VIETNAM WAR POETRY

  On the Eve of Destruction

                        The weekend Watts went up in flames,
                        we drove from Fullerton to Newport Beach
                        and down the coast as far as Oceanside,
                        four restless teenage boys three thousand miles
                        from home, Bob Dylan's rolling stones
                        in search of waves and girls and anyone
                        who'd buy us beer or point us toward the fun.
                        California. What a high. The Beach Boys,
                        freeways twelve lanes wide, palm trees everywhere.
                        And all the girls were blonde and wore bikinis.
                        I'd swear to that, and even if it wasn't true,
                        who cared? A smalltown kid from Perkasie,
                        I spent that whole long summer with my eyes
                        wide open and the world unfolding
                        like an open road, the toll booths closed,
                        service stations giving gas away.
                        What did riots in a Negro ghetto
                        have to do with me? What could cause
                        such savage rage? I didn't know
                        and didn't think about it much.
                        The Eve of Destruction was just a song.
                        Surf was up at Pendleton. The war in Vietnam
                        was still a sideshow half a world away,
                        a world that hadn’t heard of Ia Drang or Tet,
                        James Earl Ray, Sirhan Sirhan, Black Panthers,
                        Spiro Agnew, Sandy Scheuer, Watergate.
                        We rode the waves 'til two MPs
                        with rifles chased us off the beach:
                        military land. "Fuck you!" we shouted
                        as we roared up Highway One, windows open,
                        surfboards sticking out in three directions,
                        thinking it was all just laughs, just kicks,
                        just a way to kill another weekend;
                        thinking we could pull this off forever.

by Contributing Poet:     W.D. Ehrhart   Copyright © 2016
      ( First published in The Bodies Beneath the Table   Adastra Press   2010 )


  Song for Leela, Bobby and Me
for Robert Ross

                        The day you flew to Tam Ky, I was green
                        with envy. Not that lifeless washed-out
                        green of sun-bleached dusty jungle utes.
                        I was rice shoot green, teenage green.
                        This wasn't going to be just one more
                        chickenshit guerrilla fight:
                        farmers, women, boobytraps and snipers,
                        dead Marines, and not a Viet Cong in sight.
                        This was hardcore NVA, a regiment at least.
                        But someone had to stay behind,
                        man the bunker, plot the H&I.

                        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.

                        I still have that photo of you
                        standing by the bunker door, smiling shyly,
                        rifle, helmet, cigarette, green uniform
                        you hadn't been there long enough to fade
                        somewhere in an album I don't
                        have to look at any more. I already know
                        you just keep getting younger. In the middle
                        of this poem, my daughter woke up crying.
                        I lay down beside her, softly singing;
                        soon she drifted back to sleep.
                        But I kept singing anyway.
                        I wanted you to hear.

by Contributing Poet:     W.D. Ehrhart   Copyright © 2016
      ( First published in Beautiful Wreckage  Adastra Press   1999 )


  Beautiful Wreckage

                        What if I didn't shoot the old lady
                        running away from our patrol,
                        or the old man in the back of the head,
                        or the boy in the marketplace?

                        Or what if the boy — but he didn't
                        have a grenade, and the woman in Hue
                        didn't lie in the rain in a mortar pit
                        with seven Marines just for food.

                        Gaffney didn't get hit in the knee,
                        Ames didn't die in the river, Ski
                        didn't die in a medevac chopper
                        between Con Thien and Da Nang.

                        In Vietnamese, Con Thien means
                        place of angels. What if it really was
                        instead of the place of rotting sandbags,
                        incoming heavy artillery, rats and mud.

                        What if the angels were Ames and Ski,
                        or the lady, the man, and the boy,
                        and they lifted Gaffney out of the mud
                        and healed his shattered knee?

                        What if none of it happened the way I said?
                        Would it all be a lie?
                        Would the wreckage be suddenly beautiful?
                        Would the dead rise up and walk?

by Contributing Poet:     W.D. Ehrhart   Copyright © 2016
      ( First published in Beautiful Wreckage  Adastra Press   1999 )


  The Bodies Beneath the Table
Hue City, 1968
(or was it Fallujah,
Stalingrad, or Ur?)

                        The bodies beneath the table
                        had been lying there for days.
                        Long enough to obliterate their faces,
                        the nature of their wounds.
                        Or maybe whatever killed them
                        ruined their faces, too.
                        Impossible now to tell.
                        Only the putrefying bodies
                        bloated like Macy's Parade balloons,
                        only unrecognizable lumps on
                        shoulders where heads should be.

                        The two of them seemed to be a couple:
                        husband and wife, lovers perhaps,
                        maybe brother and sister — who
                        could tell — but they'd pulled the table
                        into a corner away from the windows,
                        their only protection against
                        the fighting raging around them,
                        crawled beneath it — the table, I mean—
                        half sitting, bent at the waist,
                        close together, terrified, almost
                        certainly terrified, nothing but noise,
                        only each other, only each other,
                        any moment their last.

                        All these years I've wondered
                        how they died. Who were they.
                        Who remembers.

by Contributing Poet:     W.D. Ehrhart   Copyright © 2016
      ( First published in The Bodies Beneath the Table   Adastra Press   2010 )


Bio:   W.D. Ehrhart   served three years in the US Marine Corps, including 13 months in Vietnam with 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment. The author or editor of 21 books and the subject of The Last Time I Dreamed About the War: Essays on the Life & Writing of W. D. Ehrhart (McFarland, 2014), he teaches history and English at the Haverford School in suburban Philadelphia, PA.


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