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Merwin's "The Asians Dying" is his most famous poem overtly about the Vietnam War; it merits an analysis by infiltration, a criticism surrounded and deadened by the poem's political echoes. I quote the poem's lines, in order, interspersed with my commentary. "When the forests have been destroyed," he writes, "their darkness remains," their heaviness and their thick foliage weigh on us like our guilt. No defoliation, no consuming fire, is decisive. The landscape, leveled in the outside world, rises again in us. The shadows amongst the trees are now a brooding absence and an inner darkness. In our eyes are traces of each obliteration; our will is choked by compulsion, our sight layered with erasures:

The ash the great walker follows the possessors Forever Nothing they will come to is real Nor for long

As readers, we too are possessors, but the poem's images decay through association. The enlightenment the poem offers is experienced, paradoxically, as suffocation. We are possessed by a past which invades each anticipation; ruinous memories seep into every future. "Over the watercourses / Like ducks in the time of the ducks"--the only remaining migration is our residual unrest--"the ghosts of the villages trail in the sky / Making a new twilight." The only constant is our discontent, the only change the rhythm of returning nightmare. Twilight is the moment when consciousness--itself a confusion of misdeeds--submits to new violence.

The poem is a tapestry of recognition and forgetfulness; its lines comment on one another endlessly. Each image (unique in its context) is immediately enfolded by a torpor of historical sameness; in an age whose destiny is past, each name names everything. The poem is a claustrophobia verbally enhanced by false relief; each new line rediscovers old ground.

But Merwin's fine musical sense always provides for surprises in tempo. These verbal shocks (like their unpunctuated lines) bleed off into silence, but that only increases their hold on us:

Rain falls into the open eyes of the dead Again again with its pointless sound When the moon finds them they are the color of everything

These lines are set by themselves on the page. If we could, we might join them to another stanza to deaden their horror. The lines relate a simple fact, one we secretly knew but had not consciously thought of, but the image lends the war an unbearable solitude. It is as though a single and essential benediction were lacking at the core of everything we are. It is too late; death cannot be contained. We cannot bury the dead of Vietnam; raindrops hammer at their delicate eyes, we cannot reach out to close them. Already they are the color of everything, for everything has taken on their color: their violated sight is taken up into the limpidity of the air.

Thus "the nights disappear like bruises but nothing is healed / The dead go away like bruises." Dawn is merely burning darkness. There are no more beginnings. We are not truly healed (nor can the poem heal us); we are uniformly, though not terminally, wounded. The body politic absorbs its crimes; they are its substance: "The blood vanishes into the poisoned farmlands." The war is the absolute limit of knowledge: "Pain the horizon / Remains." Above us, trembling but unfulfilled, "the seasons rock," now unnatural signs that no longer signify; "they are paper bells / Calling to nothing living." For a world that will not be reborn, seasonal change is mockery. And the poem, too, is a paper bell; it tolls no prophecy, for its message was apparent long ago--embedded equally in every historical act and in every line.

"The possessors move everywhere under Death their star," Merwin concludes, but he is naming all of us, not accusing anyone, for the poem too possesses a history it loathes. "Like columns of smoke they advance into the shadows / Like thin flames with no light." What we are has corrupted the elements we are made of; all that we cannot see is unspeakably known to us. "They with no past," he writes, "And fire their only future"; the pronoun reveals not the clarity of distance but a special kind of self-knowledge--forgetfulness and revulsion in contest. The possessors have no past because what they do cannot be distinguished from what they have been. The final line is merely a rebuke, a false seal on the poem's form; fire is the future already with us.

By Cary Nelson. From W.S. Merwin: Essays on the Poetry. Ed. Cary Nelson and Ed Folsome. Copyright 1987 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.