Each day I go into the fields,
to see what is growing,
and what remains to be done.
It is always the same thing: nothing
is growing; everything needs to be done.
Plow, harrow, disc, water, pray
till my bones ache and hands rub
blood-raw with honest labor—
all that grows is the slow
intransigent intensity of need.
I have sown my seed on soil
guaranteed by poverty to fail.
But I don’t complain, except
to passersby who ask me why
I work such barren earth.
They would not understand me
if I stooped to lift a rock
and hold it like a child, or laughed,
or told them it is their poverty
I labor to relieve. For them,
I complain. A farmer of dreams
knows how to pretend. A farmer of dreams
knows what it means to be patient.
Each day I go into the fields.1
W.D. Ehrhart was born in 1948 and grew up in the samll town of Perkasie, Pennsylvania, outside of Philadelphia. In 1966, at the age of 17, he enlisted in the Marines, and was sent to Vietnam in February of 1967, where—after a short course of Vietnamese at a language school in Okinawa—he remained until February of 1968, serving as an intelligence assistant and later assistant intelligence chief in the 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment. While in Vietnam he participated in more than a dozen combat operations, and was wounded in Hue City during the 1968 Tet offensive.2 His poetry was first anthologized in 1972, and he has published a steady stream of poems, books, and essays since that time. Though he is not the most famous of the Viet Nam veteran writers, he is certainly one of the most prolific and committed members of that group of authors who have produced more than one book or anthology about the American war in Viet Nam. Ehrhart’s role as writer, critic and editor and his status as one of the founders of the field of Viet Nam war literature is recognized by both scholars and by his fellow authors.
Ehrhart is thus a perfect subject for an attempt to test the theory of the existence of a literature of trauma against an existing body of work. We should be able to locate in his work the “basic wound” described by Chaim Shatan, and the “new, permanent, and adaptive lifestyle” that Ehrhart generates in response to trauma. We should be able to find evidence of a retelling process that rebuilds Ehrhart’s shattered personal myths; of Ehrhart’s response to liminality and alienation; of his identity with a community of survivors. The permanent transformative nature of the traumatic experience should be obvious: Ehrhart’s journey from the normal world to the abnormal world of the war should lead him to perceive “a normalcy so permeated by the bizarre encounter with atrocity that it can never be purified again.”3 Furthermore the tension between the drive to testify, the impossibility of successfully conveying the experience, and the urge to repress the experience entirely should be a constant presence in his work. We should find examples of his efforts to contextualize his trauma, to connect it across history to other atrocities, committed at other times. Finally, we should find evidence of Ehrhart’s struggle to prevent his own traumatic experience from being appropriated and incorporated into an American national myth that does not reflect his experience.
Because a theory of a literature of trauma is based on the reintegration process—a series of discrete events that occur over a period of time—we can reasonably assume that a chronological approach would provide us the clearest picture of his development. Shifts in theme, voice and subject can then be plotted along a time line, and the pattern of response to trauma would become apparent. This is no simple project, however, since there are several separate chronologies that must be maintained—there is an important difference between the intent of poetry written by a young man in 1971, and an older man’s 1986 retrospection about poetry he wrote in 1971. Retellings appear at different stages, and it is essential to consider each retelling as a part of the larger process of revision. A clear example of the importance of this observation is provided by African American queer novelist and critic Samuel R. Delany, in the introduction to his autobiography, The Motion of Light on Water.4 At the age of 36 Delany was invited to submit a biography for inclusion in a book-length bibliography of his work. As a part of the biography he included the information that his father had died in 1958, when he was 17 years old. The editors of the book gently informed him that this could not be true, since, if he was born in 1942, in 1958 he could not have been seventeen. Delany comments:
“My father died of lung cancer in 1958 when I was seventeen.”
“My father died of lung cancer in 1960 when I was eighteen.”
The first is incorrect, the second correct.
I am as concerned with truth as anyone—otherwise I would not be going so far to split such hairs. In no way do I feel the incorrect sentence is privileged over the correct one. Yet, even with what I know now… the wrong sentence still feels righter to me than the right one.
Now a biography or a memoir that contained only the first sentence would be incorrect. But one that omitted it, or did not at least suggest its relation to the second on several informal levels, would be incomplete.5
We must attempt, as critics, to search for truth, and to find it and judge it with more than one chronological yardstick.
Ehrhart’s poetry was first anthologized in 1972, yet we know, by reading his later autobiographical writings, that the period between his discharge from the military and his first publication was not a barren one—in fact, some of the poems anthologized in 1972 appear to have been written as early as 1969 or 1970. These early works represent Ehrhart’s immediate postwar response to his combat experience, and to the difficulties of adjustment to civilian life.
In 1972 three Viet Nam veterans allied with the organization Vietnam Veterans Against the War gathered the poetry of other antiwar Viet Nam veterans into an anthology. The purpose of this collective effort—consonant with the radical ideals of the time—was to urge readers to action, and to thereby encourage change: “If properly used, this volume should be dog-eared within a month.”6 Ehrhart was one of 33 poets featured in the volume. Seven of the eight Ehrhart poems in Winning Hearts and Minds: War Poems by Vietnam Veterans are short, imagist pieces, born of the combination of beauty and horror Ehrhart saw in the landscape of Viet Nam, or the brutal suddenness of violence in war. “Viet-Nam—February 1967” and “One Night on Guard Duty” are descriptive poems, contrasting images of peaceful nature and destructive war machinery, or the confusing mixture of beauty and danger in weapons technology. “The Sniper’s Mark” is written in the style of H.D. or William Carlos Williams, a vivid moment characterized by “A brainless savage flurry / Of arms and legs and chest / and eyes at once.” A sense of emotional distance from the scene is underlined by the namelessness of the subject, his reduction to a “mark,” a “brainless” and thus inhuman thing.
“Full Moon” ventures into interpretation when a soldier reflects, “Strange, in the bright moon / he did not seem an enemy at all.” But the reflection is ended with an action—”I shot him”—and the title ensures that the moon, rather than the act of murder, is at the center of the poem. “Hunting” also attempts to move beyond mere representation, but though the narrator ventures to reflect “That I have never hunted anything in my whole life / Except other men…” he turns from the question: thus, the poem is not about the implications of the hunting of men, but represents instead the refusal to examine the implications of the hunting of men. “Fragment: The Generals’ War” gives the impression that it is a nine-line excerpt from a bigger, as yet unrealized project. The shocking contrast between paper orders and real death is obviously at the heart of the poem, but the images have a curious lack of emotional impact. Ehrhart encases that real death in paper himself, beginning with the line “Paper orders passed down and executed,” and signaling the conclusion with “Returned to paper….” The only truly interpretive poem in the collection “Christ,” undoubtedly a self-conscious attempt to be literary.”
I saw the Crucified Christ three days ago.
He did not hang on the cross,
but lay instead on the shambled terrace
of what had been a house.
There were no nails in His limbs,
no crown of thorns, no open wounds.
The soldiers had left nothing
but a small black hole upon His cheek.
And He did not cry: “Forgive them, Lord;”
but only lay there, gazing at a monsoon sky.
Today, angelic hosts
of flies caress His brow;
and from His swollen body comes
the sweet stench of rotting flesh.7
Ehrhart’s Christ simply lies there rotting on Resurrection Day instead of rising and affirming man’s salvation. Though melodramatic and contrived, this represents an early attempt to describe the manner in which his ideals were shattered in Viet Nam.
One might liken this early period, during which Ehrhart describes rather than interprets, to a state of post-traumatic shock. We have, in fact, a case of compounded shock—the trauma of war, and the trauma of reentering a world where the trauma of war is inconceivable. The incredible effort demanded from the writer who merely wants to portray the war pales in comparison to the dedication and fortitude required of the writer who wishes to somehow explain the event. He must first invent a whole new mode of speaking in order to articulate his subject: “The problem, one cannot repeat too often, is to create and language and imagery that will transform mere knowledge into vision and bear the reader beyond the realm of familiar imagining into the bizarre limbo of atrocity.”8 By the mid-1970s Ehrhart was at least partially successful in inventing a language that could bear his message.
In 1976 ten more Ehrhart poems were anthologized in a second collection of Viet Nam war poetry, one which Ehrhart also co-edited.9 All but two of these poems appeared in Ehrhart’s first solo collection of poetry, A Generation of Peace.10 The two poems which did not reappear are significant, and the themes are reintroduced in Ehrhart’s later writing. The first of these is “The Obsession,” an early poem marking the chasm that seems to separate him from normality. His nightmare fears, memories of actual events in Viet Nam, have become “irrational obsessions,” and the woman he loves cannot understand them. This is his first clear articulation of one of the characteristic beliefs of the trauma survivor—that two realities can indeed occupy the same space. To his girlfriend’s irrefutable and logical arguments he can only answer “You were right…” The final line of the verse suggests, however, that Ehrhart cannot fully accept the “rational” consensus view of reality; he has begun to assume the role of the “one-eye seer,” a man “possessed of a double knowledge; cursed into knowing how perverse the human being can be to create such barbarism and blessed by knowing how strong he can be to survive it.”11
The second poem is entitled “Vietnam Veterans, After All.” An awkward, passionate poem that takes as its subject the work of Viet Nam veterans in the antiwar movement, this poem gives us an early indication that Ehrhart identifies with the community of these veterans, that he sees himself as one among many traumatized survivors of the war, and ties his fate to theirs. The words “we” and “our” are repeated nine times in a 24 line poem. Also clear in this work is an early suspicion that his alienation and separation from Americans who live outside of “his” community of veterans might be a permanent thing. The poem laments that even after “we” veterans had “harnessed our terrible knowledge” and become “… the soldier / For peace,” and even after the war had ended, there remained “… an awareness / An invisible hurt / A gaunt energy beating / the rags of our dream.”
The poems in A Generation of Peace are obviously those Ehrhart considered his most accurate representations and clearest interpretations. Reprinted from Winning Hearts and Minds are “One Night on Guard Duty,” “The Sniper’s Mark,” “Hunting,” “The Generals’ War,” and “Christ,” most very slightly revised. Other poems, not previously published, seem to be from the same period—perhaps they were not accepted or submitted for publication—but they have the same early, imagist quality of those first published poems. A few are notable for their introduction of what will turn out to be, for Ehrhart, recurring motifs.
