Forché, Carolyn (Vol. 25)
Carolyn Forché 1950–
American poet, journalist, and translator.
All of Forché's poetry is marked by its identification with place. Forché brings to her poetry a remarkable candidness which compels her to speak of the beautiful and the ugly. Her simple yet deep feelings and astute observations are skillfully crafted in arresting imagery.
In her first collection, Gathering the Tribes, Forché recounts the learning experiences of her adolescence in her native Michigan and takes up her travels as a young woman in the North American West. Here, as elsewhere, Forché's interest in the speech of diverse peoples is evident. In poems whose language owes much to her study of Tewa (Pueblo Indian), Forché portrays the American Indian as her spiritual parent. She also finds inspiration in the connection between her life experience and the lives of her Slovakian relations. Within this framework she celebrates and studies nature, rituals of innocence, purification, and sexuality.
Forché's second volume of poetry, The Country Between Us, expands the themes presented in the first volume but is also political, being the result of Forché's experiences as a journalist in war-torn El Salvador. Critics note a sense of urgency in this poetry, an artistry aimed at transformation. As Denise Levertov was prompted to say about Forché, "She is creating poems in which there is no seam between personal and political, lyrical and engaged."
(See also Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 5.)
Kinship is the theme that preoccupies Carolyn Forché. Although she belongs to a generation that is reputed to be rootless and disaffiliated, you would never guess it from reading her poems. Her imagination, animated by a generous life-force, is at once passionate and tribal. Narrative is her preferred mode, leavened by meditation. [In Gathering the Tribes she] remembers her childhood in rural Michigan, evokes her Slovak ancestors, immerses herself in the American Indian culture of the Southwest, explores the mysteries of flesh, tries to understand the bonds of family, race, and sex. In the course of her adventures she dares to confront, as a sentient being, the overwhelming questions by which reason itself is confounded: Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going?
In "Burning the Tomato Worms," a central poem, the narrative focuses on Anna, "heavy sweatered winter woman" seen "in horse-breath weather." She was the poet's paternal grandmother, who spoke a Slovak of the Russian-Czech borderlands and who, with her Old World lore and old wives' tales, profoundly influenced the poet's childhood…. Here as elsewhere the local color is vivid and unforced. But the poem is not to be construed as an exercise in sentimentality or ethnic nostalgia: it is woven of two strands, one commemorating a beloved person and place, the other recounting a girl's sexual initiation. The burning of the tomato worms can be read as a ritual of...
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In Gathering the Tribes, Carolyn Forché gives us voices of people around her…. Her mode is generally narrative, slowly spinning out revelation by means of direct references to scenes, people, and natural objects with which she is familiar. Each poem seems to have an exact location drawn for us, and she often moves into a poem by describing the room, geography, or central character objectively….
She also writes with a certain slow descriptiveness and a simple statement that seem very native in character. Wood, sounds, bread, smells, birds, water, aspens, and owls—all seem to speak for her, through her, in a way. She has only to mention them, and they evoke other sounds and smells—pine, dust, adobe, or wool. She seems to play the learner in many encounters, the young shaman gathering her trade. (p. 82)
The theme of prophecy or learning from some other person, most often female, recurs throughout the book. These clearly rooted characters: her grandmother, the dulcimer-maker, the old Indian Teles Goodmorning, Alfansa, Rosita, Jacynth in "Kalaloch" (which, Kunitz says in his introduction [see excerpt above], "may very well prove to be the outstanding Sapphic poem of an era," and I agree), all these characters seem to be living examples of some natural principle, extensions of the earth itself and the places in which they live. She comes to these people openly … and is rewarded with signs at once...
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Carolyn Forché is beyond question the best woman poet to appear in the Yale Younger Poet series since Muriel Rukeyser, whom in a special way she somewhat resembles. She is far better educated than most poets, not just in school, but in life…. She is also something nobody ever seemed to be able to find in the 30's when they were in demand—a genuine proletarian poet. Her father is a tool and die maker. Most of her later poetry is laid in the Far West, in New Mexico, British Columbia, and Washington and here the identification with place is as intense as in William Carlos Williams or Yvor Winters….
