Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3583
[An American poet, Levis won the International Poetry Forum United States Award in 1971, the Lamont Poetry Prize in 1976, and a National Poetry Series Award in 1981. In the excerpt below, originally given as a speech in July 1981 at the Aspen Writers' Conference in Aspen, Colorado, he discusses the problems associated with attempting to convey the atrocities of war through literature and Forché's poetic treatment of the subject of violence.]
What is it like to write about or to photograph a war that is going on now, that was going on last week, last year? In the post-Vietnam era, I believe that one of the most difficult problems is to convey, simply, information, facts which sound, to those who are comfortable, like "improbable tales." For any advance which might be called humane and positive, there are advances in warfare which might be called cynical and retrograde. Anyone writing about war now must bear witness to two phenomena common to any war but ostensibly more intentional and widespread now: torture and mutilation.
Item: June 20, 1981. I am staring at a photograph by Susan Meiselas which depicts a dead Nicaraguan, apparently a man and, in all probability, one who rebelled against the deposed dictator, Anastasio Samoza Debayle. I assume this because the location of the photograph, "Cuesta del Plomo," is a hillside near Managua where the National Guard carried out its assassinations. Actually, the photograph shows only half a man—the legs, clad in jeans, and, above them, a spine with all of the ribs snapped off or hacked off by some sort of macheté or tool. Some of the stubs of the stronger ribs still show in the picture. The spine resembles a delimbed tree trunk at first but soon it resembles nothing but a spine. Other bones litter the foreground. The background looks, except for a few patchy areas, as if it could be a tropical postcard with a bay, trees, and mountains in the distance. But what one notices is a spine. The rebel is not only dead, but mutilated beyond any purpose one might have who thinks of burial. There is no suggestion that his limbs were cut off and strewn in this field out of rage; it looks too much like a calculated design, a design which is, at the same time, casual. After a few moments I realize the intention of this: mutilation, too, has become a kind of art. Perverse? Nihilistic? Maybe. But art: the corpse is on display; it is meant to be seen, although it could hardly be identified by anyone looking here, for a loved one, for someone lost. The photograph by Meiselas was taken in Nicaragua, but it could just as easily have been take in Argentina, El Salvador, or Guatemala.
Item: From "Letter from El Salvador," by Tom Buckley, The New Yorker, June 22, 1981.
On April 29th, the House Foreign Affairs Committee voted, 26-7, to require President Reagan to certify, as a condition for further military aid, that "indiscriminate torture and murder" by Salvadoran security forces were being brought under control. On May 11th, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which is controlled by Republicans, passed a similar measure … It acted over the protest of Secretary Haig, who said in a letter to the committee that such a bill "would encourage left-wing insurgents and other extremists."
Item: Buckley, above.
El Salvador is receiving a hundred and forty-four million dollars in economic aid and thirty-five and a half million dollars in military aid in the fiscal year that ends on September 30th. The sums that...
(This entire section contains 3583 words.)
Congress is considering for the 1982 fiscal year are ninety-one million dollars and twenty-six million dollars, respectively. No one doubts, however, that large supplemental appropriations will be sought.
Even that sum became small change when the Reagan Administration announced on June 3rd that it had approved in principle a comprehensive program of economic and military aid for the nations of the Caribbean and Central America. Its purpose, like the old Alliance for Progress, would be to counter Communist, particularly Cuban, influence by improving the standard of living under capitalism.
Buckley ends his article with an account, published in the Times, of two hundred peasants who were massacred on the Honduran border as they tried to cross the Lempa River to safe territory. Witnesses said many were machine-gunned, from the air, by a helicopter, "probably one of those supplied by the United States."
Parables, like [Zbigniew] Herbert's, come into existence because they abstract their designs from experience that is already complete, and which can, therefore, become a subject of contemplation. It is experience which has ended, which has entered into, if not chronological history, at least the maker's psychic history. But how can one make a parable out of last week's massacre and preserve his or her sense of artistic integrity? Or even sanity? One might also ask whether the experience of contemporary warfare is fit for parable. When a situation is immense, such as Hitler's occupation of Europe, then perhaps Herbert's parables or Camus' allegory of that war, The Plague, can, through miniaturization, make it visible. For what Hitler did was common experience, it was known. The difficulty for anyone writing about El Salvador is to make known what, in fact, is happening there, to reveal a brutal, and otherwise wholly ignorable "small" war—yet one that has claimed, since January 1980, over 22,000 lives.
Lowell's lines, in such a context, begin to sound ominously prophetic: "peace to our children when they fall / in small war on the heels of small war—until the end of time." But Lowell's perspective is long. Susan Meiselas's camera is only about eight feet from that spine. And how can anyone, poet or journalist, write about torture, massacre, and mutilation without sounding hyperbolic? It is a difficult art, but one which can be done. Here is Carolyn Forché's poem, "The Colonel":
What you have heard is true. I was in his house. His wife carried a tray of coffee and sugar. His daughter filed her nails, his son went out for the night. There were daily papers, pet dogs, a pistol on the cushion beside him. The moon swung bare on its black cord over the house. On the television was a cop show. It was in English. Broken bottles were imbedded in the walls around the house to scoop the kneecaps from a man's legs or cut his hands to lace. On the windows there were gratings as there are in liquor stores. We had dinner, rack of lamb, good wine, a gold bell on the table for calling the maid. The maid brought green mangoes, salt, a type of bread. I was asked how I enjoyed the country. There was a brief commercial in Spanish. His wife took everything away. There was some talk then of how difficult it had become to govern. The parrot said hello on the terrace. The colonel told it to shut up, and pushed himself from the table. My friend said to me with his eyes: say nothing. The colonel returned with a sack as is used to bring groceries home. He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like dried peach halves. There is no other way to say this. He took one of them in his hands, shook it in our faces, dropped it into a water glass. It came alive there. I am tired of fooling around, he said. As for the rights of anyone, tell your people they can go fuck themselves. He swept the ears to the floor with his arm and raised the last of his wine in the air. Something for your poetry, no? he said. Some of the ears on the floor caught this scrap of his voice. Some of the ears on the floor were pressed to the ground.
El Salvador, May 1978
There are moments when life imitates art, when what appears to be on the surface a slightly surrealistic prose poem—a poem wholly imagined—is, in fact, a realistic, reportorial account of a dinner party. Had the poem been written without reference to El Salvador, its effect would be altered, changed by the fact of its being imagined. This is, unfortunately, not the case here. Children often ask: "Is this a real story?" So do adults. Carolyn Forché, who over a two-year period made several visits to El Salvador as a journalist and an observer for Amnesty International, writes the following account of the poem [in her "El Salvador: An Aide Memoire"]:
I was taken to the homes of landowners, with their pools set like aquamarines in the clipped grass, to the afternoon games of canasta over quaint local pupusas and tea, where parrots hung by their feet among the bougainvillia and nearly everything was imported, if only form Miami or New Orleans. One evening I dined with a military officer who toasted America, private enterprize, Las Vegas and the "fatherland" until his wife excused herself and in a drape of cigar smoke the events of "The Colonel" took place. Almost a poème trouvé. I had only to pare down the memory and render it whole, unlined and as precise as recollection would have it. I did not wish to endanger myself by the act of poeticizing such a necessary reportage. It became, when I wrote it, the second insistence of El Salvador to infiltrate what I so ridiculously preserved as my work's allegiance to Art. No more than in any earlier poems did I choose my subject.
