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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.)
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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 purification. Everywhere in these pages ritual and litany are close at hand. Even the act of bread making, a recurrent image, assumes a ceremonial aspect. (pp. xi-xii)
Forché's poems give an illusion of artlessness because they spring from the simplest and deepest human feelings, from an earthling's awareness of the systemic pulse of creation. The poems tell us she is at home anyplace under the stars, wherever there are fields or mountains, lakes or rivers, persons who stir her atavistic bond-sense. (p. xii)
She acknowledges a primal sense of the power of words. The power to "make words"—in the mouth, in the heart, on the page—is the same to her as to give substance. Aiming at wholeness, strength, and clarity, she works at language as if it were a lump of clay or dough in her hands. (p. xiii)
[Her poem "Kalaloch" is] an almost faultlessly controlled erotic narrative of 101 lines. In its boldness and innocence and tender, sensuous delight it may very well prove to be the outstanding Sapphic poem of an era. (p. xiv)
Stanley Kunitz, in his foreword to Gathering the Tribes by Carolyn Forché (copyright © 1976 by Carolyn Forché), Yale University Press, 1976, pp. xi-xv.
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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 simple and mysterious. (p. 83)
A close look at [the] stanzas from "Mientras Dura Vida, Sobra el Tiempo" brings out two distinct characteristics of Forché's language, one brilliant, one troublesome. First is her tough, almost Hopkins-like use of onomatopoetic speech, alliteration, and rhythms. Her use of plosive consonants cuts edges sharp and deep. In her poem about butchering, "From Memory," the s, p, b, l, and hard c and k sounds seem hardly placed by chance but support her feeling and tone…. (pp. 83-4)
This "consonant ethic" may come from her Slavic background, as well as from her skill as a linguist. She studies Russian, Spanish, Serbo-Croatian, French and Tewa (Pueblo Indian) and seems to take rhythms and flows from them all. The drawback of this skill, however, in the inclusion of many foreign words that puzzle or distract. In some poems, one can derive that a fogon is a stove or fireplace from the context, but often words and clusters like ma-he-yo, alfansa, mokva, and dusha trip the reader mid-thought, prompting futile backtracking and speculation. If the thought is worth expressing in another language, I'd appreciate some minor glossary or explication to help non-linguists out. This applies to particularly significant acts, rituals, or symbols of native culture not ordinarily recognizable or easily deduced.
Forché's plunges into what Kunitz calls "her atavistic bond-sense" remain nonetheless invigorating, a recurrence of power much needed in an over-individualized and disconnected era. When her human shamans are silent, the woods, moose, water, rituals of bread-making, dishwashing, child-feeding, and lovemaking provide a continuity of wordless places in an all-too-verbal and chaotic world…. (p. 84)
[In Forché's poetry there is] some of the "nearsightedness" of women's point of view, returning us to mundane miracles we've almost forgotten. The violent beauty of sexuality, the mysterious comforts of memory and known people and places, the terrifying and awesome fecundity and regularity of plants, animals, and natural forces—we turn to these when the glitter of controlled efficiency and voyeuristic titillations runs dry. This world of the earth and the body can be brutal and chaotic, but it is a root from which great power and meaning flows. Dillard, Rukeyser, Kinnell, Lifshin, Muske, Forché—all these poets seem to be digging in the first gardens and prairies since Whitman to bear real fruit without "chemical" additives, simple and from the earth without being simplistic or dull, without leaning on the earth, body, or myth to do their magic for them. It's rather sad that a return to the human seems so shocking and courageous to us now. (pp. 84-5)
Wendy Knox, "Relatedness and Ritual," in Moons and Lion Tailes (copyright © 1976 by The Permanent Press; reprinted by permission of the publisher), Vol. 2, No. 2, 1976, pp. 79-85.∗
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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. Poems of the unbelievably impoverished original settlers of New Mexico who still persist in calling themselves "Spanish," not "Mexican," certainly reflect Toynbee's "stimulus of harsh environments." Here, not in Harlem, not in Appalachia, is to be found the lowest standard of living and the poorest public health rate of the United States. These are poems of the heroic people that, like all the poor, America keeps swept under the rug. Behind all the other elements of her verse is a mystical pedal note. With few exceptions the poems are religious…. They are also poems which should be welcomed enthusiastically by the Feminist Movement and all other groups the press loves to slur with the term "Lib."