[Forché's Gathering the Tribes] is the poetry of a human being in her late 20's moving in perfect freedom and independence (not the same thing) through life experiences that are reserved for young males…. Her judgments of her experience are strong and supple, virtues reserved for the male….
[Forché's] prosody is about as far removed from the slick formulas of Charles Olson's "projective verse" as possible. The basic influence is Latin American and American Indian and just possibly Snyder, Whalen, and Rothenberg, all of whom owe much to preliterate poetry and all of whom have shared many of Forché's experiences….
[Her] poems of life in the Pueblos of New Mexico and amongst the Indians of the Northwest have a ceremonial character, rituals celebrating the holiness of all living things....
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Carolyn Forché's hold on her material [in Gathering the Tribes] is ingratiating if sometimes tenuous. One wants the ambitions of her poems to be realized even when they fail, just as one wants the author herself to emerge even when she refuses to appear. The tribes being gathered here are all local—that is, relative to the poet, whether by blood, as with her Slovak ancestry, or by spirit, as with her Indian "fathers." The locales of her poems, the territories, range from her native Michigan to her adopted New Mexico. The total theme involves the initiation rites of innocence—rituals of conversion to experience. A growth story, a kind of Bildungsroman of consciousness-raising. What is finally learned involves the two-way perception of the spiritual in the carnal, the carnal in the spiritual. Forché is safest in shorter forms…. In longer, more self-demanding forms, the poet is forced farther and farther away from her own center of gravity and the confidence of her rhythms. This dilution is particularly in evidence in the central, "Indian" section of the book. The poems of a full page or more too often become awkward, unfocused, and pushed at the reader. The fault is certainly not in Forché's ability with texture—she is especially adept with image, detail, naming, and a complement of languages. What is typically missing, in poems as technically different as "Ha Chi Je Na I Am Coming" and "Alfansa," is the clear organizing presence of the...
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Audre Lorde and Carolyn Forché are both gifted poets endowed with clarity of inward vision and a willingness and power to project it with often devastating impact. (p. 762)
Like Lorde, Forché writes poetry of pellucid honesty. She too explores the paradoxical freedom and constraint bestowed on her through the blood of her forbears. Her Slavic ancestors bequeathed her rituals of religion and husbandry, customs that were "sacred and eternal." But she presses always to know more, to understand the mystery behind the ritual….
The deepest harmonies Forché discovers [in her Gathering the Tribes] are with nature itself. The landscapes and people, not only of the Michigan farm of her childhood, but of New Mexico, British Columbia, and coastal Washington, provide images for her poetry. She writes with a profound sense of the beauty and threat in the rhythms of the seasons and her own bodily needs. Some of her most impressive poetry deals with sexual experience. Perhaps because Forché writes with such deceptive ease, these poems achieve an unadorned eloquence, a seeming inevitability of statement. But Forché is no romanticist; at the most intimate moment a lover can be the enemy…. The balanced insight she attains is hard-won, precarious. Her quiet insistence on looking simultaneously at the beautiful and the ugly makes her poetry complex; her technical skill makes it a disciplined art….
