The Asians Dying

Edward Brunner on "The Asians Dying"

In the closing group, death is an occurence that links us with others. This realistic acknowledgment of death can appear with the old abstract concept in the same poem; it is one reason why the ending of "The Asians Dying" is so powerful. In the middle of the poem, Merwin uses "the dead" to speak of persons who were once alive: "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." Their "open eyes" also proclaim their status as individuals, not generic categories. Like the animals who would "look carefully" and return the glance of the poet in "The Animals," perhaps even speaking back to him, these too would look back accusingly if they could. But at the end of the poem, the old abstract, categorical idea of death emerges again, as "the possessors moved everywhere under Death their star." For the possessors, death is as remote as a star, an emblem calling them forward in their rapacious progress; it is a concept, having nothing to do with individuals. The two versions of death radically distinguish Asians from Americans, a distinction underscored with irony: the death the Asians experience leaves them with their eyes open; the death star under which the possessors march leaves them as blind as ever.

Cary Nelson: On "The Asians Dying"

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.

Marjorie Perloff: On "The Asians Dying"

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.