“Souvenirs” is the first of Ehrhart’s retellings of a deed that haunts him: his thoughtless destruction and looting of a Buddhist temple. A small vase symbolizes the evil that men do as the first lines resonate with the last:
“Bring me back a souvenir,” the captain called
“Sure thing,” I shouted back above the amtrac’s roar
One vase I kept,
and one I offered proudly to the captain.
“Farmer Nguyen,” “Sergeant Jones,” and “Mail Call” are among Ehrhart’s earliest attempts at portrait verse. Flat and representative, rather than moving and evocative, they still indicate a shift from mere reportage to empathy. “Farmer Nguyen” is Ehrhart’s attempt to portray the plight of the Vietnamese peasant. In “Full Moon” Ehrhart first recognizes that the enemy soldier has arms and legs and a head, that he is, in short, a human being. But just as “Full Moon” minimizes the impact of that realization by changing the subject, “Farmer Nguyen” dilutes the message by generalizing the farmer (whose name is the equivalent of the American “Farmer Jones”) into a sort of Vietnamese Mr. Everyman. “Sergeant Jones” is also representative: “The kind of guy the young enlisted men / admire: / he can hit a gook at 50 yards / with a fuckin’ .45.” Sergeant Jones symbolizes the values that young men adopted during the war in Viet Nam, values that are a natural outgrowth of John Wayne hero worship, but are clearly at odds with Christian ideals. “Mail Call,” a poem about the now apocryphal “Dear John” letters soldiers received in Viet Nam, creates a “story” about a suicide in the war. Private Thomas, the point man “unscathed, unharried, though constantly exposed” is killed by the fact that his wife’s attorney has mailed him divorce papers. Though perhaps the poem hints at the irony of commiting suicide in a war zone, the enemy here is not the Viet Cong or NLF, or even the war, but the stateside wife. These poems are neither fully realized portrait, nor fully constructed narratives. But they are the precursors of Ehrhart’s mature writings—poems that embody fully realized human beings, and autobiographical prose that extends into full-length narrative.
Another early poem, “Time on Target,” relates a soldier’s response to the random artillery fire that often fell upon Vietnamese civilians. The poem’s narrator remembers walking past “a woman / with her left hand torn away,” a dead child beside her. Rather than allowing his narrator to feel sympathy or sadness, Ehrhart has him say: “it gave us all a lift to know / all those shells we fired every night / were hitting something.” The very callousness of this image jars us into a realization of the horror of war—Ehrhart’s anti-hero forces us to define our own morality against his. The narrator is forced outside the rules of “normal” morality, ethically grounded and subject only to the rules of war. Robert Lifton suggests that “atrocities are committed by desperate men… victimized by the absolute contradictions of the war they were asked to fight, by the murderous illusions of their country’s policy. Atrocity… is a perverse quest for meaning, the end result of a spurious sense of mission, the product of false witness.”12 “Time on Target” point irrefutably to the corruption and evil fostered by the murderous illusions of American perception.
An early attempt at allegory, “The Rat” is an animal metaphor for the victims of military brutality: “flashing jagged teeth, / he squealed and shrieked…. / His final glimpse of life / was the bottom of a cinderblock.” “The Rat” evokes “The Sniper” in tone; however, the death in “The Rat” is dealt not by an invisible marksman, but by American soldiers who club a defenseless (though unattractive) creature to death. Ehrhart still maintains a careful distance from the event—though he acknowledges his complicity in the animal’s murder, his symbolic rat is only a stand-in for real Vietnamese. “The Hawk and Two Suns,” a poem about a napalm airstrike, similarly transfers the real deaths of human beings to the realm of the signified. By invoking a mythologized hawk, Ehrhart represents the destructive nature of the American military with the images of “burnt-black bodies and lungs / burst outward in frantic search of oxygen.” His displacement of the victim into the realm of allegory of myth is characteristic only of this short period of Ehrhart’s writing. It may have been a transitional stage, a step in the process of reintegrating and accepting his role as the bearer of evil tidings.
Support for the argument that this allegorical and mythical phase marks an important transition in the trauma survivor’s effort to come to terms with his new social role can be found in the work of those who interpret literature of the Holocaust. Lawrence Langer suggests that the imagination of the trauma survivor “is never free to create an independent reality; it is circumscribed by the literal event, by the history of the horror, by the sheer mass of anonymous dead who impose a special responsibility on the writer’s talent.”13
One of the main problems of the Holocaust writer is to find a secure place, somewhere between memory and imagination, for all those corpses who, like the ghost of Hamlet’s father, cry out against the injustice of their end, but for whom no act of vengeance or ritual of remembrance exists sufficient to bring them to a peaceful place of rest.14
It is exceedingly unlikely that any writer could reach that secure place in one, or even several, steps. There may, in fact, be a kind of neverending process by which trauma survivors, like Xeno’s arrow, can only cut the distance between themselves and peaceful rest by half each time, placing the final destination eternally out of reach.
By the time of the publication of A Generation of Peace, Ehrhart’s repertory had expanded; he handled effectively both the horrific images inhabiting his memory and imagination, and the theme of his alienation from his own emotions and from others. “The One That Died” is a poem about callousness, about the necessity of repressing emotion in order to survive. “The Next Step” works similarly to create the image of a reality fraught with danger and uncertainty. “The Ambush” clearly illustrates Ehrhart’s frustrations with the limitations of language—fragmented, oddly punctuated, it reflects the confusion of a world where one is always “waiting to come to an end” while at the same time “things remain as they were.”
The first word in “The Ambush” is “illusion”—there is a terrible inability to distinguish the real from the unreal at a moment when an error can mean death. Israeli critic Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi says of Holocaust writers, “One of the basic premises… of this genre is the absence of a sense of any larger order to which the suffering of the individual can be related.” Like the Holocaust survivor, the soldier in the war suspects “that he has been abandoned, forgotten and, even before his death, banished from the land of the living.”15 This feeling of banishment is reflected in “Another Life,” a poem that makes the separation between the childhood world of traditional moral values and the new world of the war explicit as Ehrhart’s narrator reclines against a paddy dike: “I close my eyes / and struggle to recall / another life.”
The Vietnam veteran’s separation from the “normal” world was not relieved by a simple return to the United States. Seen through the savage filter of the war, day-to-day existence in an unchanged America is bizarre and shocking. The survivor, unable to reconcile his present and his past, becomes a “disturber of the peace.” Ehrhart finds himself in this position immediately upon his arrival in the San Francisco airport, on a flight from Viet Nam. In “Coming Home,” images of a busy airport contrast with his recent memories of “corpsmen stuffing ruptured chests / with cotton balls.” It is as if his disruptive nature is immediately apparent to “normal” people. He innocently asks a young woman to join him for a soda: “She thought I was crazy; / I thought she was going to call a cop.” Her rejection becomes emblematic, appearing again and again in Ehrhart’s later writing, whenever he recalls the anguish and disappointment of his homecoming.
“Imagine,” another homecoming poem, describes the unbridgeable gap between the veteran and civilian as a returned soldier tries to answer a question about the war. Ehrhart evokes an apocryphal image in the Viet Nam war mythology—the inevitable moment when an insensitive listener asks a soldier “had he ever killed?” Such a query defines the distance between the survivor and the civilian.
Those who have survived an existence in extremity, in an community “which through threat and force attempts to reduce its members to nothing but functions in the system,” understand that there may be no way to continue to live without coming to terms with evil:
And although this imperative opens the door to every manner of hypocrisy and lie, and therefore becomes a permanent occasion for corruption, it cannot be avoided. The luxury of sacrifice—by which I mean the strategic choice of death to resolve irreconcilable moral conflicts—is meaningless in a world where any person’s death only contributes to the success of evil.16
Taken in the context provided by “Imagine,” the poem “Guerrilla War” can be understood as a rationalization, an explanation for American brutality in Viet Nam. “It’s practically impossible / to tell civilians / from the Vietcong” and they might all be dangerous: “Even their women fight; / and young boys, / and girls.” “Guerrilla War” pulls back from analysis, and a full acceptance of complicity, with a glib summation: we couldn’t tell the difference. The implication is that if one could have told the difference, the war would have been fought differently. In its own way, it represents a wish for a “real” war, a “good” war, like World War II. The importance of this poem is in its reflection of Ehrhart’s own ambivalence, of his failure to accept completely his own responsibility for the actions he committed in Viet Nam. It is a transitional poem, one which indicates an awakening, but not yet a complete dedication to the task of bearing witness.
Poems explicitly dealing with the issue of responsibility do appear in A Generation of Peace. By their subject matter and relative polish, we can assume that they were written later than most of the other poems in the collection. “Old Myths” embodies a youth’s disillusion with the dreams of his childhood. His attic study, once filled with mementos of his achievements (described in the opening line as “Citations, medals, warrants of promotion” (foreshadowing their military equivalents) is now “cluttered with old clothes / and broken toys and boxes.” He has abandoned the room because “I’ve lived the myth and know / what lies are made of.” Such breaks with the past are not clean, Ehrhart’s narrator admits, as even the older, wiser man finds in himself “traces of an older pride.” In a moment of great insight he reflects: “I guess old myths die hard.”
Though many of these early poems are bitter and cynical, “A Relative Thing” seems to be one of Ehrhart’s first truly angry poems. The voice of the betrayed patriot, callous soldier, and bitter veteran give way to that of the committed activist when the narrator warns:
Just because we will not fit
into the universe of photographs
of you at twenty-one
does not mean you can disown us.
We are your sons,America,
and you cannot change that.
When you awake,
we will still be here
Ehrhart’s activist stance is accompanied by a newly self-conscious attempt to portray the soldier’s relationship to the Vietnamese people. Unlike his earlier poem, “Farmer Nguyen,” Ehrhart’s “Making the Children Behave,” and “To the Asian Victors” make no attempt to appropriate or objectify Vietnamese experience. Instead, “Making the Children Behave” contrives a startling role reversal:
Do they think of me now
in those strange Asian villages
where nothing ever seemed
and my few grim friends
moving through them
Though Ehrhart calls the Asian villages “strange” and says that “nothing ever seemed quite human” but himself and his companions, the language of the poem makes it clear that it is the soldiers who move through those villages “hunched” like horror movie monsters. The final stanza reinforces the idea that the Vietnamese, far from being inhuman, are people who have children and take part in the communal activity of storytelling as Ehrhart asks:
When they tell stories to their children
of the evil
that awaits misbehavior
is it me that they conjure?
