The Angel of History

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.)