Robert Bly’s “Counting Small-Boned Bodies” is a short poem of ten lines, written in free verse and carefully divided into four stanzas. The poem initially invites the reader to participate with the speaker (or persona) in the singular action of recounting bodies. The process Bly refers to is one of counting the bodies of enemy dead following a battle, a military practice used to determine the extent of damage inflicted on the opposing force. The satire of the poem protests the Vietnam War, and more specifically the Pentagon practice of releasing body-count statistics to the press on a daily basis. The last three stanzas show the bodies shrinking and becoming ostensibly less important. Bly uses a succession of unusual metaphoric images to demonstrate the horror of trivializing death in this manner.
The title of the poem gives immediate notification that something out of the ordinary is taking place, as Bly stipulates that the bodies are small-boned, bringing images to mind of the skeleton rather than flesh and blood. The title thus suggests something other than the gory images usually associated with day-after descriptions of battle scenes. The title even reduces the size of the bodies, preparing the reader for the starker reductions that follow. The conversational tone of the first stanza involves the reader in the “we” of the remainder of the poem, setting up a tacit agreement that to read on is to participate in the experimental testing of the practice of counting bodies. The first word, “Let’s,” is encouraging in tone and hints at an equal participation between speaker and reader.
Each of the next three stanzas begins with the same line, a wistful thought that if it were only possible to make the bodies smaller, then—the speaker surmises—they would become ever more manageable. In each of the three dreamlike visions that follow, the reader and body-counter move closer to the bodies, which occupy first a moonlit plain and then a desk, until finally a single body is shrunken to a size that would fit into a “finger-ring.” However, the bodies resist any reduction of their importance, thanks to the shocking and surreal images Bly uses: a field of skulls, a year’s worth of kill on a single desktop, and finally a body inserted into a ring. The speaker seems unaware that each reduction in size also reduces the distance between the counter and the counted.
The ending of the poem presents a singular finality in which the bodies are all but lost while at the same time one could be contained within a ring, a trophy to be prized as a token of achievement. In this particular poem, Bly relies on what critics call “deep images” to convey the anger and energy of his dissent. Bly prefers to describe this as looking inward to connect with the spiritual self, a process that is important even though the results may seem mysterious and disturbing. The effort produces images that are strange and surreal, yet often healing. These images in Bly’s war poetry are similar to those found in the political protest poems of Pablo Neruda. Bly’s overall work as a poet, translator, critic and publisher has enlarged American poetry by popularizing images drawn from the collective unconscious, transformative images previously found primarily in non-English-language writers.
Much of the effectiveness of “Counting Small-Boned Bodies” in attacking body counts as a method of measuring “progress” in the Vietnam War lies in the structure Bly develops. The poem spirals downward through ever smaller yet ever more potent images. The single line of the first...
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stanza simply portrays the speaker’s conspiratorial approach, providing a narrative hook—inviting the reader to play along.
The second line of the poem continues in the reasonable tone already established, but it proposes a connection between a real event and imaginative world where a human body could be made smaller and smaller for the sake of convenience. How the body size is reduced is never explained; however, the impact of the reduction comes in the brief third line, in which the bodies have become skull-sized. This is followed by a compelling vision of a moonlit plain filled with skulls, each representing a body. The vast numbers of skulls filling the whitened landscape is suggestive of a Romantic painting. Bly accentuates the satiric miracle of the moonlit scene by ending the stanza with an exclamation mark.
The last line of the stanza is the longest of the poem. It also achieves the final element of the pattern Bly follows in the rest of the poem; in this case stanzas 2, 3, and 4 enclose a small line between longer first and last lines. Each stanza is a tercet, fashioned from a sentence broken into three separate lines. The structure of the poem is an outgrowth of the content and meaning, one of the basic attributes of free verse.
The poem continues to tighten while growing even more emphatically satirical. Stanza 3 proposes that a “whole year’s kill” might be shrunk so small as to fit on a single desk. Using the symbol of a desk, an image of bureaucracy, focuses the anger in the poem toward the Pentagon’s use of body counts and kill-ratio statistics. The military establishment is indicted for creating a view of death as a statistic and dead enemy soldiers as objects of proof. Again, Bly ends with the satiric exclamation mark.
In the final stanza the satire overwhelms by turning from the vastness of the compiled statistics to a single body made small enough to fit inside a ring. This is the most personal and potent image of all, an ultimate reminder to everyone of the horror being masked by the sanitized language of body counts. The final phrase of a “keepsake forever” implies the falseness of the entire body count procedure by alluding to an advertising slogan popular at the time.
In “Counting Small-Boned Bodies” the first line of each stanza repeats a suggestion of the inexplicable process whereby bodies are made smaller, while the last line embodies a surrealistic vision that drives home the horror of death. In this way Bly trumps the manner of speech that he criticizes, creating a wrenching vision of the horror of war by using a bloodless set of images.
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