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Thank You for Your Service
By John Ketwig (reviewer)
Thank You for Your Service: Collected Poems
by W.D. Ehrhart
(McFarland & Company, Inc., 2019)
I have known W.D. "Bill" Ehrhart for many years, and I usually refer to him as the most articulate spokesman of all Vietnam veterans. I have a number of his books, and I have listened to him read his works on a variety of occasions. In short, I knew what I was getting into when I purchased this book and agreed to review it.
What I didn't appreciate was how a collection of Bill Ehrhart's poems would affect me after all these years. The guy is a wordsmith, hammering out images that excite the imagination, that describe the familiar in riveting, illuminating style, and revealing how the memories of Vietnam still haunt him. He is concise, choosing words carefully to paint clear, illuminating images. He scolds, imagines, and laments without selfish complaint. He celebrates his wife, his daughter, and especially, his old friends from the military, the survivors and the lost. Most of all, Bill Ehrhart holds up a mirror so we can see ourselves, and he shines a bright light upon us so no blemish can go unnoticed. He has lived a colorful life rich with sadness and pain, and every poem is like a page from a secret diary. He dares to find fault, recognizing that words upon a page won't change America's thirst for blood, but he hopes they might change a few individual readers' hearts. That is, in reality, his life's work, and this collection offers no faint praise that he has done great work and done it well.
Song for Leela, Bobby, & Me,
for Robert Ross
I have friends who wonder why I can't
just let the past lie where it lies,
why I'm still so angry.
As if there's something wrong with me.
As if the life you might have lived
were just a fiction, just a dream.
As if those California dawns
were just as promising without you.
As if the rest of us can get along
just as well without you.
Since you've been gone, they've taken boys
like you and me and killed them in Grenada,
Lebanon, the Persian Gulf, and Panama,
Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq.
And yet I'm told I'm living in the past.
Maybe that's the trouble: we're a nation
with no sense of history, no sense at all.
Bill Ehrhart doesn't seethe with blind anger. He does not strike out wildly, letting his blows land wherever they might. No, he is insightful and surgical, and always accessible. He does not use big words to impress us with his vocabulary. Each of his poems is like an investment deposited into a savings account, and this collection is the statement of his worth at the moment these thoughts were gathered together. I take comfort from the knowledge that there are many more, perhaps squirreled away in a box under his bed, and someday they might be revealed.
for Nguyen Thi My Huong, Ho Chi Minh City, December 1985
Some American soldier
came to your mother for love,
or lust, a moment's respite from loneliness,
and you happened. Fourteen years later,
I meet you on the street at night
in the city that was once called Saigon,
and you are almost a woman,
barefooted, dressed in dirty clothes,
beautiful with your one shy dimple.
It doesn't really matter who won;
either way, you were always destined
to be one of the losers:
if he wasn't killed, your father left
for the place we used to call The World
years before the revolution's tanks
crushed the gates of the old regime forever.
Now we sit on a bench in a crowded park
burdened by history. It isn't easy
being here again after all these years.
I marvel at your serenity – but of course,
you can't possibly know who I am,
or how far I have come to be here.
You only know that I look like you,
and together we are outcasts.
And so we converse in gestures and signs
and the few words we can both understand, and for now it almost seems enough
just to discover ways to make you smile.
But it isn't, and I have no way
To tell you that I cannot stay here
And I cannot take you with me.
I will tell my wife about you.
I will put your photograph on my desk.
I will dream you are my own daughter.
But none of that will matter
When you come here tomorrow
And I'm gone.
Above all else, Bill Ehrhart is a human being. He feels things, and has the most unusual capacity for describing all that he feels, and putting his feelings into some semblance of order that makes them familiar and understandable to other humans. He does not recognize borders and has little reverence for flags or emblems of rank sewn or pinned to a fatigue shirt. He values humans and has great reverence for their lives. He means no harm but can never forget or forgive.
I rarely read poetry. To me, poetry is usually abstract and bloated, with far too many words to describe a feeling. The poet recognizes an important event or thought, and too often he or she builds a great shrine of words to convince us of its importance. Bill Ehrhart uses few words to describe his observations, but his art consists of finding the most telling words and combining them in ways that communicate with the broad spectrum of readers. I came away from this collection feeling sadness that this might be the condensed summing up of his life's work. No, this was a meager sample of his contributions up to a certain moment in time. I'm sure today he is adding to it, and I can only hope someone will undertake to collect his current thoughts and put a cover around them and put them up for sale on Amazon, where we can all share in his maturing reflections. Yes, I will say it again; Bill Ehrhart is the most articulate spokesman of all Vietnam veterans.
John Ketwig is a lifetime member of VVAW.
He is the author of …and a hard rain fell, and Vietnam Reconsidered: The War, the Times, and Why They Matter.