What is that "allegiance to Art"? And what, given the circumstances, is sensationalism? I think, in the case of Carolyn Forché's second book, The Country Between Us, the poet undergoes and records a journey which reconciles the political with the artistic rather than severs that vital connection—for, finally, there is nothing sensationalistic about setting down the facts of a dinner party. If one argues that such facts remain sensationalistic in the context of poetry, it may be because readers no longer expect facts from poems, and think that all details are imagined. And if this is so, isn't one really arguing for that "inward" aesthetic which Hans Magnus Enzensberger criticizes? And isn't the result of such an aesthetic designed to limit poetry in its subjects? Therefore, isn't it, really and finally, another kind of censorship?
Unlike Herbert, Forché's position in the poems about El Salvador is admittedly partisan. She is, as are many of the people in El Salvador, against the military, against the government, the landowners, the mockery of "land-reform," and against U.S. aid, especially military aid. But such partisanship seems, under the conditions now apparent in that country, not Leftist so much as simply decent, and human, and discernible in many ways as a concern for the poet's friends in El Salvador. Some of them appear in "Return":
for Josephine Crum Upon my return to America, Josephine: the iced drinks and paper umbrellas, clean toilets and Los Angeles palm trees moving like lean women, I was afraid more than I had been, so much so and even of motels that for months every tire blow-out was final, every strange car near the house kept watch and I strained even to remember things impossible to forget. You took my stories apart for hours, sitting on your sofa with your legs under you and fifty years in your face. So you know now, you said, what kind of money is involved and that campesinos knife one another and you know you should not trust anyone and so you find a few people you will trust. You know the mix of machetés with whiskey, the slip of the tongue and that it costs hundreds of deaths. You've seen the pits where men and women are kept the few days it takes without food and water. You've heard the cocktail conversation on which depends their release. So you've come to understand when men and women of goodwill read torture reports with fascination. And such things as water pumps and co-op gardens are of little importance and takes years. It is not Che Guevara, this struggle. Camillo Torres is dead. Victor Jara was rounded up with the others, and Jose Marti is a landing strip for planes from Miami to Cuba. Go try on Americans your long, dull story of corruption, but better to give them what they want: Lil Milagro Ramirez, who after years of confinement did not know what year it was, how she walked with help and was forced to shit in public. Tell them about the razor, the live wire, dry ice and concrete, grey rats and above all who fucked her, how many times and when. Tell them about retaliation: Jose lying on the flatbed truck, waving his stumps in your face, his hands cut off by his captors and thrown to the many acres of cotton, lost, still and holding the last few lumps of leeched earth. Tell them Jose in his last few hours and later how, many months later, a labor leader was cut to pieces and buried. Tell them how his friends found the soldiers and made them dig him up and ask forgiveness of the corpse, once it was assembled again on the ground like a man. As for the cars, of course they watch you and for this don't flatter yourself. We are all watched. We are all assembled. Josephine, I tell you I have not slept, not since I drove those streets with a gun in my lap, not since all manner of speaking has failed and the remnant of my life continues onward. I go mad, for example, in the Safeway, at the many heads of lettuce, papayas and sugar, pineapples and coffee, especially the coffee. And when I speak with American men, there is some absence of recognition: their constant Scotch and fine white hands, many hours of business, penises hardened to motor inns and a faint resemblance to their wives. I cannot keep going. I remember the ambassador from America to that country: his tanks of fish, his clicking pen, his rapt devotion to reports. His wife wrote his reports. She said as much as she gathered him each day from the embassy compound, that she was tired of covering up, sick of his drink and the failure of his last promotion. She was a woman who flew her own plane, stalling out after four martinis to taxi on an empty field in the campo and to those men and women announce she was there to help. She flew where she pleased in that country with her drunken kindness, while Marines in white gloves were assigned to protect her husband. It was difficult work, what with the suspicion on the rise in smaller countries that gringos die like other men. I cannot, Josephine, talk to them. And so you say, you've learned a little about starvation: a child like a supper scrap filling with worms, many children strung together, as if they were cut from paper and all in a delicate chain. And that people who rescue physicists, lawyers and poets lie in their beds at night with reports of mice introduced into women, of men whose testicles are crushed like eggs. That they cup their own parts with their bedsheets and move themselves slowly, imagining bracelets affixing their wrists to a wall where the naked are pinned, where the naked are tied open and left to the hands of those who erase what they touch. We are all erased by them, and no longer resemble decent men. We no longer have the hearts, the strength, the lives of women. We do not hold this struggle in our hands in the darkness but ourselves and what little comes to the surface between our legs. Your problem is not your life as it is in America, not that your hands, as you tell me, are tied to do something. It is that you were born to an island of greed and grace where you have this sense of yourself as apart from others. It is not your right to feel powerless. Better people than you were powerless. You have not returned to your country, but to a life you never left. 1980
Forché can sympathize, but she refuses to falsely appropriate, for her own purposes, the consciousness of someone she is not. That is, she refuses to sentimentalize either her role or her life, and when there is an apparent impulse to do so, "I tell you / I have not slept," it is soon substantiated by the image of madness. The poem is both cunning and skeptical, even of its poet, since it is Josephine who catalogues the atrocities and tortures of El Salvador's war; just as it is Josephine who knows that distant readers are thrilled, not by political corruption, but by the facts of truly sensational tortures and massacres; and it is Josephine, sophisticated in the only worthy sense of that word, with "fifty years in her face," who knows that change might depend, unfortunately, on the possible "rescuers" hearing of such tortures, the details of such facts. For finally it is both the audience, the reader, and the poet who are admonished and taught by Josephine, and if the effect of torture is to disgrace the human body, and therefore the human being; in Forché's art, as in Goya's Disasters of War, the viewer, the reader, are made accomplices and are similarly disgraced. But art, in these poems or in Goya's etchings, is different from actual torture. In art, the effect of being disgraced is to make the viewer or the reader more conscious, more human, more capable of bearing pain and perceiving the beauty of bearing it—if only because in life, for those who are tortured, it is the opposite that happens. Such an effect is not sensationalism. Sensationalism, finally, is a lie: by overstatement, it elicits only a cheap thrill. But a poem such as "Return" penetrates to feelings beneath the ordinary—to a shame that makes one vulnerable and human.
The method of the poem is narrative and imagistic, and basically realistic in its presentation, its witnessing. But, as in Neruda's example, there are situations in life, in war, that defy Realism. Only the achieved image and metaphor will do: "And so you say, you've learned a little / about starvation: a child like a supper scrap / filling with worms, many children strung / together, as if they were cut from paper / and all in a delicate chain." A delicate chain. The metaphor which violates all realism returns itself to childhood, to the image of paper dolls, which in all memory make the children who have died in El Salvador more childlike, more vulnerable, and more real even as the image becomes, in its intention, more grotesque. For finally, the situation, the witnessing, is different from Neruda's account of watching blood flow onto the street. Forché's character, Josephine, in trying to conceive of and imagine the sheer number of children who have perished is driven to create an image, a metaphor, beyond Realism, and certainly beyond the impoverishment of statistics and body counts.