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Carolyn Forché paid extended visits to El Salvador, working as a journalist and human rights advocate. She could not have known that land would be Topic A in the U.S. just at the time her second book appeared; thanks to that coincidence, though, some of the poems in The Country Between Us have the urgency of news bulletins…. (p. 83)
The brutalities visited on the helpless [in El Salvador] naturally arouse Forché's sympathy and anger. She makes pain palpable. Yet her accounts of antigovernment rebels are neither polemical nor romanticized: "It is not Che Guevara, this struggle." She addresses the guerrillas as friends but tells them what they do not want to hear…. [Forché's] is a bleak message, passionately stated. That description holds for the poems in this volume that are not about El Salvador; meditations on Viet Nam, Czechoslovakia, relatives, friends, lovers old and new…. What she has seen of the world so far has not made her a reassuring poet; but she is something better, an arresting and often unforgettable voice. (pp. 83-4)
Paul Gray, "Five Voices and Harmonies," in Time (copyright 1982 Time Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission from Time), Vol. 119, No. 11, March 15, 1982, pp. 83-7.∗
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Joyce Carol Oates
Carolyn Forché, like Neruda, Philip Levine, Denise Levertov and others who have, in recent years, wed the "political" and the "personal," addresses herself unflinchingly to the exterior, historical world. In ["The Country Between Us"] her subject is primarily El Salvador, and her news is bleakly and succinctly stated: "What you have heard is true." (p. 13)
Carolyn Forché is blunt, unremitting, candid. There may be readers who object to her somewhat abstract—and apoetic—endorsement of a grief too great to have been experienced by any individual …, but her voice is never shrill or strident, and the horrific visions are nearly always contained within fully realized poems….
[In Forché's poetry, El Salvador] is a nightmare country lucidly presented….
Carolyn Forché's first book, "Gathering the Tribes,"… introduced a poet of uncommon vigor and assurance. "The Country Between Us" is a distinct step forward. Though one tends to remember vivid fragments of poems rather than wholes, the cumulative power of the volume is considerable. "In what time do we live," the poet asks, "that it is too late to have children?"—a partial view, but no less compelling, no less authentic. One feels that the poet has earned her bleak and wintry vision…. (p. 29)
Joyce Carol Oates, "Two Poets," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1982 by The New York Times...
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Carolyn Forché's second book [The Country Between Us] is interesting both because Forché is a talented poet—her first book was a Yale Younger Poets selection—and because it tackles … political subject matter so uncongenial to young poets. The first section, dedicated to the memory of Oscar Romero, the murdered archbishop of San Salvador, is set in El Salvador, where Forché lived for two years and worked as a journalist. Other poems are addressed to old friends from the working-class Detroit neighborhood of Forché's childhood: one has become a steelworker haunted by memories of Vietnam; another, with whom Forché had shared adolescent dreams of travel and romance, lives with her husband and kids in a trailer. Elsewhere in the poems we meet a jailed Czech dissident, the wife of a "disappeared" Argentine and Terrence Des Pres, author of The Survivor, a study of the death camps. This is strong stuff, and the excited response The Country Between Us has already provoked shows, I think, how eager people are for poetry that acknowledges the grim political realities of our time.
At their best, Forché's poems have the immediacy of war correspondence, postcards from the volcano of twentieth-century barbarism…. "There is nothing one man will not do to another," Forché tells us. So shocking are the incidents reported here—so automatic is our horror at a mere list of places where atrocities have occurred...
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In her recent book of essays, Light Up the Cave, Denise Levertov speaks of the need, in the 1960s, to create a new form for political poetry since, in the past, it had been narrative and epic in nature, and those forms were no longer viable. It is fitting, then, that Levertov says of this collection by Carolyn Forche:
Here's a poet who's doing what I want to do … she is creating poems in which there is no seam between personal and political, lyrical and engaged.
Uncommon as blurbs go, there could be no better way to describe The Country Between Us. What is crucial here is that it took a poet of the next generation, a decade after the furor of the Vietnam War, to achieve what Levertov, among others, had been aiming for….
Forche has learned she does not have to list the horrors over and over if she can find a few well-chosen incidents which speak for much more than themselves. Despite this knowledge, a poem such as "Return" is rhetorical; its four pages could exist for the final section alone, and is nearly saved by an excellent ending. But it proves that she, too, can get caught up in lists of flat description….
What Forche, for the most part, remembers, what too many other political poets have forgotten, is that poetry's ultimate aim is transformation. And that transformation is, by its very nature, subtle. The finest poem is...
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