Skip to main content

"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.