Forché, in discovering another country, discovers herself—discovers, too, how American she is ("a country you never left"). Part of that discovery is the discovery of limits. It is a mature and brilliant act when Forché relinquishes her poem and allows Josephine to speak, when the poet becomes a listener as well as a speaker. For one of the ironies about the poem is the learning process, a reciprocal or dialectical process which resembles, and actualizes the paradigm of Paolo Freire's in The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, a book which Forché acknowledges as an influence on her work and on her life. Moreover, the irony of learning in the poem is positive: just as the poet learns to be more human from Josephine, Josephine herself, in speaking of what most torments her, becomes a poet. The poem's relationships are unshakably egalitarian. And so it is proper that Forché listens, for the duty of a poem like this is to witness and record, to detail a particular misery, to try to rescue some of the dead from an almost certain oblivion through the memorial of an elegy. Different in methods, the purpose of such art is like [Zbigniew] Herbert's, and like so many poems of war. Whether in parable or narrative, such poems oppose the frail dignity of remembering to the world … a world that is more likely to sleep, and forget, and enlist again.
Forché's poems detail, mostly, the progress of a human psyche learning and becoming more openly human and vulnerable in what has become a largely sinister "Vale of Soul-Making." In so far as this progress takes place at all, even if it only occurs between Forché and Josephine, such learning and transformation, though it may not end or prevent any war, is prima facie evidence that individuals, by changing themselves, can effect, however tenuously, the world, and can begin to change it. What we do matters, and Forché's final insistence, on "ourselves or nothing," is, especially in the light of any possible nuclear warfare, a kind of political wisdom. In essence, it extends and grimly reaffirms Auden's conclusion that "We must love one another or die."…
Larry Levis, "War as Parable and War as Fact: Herbert and Forché," in The American Poetry Review, Vol. 12, No. 1, January-February, 1983, pp. 6-12.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 970
Carolyn Forché 1950–
(Full name Carolyn Louise Forché) American poet, journalist, editor, and translator.
The following entry provides an overview of Forché's career. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 25.
Chiefly regarded as a political poet, Forché is best known for The Country between Us (1982), which graphically documents the horrors inflicted upon the Salvadoran people during the Civil War of the late 1970s. Reacting against critics who fault her inclusion of partisan themes, Forché has asserted: "All poetry is both pure and engaged, in the sense that it is made of language, but it is also art. Any theory which takes one half of the social-esthetic dynamic and accentuates it too much results in a breakdown. Stress of purity generates a feeble estheticism that fails, in its beauty, to communicate. On the other hand, propagandistic hack-work has no independent life as poetry. What matters is not whether a poem is political, but the quality of its engagement."
Born in Detroit, Michigan, Forché was raised in its neighboring suburbs and attended Catholic schools. She developed an interest in literature at age nine when her mother gave her a poetry anthology to read and suggested that she try writing a poem. Forché has commented that writing then became "an escape. Writing and daydreaming. Writing was simply the reverie that I recorded, and I wrote volumes of diaries and journals. Then, when I wasn't writing, when I was doing housework or whatever, I kept some sort of little voice running in my mind. I told myself narratives, and I made a parallel life to my own. It was completely imaginary, and most of the time everything would take place a hundred years earlier on the same spot where I was. I suspected, when I was young, that this was madness, but I couldn't give it up." Forché attended Michigan State University and later earned an M.F.A. from Bowling Green State University. After the publication of her prizewinning debut collection, Gathering the Tribes (1976), she traveled to Spain where she lived with exiled Salvadoran poet Claribel Alegría and, in translating Alegría's poetry into English, learned of the Salvadoran Civil War. Upon her return to the United States, she was visited by Leonel Gómez Vides, Alegría's cousin and an activist in El Salvador who encouraged Forché to witness the situation in Central America. Forché journeyed to El Salvador in 1978 in an attempt to document the war. Fearing for her life, she left the country in 1980 at the urging of her friend Archbishop Oscar Romero—two weeks before he was assassinated. A staunch critic of the United States's military support of the Salvadoran government's repressive forces, Forché wrote of her experiences in various journals and, eventually, in The Country between Us. Forché continues to remain politically active: she has served on various committees studying the situation in Central America; she has worked for Amnesty International and the Western chapter of the International Association of Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists and Novelists (PEN); and she has been employed as a foreign news correspondent in Beirut, Lebanon.
The largely autobiographical Gathering the Tribes, which won the 1975 Yale Series of Younger Poets Award, has been praised for its focus on community, kinship, memory, ritual, and sexuality. The long poem "Burning the Tomato Worms," for example, concerns Forché's sexual awakening, her relationship with her Slovak grandmother, and her grandmother's upbringing. The Country between Us, for which Forché earned the 1981 Lamont Selection of the Academy of American Poets, established her reputation as a political poet. The collection is divided into three sections: "In Salvador, 1978–1980," "Reunion," and "Ourselves or Nothing." The first details the horrifying events Forché witnessed in Central America and her eventual return to the United States. In the prose poem "The Colonel," for instance, she focuses on El Salvador's totalitarian regime and the mutilation inflicted on political prisoners. The second and third sections of the book continue to emphasize the importance of memory and witness, but additionally stress the importance of interpersonal relationships as a means of achieving peace and communion. Comprised of a single poem, the third section is dedicated to Holocaust scholar Terrence des Pres and is often considered representative of Forché's poetics and political beliefs. The piece concludes: "There is a cyclone fence between / ourselves and the slaughter and behind it / we hover in a calm protected world like / netted fish, exactly like netted fish. / It is either the beginning or the end / of the world, and the choice is ourselves / or nothing." Focusing, in part, on the acts of genocide that have occurred in Latin America and the inhumanity of the Holocaust and Hiroshima, Forché's book-length poem, The Angel of History (1994), is similarly concerned with war, human misery, remembrance, and survival.
Forché has been the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships yet her work has often been faulted for what some critics consider its overt polemics. Some scholars, however, argue that all poetry can be interpreted as a political message on some level and note that Forché's work signals the need for new schools of criticism and poetics that deliberately emphasize the political arena. Sharon Doubiago has asserted: "[This] poet, this extraordinary woman has already gone further than most ever will in trying to authenticate her voice, immersing herself and her language in the 'real' and very dangerous world. She has used her verbal training like a guerilla uses intimate knowledge of the land, taking the aesthetic jammed into her as a young working class woman gone to college and jamming it right back into the real, the political. This is a poetry of terrible witness, the strains of our villainies on the language and ethical constructs undoubtedly show. Thus the phrase 'the country between us.'"
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6019
[The following is a revised version of a speech Forché originally gave in March 1981 at one of the first meetings of PEN West, the International Association of Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists and Novelists. Here, she discusses the atrocities she saw in El Salvador, the role of the United States in the region, the relationship between poetry and politics, and her literary aims.]
