In 1981 Carolyn Forché published a slim collection of verse, her second, titled The Country Between Us. The first section, “In Salvador: 1978-1980,” contained eight poems about El Salvador, including a prose poem that described the poet’s visit with a powerful colonel in the Salvadoran Army. The colonel served wine, lamb and green mangoes, and exchanged politenesses with his guests as an American cop show murmured on the TV; then he abruptly excused himself, returned and emptied a sack full of human ears onto the table. “Something for your poetry, no?” he said. “They were like dried peach halves,” Forché wrote. “There is no other way to say this.”
The Salvador poems made Carolyn Forché famous. The Country Between Us appeared just as America’s complicity in El Salvador’s civil war–during which the United States supported a regime that kidnapped or “disappeared” more than 65,000 people–seized the public imagination. As a groundswell of outrage at the Reagan Administration grew, the collection, with its vivid depictions of the ongoing torture, rape and imprisonment of civilians, sold some 70,000 copies–an astounding figure for a single book of poems by a relatively unknown poet. Inevitably, some critics saw Forché’s attempt to fuse poetry and politics as damaging to the integrity of both. Others took issue with her bald shock tactics: “Go try on/Americans your long, dull story of corruption, but better to give/them what they want: Lil Milagro Ramirez…who fucked her, how many times and when.” A few critics went so far as to suggest that Forché had fabricated her experiences in El Salvador.
But The Country Between Us is hardly a collection of agitprop. In a larger sense, the book is an account of a young poet’s hunger to be changed, to become adult (and her distrust of this same hunger). Indeed, fourteen of the poems have nothing to do with El Salvador; but they, too, chart the self’s compulsion to understand violence, and (in the case of erotic violence) to feel it. For every poem detailing “the slip of the tongue/that costs hundreds of deaths” there’s one scrutinizing “How my breasts feel, years/later, the tongues swishing/in my dress, some yours, some/left by other men”; for every depiction of brutal imprisonment there’s a poem about “how much tenderness we could/wedge between a stairwell/and a police lock.”
Some twenty years later, it’s hard to imagine that Forché’s book was attacked as it was. We are, of course, at a different place in the history of taste: After September 11 and fifteen years of reading Eastern European poets like Czeslaw Milosz and Adam Zagajewski, Americans are more comfortable with poets shifting between the personal and political in their work. And at this point, we know that Forché’s portrait of El Salvador was an accurate one. Even at her most pedantic, she sounds less like a left-wing groupie or a budding Adrienne Rich than any young person who has undergone an agonizing firsthand experience for which she was wholly unprepared. The poems are unflinching in their attention to the suffering of others, but equally forthright about the fact that such social weightiness can be trying if treated with a heavy hand (as it sometimes was); throughout, Forché questions her motives–her interest in witnessing–with a savage, self-questioning sarcasm: “It would be good if you could wind up/in prison and so write your prison poems.”
Soon after The Country Between Us came out, Forché published a piece in Granta citing the dangers inherent in bearing witness in verse to people’s suffering–the problem of reduction and over-simplification; of poeticizing horror; and the problem of the poet’s implied desire to see the world as a place of stark extremity–while at the same time eloquently defending the project. “What matters,” she contended, “is not whether a poem is political, but the quality of its engagement.” By engagement, she meant ethics; indeed, by the final poem of The Country Between Us, the poet had arrived at an ethical model: “There is a cyclone fence between ourselves and the slaughter and behind it we hover in a calm protected world like/netted fish…. It is either the beginning or the end of the world, and the choice is ourselves or nothing.” Needless to say, Forché’s model was: Tear down the cyclone fence. Ditch the fish. Choose “nothing” (i.e., the selfless path of the engagé) and in doing so become a “self.” And so she argued in Granta for a corrective to what she saw as an overly prettified strain of American poetry about the isolated self, writing, “I have been told that a poet should be of his or her time. It is my feeling that the twentieth-century human condition demands a poetry of witness.”
What happened to the poetry of witness? It was thirteen years before Forché published another collection–though during this time she wrote journalism–a silence she attributes in part to the vicious response to The Country Between Us. Troublingly, the two books she’s written since suggest that the critical attacks have led her away from firsthand witness, and toward broad historical testimony. Both The Angel of History (1994) and the elegiac new collection, Blue Hour, wander in abstraction, and show a reluctance to employ Forché’s artfully direct reportorial voice. Certainly, much of The Angel of History is successfully symphonic and cinematically impressive in new ways. And yet, after reading Blue Hour, which carries these same impulses into spiritual and personal realms, you can’t help feeling that in coming to terms with the response to The Country Between Us, Forché somehow moved away from the very things she’d set out to accomplish. These new poems, Forché says, are about “attempting to show the voice of the soul.” It’s one thing to write about the specific wrongs of a regime; to speak in the universal voice of the soul requires another kind of talent altogether. And, unfortunately, Forché doesn’t have the same gift for isolating ethereal moments that she has for creating the lyric equivalent of a Robert Capa snapshot.