Kenneth Rexroth, "On Carolyn Forché" (copyright © 1976 by World Poetry, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Bradford Morrow for the Kenneth Rexroth Trust), in The American Poetry Review, Vol. 5, No. 6, November-December, 1976, p. 44.
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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 speaking voice—or what in fiction is called the narrator. This is another kind of matter altogether from the speaking parts Forché is fond of using, just as the characters are to be distinguished from the storyteller. Forché's signaling device for her "tongues" is italics, but one is hard pressed in several poems (including those mentioned above) to differentiate between speaking part and speaker. The problem seems to lie in Forché's attempt to emulate the ritualistic speech of the territory—whether it be Taos or Tonasket—while reducing her own impulse toward a personal, identifiable rhetoric. She in effect substitutes the language of the tribe for her own. And it becomes much more the language of conversion…. Forché creates a shadow voice, one that renders, records, and reports, but never from the center, always at one remove. She either respects or fears her adopted material too much. That is why the first and last sections of her book are superior—familiarity has bred sufficient contempt. The first part deals with her native Slovak heritage, notably Forché's paternal grandmother, Anna, in a poem entitled "Burning the Tomato Worms." Here the speaking parts work beautifully…. [They do so because] the poet is in primary, not secondary, territory. One's grandmother can have more to offer one's emotional past than one's guru. In the last and best part of her collection, Forché deals with her real, and future, subject, sexual identity. None of the poems here wanders from its source. The power of each begins and ends in the unmitigated voice of the poet, that arbitrating presence that seeks to establish a one-to-one relationship with sensual (all five and country senses seeing) experience, male and female, sky and earth. The rhetoric is hard without being brittle, the narrative sure of itself without being type-cast. "Kalaloch" is one poem in particular in which the rhythm of the natural world is realized in counterpart to the carnality of the human … in the language of the experience.
Stanley Plumly, "Books: 'Gathering the Tribes'" (copyright © 1976 by World Poetry, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Stanley Plumly), in The American Poetry Review, Vol. 5, No. 6, November-December, 1976, p. 45.
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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….
[Lorde and Forché] write with authority and intensity. They are artists who, without being "confessional" poets, are not afraid to come to terms with their full experience of life. The voice of American poetry is excitingly alive in their writing. (p. 763)
Claire Hahn, "Books: 'Gathering the Tribes'," in Commonweal (copyright © 1977 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. CIV, No. 24, November 25, 1977, pp. 762-63.
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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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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 Company; reprinted by permission), April 4, 1982, pp. 13, 28-9.∗
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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 ("Belsen, Dachau, Saigon, Phnom Penh")—that one feels almost guilty discussing these poems as poems, as though by doing so one were saying that style and tone and diction mattered more than bloody stumps and murdered peasants and the Holocaust.
This unease, though, should not have arisen in the first place, and it points to an underlying problem: the incongruity between Forché's themes and her poetic strategies. Forché's topics could not be more urgent, more extreme or more public, and at least one of her stated intentions is to make us look at them squarely. And yet, she uses a language designed for quite other purposes, the misty "poetic" language of the isolated, private self. She gives us bloody stumps, but she also gives us snow, light and angels. (p. 562)
The trouble is, if her images are to bear the burdens Forché places on them and move us in the way she wants, a steel mill can't be a lovely play of light, or bodies dreamlike apparitions, or death either a calm voyage or the sleep of a baby. They have to be real.