The year Franco died, I spent several months on Mallorca translating the poetry of Claribel Alegria, a Salvadorean in voluntary exile. During those months the almond trees bloomed and lost flower, the olives and lemons ripened and we hauled baskets of apricots from Claribel's small finca. There was bathing in the calla, fresh squid under the palm-thatch, drunk Australian sailors to dance with at night. It was my first time in Europe and there was no better place at that time than Spain. I was there when Franco's anniversary passed for the first time in forty years without notice—and the lack of public celebration was a collective hush of relief. I travelled with Claribel's daughter, Maya Flakoll, for ten days through Andalusia by train visiting poetry shrines. The gitanos had finally pounded a cross into the earth to mark the grave of Federico Garcia Lorca, not where it had been presumed to be all this time, not beneath an olive tree but in a bowl of land rimmed by pines. We hiked the eleven kilometers through the Sierra Nevada foothills to La Fuente Grande and held a book of poems open over the silenced poet.
On Mallorca I lost interest in the calla sun-bathing, the parties that carried into the morning, the staggering home wine-drunk up the goat paths. I did not hike to the peak of the Teix with baskets of entremesas nor, despite well-intentioned urgings, could I surrender myself to the island's diversionary summer mystique.
I was busy with Claribel's poems, and with the horrific accounts of the survivors of repressive Latin American regimes. Claribel's home was frequented by these wounded, writers who had been tortured and imprisoned, who had lost husbands, wives and closest friends. In the afternoon more than once I joined Claribel in her silent vigil near the window until the mail came, her "difficult time of day," alone in a chair in the perfect light of thick-walled Mallorquin windows. These were her afternoons of despair, and they haunted me. In those hours I first learned of El Salvador, not from the springs of her nostalgia for "the fraternity of dipping a tortilla into a common pot of beans and meat," but from the source of its pervasive brutality. My understanding of Latin American realities was confined then to the romantic devotion to Vietnam-era revolutionary pieties, the sainthood of Ernesto Che rather than the debilitating effects of the cult of personality that arose in the collective memory of Guevara. I worked into the late hours on my poems and on translations, drinking "101" brandy and chain-smoking Un-X-Dos. When Cuban writer Mario Benedetti visited, I questioned him about what "an American" could do in the struggle against repression.
"As a Northamerican, you might try working to influence a profound change in your country's foreign policy."
Over coffee in the mornings I studied reports from Amnesty International-London and learned of a plague on Latin exiles who had sought refuge in Spain following Franco's death: a right-wing death squad known as the "AAA"—Anti-Communista Apostolica, founded in Argentina and exported to assassinate influential exiles from the southern cone.
I returned to the United States and in the autumn of 1977 was invited to El Salvador by persons who knew Claribel. "How much do you know about Latin America?" I was asked. Then: "Good. At least you know that you know nothing." A young writer, politically unaffiliated, ideologically vague, I was to be blessed with the rarity of a moral and political education—what at times would seem an unbearable immersion, what eventually would become a focussed obsession. It would change my life and work, propel me toward engagement, test my endurance and find it wanting, and prevent me from ever viewing myself or my country again through precisely the same fog of unwitting connivance.
I was sent for a briefing to Dr. Thomas P. Anderson, author of Matanza, the definitive scholarly history of Salvador's revolution of 1932, and to Ignacio Lozano, a California newspaper editor and former ambassador (under Gerald Ford) to El Salvador. It was suggested that I visit Salvador as a journalist, a role that would of necessity become real. In January, 1978, I landed at Ilopango, the dingy center-city airport that is now Salvador's largest military base. Arriving before me were the members of a human rights investigation team headed by then Congressman John Drinan, S.J. (D-Mass.) I had been told that a black North-american, Ronald James Richardson, had been killed while in the custody of the Salvadorean government and that a Northamerican organization known as the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD, an organ of the AFL-CIO and an intelligence front) was manipulating the Salvadorean agricultural workers. Investigation of "The Richardson Case" exposed me to the sub rosa activities of the Salvadorean military, whose highest ranking officers and government officials were engaged in cocaine smuggling, kidnapping, extortion and terrorism; through studying AIFLD's work, I would learn of the spurious intentions of an organization destined to become the architect of the present Agrarian Reform. I was delivered the promised exposure to the stratified life of Salvador, and was welcomed "to Vietnam, circa 1959." The "Golden Triangle" had moved to the isthmus of the Americas, "rural pacification" was in embryo, the seeds of rebellion had taken root in destitution and hunger.
Later my companion and guide, "Ricardo," changed his description from Vietnam to "a Nazi forced labor camp." "It is not hyperbole," he said quietly, "you will come to see that." In those first twenty days I was taken to clinics and hospitals, villages, farms, prisons, coffee mansions and processing plants, cane mills and the elegant homes of American foreign service bureaucrats, nudged into the hillsides overlooking the capital, where I was offered cocktails and platters of ocean shrimp; it was not yet known what I would write of my impressions or where I would print them. Fortuitously, I had published nationally in my own country, and in Salvador "only poetry" did not carry the pejorative connotation I might have ascribed to it then. I knew nothing of political journalism but was willing to learn—it seemed, at the time, an acceptable way for a poet to make a living.
I lay on my belly in the campo and was handed a pair of field glasses. The lens sharpened on a plastic tarp tacked to four maize stalks several hundred yards away, beneath which a woman sat on the ground. She was gazing through the plastic roof of her "house" and hugging three naked, emaciated children. There was an aqua plastic dog-food bowl at her feet.
"She's watching for the plane," my friend said, "we have to get out of here now or we're going to get it too." I trained the lens on the woman's eye, gelled with disease and open to a swarm of gnats. We climbed back in the truck and rolled the windows up just as the duster plane swept back across the field, dumping a yellow cloud of pesticide over the woman and her children to protect the cotton crop around them.
At the time I was unaware of the pedagogical theories of Paulo Freire (Pedagogy of the Oppressed), but found myself learning in situ the politics of cultural immersion. It was by Ricardo's later admission "risky business," but it was thought important that a few Northamericans, particularly writers, be sensitized to Salvador prior to any military conflict. The lessons were simple and critical, the methods somewhat more difficult to detect. I was given a white lab jacket and, posing as a Northamerican physician, was asked to work in a rural hospital at the side of a Salvadorean doctor who was paid $200 a month by the Salvadorean government to care for one-hundred-thousand campesinos. She had no lab, no x-ray, no whole blood, plasma or antibiotics, no anesthesia or medicines, no autoclave for sterilizing surgical equipment. Her forceps were rusted, the walls of her operating room were studded with flies; beside her hospital a coffee processing plant's refuse heaps incubated the maggots, and she paid a campesina to swish the flies away with a newspaper while she delivered the newborn. She was forced to do caesarean sections at times without much local anesthetic. Without supplies, she worked with only her hands and a cheap opthalmascope. In her clinic I held children in my arms who died hours later for want of a manual suction device to remove the fluid from their lungs. Their peculiar skin rashes spread to my hands, arms and belly. I dug maggots from a child's open wound with a teaspoon. I contracted four strains of dysentery and was treated by stomach antiseptics, effective and damaging enough to be banned by our own FDA. This doctor had worked in the campo for years, a lifetime of delivering the offspring of thirteen-year-old mothers who thought the navel marked the birth canal opening. She had worked long enough to feel that it was acceptable to ignore her own cervical cancer, and hard enough in Salvador to view her inevitable death as the least of her concerns.
