The Angel of History

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2072

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...

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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 everything.
  And what did she say?

Yet even if memory and the poetic recording of it can give no adequate or determinate response to the disastrous events of the twentieth century, Forché implies there is value, even comfort, in confronting public and private griefs. It may be naïve, in a now postapocalyptic world where “the open country of death” is “worse than memory,” to “confuse that much destruction with one woman’s painful life.” Still, Forché seems to contend that only by addressing personal loss and mourning can one both grieve for and protest against a troubled collective history. Again, only by conflating the public and private worlds of the past century can the poet relive history and make its fresh chain of horrors somehow palpable to the reader.

Just how we are to live in such terminal times, and how it is possible for the poet/writer to record and memorialize the travesties of a past that seems beyond comprehension, becomes the focus of part 2 of The Angel of History, “The Notebook of Uprising,” and the principal focus of the remainder of Forché’s volume. Self-reflexively, the poet claims that “the hand moves across the page of its own accord,” compelled to chronicle “a time unknown to us” in spite of the warning of Anna, Forché’s Czechoslovakian paternal grandmother: “They didn’t want you to know the past. They were hoping in this way you could escape it.” Such a desire, as Forché sadly recognizes, is only wishful thinking, since the evidence and fragments of history’s apocalyptic march are only too visible. “A field of bone chips,” “petrochemical plants spewing black smoke,” “zones of refuse,” “the white-eyed, walking dead,” and even, to bring the cataclysm up to date (with reference to the Chernobyl nuclear accident), “a wind from Byelorussia [bringing] . . . blue roses” all announce “a world in decline . . . emptying of human belief.”

How can one conjure up hope or even a sense of human survival or continuation, given such conditions, Forché seems to wonder, especially when suffering and decimation seem to be the only common denominators of the past and present historical moment? There is no simple answer to such an ominous question, but perhaps, as Forché writes in part 3, “The Recording Angel,” the rebirth of both natural and human life from a “past [that]/ Is circular, like consequence” will come only through the record, in language, that is left behind:

The earth is a school. It is a waiting room, a foyer giving onto emptiness
It is for desires, small but beautifully done
The earth is wrapped in weather, and the weather in risen words

Or, if the earth that human beings have scarred and ravaged, often with the waste of their own bodies, is not eternal or transcendent, the voice that speaks, utters, or writes of it has the potential to be, as well as to keep memory, “a wind passing through the blood trees within us,” alive, even when hope seems tenuous at best.

“We revolt against silence with a bit of speaking,” Forché pronounces in “Elegy,” the poem that opens part 4 of the volume and that encapsulates in fragmented form the poet’s devotion to discourse (here, writing) as the means to the survival of memory. Yet in avoiding silence and attempting to utter the seemingly unutterable, those catastrophic events of twentieth century human history, one faces the danger of failing to communicate altogether, as a Hiroshima survivor and the speaker of “The Garden Shukkei-en” admits: “Perhaps my language is too precise, and therefore difficult to understand?” That is, the vivid, all-too-real and all-too-recent details of nuclear holocaust—resulting in skin falling from fingers, brains crushed—may be more gruesome than many can bear or are willing to bear; hence, a collective retreat, as this speaker concludes, into “the silence surrounding what happened to us.” The Recording Angel of history, harbinger of its cyclical process, cannot be so selective, nor dismiss such an atrocity to the status of a “dream where the world had been” (“The Testimony of Light”). The present as well as future course of history is likely, Forché reminds the reader again, to repeat the past doggedly, so there is scant consolation in either trying to learn from a Hiroshima (a comfortable cliché used by “new world order” statesmen even today) or to forget it. As the poet prophetically assesses the situation, “The worst is over./ The worst is yet to come”—a fitting epigraph to an age in which the only thing people do seem to learn from history is that humankind never learns anything from history. Yet within such a sparse, nihilistic credo may lie Forché’s own revolt against forgetting and her outrage at those who would reduce such unspeakable crimes against humanity to mere political “events” or, worse still, historical footnotes that can be casually passed over.

If the shattered world of twentieth century ruin and decay is Forché’s subject throughout The Angel of History, then the volume’s last section, “Book Codes,” stands as a fragmented, concluding reminder of where humankind has been during the past decades and where it is most likely going. Epigrammatic, citational texts borrowed in part from Ludwig Wittgenstein, these poems, like much of the collection, attest, without attempting to account for, what in fact “can be said,” finally, about a troubled past whose spokesman is an anonymous voice commanding, “Bear the unbearable.” While there seems little consolation to the future in such a somber message, Forché still performs unshakingly the task of any good poet of conscience: to assemble the fragments, ruins, and shards of civilization in order not only to condemn this century’s horrors but also to preserve and transform them—to quote Nobel laureate Derek Walcott—through “the ironic serenity of beauty.”

If the fragments of this century, like the pages of The Angel of History, do not always coalesce into a discernible whole, the poet’s action of collecting them, of uttering their very real presence, still serves a necessary moral purpose. Forché compels readers to remember, to record, and to endure, both individually and collectively, as a testament to the past that will continue to haunt the present and future. “How incomplete a moment is human life,” Forché writes in “Book Codes: II,” the penultimate poem in this volume. Yet it is just such incompletion—the individual’s small part within or connection to larger historical forces—that suggests, however darkly, the possibility of restoration or continuation, the belief that humankind can go on, even in a postapocalyptic world that insidiously denies humanity. At the very least, Forché forces her readers to ask what they can bear; at the most and her best, she places them face to face with the Angel of History and asks them to recognize, as Paul Valéry puts it on the book’s last page, that “it [can] no longer be distinguished from this world that is about us.”

Forché is ultimately telling us that we are and must be as much part of history’s devastations as the victims of holocaust and genocide because of our complicity in living in and surviving the twentieth century. It is a message worth preserving, as The Angel of History does with stark beauty, since to forget it makes us not only less politically and socially engaged but also, finally, less human.

Sources for Further Study

Bloomsbury Review. XIV, September, 1994, p. 19.

The Nation. CCLIX, October 24, 1994, p. 464.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLI, January 31, 1994, p. 77.

The Threepenny Review. XV, Summer, 1994, p. 18.

The Virginia Quarterly Review. LXX, Autumn, 1994, p. 136.

The Women’s Review of Books. XI, July, 1994, p. 31.

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