Ehrhart has become his own childhood nightmare, a theme also reflected in “To the Asian Victors,” in which the narrator admits: “In school, as a child, / I learned about Redcoats— / I studied myself, / though I did not know it at the time.” “To the Asian Victors” establishes the distance between the veteran and his civilian peers:
Looking back at the pale shadow forever calling at dusk from the forest,I remember the dead, Iremember the dying.
But I cannot ever quite remember
what I went looking for,
or what it was I lost
in that alien land that became
than my own can ever be again.
The Viet Nam veteran inhabits a land peopled with the dead. Viet Nam war novels and poems by veteran writers are filled with ghosts—ghosts whose demands are often more real and urgent than the needs of the living.17 “It is not an exaggeration, nor merely a metaphor, to say that the survivor’s identity includes the dead.”18
The final selection from A Generation of Peace, “To Maynard on the Long Road Home,” is dedicated to a friend killed in a motorcycle accident. The narrative style of the first two stanzas is reminiscent of Frost’s “Swinging Birches,” or “The Death of a Hired Hand”—restrained, nostalgic, understated, and filled with the same kind of landmarks, dialogue, and place names that pepper Frost’s verse. Though the fact that Maynard survived Viet Nam only to die on an American highway might seem ironic to some, Ehrhart clues us that the accident has martial overtones. Maynard dies because he has no helmet on. He is “struck / hurled sixty feet, / dead on impact.” Thus, along with the narrator, “we know better” than to believe Maynard’s death has nothing to do with the Viet Nam war. Maynard is dead because he, like the narrator, has lost something in the war. The curiosity is not that Maynard is dead, but that Ehrhart survives:
I show my poems to friends now and then,
hoping one or two might see
my idealistic bombast
in a new light:
the sharp turns of mood, anger
defying visible foundation,
How often they wonder aloud
how I managed to survive—
they always assume the war is over,
not daring to imagine our wounds,
or theirs, if it is not.
I think of you,
and wonder if either of us
will ever come home.
The theme of homecoming is repeated, not only in Ehrhart’s poetry, but in the poetry, fiction, and nonfiction of most, if not all, Viet Nam veterans. Such a homecoming as they might wish for is always unreachable, because it is based on returning not only to a place, but to a time when they were innocent of war—the pre-trauma state. What we find in these poems is a graphic illustration of the survivor’s plight:
In psychological terms, the victory over destruction often gets translated into its opposite—the prolonged distress of an unwanted, unearned life. In moral terms, the survivor frequently feels himself indicted for unspecified but unforgivable crimes…. In literary terms, the memoirist finds himself beset by a double burden, then: that of recollection, which is painful enough, but also that of psychic restoration and moral reconciliation, which may be simply impossible. The first forces him back into his most discordant, nightmarish experiences, which he must try to order into some kind of patterneed narration simply to appear credible to his readers; the second lacks not only an inherent order but any apparent meaning, and certainly is without any inner logic or secure metaphysical implications. Yet, despite these difficulties, the memoirist must get his story told… to commemorate the dead and make his own life-after-death somewhat more manageable.19
I have concentrated so heavily on Ehrhart’s early poems because they seem to lay the foundations for subjects treated again and again in his poetry, fiction, and essays. As his poetry begins to expand beyond the subject of the Viet Nam war, the themes treated in his early work appear and reappear in altered form. “The Last Day,” from Rootless20(1977), is not explicitly a war poem, and would most likely not be read as one by someone not familiar with the larger body of Ehrhart’s work. Yet his final stanza
The sun climbs in the east;
still the streets and roads
are empty. No one moves;
each is locked forever
in a dream
articulates quite clearly the sense of separation from the world, the confusion of reality and dream that was articulated earlier. “Geese,” from the same collection, is a poem about lost love and abandonment. The images of a world changed by the absence of the unnamed object of the poem—
All that day the colors
slowly drained from the world…
The people lost their faces,
appearing only as bland shapes
at the end of long tunnels
—are close to the alienation and despair of Ehrhart’s first post-Viet Nam war poems. The inarticulable “loss” described in “To Maynard…” could be the same as that described in “Geese”:
All this was a long time ago;
but the wind still blows from the north
and the frost on the walls remains.
The colors have not returned, nor the leaves
nor the faces nor the blue sky.
And I do not wonder any longer
when they will.
Ehrhart also attempts, in the Rootless period, to connect his evolving perception of American misjudgment and wrongdoing in Viet Nam to larger political issues, drafting poems like “Bicentennial,” “Empire,” and “To Those Who Have Gone Home Tired.” In the latter poem, he makes an earnest effort to place his perception of the war in a context that includes the Kent State massacre, the My Lai massacre, the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, police brutality, capitalism, the destruction of Native American culture, repression in South Korea, and damage to the environment—a example of a survivor’s desperate attempt to contextualize his suffering. Ehrhart’s developing political consciousness and his new insistence on the responsibility of the individual to resist such evils is articulated in his conclusion:
After the last iron door clangs shut
behind the last conscience
and the last loaf of bread
is hammered into bullets
and the bullets
scattered among the hungry
What answers will you find
What armor will protect you
when your children as you
The poet opens a dialogue with a North Vietnamese soldier in Empire,21 published in 1978. In “Letter to a North Vietnamese Soldier Whose Life Crossed Paths With Mine in Hue City, February 5th, 1968,” Ehrhart takes one more step in the direction of locating the enemy within himself, as he speaks to the unknown NVA soldier whose rocket fire almost killed him. His hope for the future is rooted in the idea that the NVA soldier lives, and will remember the war:
remember where you’ve been and why,
And then build houses; build villages,
dikes and schools, songs
and children in that green land
I blackened with my shadow
and the shadow of my flag
Ehrhart’s alienation is at this time so complete that he is not sure he is grateful to be alive, and sure that he is not grateful to live in an America where “we’ve found our inspiration / by recalling where we came from / and forgetting where we’ve been.” “Do better than that,” he urges the unknown soldier, and we are unsure whether he means that the soldier should build a better world, or take better aim next time, or both.
In the same year that “Letter to a North Vietnamese Soldier” was published, Ehrhart reviewed Michael Herr’s Dispatches.22 Though impressed with Herr’s style and talent he feels a deep uneasiness with Herr’s glorification of the common soldier, expressing distaste for Herr’s “combination of poignant sympathy and wrongheaded blindness.”23 The omission of the Vietnamese viewpoint strikes Ehrhart as outrageous—a not surprising reaction, considering Ehrhart’s own recent writings. Most of all, he despises Herr’s unabashed love of combat, his exhilaration at survival in a war zone:
Like so many of us, Michael Herr went to Vietnam in search of his initiation into manhood. The really sad part is that he thinks he found it. For all the superficial differences, Dispatches is just another paean to men-at-war, a glorious-grisly-romantic tribute to the ultimate insanity. It is a tragic injustice to the men he obviously loved and admired and pitied, for in its stock portrayal of war, it does its part to ensure that there will always be young men stacked in body-bags waiting to come home.24
To Ehrhart, Herr’s flashy New Journalism merely masks the reinscription of old myths of manhood. He takes the greatest offense at Herr’s claim to equal authority with the “grunts” in the field, pointing out the contradiction between Herr’s insistence upon his submersion in war and his ability to retire to the safe and comfortable hotels of Saigon. What Ehrhart fears is an appropriation of his privileged position as witness; that an unworthy claim to historicity will be honored above his own, and that false testimony will be accepted as “the real war” by an ignorant public.25
As Holocaust critic Alvin Rosenfeld explains, it is difficult to fathom the depths of a survivor’s commitment to bearing witness:
When… the task of not only recording but also interpreting, judging, and ever again suffering through the agony falls to a living writer… then we are no longer talking about acts of sympathetic imagination but about something else, something that we do not have a name for and hardly know how to grasp. The nightmare, in a word, is never-ending, and repeats itself over and over. 26
The survivor always sees with two sets of eyes, and in one set—on an endless loop—play the horrors of war, terrible memories superimposed on the more commonplace events witnessed through the other set of eyes.
The duality of Ehrhart’s vision is reflected in poems that do not specifically deal with the war. In “Going Home With the Monkey,” (from Rootless) Ehrhart expresses his inability to escape the curse of double vision, a situation that can make daily life almost intolerable. These “shadows,” as he calls “the beggar on the corner, / a headline, a siren, a dream / of green palms in moonlight” are ever present:
They are the shadows of everything,
except what we are,
and what we have done.
And they never seem to get
And they never leave us alone.
Between 1978 and 1980 Ehrhart’s poems about the world outside the war were fully realized. These works deal with the questions of interpersonal relationships, man’s relation to nature, and the process of aging, and they all reflect Ehrhart’s preoccupation with making sense of the world—the impassioned search for reason that trauma survivors must undertake if they elect to live sanely in the present. In “Turning Thirty”27 Ehrhart writes:
And just like that these
thirty years have come and gone;
and I do not understand at all
why I see a man
inside the mirror when a small
boy still lives inside this body
wondering what causes laughter, why
nations go to war, who paints the startling
colors of the rainbow on the grey vaulted sky,
and when I will be old enough to know.
His sense of personal responsibility haunts his political poetry, from “letter to the Survivors”28 (a poem explaining the sequence of events that lead to nuclear war), to “High Country,”29 (which links the Vietnam War to American aggression in Central America). Ehrhart explores the way in which life goes on in a world full of pain and trouble, and the ways in which truth and falsehood are uttered and understood. He is aware that the shape of public history influences foreign policy, and is concerned that his pain and suffering not be misinterpreted by an ignorant public or a manipulative political administration:
The Invasion of Grenada
I didn’t want a monument,
not even one as sober as that
vast black wall of broken lives.
I didn’t want a postage stamp.
I didn’t want a road beside the Delaware
River with a sign proclaiming
“Vietnam Veterans Memorial Highway.”
What I wanted was a simple recognition
of the limits of our power as a nation
to inflict our will on others.
What I wanted was an understanding
that the world is neither black-and-white
What I wanted
was an end to monuments.