I was taken to the homes of landowners, with their pools set like aquamarines in the clipped grass, to the afternoon games of canasta over quaint local pupusas and tea, where parrots hung by their feet among the bougainvillia and nearly everything was imported, if only from Miami or New Orleans. One evening I dined with a military officer who toasted America, private enterprise, Las Vegas, and the "fatherland" until his wife excused herself and in a drape of cigar smoke the events of "The Colonel" took place. Almost a poème trouvé, I had only to pare down the memory and render it whole, unlined and as precise as recollection would have it. I did not wish to endanger myself by the act of poeticizing such a necessary reportage. It became, when I wrote it, the second insistence of El Salvador to infiltrate what I so ridiculously preserved as my work's allegiance to Art. No more than in any earlier poems did I choose my subject.
What you have heard is true. I was in his house. His wife carried a tray of coffee and sugar. His daughter filed her nails, his son went out for the night. There were daily papers, pet dogs, a pistol on the cushion beside him. The moon swung bare on its black cord over the house. On the television was a cop show. It was in English. Broken bottles were imbedded in the walls around the house to scoop the kneecaps from a man's legs or cut his hands to lace….
El Salvador, May, 1978
The following day I was let into Ahuachapan prison (now an army cuartel). We had been driving back from a meeting with Salvadorean feminists when Ricardo swung the truck into a climb through a tube of dust toward the rundown fortification. I was thirsty, infested with intestinal parasites, fatigued from twenty days of ricocheting between extremes of poverty and wealth. I was horrified, impatient, suspicious of almost everyone, paralyzed by sympathy and revulsion. I kept thinking of the kindly, silver-haired American political officer who informed me that in Salvador, "there were always five versions of the truth." From this I was presumably to conclude that the truth could not therefore be known. Ricardo seemed by turns the Braggioni of Porter's "Flowering Judas" and a pedagogical genius of considerable vision and patience. As we walked toward the gate, he palmed the air to slow our pace.
"This is a criminal penitentiary. You will have thirty minutes inside. Realize please at all times where you are and, whatever you see here, understand that for political prisoners it is always much worse. Okay."
We shook hands with the chief guard and a few subordinates, clean-shaven youths armed with G-3s. There was first the stench: rotting blood, excrement, buckets of urine and corn-slop. A man in his thirties came toward us, dragging a swollen green leg, his pants ripped to the thigh to accommodate the swelling. He was introduced as "Miguel" and I as "a friend." The two men shook hands a long time, standing together in the filth, a firm knot of warmth between them. Miguel was asked to give me "a tour," and he agreed, first taking a coin from his pocket and slipping it into the guard station soda machine. He handed me an orange Nehi, urging me somewhat insistently to take it, and we began a slow walk into the first hall. The prison was a four-square with an open court in the center. There were bunk rooms where the cots were stacked three deep and some were hung with newsprint "for privacy." The men squatted on the ground or along the walls, some stirring small coal fires, others ducking under urine-soaked tents of newspaper. It was supper, and they were cooking their dry tortillas. I used the soda as a relief from the stench, like a hose of oxygen. There were maybe four hundred men packed into Ahuachapan, and it was an odd sight, an American woman, but there was no heckling.
"Did you hear the shots when we first pulled up?" Ricardo asked, "those were warnings—a visitor, behave."
Miguel showed me through the workrooms and latrines, finishing his sentences with his eyes; a necessary skill under repressive regimes, highly developed in Salvador. With the guards' attention diverted, he gestured toward a black open doorway and suggested that I might wander through it, stay a few moments and come back out "as if I had seen nothing."
I did as he asked, my eyes adjusting to the darkness of that shit-smeared room with its single chink of light in the concrete. There were wooden boxes stacked against one wall, each a meter by a meter with barred openings the size of a book, and within them there was breathing, raspy and half-conscious. It was a few moments before I realized that men were kept in those cages, their movement so cramped that they could neither sit, stand, nor lie down. I recall only magnified fragments of my few minutes in that room, but that I was rooted to the clay floor, unable to move either toward or away from the cages. I turned from the room toward Miguel, who pivoted on his crutch and with his eyes on the ground said in a low voice "La Oscura," the dark place; "sometimes a man is kept in there a year, and cannot move when he comes out."
We caught up with Ricardo who leaned toward me and whispered, "tie your sweater sleeves around your neck. You are covered with hives."
In the cab of the truck I braced my feet against the dashboard and through the half-cracked window shook hands with the young soldiers, smiling and nodding. A hundred meters from the prison I lifted Ricardo's spare shirt in my hands and vomited. We were late for yet another meeting, the sun had dropped behind the volcanoes, my eyes ached. When I was empty the dry heaves began, and after the sobbing a convulsive shudder. Miguel was serving his third consecutive sentence, this time for organizing a hunger strike against prison conditions. In that moment I saw him turn back to his supper, his crutch stamping circles of piss and mud beside him as he walked. I heard the screams of a woman giving birth by caesarean without anesthesia in Ana's hospital. I saw the flies fastened to the walls in her operating room, the gnats on the eyes of the starving woman, the reflection of flies on Ana's eyes in the hospital kitchen window. The shit, I imagined, was inside my nostrils and I would smell it the rest of my life, as it is for a man who in battle tastes a piece of flesh or gets the blood under his fingernails. The smell never comes out; it was something Ricardo explained once as he was falling asleep.
"Feel this," he said, maneuvering the truck down the hill road. "This is what oppression feels like. Now you have begun to learn something. When you get back to the States, what you do with this is up to you."
Between 1978 and 1981 I travelled between the United States and Salvador, writing reports on the war waiting to happen, drawing blue-prints of prisons from memory, naming the dead. I filled soup bowls with cigarette butts, grocery boxes with files on American involvement in the rural labor movement, and each week I took a stool sample to the parasite clinic. A priest I knew was gang-raped by soldiers: another was hauled off and beaten nearly to death. On one trip a woman friend and I were chased by the death squad for five minutes on the narrow backroads that circle the city—her evasive driving and considerable luck saved us. One night a year ago I was interviewing a defecting member of the Christian Democratic Party. As we started out of the drive to go back to my hotel, we encountered three plainclothesmen hunched over the roof of a taxicab, their machine guns pointed at our windshield. We escaped through a grove of avocado trees. The bodies of friends have turned up disemboweled and decapitated, their teeth punched into broken points, their faces sliced off with machetes. On the final trip to the airport we swerved to avoid a corpse, a man spread-eagled, his stomach hacked open, his entrails stretched from one side of the road to the other. We drove over them like a garden hose. My friend looked at me. Just another dead man, he said. And by then it had become true for me as well; the unthinkable, the sense of death within life before death.
