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On "Counting Small-Boned Bodies"


William Heyen

[T]he lament of an efficiency expert, or of one of our generals, or of a Silas Marner whose gold coins are the corpses of men with black hair. . . .

from The Far Point (1969)


George S. Lensing and Ronald Moran

"Counting Small-Boned Bodies" is a short poem of ten lines and, as its title suggests, plays upon official body counts of dead Vietnamese soldiers. The poem's first line, "Let's count the bodies over again," is followed by three tercets, each of which begins with the same line: "If we could only make the bodies smaller." That condition granted, Bly postulates three successive images: a plain of skulls in the moonlight, the bodies "in front of us on a desk," and a body fit into a finger ring which would be, in the poem's last words, "a keepsake forever." One notes in this that Bly uses imagery not unlike that of the pre-Vietnam poems, especially in the image of the moonlit plain. In fact, that very image functions here ironically as the reader perceives that the romantic setting is occupied by the skulls. Bly's method consequently represents an important modification in the use of the Emotive Imagination. The lyricism that attends the natural world has become an ironic lyricism attending horrible reversals of the natural world. The reader, instead of drifting tranquilly inward and toward his own private world, is thrust outward upon the abuses of the public world. The poem does not end in reconciliation or a sense of moral advance; rather, it concludes upon a note of accusation and a sense of moral retrogression.

From Four Poets and the Emotive Imagination: Robert Bly, James Wright, Louis Simpson, and William Stafford. Copyright 1976 by Louisiana State University Press.


Charles Altieri

One notices first of all how Bly's sense of collective consciousness allows him readily to assume the voice of a whole culture, and his secure sense of values justifies a biting criticism of that culture, not only for its actions (as in Lowell) but for the modes of consciousness that support those actions. Three specific aspects of the public consciousness are dramatized in the poem. First Bly plays on the idea that counting, the manipulation of elements in the outer world, can ever be an adequate measure of events. (The history of body counts provides adequate empirical data to support Bly here.) Counting then leads to a second empty form of public measurement: the poem's tone and grammatical mood express a technological fantasy inspired by the false language of advertising. Finally, the concluding line allies the violence of war with perverted and simplified visions of love. It establishes and casts back over the rest of the poem a purposive role for the irony as intensifying the gap between public desire and the lack of a true inwardness that might define and direct that desire. These distortions then combine to present an inverted version of Bly's typical concentrative movement. The more compressed the bodies become the more the reader approaches the ring, the central unifying symbol of the horror involved in this exercise of perverted love. And the horror is deepened by the fact that advertising's words for this particular union are literally true, though of course in an unexpected sense: those dead bodies will remain intimately involved with our lives for a terribly long time.

From Enlarging the Temple. Copyright 1979 by Bucknell University Press.


Victoria Frenkel Harris

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.


Howard Nelson

The reference is to one of the peculiarities of the Vietnam period: body counts, reported routinely on the evening news. Again creating a mask, Bly imagines the body-counter himself, who turns out to be a rather cheerful being who sits at a desk and has a taste for scenic vistas, efficiency, technical ingenuity, and expensive trinkets. He is, in short, a citizen of a modern business-dominated, technological, affluent society. The poem manipulates scale and distance with great effectiveness. In his mania for making the bodies smaller—their shrinking suggests their reality receding further and further away—the speaker does not seem to notice or care that all the while they are moving closer to him. The bodies—never regarded as human from the outset—move in three dream-like steps in toward him, from the moon-lit plain to the desk to the ring. The implication is clear, and contained perfectly within the images and their movement: when one succeeds this well in distancing the suffering and death of other human beings, in making them smaller and smaller, one ends up engaged to death itself. The final phrase plays on a well-known advertising slogan, but in this context it takes on a terrible psychological meaning.

from Robert Bly: An Introduction to the Poetry. Copyright 1984 by Columbia University Press.


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