The Angel of History

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Combining the political with the personal—or, as the poet herself contends, creating work that addresses “public concerns, the public self in the world”—has always been Carolyn Forché’s forte. While her first volume of verse, Gathering the Tribes (1975), chronicles the author’s experiences and epiphanies, both private and public, as an adolescent and young adult, her second book, The Country Between Us (1981), powerfully demonstrates Forché’s evolving political consciousness and connection to the larger external world around her. It is in this latter collection, marked by her experience as a journalist and human rights advocate in El Salvador, that Forché first confronts unflinchingly the atrocities of civil war, political corruption, and violations against life and liberty to attempt, through her “utterance” or language, to transform through sensibility the otherwise purely barbaric. Such a poetic stance or strategy is no small feat at a time when much contemporary poetry has been marked by a retreat from the sociopolitical into an ephemeral realm of personal loss and longing. By addressing head-on the pain and suffering of recent public history—that is, by placing her individual self at the service of political dissent, even outrage—Forché has moved into the company of Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, Philip Levine, and Denise Levertov. She has joined that select company of contemporary poets who have managed to wed their personal feelings with an impassioned commitment to the exterior world, however cruel and painful its events may be.

Yet the moral and political depths of Forché’s earlier collections may be overmatched by The Angel of History, a volume ambitious and comprehensive in its historical vision. This book-length poem, composed in numbered sections and taking in the compiled degradations of twentieth century history, reminds one of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” (1922) in its “shoring up” of the fragments that constitute modern life and culture. The poet’s springboard for considering and recording, in sparse, imagistic fashion, past obscenities such as the Holocaust, Hiroshima, and Latin American genocide is Walter Benjamin’s “angel of history,” which Forché defines in an epigraph: “His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to . . . make whole what has been smashed. But a storm . . . irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward.” The apocalyptic strain evidenced in Benjamin’s view of the historical process is supported by Forché’s own explanation of her book’s purpose, which she appends as an epilogue: “These utterances issue from my own encounter with the events of this century but do not represent ‘it.’ The first-person, free-verse, lyric-narrative poem of my earlier years has given way to a work which [is] . . . polyphonic, broken, haunted, and in ruins, with no possibility of restoration.” That is, Forché recognizes the impossibility of trying to explain or transcend the chaos of twentieth century history through art; instead, she is content to record the events of “a world emptying of human belief,” to capture, if not valorize, “a memory barely retrieved from a fire . . . (the past) in its hiding place,” as the shadowy narrator of part 2 of the volume, entitled “The Notebook of Uprising,” cryptically puts it.

Like Forché’s previous collections, this volume is elegiac in its tone, portraying, as critic Carole Stone describes, how “history functions as part of the mourning process as [poets] bear witness to the tragedies of a people . . . In doing so they pass through individual grief to collective grief.” Given The Angel of History’s fragmented form, disjointed images, and apocalyptic lines taken from Elie Wiesel, Franz Kafka, and Paul Valéry, however, it is difficult to conclude here that Forché uses elegy as “a form that at once witnesses history and tries to change it” (as Stone proposes). That is, the poet muses self-reflexively toward the end of part 1, “The Angel of History,” if all art is the result of one’s having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end,” such artistic expression cannot hope to expiate the terrors of the past (such as, in this section, the deportation and extermination of French Jews by the Nazis) but can merely witness and chronicle them. Thus, an indeterminate narrator closes “The Angel of History” with another question, since no answer seems possible to explain the atrocities of our recent, collective history:

As if someone not alive were watching:
  Bonsoir. Est-ce que je vous dérange?

Night terrors. A city with all its windows blank.

A memory through which one hasn’t lived.

You see, I told Madame about my life.

I told her...

(The entire section is 2072 words.)

The Angel of History Bibliography

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Sources for Further Study

Ashton, Jennifer. From Modernism to Postmodernism: American Poetry and Theory in the Twentieth Century. Boston: Cambridge Studies in American Literature and Culture, 2006. This exhaustive collection includes Forché and many of her contemporaries, placing them in their individual spiritual and political traditions.

Bergen, Dan. “Muses of History: ’The Angel of History’ by Carolyn Forché.” The Nation 259, no. 13 (October 24, 1994): 464.

Cohen, Leslie. “Resisting Catastrophe.” Jerusalem Post, May 1, 1997, p. 5.

Forché, Carolyn, ed. Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness. New York: W. W. Norton, 1993. This collection of political poetry was put together by Forché to showcase 140 poets from five continents.

