A Poem for Memorial Day

Some twenty years ago, I helped organize an arts festival at St. Lawrence University focusing on the work of artists of all genres who had come of age during the Vietnam era–both those who served in the military and those who didn’t. It was an extraordinary experience and I met some remarkable (mostly) men. I had the honor to get to know poet W. D. Ehrhart, a Vietnam vet who taught school in the years immediately following his service. This poem has stayed with me through the decades.

The Teacher

for my students at Sandy Spring Friends School
                                                                                                                        
A cold moon hangs
cold fire among the clouds,
and I remember colder nights
in hell when men died
in such pale light as this
of fire
swift
and deadly as a heart of ice.

Hardly older then
than you are now,
I hunched down shaking
like an old man
alone in an empty cave
among the rocks of ignorance
and malice honorable men
call truth.

Out of that cave I carried
anger like a torch
to keep my heart from freezing,
and a strange new thing called
love
to keep me sane.

A dozen years ago,
before I ever knew you,
beneath a moon not unlike
this moon tonight,
I swore an oath to teach you
all I know—
and I know things
worth knowing.

It is a desperate future
I cling to,
and it is yours.
All that I have lived for
since that cold moon long ago
hangs in the balance—
and I keep fumbling for words,
but this clip-clapper tongue
won’t do.

I am afraid;
I do not want to fail:

I need your hands to steady me;
I need your hearts to give me courage,
I need you to walk with me
until I find a voice
that speaks the language
that you speak.

–W.D. Ehrhart, September 1978

Reprinted from Beautiful Wreckage, Adastra Press, 1999, with permission from the author.

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