet whose unflinching work has roots in mid-20th-century Perkasie, Pa., as well as in the rubble of Hue City, there are no insignificant moments except those we refuse to see.

Ehrhart's language, accessible and free of embellishment, will appeal to those who think they don't like poetry. But it's not always easy to look through his eyes:

The bodies beneath the table

had been lying there for days.

Long enough to obliterate their faces,

the nature of their wounds.

Or maybe whatever killed them

ruined their faces, too . . .

The passage of time, Ehrhart insists, does not diminish the importance of that memory. Indeed, the burden is on humanity not to forget:

All these years I've wondered

how they died. Who were they.

Who remembers.

He does not exclude himself from the human tendency toward moral blindness. In "The Damage We Do," admitting similarity to his angry father, the poet speaks plaintively of a child who is "angry all the time . . . I'd like to undo the damage I've done / but I don't know how." He sings of a teenage joyride along the California coast in 1965:

The weekend Watts went up in flames . . .

A smalltown kid from Perkasie,

I spent that whole long summer with my eyes

wide open and the world unfolding

like an open road . . .

service stations giving gas away.

What did riots in a Negro ghetto

have to do with me? I didn't know

and didn't think about it much.

Our eyes may be open, the poet says, but we still see what we want to see. For Ehrhart, Vietnam changed all that. He has said, "Viet Nam . . . is the quintessential American experience of the second half of the 20th century, the stamp of a generation, equaled only by the civil rights movement." Still scarred by that war, in these poems his vision turns to Darfur, to Manhattan on 9/11, to young athletes in winter who "sweat like it's summer in Baghdad, to "The Bombing of Afghanistan," the title of a wistful poem that celebrates home and family. In the wittily titled "Breakfast with You and Emily Dickinson," he tells a moving story of a serious risk taken in an old friendship between two damaged men. In this poem, at least, the outcome is a good one.

Too often, the poetry of protest is only the writer's personal soapbox. A single reading, and you've got the message. Ehrhart is more subtle: His outrage can be witty and ironic, as in "Redipuglia." The devastating "Kosovo" effectively tilts readers into a high school girl's account of the Columbine shootings, then drops us into confrontation with "the president," who declares, "We must teach our children . . . that violence is not the answer. / This in the week he begins the bombing of Belgrade."

He does not refuse personal moments, speaking with universal grace of coming to peace with his own parents, and reflecting with sadness and wisdom in "Turning Sixty." Here the startling image of a "small forest creature . . . tired, lame, uncomprehending / almost calm" is a stand-in for his own years.

If poems are reality filtered through the sieve of language, then for Ehrhart, the harsh nature of reality and the hypocrisies of "civilized" life mean shunning the consolation of pretty language. Yet his rhythms are robust, even musical. Lines borrowed from Shakespeare in "Seminar on the Nature of Reality" fit snugly into his conversational style.

The Bodies Beneath the Table is not without flaw. The otherwise lovely "Epiphany," celebrating the poet's marriage, dips into cliché with the sing-song lines "that / heart-stopping eye-popping sight, / me like a kid in a candy shop." Cleverly, perhaps, Ehrhart anticipates this criticism. In "Music Lessons," the poet reflects on a child's less than original description of a tumbling stream:

No use pointing out to her

the image isn't fresh . . .

I'd have to be a fool to choose

this moment to instruct her

in the art of words . . .

only the dead

at heart would ever argue

what we're hearing isn't

just exactly

what my daughter says it is.

All of us should be this honest.


Helen W. Mallon writes about the implications of her Quaker childhood at
hmallon-ftheeiwasateenagequaker.blogspot.com