In The Angel of History, as Forché vaulted at historical catastrophes such as the Holocaust and Hiroshima, the first-person “I” of the early poems was replaced with a voice she has described, rather grandiosely, as “polyphonic, broken, haunted, and in ruins, with no possibility of restoration”; the poems grew abstract, less grounded in the frissons of metaphor. Though it too is set against a backdrop of events “more ominous than any oblivion,” Blue Hour, which contains only eleven poems, is more personal in its concerns than The Angel of History, haunted by family deaths and a newfound fascination with Gnosticism. There are, throughout, traces of the younger Forché: shockingly precise images of terror and grief–a boy settling into a coffin and his “cup of sleep”; “a parrot learning its language from a ghost.” And as ever, Forché is capable of great and convincing beauty; the opening poem, “Sequestered Writing,” is a stately elegy about the moment shortly before a child learns of a family death. The child in it, we understand, is Forché; the death probably her grandmother’s:
Horses were turned loose in the child’s sorrow. Black and roan, cantering through snow.
The way light fills the hand with light, November with graves, infancy with white.
White. Given lilacs, lilacs disappear. Then low voices rising in walls.
In juxtaposing lilacs (so-called “poetic” language) with the scientific idiom of hypothesis and diagnosis Forché extracts more feeling from three words than would seem to have been there to begin with–and this is poetry, of the kind she wrote in The Country Between Us.
But poems like “Sequestered Writing” are the exception in Blue Hour. Although Forché’s themes aren’t imaginatively complicated, even the reader eager to stay with her will find many of these poems difficult to follow–they’re often distant, couched in a foreign, surprisingly bodiless language. Forché seems to have been persuaded by her critics (or by herself) that a poetry of witness is more “limited,” and she has returned with poems that labor mightily to mine the most serious moments of “experience” she can find.
The poems borrow imagery and ideas from Big Thinkers such as Emmanuel Levinas, Maurice Maeterlinck, Julia Kristeva, René Char and Walter Benjamin, but without communicating much. The result is moribund, as in the long final poem in Blue Hour, “On Earth.” Written in the form of an abecedary–a poem that proceeds alphabetically from lines beginning with a through z–“On Earth” is a record of a mind slowly passing into death, while, like a magpie, it dives to recover shiny fragments of its life: “garbage fires along the picket lines/gasoline coupons and rations, an event no longer remote/Georg leaning against the winter pine eating a sparrow.” The catalogue is the ideal form for capturing the absolute disaster of loss: Loss is complete, as the catalogue can never be. Forché has learned from Eliot and his successors that a fragment of speech can be as moving as a highly wrought metaphor, and much of “On Earth” recycles such fragments–of speech, of liturgy, of imperatives and of lines from earlier poems in the book. Some of these fragments are as arresting as an unusual shell discovered on a beach, like this overheard gloss on the pain of human relations: “be gentle with one who loved you mistakenly and very much.” But without more to hold them together they add up to less than the sum of their parts, and revelation never comes. This is, in part, Forché’s point, but it’s debatable whether the observation that lyric revelation is hard to come by is enough to hold a poem together this late in the game.
Forché uses motherhood as the lever with which she will lift the heavy rock of our moral indifference, moving from the birth of her son into memories of her postwar childhood and on to indictments of twentieth-century atrocities, including the Holocaust and Chernobyl. The “blue hour” of the title, Forché explains, is borrowed from the French idiom for the light between darkness and morning, a time between unknowing and knowing. The title poem weaves together troubled memories from the poet’s childhood–leg problems that required her to sleep with immobilizing braces (“I couldn’t move, and when they lifted the tented sheet covering the crib it was only to touch my face”);her discovery of her grandmother’s insanity and imprisonment in an asylum (“Sometime later I would find the suitcase full of clippings: walls smeared with waste, bedsheets mapped in urine”). All this horror is set against the redemptive promise of birth:
When my son was an infant we woke for his early feeding at l’heure bleue–cerulean, gentian, hyacinth, delft, jouvence. What were also the milk hours.
This one who had come toward me all my life now gazed at the skies above Montparnasse as if someone were there, gesturing to him from the slate light.
He looked at me and the asylum shimmered, assembled again into bricklight and wards of madness. Emptiness left my mother. The first love in field upon field.
In trying to make us think big, she relies on standard lyric tropes for the universality of nature–skies, flowers, plants, birds, bones, fields–and sets their inevitable ruin against the tragic fact that her son must in turn lose his innocence. “Writing Kept Hidden”–which was composed when she was living in Beirut in the 1980s–begins “The black fire of ink on paper took hold of their souls–incorporeal fire” and concludes on a wistful note: “On August evenings, the sky was a blue no longer spoken.” Here Forché’s speaker feels not only that something has been forever stolen (an old Romantic theme) but the specific political tragedy of being unable to give proper voice to that loss. Something else is going on too–having to do with souls, bodilessness, redemption. Yet none of these lofty subjects are crystallized for the reader; while the allegory of the self’s crisis expressed in relationship to the sky is an old trope (think of Keats’s famous sonnet “Bright Star”), the image remains dim, as if the poet failed to look closely enough to tell us what she sees.