"I see an injustice," wrote Czeslaw Milosz in Native Realm; "a Parisian does not have to bring his city out of nothingness every time he wants to describe it." So it was with Wilno, that Lithuanian/Polish/Byelorussian city of the poet's childhood, and so it has been with the task of writing about Salvador in the United States. The country called by Gabriela Mistral "the Tom Thumb of the Americas" would necessarily be described to Northamericans as "about the size of Massachusetts." As writers we could begin with its location on the Pacific south of Guatemala and west of Honduras and with Ariadne's thread of statistics: 4.5 million people, 400 per square kilometer (a country without silence or privacy), a population growth rate of 3.5% (such a population would double in two decades). But what does "90% malnutrition" mean? Or that "80% of the population has no running water, electricity or sanitary services?" I watched women push feces aside with a stick, lower their pails to the water and carry it home to wash their clothes, their spoons and plates, themselves, their infant children. The chief cause of death has been amoebic dysentery. One out of four children dies before the age of five; the average human life span is forty-six years. What does it mean when a man says "it is better to die quickly fighting than slowly of starvation"? And that such a man suffers toward that decision in what is now being called "Northamerica's backyard"? How is the language used to draw battle lines, to identify the enemy? What are the current euphemisms for empire, public defense of private wealth, extermination of human beings? If the lethal weapon is the soldier, what is meant by "nonlethal military aid?" And what determined the shift to helicopter gunships, M-16s, M-79 grenade launchers? The State Department's white paper entitled Communist Interference in El Salvador argues that it is a "case of indirect armed aggression against a small Third World country by Communist powers acting through Cuba." James Petras has argued that the report's "evidence is flimsy, circumstantial or nonexistent; the reasoning and logic is slipshod and internally inconsistent; it assumes what needs to be proven; and finally, what facts are presented refute the very case the State Department is attempting to demonstrate" ["White Paper on the White Paper," The Nation (28 March 1981)]. On the basis of this report, the popular press sounded an alarm over the "flow of arms." But from where have arms "flowed," to whom and for what? In terms of language, we could begin by asking why Northamerican arms are weighed in dollar-value and those reaching the opposition measured in tonnage. Or we could point out the nature of the international arms market, a complex global network in which it is possible to buy almost anything for the right price, no matter the country of origin or destination. The State Department conveniently ignores its own intelligence on arms flow to the civilian right, its own escalation of military assistance to the right-wing military, and even the discrepancies in its final analysis. But what does all this tell us about who is fighting whom for what? Americans have been told that there is a "fundamental difference" between "advisors" and military "trainers." Could it simply be that the euphemism for American military personnel must be changed so as not to serve as a mnemonic device for the longest war in our failing public memory? A year ago I asked the American military attaché in Salvador what would happen if one of these already proposed advisors returned to the U.S. in a flag-draped coffin. He did not argue semantics.
"That," he said smiling, "would be up to the American press, wouldn't it?"
Most of that press had held with striking fidelity to the State Department text: a vulnerable and worthy "centrist" government besieged by left and right-wing extremists, the former characterized by their unacceptable political ideology, the latter rendered non-ideologically unacceptable, that is, only in their extremity. The familiar ring of this portrayal has not escaped U.S. apologists, who must explain why El Salvador is not "another Vietnam." Their argument hinges, it seems, on the rapidity with which the U.S. could assist the Salvadorean military in the task of "defeating the enemy." Tactically, this means sealing the country off, warning all other nations to "cease and desist" supplying arms, using violations of that warning as a pretext for blockades and interventions, but excepting ourselves in our continual armament of what we are calling "the government" of El Salvador. Ignoring the institutional self-interest of the Salvadorean army, we blame the presumably "civilian" right for the murder of thousands of campesinos, students, doctors, teachers, journalists, nuns, priests and children. This requires that we ignore the deposed and retired military men who command the activities of the death squads with impugnity, and that the security forces responsible for the killings are under the command of the army, which is under the command of the so-called "centrist" government and is in fact the government itself.
There are other differences between the conflicts of El Salvador and Vietnam. There is no Peoples Republic of China to the north to arm and ally itself with a people engaged in a protracted war. The guerillas are not second generation Viet-minh, but young people who armed themselves after exhaustive and failed attempts at non-violent resistance and peaceful change. The popular organizations they defend were formed in the early seventies by campesinos who became socially conscious through the efforts of grass-roots clergymen teaching the Medellin doctrines of social justice; the precursors of these organizations were prayer and bible study groups, rural labor organizations and urban trade unions. As the military government grew increasingly repressive, the opposition widened to include all other political parties, the Catholic majority, the university and professional communities and the small business sector.
Critics of U.S. policy accurately recognize parallels between the two conflicts in terms of involvement, escalation and justification. The latter demands a vigilant "euphemology" undertaken to protect language from distortions of military expedience and political convenience. [In the 1979 The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism] Noam Chomsky has argued that "among the many symbols used to frighten and manipulate the populace of the democratic states, few have been more important than terror and terrorism. These terms have generally been confined to the use of violence by individuals and marginal groups. Official violence, which is far more extensive in both scale and destructiveness, is placed in a different category altogether. This usage has nothing to do with justice, causal sequence, or numbers abused." He goes on to say that "the question of proper usage is settled not merely by the official or unofficial status of the perpetrators of violence but also by their political affiliations." State violence is excused as "reactive," and the "turmoil" or "conflict" is viewed ahistorically.
It is true that there have long been voices of peaceful change and social reform in El Salvador—the so-called centrists—but the U.S. has never supported them. We backed one fraudulently elected military regime after another, giving them what they wanted and still want: a steady infusion of massive economic aid with which high ranking officers can insure their personal futures and the loyalty of their subordinates. In return we expect them to guarantee stability, which means holding power by whatever means necessary for the promotion of a favorable investment climate, even if it means exterminating the population, as it has come to mean in Salvador. The military, who always admired "Generalissimo Franco," and are encouraged in their anti-communist crusade, grow paranoid and genocidal. Soldiers tossed babies into the air near the Sumpul River last summer for target practice during the cattle-prod round up and massacre of six-hundred peasants. Whole families have been gunned down or hacked to pieces with machetes, including the elderly and newborn. Now that the massacre and the struggle against it have become the occasion to "test American resolve," the Salvadorean military is all too aware of the security of its position and the impugnity with which it may operate. Why would a peasant, aware of the odds, of the significance of American backing, continue to take up arms on the side of the opposition? How is it that such opposition endures, when daily men and women are doused with gasoline and burned alive in the streets as a lesson to others; when even death is not enough, and the corpses are mutilated beyond recognition? The answer to that question in El Salvador answers the same for Vietnam.
We were waved past the military guard station and started down the highway, swinging into the oncoming lane to pass slow sugarcane trucks and army transports. Every few kilometers, patrols trekked the gravel roadside. It was a warm night, dry but close to the rainy season. Juan palmed the column shift, chain-smoked and motioned with his hot-boxed cigarette in the direction of San Marcos. Bonfires lit by the opposition were chewing away at the dark hillside. As we neared San Salvador, passing through the slums of Candelaria, I saw that the roads were barricaded. More than once Juan attempted a short-cut but, upon spotting military checkpoints, changed his mind. To relieve the tension he dug a handful of change from his pocket and showed me his collection of deutschmark, Belgian francs, Swedish ore and kroner, holding each to the dashboard light and naming the journalist who had given it to him, the country, the paper. His prize was a coin from the Danish reporter whose cameras had been shot away as he crouched on a rooftop to photograph an army attack on protest marchers. That was a month before, on January 22, 1980, when some hundred lost their lives; it was the beginning of a savage year of extermination. Juan rose from his seat and slipped the worthless coins back into his pocket.