Gregory, Eileen. “Poetry and Survival: H. D. and Carolyn Forché.” In H. D. and Poets After, edited by Donna Krolik Hollenberg. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2000.

Mark, Alison, and Deryn Rees-Jones, eds. Contemporary Women’s Poetry: Reading/Writing/Practice. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. This anthology discusses the intersection of women’s political practice and spirituality in the twentieth century.

Owens, Rochelle. Review of “The Angel of History,” by Carolyn Forché. World Literature Today 68, no. 4 (Fall, 1994): 816.

Ratiner, Steven. “Carolyn Forché: The Poetry of Witness.” In Giving Their Word: Conversations with Contemporary Poets, edited by Steven Ratiner. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2002.

The Angel of History Overview

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Many of the eighteen sections of Carolyn Forché’s poem “The Angel of History” recount recollections of World War II, particularly horrors of persecution, dislocation, and loss. The memories belong primarily to a war victim named Ellie, a deported Jew whom the speaker befriended and has known for a number of years. Ellie is the poem’s magnetic center, attracting a variety of associations, some of which are clarified in notes. While the poem does not proceed chronologically, images and repeated phrases link the sections, some analytical, others narrative.

Indeed, the mental and emotional work of comprehending shapes the poem. The first section portrays the shock of knowledge on the speaker, and the next three sections elaborate. When children are destroyed in concentration camps, windows seem blank, games become ominous, sleep is impossible, and “the silence of God is God.” The speaker’s descent into the poem takes the form of disconnected fragments, but images of sea, light, vigilance, sleeplessness, fire, and memory create a matrix of emotion.

The next seven sections develop Ellie’s experience—the loss of sons, her husband’s death from cholera, her affliction with Saint Anthony’s fire, the memory of her wedding dress, prompted by news of a plane crash. The events range from the war to her confinement much later in a French sanatorium. Her suffering and hatred of France have made her bitterly defiant. Homeless, sure that no country is safe, she believes that God is “insane,” and she wants “to leave life.” The speaker devotes herself to caring for Ellie, missing events of her own son’s childhood. She laments that Ellie’s predicament “is worse than memory, the open country of death.”

Whereas many poems move toward resolution, the last seven sections of “The Angel of History” emphasize disturbance. The speaker is haunted by an undefinable presence (“as if someone not alive were watching”). An unidentified voice in section 12 recounts a nightmare of nonexistence in the process referring to sites of atrocities in El Salvador. The process of empathizing, recounted in the thirteenth section, affects the speaker to the extent that it seems “as if it were possible to go on living for someone else.” The next two sections depict her disorientation. A letter from Ellie describes changes over eight years, but in the speaker’s memory, Ellie does not change: “Here you live in an atelier.”

The sixteenth section opens with a bitter definition—“Surely all art is the result of one’s having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end”—and recounts the terrifying evacuation of Beirut, Lebanon, where the women first meet and the speaker first tried to comfort Ellie. The repeated phrase “And it went on” suggests not only the rigors of the evacuation but also their lasting impact on the speaker. Just as her recollection of Ellie seems more vital than the more recent events Ellie describes in her letter, the speaker’s mind has associated (her word is “confuse”) Ellie and the entirety of wartime horror. Logic and language both falter, as difficulties in translation illustrate. Initially a polite inquiry, Ellie’s “Est-ce que je vous dérange?” (“Am I disturbing you?”) sounds here and in the final section like a bell tolling and assumes ironic resonance. The final section serves as a musical coda, reiterating emptiness and irreparability. The poem ends not with any final pronouncement but with the voice of Ellie, or perhaps a nameless victim, inquiring of the reader what the speaker has said.

One understands that the poem, while cohesive, cannot resolve. The horrors that Ellie (and countless others) endured radically alter the world and...

(The entire section is 1550 words.)

The Angel of History Overview

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

The title of Carolyn Forché’s book is drawn from Jewish German Walter Benjamin’s essay “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (1940), in which Benjamin talks about the power of history to overwhelm human memory and understanding. The angel of history, Benjamin says, watches events hurtle past, while debris from disaster after disaster piles at his feet. History can be lived meaningfully only through redemptive vision and practice, and otherwise is only a dead set of facts. The angel hopelessly yearns to reassemble the smashed fragments of the past but is rendered unable to engage in that task because of the pressures of the future. Benjamin says, “The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been...

(The entire section is 864 words.)