When Forché speaks plainly, she can be very good indeed. "The Expatriate" is a clever satire on a young American left-wing poet whose idea of solidarity with the Third World is to move to Turkey and sleep with women who speak no English. (pp. 562-63)
Equally memorable is "The Colonel," an account of dinner at the home of a right-wing Salvadoran officer, who, after the wine and the rack of lamb, dumps his collection of human ears on the table: "Something for your poetry, no?" The precise, observed details—the bored daughter filing her nails, the American cop show on TV, the parrot in the corner and the gold bell for the maid—work together to make a single impression, and the colonel himself, with his unpredictable swings between domestic boredom and jaunty brutality, is a vivid character…. Interestingly, in view of what I've been saying about Forché's poetics, "The Colonel" is written in prose.
Perhaps what I miss in this collection is simply verbal energy. The poems, especially the longer ones, do tend to blur in the mind. Forché insists more than once on the transforming power of what she has seen, on the gulf it has created between herself and those who have seen less and dared less…. But how can we grasp the power of this transforming vision when it is expressed in lackluster assertions ("I cannot keep going") and facile caricatures of "American men" as adulterous Babbitts?
Whether or not one admires Forché for stressing the intensity of her responses to the sufferings of others … the intensity is vitiated by the inadequate means by which it is conveyed. (p. 563)
The boldness of the promise [to defeat the torturers in "Message"] is undermined by the commonplace rhetoric ("hollow of earth" for "grave") and woolly syntax (the hands and lives dig into our deaths after the voice is dead?).
On the other hand, to make such a promise is not nothing, either. If poetry is to be more than a genteel and minor art form, it needs to encompass the material Forché presents. Much credit, then, belongs to Forché for her brave and impassioned attempt to make a place in her poems for starving children and bullet factories, for torturers and victims, for Margarita with her plastique bombs and José with his bloody stumps. What she needs now is language and imagery equal to her subjects and her convictions. The mists and angels of contemporary magazine verse are beneath her: she has seen too much, she has too much to say. Of how many poets today, I wonder, could that be said? (p. 564)
Katha Pollitt, "Poems on Public Subjects," in The Nation (copyright 1982 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 234, No. 18, May 8, 1982, pp. 562-64.
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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 the one which closes this first section, "Because One Is Always Forgotten." Here, the political, the repugnant, becomes heightened lyricism….
"The Visitor," describing the man in prison dreaming of his wife, ends "There is nothing one man will not do to another." And on the following page, "The Colonel," a prose poem which can't help but be read as surrealistic, ends with the colonel pouring a sack of human ears on the table and flaunting them before his guests. This image of man as standing for cruelty and torture (a simplistic sensibility which would annoy me were it not for the fact that the poems themselves rise above it) is strongest in "Joseph," a poem for a childhood boyfriend who has returned from the Vietnam War fascinated by it and cherishing its memories….
In "As Children Together," one of the strongest poems, Forche can speak of childhood innocence without any trace of pretense…. The poem ends, two pages later, after describing Victoria's useless, trapped life with the husband mentally broken by the Vietnam War….
By carrying over such images, the identification with friends and relatives at home echoes the attempt to identify with the people of El Salvador, lending a harshness, an urgency, and a sense of failure to the autobiographical poems. At the same time, it gives a calmness and a sense of lifelong continuance to the poems in the first section….
Her craft, or a better word would be refinement, is most evident in Part II. One cannot help but think of Philip Levine's work: there is the same long, rambling and semi-conversational poem built around a few carefully chosen images, using the images to convey their final message—….
To read only the poems in Part II, we would be reminded of the best University of Iowa graduates: a poetry extremely well-crafted, revealing a fashionable amount about the author, always promising to do more than it does but, in the final analysis, safe. And yet this same craft is at work in the first section as well, and it is precisely what keeps the poems above the level of rhetoric. Added to this, there is Forche's astute sense of observation, and a tendency to describe things in a way slightly out of the ordinary, so that our heads turn sharply around to look.
Rochelle Ratner, "'The Country Between Us'," in The American Book Review (© 1982 by The American Book Review), Vol. 5, No. 1, November-December, 1982, p. 24.
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