He fights the process of historical simplification, the myth of American good intentions gone bad in Vietnam, the urge to reduce the Vietnamese to an immoral other:
What most of us can’t deal with—can’t even begin to conceive of, in fact—is the vision of the United States as a force of evil in the world every bit as malignant as the arch-villain, the Soviet Union. Such a notion runs against the very fabric of self-perception. It is too hideous to imagine… And so we turn away from that terrible vision and seek solace in books… which offer us a less painful way of explaining the havoc we sow in the world.31
“The Teacher,” an early poem about a subject that continues to preoccupy Ehrhart, voices Ehrhart’s passionate desire to shock an unconscious world awake. “Hardly older than you are now,” he writes to his students at Sandy Spring Friends Schools in 1978,
I hunched down shaking
like an old man
alone in an empty cave
among the rocks of ignorance
and malice honorable men
Out of that cave I carried
anger like a torch
to keep my heart from freezing,
and a strange new thing called
to keep me sane
I swore an oath to teach you
all I know…
and I know things
Education becomes one of Ehrhart’s passions, a duty to a younger generation. “If our children are to help us build the kind of world they deserve, they must know what kind of world they live in, and how we got were we are. All of us must be teachers. It is not an option. It is an obligation.”33 Despite his dedication, Ehrhart often feels an overwhelming sense of the futility of his mission. Protecting the youth of America from exploitation and unnecessary suffering may not be possible. This hopelessness may spring from the struggle simply to articulate the evils he wishes these youngsters to avoid, a problem linked to the impossibility of fully conveying the traumatic experience:
I could tell you all sorts of horror stories. There was the entire class of first- and second-year college students I had in 1977, none of whom had ever heard of dean Rusk, much less who he was or what he had been a part of. There was the girl I taught in 1979 who, when confronted with five Vietnam poems in a high school English class, blurted out, “Do we have to read these, Bill? It’s so depressing.” There was the boy who, in the midst of my 1982 history course on the Vietnam War, asked me when I was going to tell them “the other side,” oblivious to the fact that “the other side” is all he’s been hearing since the day he was born… I’m so tired of paddling against the torrent that most days I wake up not knowing how I can possibly pick up the paddle, even one more time… Nothing I do will make any difference, but to do nothing requires a kind of amnesia I have yet to discover a means of inducing. The dilemma leaves me much of the time feeling like a failure at everything I do.34
This is the heart of the survivor experience: Nothing I do will make any difference, but to do nothing requires a kind of amnesia I have yet to discover a means of inducing. The traumatic past places the burden of bearing witness on the survivor, but the day-to-day demands of posttrauma existence force the survivor to make the act of bearing witness at best a part-time occupation:
My wife and child deserve something better than sleeping bags and canned sardines. I’ve got bills to pay, a rotting back stair that needs to be fixed, a hamper perpetually full of dirty clothes, and a widowed mother who’ll break her neck if she tries to change her own storm windows. I’ve got a classroom full of 15-year-olds who’ll eat me alive the first day I come into school unprepared. I can’t even find the time to keep up with my own writing, let alone to go out and change the world.35
Despite the discouraging refusal of the world to change for the better, and the emotional difficulties that sprang from his traumatic combat experience, Ehrhart seems, by the early 1980s, to have settled into a consistent style. He sounds stronger, grounded, self-assured:
I know we are running out of time. We absolutely must set aside our vision of the world as we would like it to be, and deal with the world as t is, set realistic goals, and go after them one step at a time. That is the only way we have any chance at all of building a world as we would like it to be—the world of our visions that we all so desperately want to bequeath to our children’s children.36
Though his vision is always double, he has made some sort of peace with the view: “I am a teacher now; I live alone. / I am anchored to this world / by all cold necessity / holds sacred; water, salt / the labored rhythms of breathing” (“Again Rehoboth”37). He has thought long enough and hard enough about the nature of violence and evil to declare that man-made violence is different from the violence of the earth: “St. Helens is the throat of Mother Earth, / and the violence is Her song— and there is no sadness in it.”38 He has also come to believe that the fight against the violence and evil of human beings is a necessity, and that he must commit himself to the struggle, despite his urge to “… own a house, raise a family, / draw a steady paycheck” (“Matters of the Heart”39). And he has found hope as well as despair in the next generation, in his students, in the children of friends: “Be what you are,” he tells a small child whose mother has died. “Be a candle. / Light the awful silence with your laughter.”40
This small hope grows into a larger hope: that he will not always have to be alone. The survivor, destined always to see the world through two sets of eyes, knows better than anyone else that his experience can never be conveyed to those who have not lived through it. Yet those who, like him, have survived, are often too damaged to feel love or to return it, and many find the presence of other survivors too sharp a reminder of a past they have chosen to repress or ignore. A survivor’s salvation, suggests Ehrhart, can be found in rediscovering the capacity to love.
In 1980, Ehrhart wrote an essay entitled, “The Long Road Home to Intimacy,” in which he reflected on the difficulty he had maintaining relationships with women:
I think it comes back to the feeling that I am, somewhere deep inside, essentially a bad person: Certainly I must be to do what I did—a convoluted but insistent logic. Therefore, if a woman gets to know me well enough, eventually she’ll discover what I already know about myself—whereupon she’ll reject me. But if I don’t allow myself to get too close, I won’t be left staring at myself in the mirror with all these unanswerable questions.41
As this essay might suggest, much of Ehrhart’s post-1980 poetry deals with the search for companionship, his struggle to imagine a love relationship that can provide him with peace and security, a safe harbor.
“Channel Fever,”42 published in 1982, is a radical revision of the Circe myth, a new myth for a man who has chosen not to be a warrior.
When I cast off in my small boat
with its one sail white and yellow
brilliant in the sunlight, I thought
I heard the sea calling in a soft song
sweet as any mermaid sings to sailors
in their dreams. I disappeared after it
into that vastness searching, searching.
Circe, as described in the story of Ulysses’ voyage, was a powerful sorceress and the daughter of the Sun. She lived on the Æan Isle, in a palace surrounded by wild animals who had been tamed by her magic, and who had once been men before she changed them into beasts. Ulysses sent out half his crew to forage the Isle, and Circe captivated them with her cham and hospitality before turning the lot of them into pigs—all except one crew member who escaped to tell Ulysses the tale. Thus warned, Ulysses came to her palace and dined with her, but did not fall under her spell. In fact, he overpowered her and threatened her life. She begged for mercy, which he granted after she restored his men to their original forms, and then she entertained him and his crew in opulent style until someone reminded Ulysses that “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do,” and, in the words of Thomas Bulfinch, “he accepted their admonition gracefully.”43 Thus reminded of his manly duties, Ulysses set sail for the horizon after being instructed by Circe on how to avoid falling prey to the Sirens, who lured sailors to their death with their beautiful songs.
Ehrhart’s sailor, a Ulysses without a crew, finds himself delirious on an ocean that supports his boat and provides him with food but does not nurture him, “tearing the tattered remnants of my clothes, / shouting at stars, fighting to keep / from pitching myself headlong into the sea.” Where Ulysses sees danger, Ehrhart sees salvation—Circe’s summons, and her invisible hand on his helm, is merged with the Siren’s song, a call for men to put away arms, to accept peace and vulnerability. One has the sense that Ehrhart’s Circe has the power not to transform men into beasts, but to change beasts into men. Margaret Atwood, revising the same myth, spoke in Circe’s voice when she asked Ulysses, “Don’t you get tired of saying Onward?”44 Atwood’s Circe stands against the mythology of masculinity and wishes only to be able to use her power to promote peace. But Ulysses still cannot be persuaded to renounce his sword: “Circe’s power is not sufficient to transform her lover’s story without his consent…”45 Ulysses must transform himself, and it is this transformation, from warrior to lover, that Ehrhart struggles to effect.
The Outer Banks & Other Poems, published in 1984, is dedicated to Ehrhart’s wife, Anne “with whom I discovered the Outer Banks and with whom I constantly rediscover, even in a world apparently terminally mad, the joy of living.” Divided into three sections, The Outer Banks opens with a prose-poem entitled “The Dream.” The poem, the only entry in the first section of the book, opens with a party scene: Ehrhart and his friends—friends from every period in his life—mixing together and having a great time:
All of a sudden the door bursts open. No, it’s been kicked in; it’s all splintered around the latch. Eight or ten men in combat gear swagger in. They’re wearing green jungle utility uniforms, flak jackets, and helmets. It’s a squad of Marines. Hey, what is this?
It’s an attack, of course, and Ehrhart watches in horror as friends are murdered, raped and tortured. Despite his anguish, there appears to be nothing he can do to stop it—despite his screaming the Marines pay no attention to him, never notice him:
I run down the hall crying, but something catches my eye, and I stop abruptly. I’m standing in front of a full-length mirror. I’m dressed in combat gear. There is a black M-16 rifle in my hands. The barrel is smoking.
After over a decade of writing poetry, Ehrhart is still obsessed by the notion that he is the embodiment of his worst fear. Even in this volume, dedicated to his wife, he places first the poem that must alert us all that he is capable of destroying that which he most loves. A poem in the second section of the volume, “A Warning to My Students,” seems to continue the story begun in “The Dream”:
“It’s all right,” she says;
she strokes my head;
“It’s just a dream.”
And she’s right, too:
these days, for me
it’s just a dream
because the next time they come looking
for soldiers, they won’t come looking
for me. I’m too old; I know too much.
The next time they come looking
for soldiers, they’ll come looking
Despite the violent opening imagery of The Outer Banks, and the tensions and anxieties invoked by poems like “Surviving the Bomb One More Day”—”…waiting / in the eerie fog of half-awake / for the final slap of the blast”—Ehrhart’s verse portraits are gentle and loving. He writes of the innocent courage of a young girl on a Wyoming ranch,46the tender faithfulness of Senator Everett Dirksen to his wife,47 “…the light that cannot fade…”48 because a friend still lives on in his memory, forever young. The most optimistic poem in the collection is dedicated to Brady Shea, an adventurous friend who perished in a climbing accident:
Later still, Daniel’s letter said you fell from a mountain in Colorado— but I know you must have reached the peak and climbed straight up from there.44
The astute reader will notice that Ehrhart invests a great deal of his hope and faith in those who are already dead and gone. He does, occasionally, even suggest that the death of the subject is the source of his emotional investment:
Funny, how I managed to survive
that war, how the years have passed,
and how I’m thirty-four and getting on,
and how your death
bestowed upon my life a permanence
I never would have had
if you’d lived.50
The idea that another’s death might bring life is disturbing only outside the context of a literature of trauma. Ehrhart’s early poem, “To Maynard…”, written in a previous stage of adjustment to the traumatic experience, clearly states that there is no hope to be found in Maynard’s death, and that, in fact, there is really no difference between Maynard’s death and Ehrhart’s life: “I wonder if either of us / will ever come home.” Both men are dead in this poem—the writer and the subject—and Ehrhart’s only amazement is at the fact that nobody notices. The elegies of The Outer Banks demonstrate a shift in Ehrhart’s perspective—he has noticed that there is a difference between his life and other peoples’ deaths. In fact, “…the light that cannot fade…” dedicated to Carolyn Sue Brenner, a friend killed the summer after they graduated high school, can easily be read as a revision of “To Maynard…” Compare the first stanza of each poem:
From “To Maynard…”:
Biking at night with no lights
and no helmet, you were struck
and hurled sixty feet,
dead on impact.
