It is, I think, this blend of strangeness and a clear-sighted literalness that makes a poem like "The Asians Dying" memorable. Consider the lines
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
We don't usually think of rain falling precisely into open eyes, let alone "the open eyes of the dead." The image is an odd one and yet the third line has a kind of photographic accuracy: in the moonlight, the dead bodies, clothed in khaki, would indeed blend with the colors of the forest ground, and so theirs is "the color of everything." Add to this the irony--a rather heavy-handed irony, I think--of Merwin's implication that, in our world, the color of death has become "everything" and you have an intricate enough layering of meanings, which is not to say that Merwin's construction is in any way radical or subversive. Indeed, I submit that nothing in "The Asians Dying" has the startling modernity of
I was neither at the hot gates Nor fought in the warm rain Nor knee deep in the salt marsh, heaving a cutlass, Bitten by flies, fought.
Cary Nelson has rightly noted Merwin's debt to Eliot, but it is a good question whether "Gerontion" doesn't capture what Lieberman calls "the peculiar spiritual agony of our time" at least as well as do poems like "The Asians Dying."
By Marjorie Perloff. 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.