In 1968 Grady Harp thought he’d seen it all as an intern in trauma surgery at Los Angeles County Hospital. Then he was sent to Vietnam. On his first assignment he was dropped into the demilitarized zone to sort through body parts to be shipped home. It was 115 degrees.

Eventually Harp was stationed with the special landing forces along the Cua Viet River. At least, he says, they “had an actual hospital where I could do more than staunch the flow of blood.” The marines and Vietcong vied daily for control of a nearby village. Harp recalls Lia, a favorite nurse who tunneled into the hospital one night with a stolen M-16 to kill her own patients. Harp started to write poetry in his diary and found the words helped him to endure. Some 30 years later, he’s etched these poems onto ceramic sculptures that are now on display at the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum.

At the exhibit’s entry, Harp has placed four “Sentinels,” slab-built structures that stand guard over “painful memories, like a traveling Vietnam wall,” he says. Other works include porcelain urns with chiseled poetry in Vietnamese and massive stoneware pieces with suggestive names like Detonator. Harp says he wants to “seduce the viewer” into reading his words; the poems then “become the vessels,” he explains. Shell Casings opens like a crypt for viewers to read “Poem 4” inscribed inside. To read the poetry on most of these works, viewers begin at the top and follow the lines as they wrap around the sculptures. The poems have been numbered rather than titled to reflect the military’s use of codes to depersonalize experience. The aim is to get people in touch with their feelings, Harp says, even if what they feel is pain. Like a cardiac injection of epinephrine, the poems are meant to jolt the stopped heart back to sensation: “waving goodbye from the helicopter I sat / and chuckled over your jokes / while they killed you.”

The emotional violence of war is quietly carried through love poems that remind one of Walt Whitman, who cared for fallen young soldiers as a nurse during the Civil War. In the face of annihilation, Harp says, male bonding can blur the line between buddy and lover. His poems conjure the faces, voices, and touch of lovers lost to battle.

Harp, who retired from medicine several years ago, says he’s discovered that his art has reached beyond those affected by the Vietnam war. “Many people come to this exhibit because they hear I’m a physician, and they believe I can help them deal with loss.” Perhaps he can: if Harp’s poems precisely recount loneliness, longing, horror, and denial, their ultimate values are healing and compassion.

“War Songs: Metaphors in Clay and Poetry” runs through September 20 at the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum, 1801 S. Indiana; admission is $4. For more information, call 312-326-0270. –Karla Powell

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Safewater Buoy 1” by Grady Harp.