The newspapers noted the irony:
surviving the war
to die like that, alone,
on a hometown street.
I knew better.
From “…the light that cannot fade…”:
Suzie, you picked a hell of a time
to teach me about mortality.
I was in North Carolina then,
talking tough, eating from cans,
wearing my helmet John Wayne style—
and you were suddenly dead:
a crushed skull on a pre-dawn road
just two weeks shy of college,
and me about to leave for Vietnam.
“To Maynard…” opens with the graphic and cold “facts” of death, and suggests that the accident may have ben preventable, that Maynard’s death may have been in some sense his choice because he insisted on “biking at night with no lights / and no helmet.” The description of his death evokes images of wartime violence, and the last five lines of that stanza reinforce this notion, placing Ehrhart (a fellow warrior) in a position of privilege in relation to “the newspapers,” and imply that he has “the real story.” Ehrhart knows the truth, and the truth, quite simply, is that both Maynard and he were really killed in Vietnam, and the only choice left is how long it’s worth the effort to maintain the physical body.
“…the light…” begins very differently, stating clearly that Ehrhart is the student here. In addition, Suzie has no implied control over the manner of her death, she is “suddenly dead”; not even a person anymore, but “a crushed skull on a pre-dawn road.” In this poem, it is Ehrhart who wears the helmet, who takes the effort to protect himself from what he thinks is danger, to protect himself from his own death. That macho ideal is, however, a fiction, a “John Wayne” image that does not protect him from what he now recognizes to be the real danger: the death of someone he cares about.
The emotional scars a survivor bears are the deaths of others—a survivor, by definition, never dies himself. One of the psychological coping mechanisms quickly developed by those who live while others die around them, and those who live in constant anticipation of death, is an emotional barrier, a refusal to feel anything at all. Consonant with this denial is an identification with the dead, an inability or refusal to distinguish between life and death that is reinforced by the suppression of human emotion. Ehrhart’s poetry of this later period reflects the breakdown of these coping mechanisms, and his ability to once again fully experience the range of human emotion is epitomized in his poetry, especially those poems that reflect upon his relationship with his wife:
…Whether we shall be together
or alone in death, I have no way of knowing;
but I know the weight, and how it feels
to pass the night without you.51
Renouncing his authority as a dead man, Ehrhart chooses life and uncertainty.
He is, however, still apparently unable to envision trusting living persons other than his wife, and reserves his celebrations of friendship and love for those safely in the grave, or those who he will likely never meet again—static relationships, that no longer have the power to threaten his security. Instead, Ehrhart locates the source of his pleasure in nature, and his most profoundly joyous feelings are invested safely in the beaches and estuaries of the Outer Banks, in the beauty of the Potomac River, in “the moonless night sky above New Mexico.”52
In the same period that Ehrhart was writing the poems in The Outer Banks, he must have been working to finish his autobiographical novel, Vietnam-Perkasie. Of this novel, Ehrhart writes:
This book is not fiction in the traditional sense; virtually every incident included, to the best of my knowledge, did take place. Neither is the book autobiographical memoir; liberties have been taken with the sequence of events, the speaker’s participation in some of them, and the characterization of certain individuals.
I came to this form through a succession of rewrites over several years. It seemed to me, as I worked on the book and began to seek a publisher, that at this late date a strict memoir by a bit-player in the Vietnam War would be a barren venture. But I am not yet ready, literarily or emotionally, to treat Vietnam as fiction. I chose, therefore, to combine a narrative of my own direct experience with, to a limited degree, other information I had acquired into as readable and compelling a book as my abilities would allow.53
Ehrhart’s inability “to treat Vietnam as fiction” is a result of his intimate relation to the war, and the profound and shattering effect that the experience of combat had upon his system of beliefs. The war was fiction before he experienced it; now, though, he recognizes the great gap between traditional fiction and his own reality, and the experiential chasm between his readers and himself. He will not cater to their desires and expectations by treating his traumatic experience as fiction. This attempt to undermine the ideal of fiction itself (sustained illusion) and to deconstruct the idealized war by questioning the foundations of both memoir and novel makes this narrative, like many Holocaust narratives, subversive and disturbing. In order to grasp this literary paradigm:
[W]e must understand the revisionary and essentially antithetical nature of so much of Holocaust writing, which not only mimics and parodies, but finally refutes and rejects its direct literary antecedents. The Bildungsroman, as Lawrence Langer has demonstrated, is one of these… [T]he traditional pattern of successfully initiating a young boy into social life and his own maturity is altogether reversed… [O]ne sees not only the reversal of a familiar literary pattern but also a repudiation of the philosophical basis on which it rests. Wiesel defined that for us precisely when he concluded that “at Auschwitz, not only man died, but also the idea of man.” With the crumbling of that idea, all narrative forms that posit the reality of persons—rational, educable, morally responsible beings—are undermined and perhaps even invalidated. Yet such personal memoirs of the Holocaust…necessarily depend upon the traditional means of memoir, autobiography and Bildungsroman even though the stories they relate rewind the process of growth backwards—from life toward death.54
Ehrhart’s narrative follows this process of reversal quite faithfully. Where the traditional Bildungsroman tells the story of a callow youth who must come to manhood after enduring the initiation rituals of adolescence, Ehrhart’s main character is most fully realized as a moral being in his childhood, and his “trial” of combat is clearly no initiation rite—he is destroyed by war, fragmented instead of made whole, reduced to aimless wandering, and unable to regain his moral bearings. At the conclusion of Vietnam-Perkasie, the protagonist is fully infantilized, dissolving in the warm water of the womb.
Vietnam-Perkasie begins with an incident familiar to those who have read Ehrhart’s earlier poetry; a brush with death in Hué City in 1968 when a rocket fired by an NVA soldier hit the governor’s mansion, where Ehrhart was resting between bouts of house-to-house fighting during the Tet Offensive (“Letter to a North Vietnamese Soldier”). The focus, in this retelling of the story, is on Ehrhart’s own dislocation from the world of normality. The novel opens with the sentence, “All I wanted was a cup of coffee,” and the concluding paragraph of that first chapter drives home the point that “normality” was not only permanently out of reach for the combat soldier, but that his survival depends on his ability never to “forget completely everything he’s ever learned about staying alive, plop himself down in a big easy chair like it was his own kitchen back on the block, shrug his shoulders, and try to fix a nice cup of coffee.”55
In the classic manner of what has become known as “the Vietnam War novel,” Ehrhart takes us through a short review of his childhood, his enlistment in the Marines at seventeen, and a classic boot camp experience. At graduation from boot camp, he stands in formation, “barely able to contain the pride struggling to get out of me in a mighty shout.”56 “Old Myths,” one of Ehrhart’s earliest public poems, foreshadows the disaster implicit in such pride and the reader flinches at the deadly innocence of boyhood, knowing that an older man will write: “I’ve lived the myth, and know / what lies are made of.” But a refusal to privilege the viewpoint of the older man marks the entire text of Vietnam-Perkasie. Ehrhart deliberately constructs a relentless, blow-by-blow account of the trauma of war with the clear intent of immersing the reader in his experience: this happened, and then that happened and it looked just this way. Rejecting the option of creating an older and wiser narrator, Ehrhart accepts the challenge of recreating the war as he lived it. He desires that the readers live, rather than re-live, the experience with him and that they will sustain some of the same damage to their belief systems as he did in the war.
Instinctively, he understands that no one who has not himself been there can encompass horror. But he rejects, in the writing of Vietnam-Perkasie, the notion that no matter how well he tells his story, no matter how honestly and brutally he relates the facts, the audience will never stand with him, survivors together. He refuses to accept that reading is never a substitute for being.
Vietnam-Perkasie stands on its own as a survivor testimony of the Vietnam War. The work holds up less well as a novel—Ehrhart’s prose skills are not yet as polished as his poetic voice. Vietnam-Perkasie‘s greatest value to the critic writing on the literature of trauma lies, however, in its articulation of certain events which, to Ehrhart, have become symbolic of his experience of the war. Most notable among these is the image of his destruction of a Buddhist temple, first articulated in the poem “Souvenirs.” In that poem, the event has already been converted from actual to symbolic—the two vases stolen from the altar of the ruined shrine represent his innocence (offered up to the captain), and his callousness and ignorance (kept for himself). Prose, however, does not lend itself to such graceful and elegant delineation. Instead, the sloppiness and randomness of the devastation is sandwiched in between the discovery of a Viet Cong tunnel, and a conversation about the treacherous nature of the Vietnamese people. The temple is destroyed almost incidentally, the off-hand obliteration of a sacred and aesthetically pleasing structure by a group of brutal boys intent on dismantling something they don’t understand. The vase is handed to the Captain with the comment, “You wanted a souvenir, sir. Here it is. Genuine Buddhist vase. Duty free. No waiting. Get ’em while they last.” In this retelling it is quite clear that the symbolic value of the vases was evident only in retrospect. The tragic message in this story is that the younger Ehrhart never conceived of those vases as meaning anything at all. This Ehrhart’s revision could also be read less pleasantly—by emphasizing the younger Ehrhart’s unconsciousness of evil, the author invokes Christ’s plea, “forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they do.”
There are also appearances in Vietnam-Perkasie of the now amply documented hostility many combat veterans bear towards women. Ehrhart’s outrage and disbelief when he receives a “Dear John” letter from his girlfriend Jenny during his eighth month in Vietnam is peculiarly vivid—as if that violation is somehow more real and more devastating than any death he has witnessed or caused. This is the first incident in the war which caused Ehrhart to question whether life is worth living, and it takes place back in the World.
The last half of the novel is filled with anger, and this anger is frequently directed not at enemy soldiers, not at idiot officers, but at Jenny, or at other women who reject or disappoint. Even his idyllic relationship with his Danish lover Dorrit ends in tragic despair when Ehrhart reads in Stars and Stripes that she has been raped and murdered. It is the death of this woman, not the death of some comrade in combat, that convinces Ehrhart of the insanity of war, and finally drives out of him all feeling but pain. And in the final scene of the novel, Ehrhart, after masturbating, passes out in the shower, his sanity and identity dissolving in the stream of warm water, after being rejected once again by Jenny.
