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Waging Poetry

January 5, 2011

When I get blue, beyond the soothing realms of jazz or mother Nature or love, I reach for a book of poetry. The rhythmic kick of well-placed words works better for me than pills or booze. So it was that I recently sat in a wintry funk and read W.D. Ehrhart’s latest poetry collection, “The Bodies Beneath the Table” (Adastra Press, $18). I read each poem aloud, awash in thunderstorms of emotions set in motion by the poems and my own life, and got up refreshed. I could particularly relate to many of these poems because Bill Ehrhart has been a friend and literary companion for nearly 40 years, yet many of the tales in this collection were revelations.

Ehrhart’s most memorable poems look death, despair or being bummed out straight in the eye and tell a hair-raising story conveying how the author somehow survived that encounter. Often by picking himself up and relating in amazement that he’s still alive. Consider the conclusion of a poem to a former girlfriend whose companionship provided no salvation after a harrowing war tour in Vietnam, titled “Sleeping with the Dead”:

… 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.

But that was years ago.
You were eighteen then, and here I am
married eighteen years and sorry only
that I’ve never had the chance to tell you
that it’s okay, that I’m okay,
that no one could have saved me then,
not you nor God, that I don’t love you
anymore, but hope that someone does.

The theme of this collection—like most of Ehrhart’s previous 18 books of poetry and prose—is surviving in a world of hurt, as GIs in war zones would say of a miserable mission. Many of these poems expose deep pains of domestic life, as well as those from military battlefields, tangled together in thickets of nightmares. “I don’t remember a time when the house/ I grew up in wasn’t crackling with rage,” he writes in “The Damage We Do.” His flight from bickering parents was to join the Marines, becoming a raging veteran. Then he produced a lovely daughter

who’s angry all the time. I’d like to say
I don’t know why, but I do.
I’d like to explain that it’s not her fault,
but what’s she supposed to do with that?
I’d like to undo the damage I’ve done,
But I don’t know how.

Ehrhart’s method of waging poetry against deathly moods is to lance a long-festering wound with a sharp cut of insight, cauterize it with a hot poker of revelation of his own role in the mishap, and bandage it with a bumbling wish to do better next time. The healing is in the telling of these tormenting accounts in public, out loud.

Sometimes the healing consists of poems about trying to make peace with his volcanic father, saying goodbye to his mother on her deathbed, or waiting up all night for a distraught buddy to arrive with a gun in the car and offering breakfast with no questions. Often it consists of Ehrhart sharing innermost thoughts few moody souls dare reveal in poems. Thus National Public Radio listeners of Garrison Keillor’s “The Writer’s Almanac” were perhaps startled and yet graced to hear one of Ehrhart’s signature poems, “Sins of the Fathers,” in the hectic run up to Christmas last month. Keillor’s somber, fireplace- crackling voice concisely conveyed the tone of a parent’s sudden revelation:

Today my child came home from school in tears.
A classmate taunted her about her clothes,
and the other kids joined in, enough of them
to make her feel as if the fault was hers,
as if she can't fit in no matter what.
A decent child, lovely, bright, considerate.
It breaks my heart. It makes me want someone
to pay. It makes me think—O Christ, it makes
me think of things I haven't thought about
in years. How we nicknamed Barbara Hoffman
"Barn," walked behind her through the halls and mooed
like cows. We kept this up for years, and not
for any reason I could tell you now
or even then except that it was fun.
Or seemed like fun. The nights that Barbara
must have cried herself to sleep, the days
she must have dreaded getting up for school.
Or Suzanne Heider. We called her "Spider."
And we were certain Gareth Schultz was queer
and let him know it. Now there's nothing I
can do but stand outside my daughter's door
listening to her cry herself to sleep.

For more information:
http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2010/12/06
http://www.wdehrhart.com/information.html


Selected Works

Poetry
A tonic spray of poetry, verses that a Vietnam war veteran lives by.
Prose
A pragmatic, common-sense handbook for civic action at the community and international levels.