The Poem and the Wound called Vietnam

The Outer Banks and Other Poems by W.D. Ehrhart, $6.00, Adastra Press, 101 Strong St., Easthampton MA 01027 / 1984.



This is the only book of poems that I am aware of that has the possibility of attaining the wide readership, and the celebrity status, of Carolyn Forche’s The Country Between Us. W.D. Ehrhart’s The Outer Banks and Other Poems is as skillful and as historically necessary as Forche’s, but it is also as passionately involved with language. If this book fails to sell well, it is poetry as a living, vital activity that will suffer.

Ehrhart is a lover, and lovers risk everything or they are nothing.  Each of his poems is informed by landscape and by dreams, and by a passion for authentic relationship, a healing of the wound that we call “Vietnam,” a wound that refuses to heal because we refuse to acknowledge the extent of the damage. The Outer Banks is a record of loss but also a chronicle of the possibility of hope.

Landscape and dreams.  From “The Farmer”:  “I have sown my seed in soil / guaranteed by poverty to fail .... A farmer dreams / knows what it means to be patient. / Each day I go into the fields.” Each day he does go into the fields. He is what is glibly called a “committed poet.”  But by that we should mean that he insists on being there. alive to all the possibilities of a landscape, alive for all of us if we are alive enough to listen to him. The poems speak of nature —canoeing, wild flowers, Big Sky Country, the flat North Ohio landscape, blizzards, The Outer Banks of North Carolina. But this is no simple, or simple-minded, demonstration of the implied value of awareness-as-such. Nature-as-such does not exist. Read “Surviving the Bomb One More Day” —intensity of appreciation is conditioned by knowledge, by feeling, yes even by dread, and by awareness of history. The Potomac River is not merely a stream, it is also a stream-of-consciousness, it evokes John Brown, that war, Vietnam, and the war to come in El Salvador, in Nicaragua.

It is this combination of landscape and history, landscape and memory, landscape and dreams —what is dream but an acceptance of self into memory, history? and non-lovers, do they ever have the passion necessary to dream, to provoke utopia? —well, it is this combination that makes Ehrhart’s poetry alive, feeling-full, something to be valued. Nature is not a refuge, and neither is this man’s poetry. It forces the reader to also be there, be involved, or not to be at all, to be a lie to one’s own history. The snow falls, “The Blizzard of Sixty-Six.” The occasion of this blizzard is also the sign of a chronicle, a roll call of falling into death: “Randy, class of ‘65, died / in terminal cold in the Mekong Delta ....” Ehrhart does more though. He is sensitive as few others —perhaps Simon Ortiz in From Sand Creek, perhaps Leslie Silko in the record of the void carried by the hero of Ceremony —sensitive to the burden, the felt weight, of absence. Perhaps this is why he keeps history, in spite of the pain, the nightmares, alive in his poetry. From this, a most likeable love poem with a most unlikely title: “Everett Dirkson, His Wife, You & Me”: “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.”  From “... the light that cannot fade ...”: (about a friend who died young)— “you’d have gone to college / married some good man from Illinois, / and disappeared like all the other / friends I had back then who meant / so much and who I haven’t / thought about in years.”


Poetry of feeling, intense passion, poetry by a true lover (and in this he is like Ortiz or Doubiago, and therefore also a revolutionary) poetry alive to language. What more could we ask for? I suppose I should mention that he is as skillful as any poet who writes only from self-absorbtion or self-promotion. I suppose I should mention something about Ehrhart’s skill. This book challenges the ordinary poetry, the poetry that is rewarded, is used for tenure in universities, and it challenges the ordinary poets and critics who live off the fat of the land Ehrhart so passionately loves, and they will try to fend off his challenge by calling him a propagandist or a partisan, try to bury the poet under a label of “politics.”  It can’t be done. Ehrhart is as skillful as any of them.  Pick any poem, his dialectical use of line is apparent. I especially like “Cowgirls, Teacher &Dreams” because it is about a lesson in line, fishing line, that he learns from an eight-year old girl. “It didn't help: you caught twenty: I”. You caught twenty and caught “I”—me.  Or later, when he reverses our built-in bias about role expectations: it is the young girl who is adept at fishing, horse back riding; the man who is squeamish, afraid of falling. It is he who needs the security of his arms around her waist: “I was squeamish? Biting flesh inside” read only as one line, not just as one that extends to “Biting flesh inside / my mouth” reads as an epiphany of sorts that expresses the feeling of loss —this awareness of the very real and revealing weight of memory, absence, that the poem as a whole exemplifies. Call him a master of line if you are comfortable with such labels, you won't be far wrong but you won’t have really grasped his achievement either. Because foremost among those achievements is his ability to get the reader to listen; his is a poetry of dreams and land, he, to push this pun, he reveals the “ear” in “earth.” Listen. From “Sound Advice” (and Ehrhart offers advice about sound, of course) “Remember the time Jerry Doughty / beat you up for no good reason”, the exhortation to “listen” is an attempt by a complacent society to enforce conformity while all the time it is really a plea by the poet, the “point of order” is the narrator’s obstinacy as well as the cry of a man wounded from a society gone crazy.

There is a dialectical quality to this verse that is available to the reader if only the reader is a listener, not collapsed into a rigid “point of view” but open to the sound of “Sound Advice,” to the sound of such sound advice.

And. The book is crafted by hand by the editor / publisher Gary Metras. That fact is also a statement on the integrity of these poems.