(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

Blue Hour by celebrated poet Carolyn Forché clearly turns away from the directly political tone of her earlier works and toward the more intimately personal. Just as some of Forché’s critics took her to task for needlessly “poeticizing” political violence in her second collection, The Country Between Us (1981), some have lashed out at the seeming abandonment of her politically charged poetry. She is a poet who has unflinchingly held that “what matters is not whether a poem is political, but the quality of its engagement.” While Blue Hour is, in turns, elliptical, then disarmingly frank, it is tough to argue that her efforts regarding the “quality of engagement” are anything but Herculean.

David Wright, in a 2000 interview with Forché which took place at Newman University in Kansas, provides this preface: “Such recognition has not come without criticism. Forché’s critics have ranged from the Reagan Administration to the literary reviewers . . . who see her refusal to separate poetry and politics as damaging to both.” Rarely does an individual poet hold such sway as to anger a presidential administration and awaken many to the United States’ complicity in atrocities. Forché, a self-proclaimed “poet of witness,” committed herself very young to embracing unpopular issues.

Forché’s quest, in part, has been to get under the skin of those who brutalize others, to bring awareness to the plights of survivors and victims. Her first book of poetry, Gathering the Tribes (1976), for which she won the Yale Younger Poets Award, mined her immigrant roots, particularly the influence of her grandmother Anna. Forché began her nomadic travels young, from an American Indian reservation, the Potawhatami, to the prisons of El Salvador, where she tracked human rights abuses for Amnesty International. Her experiences in El Salvador gave rise to The Country Between Us, the Lamont Poetry Selection from the Academy of American Poets. It sold seventy thousand copies, remarkable particularly for a poet then known by few. She also traveled from the black townships of South Africa to the ruins of postwar Lebanon. “Hidden Writing,” which appears in Blue Hour, was composed in Beirut in 1983.

Forché edited Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness(1993), an anthology of war-related poetry from virtually every country engaged in war in the twentieth century. Her third book of poetry, The Angel of History (1994), received the Los Angeles Times Book Award. Raised in an immigrant Czech family in post-World War II Detroit, Forché received a Roman Catholic education, and this first interested her in the study of comparative religion. Blue Hour represents the culmination of this restless journey concerning spirituality as it relates to human suffering.

A familiar tension between the private and the political runs through Blue Hour, a slim but highly evocative collection of poems. Forché has said that she wrote with genuine abandon. There are eleven poems, including “Nocturne,” an elegy on the death of a family member, and “On Earth,” a forty-five-page poem composed in the form of an abecedary and based on ancient Gnostic hymns, in which lines appear in an alphabetical order. As in The Angel of History, Blue Hour does not provide a foreword. Instead, Forché begins by quoting the Jewish Viennese philosopher Martin Buber: “These moments are immortal and most transitory of all; no context may be secured from them.” Thus, the poet presents a paradox that “these moments” are both ethereal and everlasting.

They are moments that range from a ghost in the family house in “Sequestered Writing,” coming “to the bedside whispering You?/ . . . a dwarf ghost? A closet of empty clothes?” to the haunting image in “Curfew” of “a man cloaked in doves.” The ghost, it turns out, is that of a discontented American Indian, possibly buried under the house her father built. Forché has described this ghost elsewhere as a cold presence, one that all the children in her family experienced but did not discuss until adulthood. She concludes “Curfew” with a reference to the tunnel across from Notre Dame Cathedral where, years before the publication of this work, she found thousands of minuscule embedded...

(The entire section is 1787 words.)