Klaus Theweleit, in his study of fascist mentality, refers again and again to the images of women as flowing water:
A river without end, enormous and wide, flows through the world’s literatures. Over and over again: the women-in-the-water, woman as water, as a stormy, cavorting, cooling ocean, a raging stream, a waterfall; as a limitless body of water that ships pass through…woman as the enticing (or perilous) deep, as a cup of bubbling body fluids; the vagina as waves, as foam, as a dark place ringed with Pacific ridges; love as the foam from the collision of two waves, as a sea voyage…love as a process that washes people up as flotsam…where we are part of every ocean, which is part of every vagina. To enter those portals is to begin a global journey, a flowing around the world. He who has been inside the right woman, the ultimate cunt— knows every place in the world that is worth knowing…the ocean that covers two-thirds of the earth’s surface and all its shorelines, the irreproachable, inexhaustible, anonymous superwhore, across whom we ourselves become anonymous and limitless, drifting along without egos, like… God himself, immersed in the principle of masculine pleasure.57
Unlike the fascist, who fears such dissolution, Ehrhart seeks it desperately, longing to wash away the evils he has witnessed and committed in the cleansing female sea. The impossibility of realizing this desire is driven home every time a woman “fails” him—Jenny cannot “save” him from Vietnam, Dorrit can save neither Ehrhart’s life nor her own. Yet the younger Ehrhart clings to the idea that women are his salvation, like a drowning man clings to a floating spar&mdsah;if only a young woman will sit down with him and drink a Coke, he will be able to make it home, back to the world, to be safe. When a woman who looks like Dorrit refuses his offer to buy her a Coke, Ehrhart’s response is to mutter, “Goddamn bitch,” a phrase which applies both to the stranger and to Jenny, who “Couldn’t even wait a lousy goddamned year. I’m puttin’ my life on the line, and she’s out flyin’ around in private airplanes and goin’ to proms.”58 Ehrhart’s conflation of the two women, and his anger at them, is indicative of the common tendency of survivors to seek a justification, an outside enemy upon whom they can heap the blame and condemnation that they fear they themselves deserve.
Ehrhart abandoned his unrealistic vision of dissolution in the sea of feminine salvation by the time he published Marking Time in 1986.59 (The manuscript was originally, and more accurately, titled Passing Time and has since been republished under that name. At the request of the author I will refer to it by that title.) “Channel Fever,” the opening poem in Ehrhart’s 1982 collection of the same name, indicates that although the poet has set to sea in search of salvation, his true happiness awaits him in the form of a woman on land, a grounded woman rather than a flowing river. In this spirit, Ehrhart dedicates Passing Time to his wife: “For Anne, who was waiting on the beach, and for all the people who kept me afloat until I reached her.” The Ehrhart depicted in the text of Passing Time, however, is not nearly as wise as the Ehrhart who wrote the dedication to the book, and the protagonist is still caught up in the search for the mythical healing female. Much of the action in the autobiography actually takes place on a ship, an oil tanker called the SS Atlantic Endeavor, where Ehrhart has chosen to “pass time” while he sorts out his life. Passing Time begins and ends with a card game played out with his friend Roger, an engineer. Ehrhart always wins, and Roger always responds by throwing the deck of cards out the porthole window—an object lesson that Ehrhart never seems to learn.
In fact, the entire autobiography is about Ehrhart’s inability to learn lessons. The book fully articulates the liminal space inhabited by the survivor who still cannot integrate his wartime experience with his life in the postwar world. Better written, and more self-consciously literary than Vietnam-Perkasie, this text deliberately introduces and abandons Ehrhart while he is still at sea, watching and listening in vain for the singing mermaids he will never find. Salvation, the reader is told before the book even begins, is to be found on the shore. Ehrhart follows a path walked earlier by Elie Wiesel, whose first book, an autobiographical memoir entitled Night,60 took place entirely in the hellish world of the Holocaust, but whose later work was concerned with the posttrauma world of the survivor.
He is less concerned with how one survives in the camp… than with how one survives afterward, having left part of oneself behind. The problem does not end with liberation—it only begins. His version of survival stresses keeping alive the dead, not the living, to find a way of enabling the victims to enter and remain in the consciousness of those who shared with them the Holocaust ordeal, but managed to escape its fatal snare. This is the first step in a sequence that continues when both kinds of “survivors,” the living and the dead, combine with the memory and intelligence of the reader, who slowly discerns how their merged existence can alter the substance of his. Gradually the scope of the challenge widens, until we find ourselves facing one of the great unsettled dilemmas of our time: how to cope with the wasted lives of millions in a culture already witnessing a waning reverence for the individual human life.61
The protagonist of Passing Time has relinquished the need to force the reader through the traumatic experience, and relies instead on a technique of retrospection, seeking to explain rather than to recreate. Ehrhart’s battle to make a place for himself in a now alien world is interspersed with scenes from his comfortable life on the ship, which acts as a counterpoint to his feeling of being a freak or a pariah. Early in his reminiscences he dismisses his anger at Jenny’s rejection—which had served as the pivotal point in Vietnam-Perkasie—with the phrase, “Suckers like me in every war,” his flippant and unconsidered remark indicates that though the emotions have grown less intense, he has not yet entirely accepted responsibility for his own feelings. In a paragraph closely following that dismissal, he says that the postwar world seems like a dream, and that at times it is hard to remember the difference between dreams and reality: “I’d be walking along across campus half expecting to wake up at any moment and discover Wally and Hoffy and Gravey in single file up ahead of me…all of us strung out at long intervals to minimize casualties…”62 Like Wiesel, Ehrhart “inhabits two worlds of truth, but has not yet found a means of repairing the broken circuit that keeps them apart.”63
Memories from Vietnam weave in and out of his reminiscences about college, about his relationships with women, about his political education. Once again, his relationship with a woman, his girlfriend Pam, is used to demonstrate how far the distance between combat veteran and civilian actually is. “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” asks Faye, a friend of Pam’s.
Good God! How could I answer a question like that? I got up from the bed and walked over to the window of Pam’s room, gazing out over the broad, rolling campus—so beautiful, so peaceful, so far removed from anything real. What did these people know about anything? The lawyer’s daughter. The doctor’s daughter.64
And, knowing they will never understand, he tells them the story of the worst thing he ever did, which is, of course, far worse than they can imagine or forgive. To overcome their rejection he claims to have invented the story, and he says, to assuage Pam’s fears, “You’ve felt these hands in action, kid… Are these the hands of a man who could do something like that?”65 She is comforted, but Ehrhart, and the reader, know that the same hands are capable of both comforting and killing. The dual nature of Ehrhart’s hands reflect the dual nature of his perceptions, the difficulty he has distinguishing reality from dream. We can hear strong resonances from other works of survivor literature:
In [Elie Wiesel’s] The Accident, the memory of atrocity corrupts the anticipation of love, infecting the sentiment that once overcame all obstacles to human intimacy. “You claim you love me,” complains Kathleen to the narrator, “but you keep suffering. You say you love me in the present, but you’re still living in the past. You tell me you love me but you refuse to forget.” The form of the disputation, the reduction of complex inner anguish to apparently simple verbal formulae, should not deflect our attention from the gravity of the argument. “Anyone who has been there,” replies the narrator, echoing a charge that reverberates beyond the specific locus of the Holocaust, “has brought back some of humanity’s madness. One day or another, it will come to the surface.” The narrator’s inner world is saturated by such suffocating gloom that Kathleen would find it intolerable were he to express it. He knows that survivors must not give other men and women “the sour taste, the smoke-cloud taste, that we have in our mouth.” But this leaves the narrator shrouded in a gloom that not even the act of love can pierce.66
Though Ehrhart’s anger at political and social structures has been clearly expressed in his poetry, up until this point the anger he chose to express in his prose was directed almost entirely at individuals who had done him a personal injustice. The American invasion of Cambodia, described in Chapter 17 of Passing Time, brings Ehrhart to the first conscious realization that the Vietnam War is important to him on more than a personal level. Though he tries to study, images of Allied soldiers liberating France, small Vietnamese children being battered by a barrage of C-ration cans hurled by soldiers, the murder of a Vietnamese peasant, and (not surprisingly) his destruction of the Buddhist temple, all run through his head. The impact of these memories, bursting through the barrier of repression and alienation, are overwhelming and in a moment of completely characteristic projection he strikes out at Pam, slamming into her with a clenched fist.
Pam’s eyes were the same eyes I’d seen in a thousand faces in a hundred villages, staring up at me in mute hatred as I towered over her, my whole body still cocked, ready to explode again. And this time there was no rifle, no Sergeant Taggart barking orders, no mines, no snipers, no grenade ready to explode, no juggernaut momentum of a vast military bureaucracy out of control and bogged down in human quicksand, not a single excuse with which to defend myself. 67
Coming face-to-face with his own brutality and capacity for evil, with humanity’s madness come to the surface, Ehrhart is shocked into action. He believes that his liminal state has been resolved, that he is ready for action: “It was time to stop the war. And I would have to do it.”
Action, however, does not necessarily provide resolution, though it did, in this case, get Ehrhart back his girl: after an impassioned confession of his sins she takes him back in sobbing reconciliation. Inevitably, the relationship doesn’t last — it falls by the wayside, a victim of Ehrhart’s newfound dedication to the antiwar movement. The unstable nature of his enthusiasm is pointed out by a wiser, once again liminal Ehrhart in a shipboard scene: “Boy, she really stuck it to you, huh?” asks his friend Roger. “Oh, it wasn’t her fault,” replies Ehrhart casually, as they play cards. “She was just a kid — and I was one wired-out head case. God knows what she thought she was in love with.”67
Just as women are the focus of agony in Vietnam-Perkasie, so they continue to be the source of and the resolution to pain in Passing Time. Though Ehrhart, as a college student, has lost his idealism, he cannot displace his desire:
It was a constant battle between my near-obsessive fear of sleeping alone and my battered sense of self-respect. I did not care to trust anyone the way I had trusted Jenny or Pam. Even Dorrit, my beautiful Danish faerie queene, had failed me in the end, persuading me that I had to go back to Vietnam and then dying a horrible death in a back alley in Hong Kong. I wanted desperately and I didn’t want at all, and I didn’t know how to cope with it.68
The image of the woman in the San Francisco airport haunts him — both the dream of a pleasant moment spent over a soda, and the reality of her whitened face and her fear. His anger at women has now been partially transferred to another set of betrayers — the politicians who sent him to Vietnam, and the unfeeling civilians who cannot appreciate the hell he has gone through.
