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The Last Time I Dreamed About the War: Essays on the Life and Writing of W. D. Ehrhart
By Joe and Jack Miller (Reviewers)
The Last Time I Dreamed About the War:
Essays on the Life and Writing of W.D. Ehrhart
Edited by Jean-Jacques Malo
(McFarland Publishing, 2014)
JACK: Let's get to the heart of any review: why read this book?
JOE: The importance of this collection of essays by an international group of scholars and poets (including Vietnam veterans and one Iraq war veteran) lies in the fact that readers will finally be introduced to (or reminded of) the full range of W. D. Ehrhart's writings. Those who only know him through his poetry are treated to in-depth and personal discussions of his memoirs and essays, his speeches and lectures, and his editorial writings. Those who only know him as the author of Vietnam-Perkasie (1983) or Passing Time (1989) are introduced to the poet whom many consider "troublesome," to use a term found in the essay by Dale Ritterbusch (p. 99), another Vietnam veteran poet.
JACK: That was certainly my experience. To me, Ehrhart was primarily a poet, and if I even knew he wrote essays and memoirs, I certainly didn't grasp just how essential they are to his body of work, so learning about them was a broadening experience for me, and a fairly painless one. I admit I came at this collection with some apprehension—I don't read much in the way of essays, and fled academia as soon as I could. I was surprised at how readable the pieces were; some of the more "scholarly" works made me feel like I was grading papers, but many of these pieces are honest and personal, more conversational in tone.
Some pieces hit hard, in the best way. I was floored by Yoko Shirai's moving comparison of Ehrhart's poetry with the visual art of Chimei Harada, which underscores the universal nature of both the human brutality of war and the equally human desire to end it. For me, probably the most valuable piece in this collection was editor Jean-Jacques Malo's interview with Ehrhart—there aren't many out there, and as plain-spoken as his poetry is, I found that Ehrhart's forthright responses to Malo's questions lent me some valuable perspective on his work. I also loved how many of the essays focused on Ehrhart's role not just as a witness to history, but also as someone committed to the next step: education.
JOE: After reading Bill's poetry for many years, I came across the first two volumes of his memoir in the late 1980s, just before I was to begin teaching a course on the Vietnam War at the University of Illinois. As mentioned by many of the authors in this collection, I realized that these works were the perfect way to introduce young college students of that day to the realities of the Vietnam War. Vietnam veteran Edward Palm writes that "Ehrhart is first and foremost committed to truth-telling—telling it like it was." (p. 168). Beyond that, it was important for students (and others) to hear Bill's voice directly. This is also made clear by a number of the authors in this volume. That meant bringing him into class, especially after the students had read his work. For, in his poet's voice or in his essayist's voice, Bill is a teacher.
JACK: That's one thing that became very clear to me after reading this book: he's not primarily a poet, because the poetry is a means to an end. He is, above all else, a teacher; I don't think the man knows how not to be one. As he says himself, he "knows things worth knowing" and he has a fierce need to pass them on. Connecting the dots, I could say that he wrote poetry (and essays, and memoirs) about the horrors and consequences of war so I would never have to, and I'm grateful for that.
Overall, I gained something important from this book. I feel a new intimacy with poems I've known for decades; I read "Mostly Nothing Happens" aloud to a group of friends recently and there was an immediacy I'd never appreciated before. And the book has made me crave more Ehrhart—I don't usually read essays and memoirs, yet now I want to read his non-poetry work, too. Here's hoping this collection brings more attention to an author and teacher who richly deserves it.
JOE: That is a very important thing to hear from a younger writer like yourself, whether veteran or non-veteran, and I want to tie things together by highlighting something pointed out by Jan Barry, a founding member of VVAW. In his essay he informs us that the Warrior Writers project for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has used many of Ehrhart's poems and essays "to help spur participants to tackle war demons." (p.165)
So, from Bill's Vietnam work, through his studies of Korean war writers, to veterans of our most recent wars, it is clear from this volume that writer/teacher/poet W. D. Ehrhart will continue to speak to and influence readers across generations and territories for some time to come.
Joe has been reading Ehrhart's poetry and other writings since the publication of Winning Hearts and Minds in 1972. He first met Bill in 1988. Joe introduced his son Jack to Bill's poetry in the late 1980s. Jack is also a published poet and has always been interested in Bill's poetry. We wrote this review as a "conversation" between father and son about the range of essays in this volume and what they show about Bill Ehrhart, poet, essayist, educator and witness.