Moral passion usually manifests itself in certainty, and the challenge faced by the writer who proceeds out of such conviction is remembering that even the most admirable articulation of certainty does not make a poem. This is the challenge Forché hasn’t met in Blue Hour. Poems, as Auden put it, are a “way of happening”–a linguistic vehicle for a form of discovery, which charts the arrival at truth through the form. The tension between Forché’s new moral absolutism and her failure to find a compelling form for it is most visibly evident in “Prayer”:
Begin with bread torn from bread, beans given to the hungriest, a carcass of flies.
Take the polished stillness from a locked church, prayer notes left between stones.
Answer them and hoist in your net voices from the troubled hours.
Sleep only when the least among them sleeps, and then only until the birds.
Make the flatbed truck your time and place. Make the least daily wage your value.
Language will rise then like language from the mouth of a still river. No one’s mouth.
Bring night to your imaginings. Bring the darkest passage of your holy book.
To be sure, this poem has striking, powerful effects (“take the polished stillness from a locked church”). But it never fully comes alive on the page. Notice the preponderance of superlatives–in the speaker’s hierarchy, each of us, and each of our utterances, is measured against the yardstick of universal suffering: our actions are judged in relation to those of “the hungriest,” “the least among them” who live on “the least daily wage” in the equivalent of “the darkest passage of your holy book.” Most prayers are invocations for relief–or at least strength. But Forché’s are the opposite: She pushes us to feel pain.
Notice, too, how unmusical the poem is; how all the lines are end-stopped; how few metaphors there are; how little tension is generated by the anaphora of the imperative (“Begin,” “Make,” “Take”). Forché may be purposefully playing with the simplicity of the prayer form, but throughout Blue Hour she has confined her poems to long single lines that sit in isolated blocks on the page, as if each thought were an island we must struggle to connect to the next. These prose poems lend themselves to pronouncement, bringing out the sermonizer in Forché, just as the short lines of The Country Between Us helped check that impulse by moving more swiftly. The result is a stern series of pious pensées: “One does not forget stones versus tanks. When our very existence broadcast an appeal.” And “What one of us lives through, each must, so that this, of which we are part, will know itself.” Rhetorically, this last example is like scolding a misbehaving teenager by saying, “If your friends jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you do it too?”–that is, it’s hardly persuasive, because it’s so nonspecific. Poetry speaks its truths by finding a linguistic vehicle for the poet’s method of making sense of the world; it’s not the poet’s job to say, “I have a significant truth to tell you” but to seduce us–through sound, through strangeness–into feeling that we’ve become separated from the railings of the logic on to which we normally hold, and are lightheaded with the discovery of what happens when we look up.
When Forché briefly tackled the subject of World War II in The Country Between Us, she wrote, “You wrote too of Theresienstadt, that word that ran screaming into my girlhood, lifting its grey wool dress, the smoke in its violent plumes and feathers.” Contrast the photographic intensity of that sequence with her poem from Blue Hour, “In the Exclusion Zones,” about the aftermath of Chernobyl: “Ash over conifers and birches, over berry thickets. Resembling snow and its synonyms. Silvered fields of millet.” The versifying here is elegant; the tone tempered, respectable, clever–but forgettable. Philosophical and abstract poems don’t make good use of the remarkable talent Forché has for metaphor and clarity, for speaking to rather than around something.
So why have critics praised Forché for taking on the “big” subjects of World War II and Hiroshima–events that she never lived through–and criticized her for writing a poetry of firsthand witness? The latter, as noted earlier, faces an inevitable set of contradictions: the poet’s implication in the world she’s “objectively” viewing, the poeticization of horror, the naïve egotism of a speaker purporting to tell a hitherto unheard truth. But is it any more “egotistical” to testify to immediate events than to imagine historical horror? All art is a form of egotism–of the self saying, “I saw, I witnessed, I felt.” The pitfalls of its various modes are different, but each mode has its own. The enduring consensus in American criticism that a poetry of firsthand witness is somehow a lower form of truth-telling than any other form is, to say the least, shortsighted.
What remains notable about The Country Between Us is how local its concerns were–there was no glass pane between the poet and her subjects. She wrote poems that smacked of immediacy. As a poet, Forché was the equivalent of the adolescent still in the first blush of antic conviction that the world merited closer scrutiny. That conviction has been replaced by gravity and an appearance of studied maturity. “Stress of purity generates a feeble aestheticism that fails, in its beauty, to communicate,” she wrote in Granta. But these poems stress moral absolutism–which is surely a form of stressing purity. And they are the more leaden, the more self-consciously beautiful, the less convincing, for it.