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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1787

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...

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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 HistoryBlue 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 beads of light, each memorializing the 200,000 people deported from France during the Shoah.

The city, translucent, shattered but did not disappear
Between the no-longer and the still-to-come
The child asked if the bones in the wall
Belonged to the lights in the tunnel
Yes, I said, and the stars nailed shut his heaven

The experience of having her son, Sean-Christophe, in Paris in 1986 figures prominently in the title poem, “Blue Hour,” which opens with:

The moon slips from its cerement, and my son, already
disappearing into
a man, moves toward his bed for the night, wrapped in a towel
of
lake scent.

Such lines as “Even the most broken life can be restored to its moments” infuse the poem, as though the narrative voice yearns for some promise of hope beyond the grave.

There is also an unmistakable undertone of sadness and loss throughout. Having borne witness to atrocious acts of barbarity, Forché hopes, given certain conditions, that any such “broken life” has a chance to recover. The poem “Blue Hour” recalls that time between what she describes in the notes section as “the night of a soul and its redemption, as associated with pure hovering,” when she would awaken to feed her infant son. It invokes a Parisian cemetery, her birth after World War II (human loss), being born with deformed legs (loss of physical perfection). There are several references to a first love running through a field, “bedsheets mapped with urine,” a woman, the poet’s grandmother, who perished in an asylum fire. Forché proclaims that “the human soul weighs twenty-six grams. A cathedral can become a dovecote,” and although the juxtaposition of a human soul’s weight and the housing of pigeons in a cathedral might seem odd, such juxtaposition is where the imagination resides, where loss manifests as image. The effect of “Blue Hour” is ultimately of lightness and an attempt to move beyond the limitations of mortality.

“Refuse,” one of the shorter poems, is written in the first-person voice: “We have our veiled memory of running from police/ dogs through a blossoming orchard, and another/ of not escaping them.” The person with whom she ran did not survive: “ . . . but now you are invisible in my arms, a soul/ Acquiring speech, the body its blind light, whispering/ Noli me frangere even as it is in death shattered.” She handles this passing lightly; that is, she does not linger on the death itself so much as the soul’s ascension.

The terseness of “In the Exclusion Zones” has a jarring effect until one learns from the notes that “exclusion zones” refers to the thirty-kilometer radius of contamination around the Chernobyl nuclear reactor.

Ash over conifers and birches, over berry thickets.
Resembling snow and
its synonyms. Silvered fields of millet.
A silence approaching bees of the invisible or the scent of
mint.
One need not go further than a white towel hung in an open
door.

This last image of “a white towel hung in an open door” tells one that human beings lived here, humans profoundly and forever changed (or dead) as a result of the debacle of the Chernobyl disaster.

The challenge of life, in part, is to learn how to cope with the intangibility of loss. Insofar as politics plays a role (and in Forché’s world, political violence has most everything to do with such loss), “On Earth” offers a multifaceted view of how the personal can become inexorably bound up with politics in issues of loss. A listing quality and form of alphabetizing has the accumulative power of incantation:

corn black in the fields, crib smoke, bones, a rib cage
corrugated fields, sheep on the bare fields of drought
cotton mats spread on the floors of classrooms
countries erased from their maps
cratered memory cratered field crows took rye scraps from
her hands
curtains of rain opening
dark, borne within us
dead woman giving birth to rats

Compelled almost hypnotically to heightened instances of life and death, Forché brings to Blue Hour as a whole and “On Earth” in particular a treasure chest of images such as “dead woman giving birth to rats” that indelibly mark the mind. Written in the spring of 2001, it foreshadows the tumultuous times following September of that year, when the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked. The poem gives voice to a collective need for transcendence:

these are my contents
these paving stones this hymnal
these ruins are to the future what the past is to us
they bind them in rags
they climb out of the river and blacken its banks
they died along with anyone who knew who they were
they fell from heaven to earth
they go on past grief . . .

“On Earth” is an opus to be read in its entirety in one sitting, if possible, to get the full effect. Tantalizingly obscure at times, it is also a real challenge to grasp. Drawn to esoteric texts, Forché alludes to Lucretius, Maurice Blanchot, René Char, and a Vedic mantra. It is useful to have secondary sources at the ready, but not necessary. “On Earth” is a magnificent work, muscular and tender, mournful and strangely nostalgic, and as much emblematic of its time as T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land(1922) or John Berryman’s “Dream Songs” were to their time. The poet ends “On Earth” this way:

your hand awkward between us in the absence of love
your heart in the guise of mysterious words . . . 
your things have been taken
your things have been taken away
zero

Forché returns throughout Blue Hour to the multitude of ways in which light presents itself: supernal lights, coming-storm light, wing-light, a road erased by light, bottled light tossed into the sea with no message, cathedral of shimmering light, bowl polished by morning light and so on, with more than thirty-five references. Light, of course, has tremendous spiritual possibilities, but it is also what literally and metaphorically illuminates the hidden, forbidden, forgotten, or left behind. For the grandmother vanquished in an asylum fire in “Sequestered Writing,” for those “burned with cigarettes . . . doused with turpentine” in “On Earth,” such recollections make their plights more tangible, perhaps endured for a reason beyond cruel neglect or sadism. Where a desperate sense of urgency compelled the younger poet, Blue Hour unfolds in a more contemplative fashion. The poet has changed, as any writer must, as motherhood, the ghosts of the past, and age have guided her hand in the creation of eleven finely crafted poems.

Review Sources

Booklist 99, no. 13 (March 1, 2003): 1136.

Library Journal 128, no. 1 (January 1, 2003): 115.

The Nation 276, no. 22 (June 9, 2003): 33-36.

The New Yorker 79, no. 10 (May 5, 2003): 99.

Publishers Weekly 249, no. 51 (December 23, 2002): 65-66.

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