The one-two punch of rejection is delivered first in a bar scene, when Ehrhart is taunted by the customers for his counterculture appearance, and then, on the very next page, when the revelations of the Pentagon Papers are published in the New York Times. Furious, he drives madly across Canada:
Maybe I would even stay there. What was there to go home to? A bunch of turds who’d stolen or shattered every dream I’d ever believed in. A bunch of pigs trying to beat my brains out. A bunch of rummies in a bar who weren’t worth the filthy paper I flushed down the toilet. Fuck em all. I’d rather be a fur trapper.69
It is only after this cathartic outburst that the older Ehrhart, the Ehrhart on the SS Atlantic Endeavor, can begin to teach his friend Roger about American political history, lecturing articulately and assuredly on imperialism and racism. “Read this,” he says, pulling out a copy of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, and, “read this,” handing Roger a copy of Bernard Fall’s Street Without Joy. The reader is reminded of that early angry poem, “For Those Who Have Gone Home Tired,” with its passionate insistence that all evils are connected to each other.
Another, though quieter, resolution is reached when Ehrhart goes on a camping trip with a close friend from the war. After hearing of the death of a boyhood friend, another Marine Corps veteran, in a motorcycle accident (see “To Maynard…”), and deciding that “the war had claimed another casualty,” Ehrhart grows afraid. “God, I wanted to talk to someone,” he writes. So he locates Gerry through his parents and arranges a meeting, seeking solace in another survivor. The effort to make a postwar connection to Gerry is a failure. Ehrhart discovers over a weekend camping trip they have little in common: “There was nothing between us but the fire and the marshmallows and the war” — not enough to sustain a relationship, and not enough to offer him the hope of salvation.70
Still desperate, in a fit of what can only be termed insanity, Ehrhart joins the Marine Corps Reserves. It begins with an urge to embarrass the Corps, to pick up a promotion to staff sergeant looking like a hippie freak. Instead, he finds himself uncannily attracted to the idea of rejoining the military and, justifying his urge with the excuse that he needs the money and that Vietnam War hadn’t been the fault of the Marine Corps, Ehrhart becomes a soldier again. His enthusiasm lasts about fifteen minutes, and he panics and resigns. The incongruous nature of this episode is never explained, and we are left with the feeling the older Ehrhart understands it as poorly as the reader must. Equally unclear is Ehrhart’s motivation in signing a contract to each riflery at a kid’s summer camp, and then refusing to fulfill it. He sees the connection between the evil of the Vietnam War and the act of teaching children to shoot, but there is no indication that he understands why he might have the inclination to join the military or to teach children to shoot. Perhaps the question is too frightening to consider.
At the conclusion of Passing Time, the oldest Ehrhart (who is neither the Ehrhart of the flashback, nor the Ehrhart who remains on the ship) suggests that he will find his salvation in poetry, in the mission of bearing witness to the world. This possibility is apparently beyond the young Ehrhart’s grasp, who quotes the entire text of “A Relative Thing” to an appreciative audience. He is embarrassed and uncomfortable with the depth of his own emotional response to it, and reacts to this unprecedented exposure of self by immediately sabotaging his own happiness and success, destroying his relationship with a woman who loves him. After he betrays her, he looks at her and sees in her eyes the reflection of his other evil actions, conflating, in a remarkable passage, the women he has wronged with the peasants whose lives he destroyed in Vietnam:
Her eyes burned. They were the same eyes I’d seen the day I’d tried to knock Pam Casey’s head off, the same eyes I’d seen on the faces of the Vietnamese peasants whose lives I’d routinely made so miserable. I could hardly believe what I was seeing, or the pain that I hand inflicted. Was there no end to what I am capable of?71
His punishment for commiting the crime of thoughtlessly wounding another is, once again, abandonment, but it is an abandonment that he himself has contrived, both to prove his unworthiness and to ensure that he suffers for it. Still sure that unhappiness is his deserved fate, he carefully sets the scene for righteous retribution, and encourages his lover to voice the words he most fears to be true: “You are the cruelest, most coldhearted bastard I’ve ever known.” Her final words echo Ehrhart’s deepest fear and deepest desire: “I wish you were dead.”72
After destroying any possibility that life in the World could remain bearable, Ehrhart, free at last, takes the option of retreat and finds on the Atlantic Endeavor a kind of world outside the world, a quiet space for reflecting and collecting his thoughts, for growing older and wiser. Though we leave him, at the end of the book, still passing time, we are sure (though he is not) that this is only a transitional period. We know better (as the older Ehrhart knows better than the younger) when we hear him say:
What did I want or need or care about back there on the beach? Out here, I had wonders in the deep, and the thousand mermaids, and the hearts of infinite Pacifics, the moon’s wide river, gulls soaring low between the waves, and the gliding schools of porpoises. They could have their crazy world full of dreams and wars and broken promises. Out here, I had a world unto myself. What else did I need? I could go on sailing forever. Or at least till the mermaids married me. And that would be long enough.73
We have read, as the younger Ehrhart has not, the inscription on the first page of Passing Time; we know that the journey he must make begins not when he heads to sea but when he turns his face again to shore, and that the love he seeks is not to be found in mermaid’s songs.
Ehrhart’s struggle to faithfully portray his own shattering experiences — to create texts that reject the device of an omniscient narrator, to refuse to let his readers know more than he knew at the moment of which he writes — demands a strong sense of purpose and great self-discipline. His position as the bearer of witness gives him a good deal of authority as both an interpreter and a critic of the writings of other Vietnam combat veterans.
Keenly aware of the difficulties of the long journey toward peace, he demands that other Vietnam veteran writers live up to the same standard of brutal honesty he upholds in his own work. Philip Caputo’s first Vietnam War novel, Indian Country, issued in the same year as Ehrhart’s Passing Time, comes in for some heavy criticism in a Philadelphia Inquirer review penned by Ehrhart. The problem with Indian Country, he suggests, is the same problem that haunted Caputo’s “highly regarded” memoir, A Rumor of War, published almost a decade before: Ten years later, Indian Country, Caputo’s fourth book and third novel, suggests that he is still in the grip of war, torn still between fascination and repulsion, exhilaration and sadness, tenderness and cruelty.” Ehrhart argues that Caputo hasn’t yet renounced the mythology that war makes a man, “that war is still the greatest experience a young man can have, the exhilaration, fascination and tenderness of war being a fair trade for its repulsiveness, sadness and cruelty.” Such a viewpoint is, for Ehrhart, an intolerable affectation — especially in the work of one who should know better. Ehrhart, firmly convinced that his youth was destroyed, and his growth to manhood delayed, by the trauma of war can only conclude: “If you think Caputo is right, you will probably find this book more attractive than I do.”74
More than anything else, Ehrhart believes that people must take responsibility for the evils they commit — even those evils they commit in ignorance. In a 1989 Philadelphia Inquirer editorial titled “Who Will Apologize for Vietnam?”75 Ehrhart describes the blindness of his trust in the government and the agony that his mistake has cost him: “… more than a decade of nightmares and alcohol and self-loathing; a white-hot fury, shapeless and unpredictable, that scared anyone who came too close; a loneliness profound as the silence beyond the stars. And I was lucky.” He claims, however, that he was both a victim and a perpetrator, that he had to come to terms with his complicity and his guilt. “I can live with myself,” he says, though he implies it often isn’t easy. But he cannot comprehend those men who, responsible for the decisions that led to and prolonged the war in Vietnam, seem completely untraumatized by it: “I have often wondered how those men live with themselves. How do they get up each day and look themselves in the eye? … I’d like to believe that these honorable men didn’t just walk away from the wreckage they created without a second thought. I’d like to believe they have nightmares too.” Why is it, he seems to demand, that some men’s mistakes cost them everything, and other men’s mistakes seem to cost them nothing at all.
In 1987, Ehrhart published another book of prose, Going Back, which he also dedicated to his wife Anne, and to his infant daughter Leela. Going Back was written after a 1985 visit to Vietnam, a mixture of diary, travelogue, and sketches that describe Ehrhart’s impression of a Vietnam at peace. Face-to-face with his past, in the person of Mrs. Na (who appears in a poem in his collection Winter Bells), Ehrhart confirms that the man he is today is inseparable from the man he once was, and that what he wants — forgiveness — is nothing he can ever have; not from others, and not from himself. Ehrhart soon concludes:
I do not want to be here … I have been telling myself for months that I’m not expecting anything, that I’m wide open to whatever may happen. Now I have to realize that I’ve arrived with all sorts of expectations and extra baggage. It’s embarrassing, mortifying. I have been lying to myself for months — for years. It is hard for a man of 37 to have to come to terms with his own foolish romanticism.76
Ehrhart’s prose is cleaner now, and his language is more relaxed than it was in Passing Time. He writes fluently, mixing vivid description with personal and political history. Perhaps because he is more comfortable with himself, he seems to have less need to ensure that the reader sees the world as he sees it, less investment in our opinion. He writes a few of his older poems into the text, juxtaposing them against his contemporary assessments — they benefit from the context. He carefully gives each Vietnamese he comes in contact with a name and a face, conscientiously respecting their humanity and making amends, we suspect, for the less thoughtful treatment dealt out on an earlier visit.
