The Lice: Poems By W.S. Merwin

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W. S. Merwin is well known for his Vietnam War poems. He was was born in 1927 and has been awarded pretty much every possible prize given to a poet, including a Pulitzer prize, a National Book Award, and the Bobbitt Prize from the Library of Congress. He also served two terms as U.S. Poet Laureate.

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Merwin’s The Lice, the poet’s 1967 response to “the atrocities of the Vietnam War and the national unrest of the Civil Rights Movement.”  Or so a blurb on the back cover of the latest edition of the book (Copper Canyon, 96 pp., $15, paper) tells us.

The book’s most important poem, “When the War is Over,” is printed on the back cover, following the blurb, so that the dullest reader will not miss it.

When the war is over

We will be proud of course the air will be

Good for breathing at last

The water will have been improved the salmon

And the silence of heaven will migrate more perfectly

The dead will think the living are worth it we will know

Who we are

And we will all enlist again

Not all of us. I was asked to re-enlist. My response was unequivocal. Not me, Sarge.

W.S. Merwin, at 90, is alive and living on Maui in a nature conservancy of rare palm trees that he planted. The cover of this beautiful book is a Larry Burrows Vietnam War photo showing smoke rising from a cluster of thatched Vietnamese hooches, following bombing and resulting fire from napalm in Viet Cong territory (a so-called free fire zone).

31iv0jleqbl-_ux250_“The Asians Dying” and “For the Anniversary of My Death” both seriously hit home.  “The Asians Dying,” for reasons I don’t feel like explaining, and “For the Anniversary of My Death” because my doctors told me that 2017 I’d have been dead for at least five years due to the effects bone cancer caused by being exposed to Agent Orange. I don’t plan to live as long as W. S. Merwin, but one never knows.

As Merwin warns us in his poem “For a Coming Extinction,” “One must always pretend something among the dying.”  We can’t deny the obvious; we are all both the dying and among the dying.

This is the most beautiful book of Vietnam War poetry published in 1967—and again in 2017.  Buy it and read it.

—David Willson

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