Later that spring, Rene Tamsen of WHUR radio, Washington D.C., would be forced by a death squad into an unmarked car in downtown San Salvador. A Salvadorean photographer, Cesar Najarro, and his Cronica del Pueblo editor would be seized during a coffee break. When their mutilated bodies were discovered, it would be evident that they had been disemboweled before death. A Mexican photojournalist, Ignacio Rodriguez, would fall in August to a military bullet. After Christmas an American freelancer, John Sullivan, would vanish from his downtown hotel room. Censorship of the press. In January, 1981, Ian Mates would hit a land mine and the South African TV cameraman would bleed to death. In a year, no one would want the Salvador assignment. In a year, journalists would appear before cameras trembling and incredulous, unable to reconcile their perceptions with those of Washington, and even established media would begin to reflect this dichotomy. Carter policy had been to downplay El Salvador in the press while providing "quiet" aid to the repressive forces. Between 1978 and 1980, investigative articles sent to national magazines mysteriously disappeared from publication mailrooms, were oddly delayed in reaching editors, or were rejected after lengthy deliberations, most often because of El Salvador's "low news value." The American inter-religious network and human rights community began to receive evidence of a conscious and concerted censorship effort in the United States. During interviews in 1978 with members of the Salvadorean right-wing business community, I was twice offered large sums of money to portray their government favorably in the American press. By early 1981, desk editors knew where El Salvador was and the playdown policy had been replaced by the Reagan administration's propaganda effort. The right-wing military cooperated in El Salvador by serving death threats on prominent journalists, while torturing and murdering others. American writers critical of U.S. policy were described by the Department of State as "the witting and unwitting dupes" of communist propagandists. Those who have continued coverage of Salvador have found that the military monitors the wire services and all telecommunications, that pseudonyms often provide no security, that no one active in the documentation of the war of extermination can afford to be traceable in the country; effectiveness becomes self-limiting. It became apparent that my education in El Salvador had prepared me to work only until March 16, 1980, when after several close calls, I was urged to leave the country. Monsignor Romero met with me, asking that I return to the U.S. and "tell the American people what is happening."
"Do you have any messages for (certain exiled friends)?"
"Yes. Tell them to come back."
"But wouldn't they be killed?"
"We are all going to be killed—you and me, all of us." he said quietly.
A week later he was shot while saying Mass in the chapel of a hospital for the incurable.
In those days [in El Salvador] I kept my work as a poet and journalist separate, of two distinct mentalités, but I could not keep El Salvador from my poems because it had become so much a part of my life. I was cautioned to avoid mixing art and politics, that one damages the other, and it was some time before I realized that "political poetry" often means the poetry of protest, accused of polemical didacticism, and not the poetry which implicitly celebrates politically acceptable values. I suspect that underlying this discomfort is a naive assumption: that to locate a poem in an area associated with political trouble automatically renders it political.
All poetry is both pure and engaged, in the sense that it is made of language, but it is also art. Any theory which takes one half of the social-esthetic dynamic and accentuates it too much results in a breakdown. Stress of purity generates a feeble estheticism that fails, in its beauty, to communicate. On the other hand, propagandistic hackwork has no independent life as poetry. What matters is not whether a poem is political, but the quality of its engagement.
[Hans Magnus] Enzensberger has argued the futility of locating the political aspect of poetry outside poetry itself, and that:
Such obtuseness plays into the hands of the bourgeois esthetic which would like to deny poetry any social aspect. Too often the champions of inwardness and sensibility are reactionaries. They consider politics a special subject best left to professionals, and wish to detach it completely from all other human activity. They advise poetry to stick to such models as they have devised for it, in other words, to high aspirations and eternal values. The promised reward for this continence is timeless validity. Behind these high-sounding proclamations lurks a contempt for poetry no less profound than that of vulgar Marxism. For a political quarantine placed on poetry in the name of eternal values, itself serves political ends. [The Consciousness Industry: On Literature, Politics and the Media, 1974]
All language then is political; vision is always ideologically charged; perceptions are shaped a priori by our assumptions and sensibility formed by consciousness at once social, historical and esthetic. There is no such thing as non-political poetry. The time, however, to determine what those politics will be is not the moment of taking pen to paper, but during the whole of one's life. We are responsible for the quality of our vision, we have a say in the shaping of our sensibility. In the many thousand daily choices we make, we create ourselves and the voice with which we speak and work.
From our tradition we inherit a poetic, a sense of appropriate subjects, styles, forms and levels of diction; that poetic might insist that we be attuned to the individual in isolation, to particular sensitivity in the face of "nature," to special ingenuity in inventing metaphor. It might encourage a self-regarding, inward looking poetry. Since Romanticism, didactic poetry has been presumed dead and narrative poetry has had at best a half life. Demonstration is inimical to a poetry of lyric confession and self-examination, therefore didactic poetry is seen as crude and unpoetic. To suggest a return to the formal didactic mode of Virgil's Georgics or Lucretius's De Rerum Natura would be to deny history, but what has survived of that poetic is the belief that a poet's voice must be inwardly authentic and compelling of our attention; the poet's voice must have authority.
I have been told that a poet should be of his or her time. It is my feeling that the twentieth century human condition demands a poetry of witness. This is not accomplished without certain difficulties; the inherited poetic limits the range of our work and determines the boundaries of what might be said. There is the problem of metaphor which moved Neruda to write: "the blood of the children / flowed out onto the streets / like … like the blood of the children." There is the problem of poeticizing horror, resembling the problem of the photographic image which might render starvation visually appealing. There are problems of reduction and over-simplification; of our need to see the world as complex beyond our comprehension, difficult beyond our capacities for solution. If I did not wish to make poetry of what I had seen, what is it I thought poetry was?
At some point the two mentalités converged, and the impulse to witness confronted the prevailing poetic; at the same time it seemed clear that eulogy and censure were no longer possible and that Enzensberger is correct in stating "The poem expresses in exemplary fashion that it is not at the disposal of politics. That is its political content." I decided to follow my impulse to write narratives of witness and confrontation, to disallow obscurity and conventions which might prettify that which I wished to document. As for that wish, the poems will speak for themselves, obstinate as always. I wish also to thank my friends and compañeros in El Salvador for persuading me during a period of doubt that poetry could be enough.
Carolyn Forché, "El Salvador: An Aide Memoire," in The American Poetry Review, Vol. 10, No. 4, July-August, 1981, pp. 3-8.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5204
[Cott is an American editor, producer, poet, essayist, and critic. In the following, Forché discusses her childhood, her literary influences, her travels in Central America, and her writing.]
[Cott]: Walt Whitman once wrote: "The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it." How do you see the state of American poetry today?
[Forché]: I was talking to a poet the other day, and he said something very interesting. "I feel," he told me, "that I'm in exile in my own country." And it seems to me that much of the poetry written today is about this exile. In a way, there's a tendency for poets to abandon the culture at large and to write about the alienation that they feel. Throughout the Seventies, I noticed a poetry of refined and elegant language that somehow seemed to convey a sense of being detached from the culture. Many young poets who grew up in small towns were writing poetry that read as if they'd spent their childhoods in Europe, had the benefit of a classical education and had the luxury to develop a kind of distanced boredom. You get the impression that they lived very differently from the way they really did. There were exceptions, of course, but a lot of the poetry during the past decade seemed more descriptive of itself than it was of any kind of reality outside. Poets were pretty much writing for each other. And so they probably shouldn't complain today about the narrowness of their audiences, because it hasn't particularly been their concern to address a large number of readers and listeners. Of course, we've also seen a more general kind of diminishing and extreme introspection in our American culture during the past ten years—a departure from music, from art, from poetry, from political action.