A great deal happens in Going Back that Ehrhart does not understand. One of the strongest features of the book is its refusal to interpret, to appropriate the voice of the Vietnamese, to report falsely. A Vietnamese interpreter named Loan is scolded by an old woman:
“What was that all about?” we ask. Loan just shakes her head. She is pale, visibly shaken, her eyes full of tears. Did the old woman think we were heathens? Russians? Americans? Did she think Loan was a prostitute and we her clients? Was she just plain crazy? What was all that about? But Loan will not tell us.77
Thoughts of Anne are woven throughout the text of the book. He misses her and worries about her: “This would have been Anne’s and my first Christmas together in our first real home after a succession of cramped apartments. So there she is, alone in an empty house. And here I am, alone in an empty hotel room half a world away.”78
It is no surprise that Ehrhart chooses to describe a reconciliation with Buddha towards the close of Going Home. His preoccupation with his destruction of the temple has been a feature of his writing since the war, and the desire for closure is natural. Denied the forgiveness of Mrs. Na, Ehrhart can seek the more easily attained peace of the Pagoda of the Sleeping Buddha, where he bows before the statue and places incense in a painted vase — a vase which no doubt reminds him of its stolen mates. The bitter truth that he cannot assuage the pain of the Vietnamese, just as he could not end the war, is symbolized in his tearful parting with two young Amerasian girls: “I’ll miss you,” is all that Ehrhart can say. “Take care of each other.”79 Finally, he concludes:
At least in Vietnam today, no one is dropping bombs or burning villages or defoliating forests, and what is taking place is not being done in my name or with my tax dollars, and no one is asking me to participate. It is their country, finally, and it is their business what they do with it. The Vietnamese have burdens of their own to bear; they have no need and no use for my anguish or my guilt. My war is over. It ended long ago.80
This strong assertion of closure was merely the hope of the moment and not a lasting truth. This is obvious even in the text of the introduction to Going Back, which was composed well after Ehrhart’s pronouncement that his war is over: “… Vietnam has remained a permanent condition of my life — as much a state of mind as a geographical location, the turning point, the place where I first began to see and think and learn and question.”81
Ehrhart’s next book of poetry,much of it written in the wake of his trip to Vietnam, reflects an awareness that the war lives on within him, and that it may be passed on to his children, and down through the generations. Winter Bells was published in 1988 and is, again, dedicated to Anne and his young daughter Leela. It begins with a love poem, another Siren’s song, in which his wife’s voice summons him back from terrible memories:
Who would have thought a single
voice could change the nature of the world
or my unnatural fear
of short days and a long life?
Woman with voice like a carillon
pealing the cold from my bones.82
Though the trauma of the past, here represented by the dold, is always present, he has, through his ability to love and beloved, moved farther away from despair. The nightmare no longer comes first; it need not preface the volume, or have a section of its own: in Winter Bells it is integrated into the text as Ehrhart has integrated it into his life. And from his new position of strength Ehrhart can carefully evaluate the impact of the Vietnam War on others — veterans, the families of MIAs, the Vietnamese — and place it in the context of his own decision to pursue life and love, rather than death and hate. He renounces rationalizations and justification for the war in “POW/MIA,” writing sadly:
God forgive me, but I’ve seen
that triple-canopied green
nightmare of a jungle
where a man in a plane could go down
unseen, and never be found
He rejects the false comfort of “welcome home” parades, and refuses to be one of “… the sad / survivors, balding, overweight / and full of beer, weeping, grateful / for their hour come round at last,” and asks instead, “What fire will burn that small / boy marching with his father? / What parade will heal / his father’s wounds?”83 And he can say, to fellow Vietnam veteran and fellow poet Bruce Weigl, “take care of your beautiful life. / and trust me. The long flight, / the long hump into the gathering night, / what do they matter? / We will walk point together.”84. The poem dedicated to Weigl is one of Ehrhart’s few poems to the living, and represents the willing extension of trust and faith embodied in Winter Bells. He writes, now, one after another, poems addressed to real people: Mrs. Na of Cu Chi District and Nguyen Thi My Huong of Ho Chi Minh City have replaced the faceless “Farmer Nguyen.”85 A visit to Nicaragua in 1986 inspired “Adoquinas,” a poem about a single old man who fought for the revolution, and “Nicaragua Libre,” dedicated to the freedom fighter Flavio Galo. The final two poems in the volume, “Why I Don’t Mind Rocking Leela to Sleep,” “What Keeps Me Going,” and a third poem, “Some Other World,” published in Z Miscellaneous in 1987, represent the transfer of his hope from an amorphous “next generation” to his own daughter, Leela, and his ambivalence about her chances of happiness:
From “Why I Don’t Mind”:
What I want for my daughter
she shall never have:
a world without war, a life
untouched by bigotry or hate,
a mind free to carry a thought
up to the light of pure
From “What Keeps Me Going”:
She sucks her thumb, rubs her face
hard against the mattress, and begins
again the long night dreaming
darkness into light.
From “Some Other World”:
And I’m wishing this moment
could last forever; I’m wishing
the things that trouble my dreams
could be kept outside like the wind.
Ehrhart’s development as a poet and autobiographer can be attributed to his talent and his hard work. To stop the analysis there, and to simply call him a good writer, however, would be a grave injustice. It would be as ridiculous and false as calling Primo Levi merely a fine storyteller. Ehrhart laments, in 1989, “At thirty-nine, already I’m a marked man,” unable to convince publishers that his “love poems, cold poems, poems / about my mother in a house alone / for the first time in forty-four years”86 are just as important as his poems about the Vietnam War. Publishers, I suspect,miss the point that all of Ehrhart’s poetry has passed through the fire of the war, that the literature of trauma is defined by the experience of the poet rather than the nominal subject of the poem. Ehrhart’s good poems and his bad poems, his poems about war and his poems about his wife, are all part of a larger work — the interpretation of the traumatic experience, and the integration of that experience into a posttraumatic existence. Critics miss the point, too. Ehrhart complains that “of the few reviews my poetry has received, almost all focus exclusively on the obvious “Vietnam poems,” ignoring completely or paying only passing lip service to the large number of my poems not obviously connected to the war.”87
Since the publication of Winter Bells, Ehrhart has continued to produce poems, to teach, and to write prose. The problem with any study of a living author — particularly as young an artist as W.D. Ehrhart — is that any analysis is out-dated even before it is printed. I consider this a beginning, rather than an ending — ongoing work on a survivor-poet who has reached maturity, but who has yet to find his limits. His latest poems reflect a growing focus on living subjects and include many poems about Central America (he visited Nicaragua and El Salvador in the mid-1980s), contemporary Vietnam, and the intersection between the personal and the political. He has also continued to produce critical works, anthologies, fiction and non-fiction. In 1993 he was the recipient of a Pew Grant, which served as the foundation for a great deal of new writing. He completed a memoir, Busted: A Vietnam Veteran in Nixon’s America (University of Massachusetts, 1995), which takes place after he is thrown off the Atlantic Endeavor, “busted” for smoking marijuana. In the following decade we’ve seen a growing body of Ehrhart’s work, a tribute to the ongoing process of healing and growth.” The journey from version to vision to revision seems endless.”88
The profound dislocation of combat, the confusion of perpetrator and victim, power and powerlessness, create in the survivors of war a duality of perception characteristic of trauma survivors. Their choice — to close their eyes to the horror of the past and deny their own experience, or to attempt to integrate the traumatic experience into the banality of everyday life — is always difficult. Many survivors simply succumb to their inability to escape the traumatic landscape and choose to die rather than endure. Some few, like Ehrhart, refuse both to repress the past and to renounce the present; they take as their responsibility the impossible task of bearing witness both to what we are, and to what we could be. For these authors, writing is not simply a therapeutic task, and the war is not simply “good subject material”: bearing witness is a sacred trust, and the product of a life of hard work. These men and women are the guardians of history, the voices of Cassandra, the “farmers of dreams.”
I no longer believe that I can change the world. I no longer believe that even all of us together are going to change the world. But I do believe we have to keep trying… I have to keep trying because it is the only way I can live with myself, knowing what I know. It is the only way I can live with my wife, who believes in me more than I believe in myself. It is the only way I can live with my daughter, who will inherit the world I give her.
I’ll tell you my darkest fantasy: when they drop the big bomb on the oil refineries of South Philadelphia, I want to have time to take my daughter in my arms and hold her tight and whisper into her ear, “Kid, I’m sorry about this. I did the best I could.” That’s it. That’s all I ask for. Looking around at the world today through rational eyes, that’s all I reasonably can ask for: the time to say it, and the knowledge that what I am saying is true, that I did the best I could.<#fn89″>89
[Author’s Note: It has over twnety years since I penned this chapter on the work of W.D. Ehrhart. In the decades that followed he has increased the amount and =quality of his output. I suggest that you spend some time at his web site: http://www.wdehrhart.com/. I encourage scholars and critics to use my work as a foundation for further work on Ehrhart’s literary and intellectual production.]
11. Alvin H. Rosenfeld, “The Problematics of Holocaust Literature,” in Rosenfeld and Greenberg, eds., Confronting the Holocaust: The Impact of Elie Wiesel (Bloomington: Indiana University Press) 1978: 26. Rosenfeld is a Holocaust literary critic whose work bridges Des Pres’ reliance on the authenticity of the survivor experience and Young’s second-generation perspective.
12. Robert Jay Lifton, “Beyond Atrocity,” in Richard Falk, Gabriel Kolko and Robert J. Lifton, eds., Crimes of War: A Legal, Political-Documentary, and Psychological Inquiry into the Responsibility of Leaders, Citizens and Soldiers for Criminal Acts in War (New York: Random House) 1971: 18-19.
17. The main character of Ed Dodge’s novel, Dau (New York: Berkley, 1984) is haunted by the ghosts of dead friends and murdered mistress. Chris Starkmann, the protagonist of Philip Caputo’s Indian Country (New York: Bantam, 1987) is visited by the ghosts of D.J. Hutch and Ramos, who urge him to join them. And Larry Heinemann’s prizewinning novel Paco’s Story (New York: Penguin, 1986) is narratoed to James, Paco’s dead comrade.
25. “The accomodations that documentary art has made to the imperatives of an extreme and unprecedented historical experience can be seen as part of the general trend toward fictional journalism which came to be known in the sixties as the New Journalism… For the survivor of the A-bomb or the Nazi Holocaust, the documentary approach suggests a faith in memory over imagination and a loyalty to one’s dead over the creations of one’s mind… It may be seen as an extension of the regard for the primacy of the report that was exemplified during the war years by Thomas Mann and other writers who served as braodcasters or journalists devoted topublicizing the little-known facts of the atrocities… Nearly every documentary writer prefaces his narrative with the claim that nothing in his story is invented… The aesthetic and moral implications of what amounts to the author’s abdication of creative responsibility rest not in the verifiability of individual facts but rather in the premises which underlie an ostensibly undoctored reconstruction of historical events. The very claim to historicity lends such works a certain authority.” Ezrahi: 24-25.
70. A different version of this camping trip appears in “A Conversation,” from Empire, where Ehrhart offers an image of Gerry that emphasizes the unbearable connection between two men whose pain is too great for them to share and who have chosen different paths to peace. The poem, unlike the novel, gives us a final image which suggests that though separated, these two men share one soul.