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Life After Death

October 19, 2006

I don’t know about an afterlife, but surviving death is a hell of an experience. It’s also tough to write about. What’s worked best for me is poetry. My poems are indebted to reading other poets who explore the depths of life after death. Such poems help me find ways to deal with, and write about, my own life. Hopefully, their insights offer inspiration and solace for others, as well.

I’m currently reading and rereading W.D. Ehrhart’s Sleeping with the Dead (Adastra Press, $14) and Charles H. Johnson’s Sam’s Place (Warthog Press, $15). I admire how their poetry tackles harsh experiences. Many of the poems in these new collections revolve around living with death’s unrelenting presence, carried home like an eternal wound from the war in Vietnam.

Bill Ehrhart and I produced, with other poets, early anthologies of poetry by Vietnam veterans. He has since written and edited a thick stack of books on the war where he became a veteran still too young to buy a beer. A high school history and English teacher, his books are dedicated to Anne and Leela, his wife and daughter. Yet happiness for war veterans often masks horrific memories, as he writes in “All About Death”:

It won’t go away. Death creeps up on you
when you’re least expecting it, even when
you can see it coming a mile away,
and rips your heart out through your throat and leaves
an empty space in your life you can’t fill...

He shows us death stalking, infliction upon infliction, a friend who was a field hospital nurse, where so many soldiers died of wounds beyond healing. In “Home Before Morning” he mourns that in her failing health, she’s still tortured by war’s wreckage:

you just kept hoping, struggling to go on
another day, another month, another year…

[you] call me late at night to say you’re frightened
and you need to hear another voice who’s
frightened by the posturing of presidents

and statesmen who have never heard the sound
of teenaged soldiers crying for their mothers…

The solution, he suggests in the title poem, “Sleeping with the Dead,” is to love, even when it doesn’t last:

O, to have been
so close, to have shared your bed, to have
felt like I’d been raised from the dead
after all those dead I slept with
every night. It almost drove me mad
to let you go…

Charles Johnson and I share a fond regard for poetry venues in New Jersey. In Sam’s Place, named after a cozy tavern run by a tight-lipped veteran of World War II, he invites us to lean closer to hear a bar room story of his life—from a slap-happy college student to combat-obsessed soldier, to finally a tax-paying citizen upset by the latest news and haunted by echoes of war:

I listen to the past at an empty
children’s play park. I made it home
to hear an echo in the woods.

It sounds so close.
It always sounds so close.

War never fades away. Battle explosions erupt in suburban woods, while at home the TV forecasts future explosions, triggering anguish over the coming war:

Talk of another war is clouding minds
and I can’t think of anything
except how to juggle this month’s bills…

Young men and women may be sent to war
and all I can think of is a credit rating
and how I sold my soul for a peace
that never seems to come to mind…

By reaching out to others, he finds a solution to his disillusion. He teaches poetry workshops, spreads the news as a newspaper editor and savors life with his wife, Lainey. In deliberate contrast to his sense of estrangement when he came home from Vietnam, he warmly puts out the welcome mat, as in “Homebound”:

I wanted to be with you
on your return flight…

When you arrived I was waiting.
Not on the ground
but in your head—to remind you
every landing means you’ve made it home.

For more information: www.wdehrhart.com; www.charleshjohnsonpoet.com

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