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On "For a Coming Extinction"

Ian B. Gordon

In the remarkable poem, "For a Coming Extinction," addressed to a gray whale, Merwin speaks of the relationship between poetic utterance and history, notably the absence that they both share’

I write as though you could understand
And I could say it
One must always pretend something
Among the dying
When you have left the seas nodding on their stalks
Empty of you
Tell him that we were made
On another day

Although the poem commences with a simple request for the beast to forgive those responsible for its destruction, the narrator quickly finds himself in deeper philosophical waters than those transversed by the animal. He asks forgiveness while simultaneously realizing that very notion of forgiveness is a human projection: "we who follow you invented forgiveness / And forgive nothing." The juxtaposition of "follow" and "forgiveness" is charged with significance. We can forgive only by recognizing a transgression that occurred in the past. To invent forgiveness is also to invent history, to invent the idea of one event following another by a reconstitution of the past. Succession, history, inheritance—in short, the thematic concerns of the poem—exist only as part of our need to invent a field for our collective grief. Man is doomed because he must seek history only in order that he might escape it more easily. Forgiveness has no real object; as part of historical association, it is a form of the engineering of recovery posing as charity. The poem itself moves from the natural world (the whale), to its departure

Leaving behind it the future
And ours

and thence finally, to a "black garden" and its court—clearly a reference to some new home in a natural science museum. There it joins other extinct creatures, "the Great Auk the gorillas / The irreplaceable hosts ranged countless." The whale has entered the realm of words and hence of history symbolized by the museum replete with white labels showing forth lineage (and hence history) as the juxtaposition of genus and species: gray whale.

From "The Dwelling of Disappearance in W. S. Merwin’s The Lice." Modern Poetry Studies 3.3 (1972)

Jerold Ramsey

"For a Coming Extinction," the latest in Merwin's pod of whale poems, all owing something to Jonah and job, and having to do with the terrible human implications of animal extinctions. But the tone of the poem is not so simple: as in other poems of its kind in the book, Merwin's spokesman employs a complex kind of sarcasm rather than the consistently self-incriminating irony of a conventional persona. The speaker's monumentally arrogant statement on behalf of the heedless despoilers of life shifts intermittently to direct evocation of the pity, outrage, and guilt that the prospect of the whale's extinction demands, and in this mood he defines the terrible burden under which the poetic imagination must labor in The Lice:

I write as though you could understand
And I could say it
One must always pretend something
Among the dying

By Jerold Ramsey. From M.S. Merwin: Essay on the Poetry. Ed. Cary Nelson and Ed Folsome. Copyright © 1987 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

Carles Altieri

"For a Coming Extinction" follows the series of war poems in The Lice and ties their despair to Merwin's more metaphysical speculations on the void. The rationalist speaker asks the whale he is making extinct to remind, "The End / That great god" "that it is we who are important." In asserting man's special place, he also reminds us of man's guilt as destroyer of his planet. More important than this basic irony, though, is the religious setting and the other poems in the volume that context calls up. For the consciousness here in his destructiveness is actually altering the gods we must pray to--from gods of life to gods of darkness and death. Making animals extinct is our "sacrifice" to that god we now invoke. And the irony ultimately doubles back on itself and the reader. For our immediate reaction is to want to destroy people who think like this speaker. Even on this practical level, then, apocalyptic destruction--psychically if not physically--comes to seem our one hope for salvation. Yet even in the midst of the despondent social poems near the end of The Lice Merwin finds in his fears a moral note that qualifies and redirects any ultimate surrender to the void. "If I were not human I would not be ashamed of anything" seems just one more statement of a consciousness desiring to erase itself into nonbeing. But it returns us and Merwin to a mode of necessity evident in other despairing moments. We are human, and being human condemns us not just to shameful deeds but to a desire to criticize and correct those deeds. A void sought in despair is an impossible paradox, for the very conditions generating despair keep alive also a sense of moral possibilities and a dream of fuller being. Not only does Merwin resist unjust war and the destruction of Nature, but he makes poems of that resistance. The poems, of course, may only attach one to a dying planet and actually increase the number and beauty of things that must die, but they also suggest the possibility of an abiding permanence capable of providing an alternative to the void.

By Charles Altieri. From M.S. Merwin: Essay on the Poetry. Ed. Cary Nelson and Ed Folsome. Copyright © 1987 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

Thomas B. Byers

Instead of celebrating the self's expansion, Merwin laments the death we cause in our "progress." He blames this death on our assumption that the world exists for us, and on our consequent possession and use of nature, by which we are preparing "the future / Dead / And ours." "The irreplaceable hosts" are "our sacrifices"--those we have made to ourselves. Hence the bitterly ironic instructions to the whale to "Tell him [i.e., "The End / That great god"] / That it is we who are important." The animals here are "tokens of myself" only in that they signify our self-importance--and perhaps our unpending extinction.

The tone here, as in much of The Lice, is self-critical and confessional, though the confession, precisely mirroring the Whitmanian celebration that helps make it necessary, is not personal but for our species in general. Since it would be self-centered and arrogant to express our guilt in terms of its cost to us, the poem instead speaks quietly of what the whale will lose: "you will not see again / The whale calves trying the light." The message is the more poignant because it refuses the assimilation of the other that characterizes Whitman's empathy. Rather, the other (though anthropomorphized--of which more later) rests in the difference that is spelled out in the echo of Genesis: "we were made / On another day."

By Thomas B. Byers. From What I Cannot Say: Se;f, Word, and the World in Whitman, Stevens, and Merwin. Copyright © 1989 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

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