Victoria Frenkel Harris

Victoria Frenkel Harris: On "Counting Small-Boned Bodies"

A quick glance at the table of contents of The Light Around the Body reveals titles of anguish and horror. "Smothered by the World" and "Romans Angry about the Inner World" are just two in the section entitled "The Two Worlds," revealing the conquest of the external world over the internal. In the section entitled "The Various Arts of Poverty and Cruelty," Bly's titles alone catalog the disgust he feels for enfranchised dishonesty and cruelty. "Those Being Eaten by America," "The Great Society," "The Current Administration," "Listening to President Kennedy Lie about the Cuban Invasion," each reads like a frontal assault on the administration. Perhaps one poem from the third section, "The Vietnam War," warrants attention for its effective integration of psychological, intuitive, and political content that we associate with Bly. Bly read "Counting Small-Boned Bodies" across the country during and since the Vietnam years, often wearing a mask evoking patriarchal cruelty. In 1970, Bly told Gregory Fitz Gerald and William Heyen that the poem "was written after hearing, on radio and television, Pentagon 'counts' of North Vietnamese bodies found" (78). The poem is Bly's response to such news accounts: "One repulsive novelty of this war is the daily body count. We count up the small-boned bodies like quails on a gun-shoot. The military people would feel better if the bodies were smaller, maybe we could get a whole year's kill in front of us on a desk."

Bly's poetic sentiment, it will be seen, duplicates his prose description. The poetic impact is great because of its Swiftean portrait of the grim performance of Americans in Vietnam. In "Counting Small-Boned Bodies," Bly impounds the historical and metaphysical moment through his portrayal of a carnal fetish . From the depth of pain, Bly constructs a poem that rises through a string of body images that decrease in size in each stanza. . . .

The horror Bly felt at the daily body count led him to this vividly moving irony of the decreasing size of bodies becoming suitable for war trinkets. Unlike the tone in Dickey's poems, the tone here can never be confused. Despite its sarcastic presentation, the poem exudes naked emotion, rage at the sterile response of a middle class to the slaughter of a nation. Delving beneath both the manifest and the personal, Bly depicts the horrific psychological context of sadistic executioners making a booty of the annihilated.

From The Incorporative Consciousness of Robert Bly. Copyright © 1992 by the Board of Trustees of Southern Illinois University.

Victoria Frenkel Harris: On Robert Bly

In his essay "The Dead World and the Live World" (1966), Robert Bly distinguishes between two kinds of poetic consciousness, that which brings "news of the human mind" (he would include the confessional poets in this category) and that which brings "news of the universe." The second kind of poetry requires that the poet go deeply inward, "far back into the brain," where he is likely to find what, in "The Work of James Wright" (1966), Bly calls "some bad news about himself, some anguish that discursive reasoning had for a long time protected him against" (66-67).

From The Incorporative Consciousness of Robert Bly. Copyright © 1992 by the Board of Trustees of Southern Illinois University.