Who are some of the contemporary American poets you admire?
I could name many that I admire for various reasons, though I can't give you an exhaustive list. I very much like Denise Levertov, Adrienne Rich, James Wright, and Jack Gilbert's new work. And I feel a resurgence of interest in poetry.
Who do you think of the writing programs in universities today?
They've become too institutionalized, a bit too much of a club, and I think that most of the writers involved with writing programs would agree that this is the case. It's dangerous when a writing program presumes to do something that it just can't do. I mean, it does not make the writer; all it can do is give him or her an opportunity to write and maybe teach writing, if that's something a person wants to do for a couple of years. For me, it was an opportunity to live in a community with other young writers.
I would hope that many writers would choose not to train themselves in that way, however. I sort of favor the individual mentor, a writer whom one regards very highly, developing a relationship with that author's work and perhaps eventually with him or her as a teacher. I've had very good experiences as a workshop teacher, and I've had very ugly ones as well, where…. I don't know what to say the workshop was about, but it wasn't necessarily about poetry. And there's a tendency for a certain kind of poem to emerge that is considered acceptable, and that can be dangerous.
Yet, in another way, I want the programs to exist because they're very good for many writers at certain points in their lives. I just wish that they weren't regarded in quite the way they've been in the last decade. You see, I didn't have any money when I went to school, and when I left the university, I had to pay off an enormous debt for my tuition. I would have had to work a nine-to-five job, and it's very difficult to write if you come home exhausted. So, working through a Master of Fine Arts program gave me the opportunity to write my first book, which then afforded me the opportunity to teach, which gave me a schedule which enabled me to write. It helped me, and therefore I can't disparage writing programs because there will be many writers in the position I was in as well; and I would hate to see the work in this culture be produced only by those who could afford to produce it. It's a bit of snobbery just to say, "Aren't writing programs awful." I'm suspicious of that as well.
When did you first start writing poetry?
I was about nine years old—the oldest of seven children living in Farmington, Michigan. My father was at work, we were all home from school because there was a blizzard outside, and my mother said, "Why don't you write a poem?" She took out and dusted off her college poetry textbook—she had gone to college for two years before she married—and she showed me what a poem was. She explained to me what a metrical foot was, and she made the little markings and taught me the stresses. She read me some poems, and she laid them all out. I looked at these things, and right away I went and wrote a poem which, very unimaginatively, was about snow. I began to work in iambic pentameter because I didn't know there was anything else, but I was absolutely taken with writing verse.
I think I used writing as an escape. Writing and daydreaming. Writing was simply the reverie that I recorded, and I wrote volumes of diaries and journals. Then, when I wasn't writing, when I was doing housework or whatever, I kept some sort of little voice running in my mind. I told myself narratives, and I made a parallel life to my own. It was completely imaginary, and most of the time everything would take place a hundred years earlier on the same spot where I was. I suspected, when I was young, that this was madness, but I couldn't give it up. Then I lost the voice, the capacity to do this for hours and hours—I lost it when I was about seventeen. It was horrifying to realize that it was gone. For me, it was the end of my childhood. And my mind changed. But as I developed, I wrote more consciously.
So it began with my mother. She talked to me a lot when I was very young, but as the years went by, she didn't have any time. Yet what she gave me when I was nine was one of those rare, beautiful moments. And that moment was enough to last for a long time.
Your first volume of poems, Gathering the Tribes, is an amazingly assured work. When did you find your own voice?
I was twenty-four when I completed that book. It was selected when I was twenty-five and published when I was twenty-six. It represents work from age nineteen to age twenty-four, but from age nine to age nineteen, I wrote terribly.
When I was thirteen, I discovered free verse by reading e. e. cummings, but I didn't understand free verse at all. I thought, well, it's scattered all over the page, you don't need to do it metrically, you can just use these little phrases and scatter it around … and you can do whatever you want. So I started writing nonsense, just nonsense. I was writing in lower case i's all over, and it was just awful. My best work during that period was paragraphs I wrote in Catholic school, which I attended for twelve years. The nuns used to assign us to write paragraphs, and these were wonderful little passages of description, but my poetry was awful. I'm interested in prose, too; I don't make a division between poetry and prose much because I think of poetry in a broader sense.
The voice in my first book doesn't know what it thinks, it doesn't make any judgments. All it can do is perceive and describe and use language to make some sort of recreation of moments in time. But I noticed that the person in the second book makes an utterance. And in a way, it was a little haunting to realize that some sort of maturation had occurred unconsciously.
In your early poem"Burning the Tomato Worms,"you quote your Slovak grandmother, Anna, as saying: "Mother of God / I tell you this / Dushenka / You work your life / You have nothing." It strikes me that a lot of women you write about—the impoverished Spanish and Indian women in the American Southwest, the peasant women in El Salvador—could say this as well. There's a sense of comradeship you seem to feel with these and other women in your poetry.
The strongest influences in my life have been women—my grandmother, my mother, many older women. With one exception, everyone who taught me in El Salvador was female—compañeras—It's a word in Spanish that means something more than companion.
The reality is that women are oppressed and becoming more impoverished by the year, even in this country. Single women with their dependent children are a sort of new, economically depressed underclass, and women of all classes and races are affected by what has been, materially, a decline in the past decade. Women of certain position and education have made great strides, but those strides, to my way of thinking, have all been at the top. In other words, you'll have women pilots and women vice-presidents of corporations, but the lot of most women has deteriorated. I've read that more than eighty percent of fathers of families, after one year of divorce, cease to contribute to child support. I've begun working with the Center for Investigative Reporting in Washington, which is now doing some work on this subject.
I feel most compelled by women; I'm more deeply affected by them. Maybe because I was raised by my mother and grandmother, and then educated by nuns—I suppose it couldn't help but happen. And I think that oppression has in many women fostered a kind of strength that is incomparable.
Your grandmother Anna seems like an incomparably strong woman.
When I first traveled to Eastern Europe, Anna was everywhere. I felt as if she had come back to me, and I felt her in me, too. I had her until I was eighteen, and then she died. And it wasn't enough time, really—I didn't get to ask her the most important questions. And now I have to live them myself. I know the kind of life she had when she came to this country, working in the needle factory and her husband in the coke ovens and all of that. I didn't have illusions about her—she was a strong and domineering woman. She was a peasant woman, and so when I went to El Salvador and spent time with the campesinos, I didn't feel as uncomfortable or self-conscious as I might have without having had Anna as my grandmother.
Your epigram to the first section of your second book, The Country between Us, is by the Spanish poet Antonio Machado, and it says: "Walker, there is no road / You make your road as you walk." Your own poems, of course, mirror your own path—one that has taken you on all kinds of open roads. You seem to be a voracious traveler.
If I indulge myself, I could say that there's been a sort of ongoing pattern or mysterious and compelling force in my life. But when I think about the reasons for my traveling, I could also say that my grandmother Anna was a wanderer, and that my aunt once told me that in every generation in my family there's been a woman who hasn't been able to settle in one place. And they all thought I was the one; they decided that "Carolyn goes off because she's Anna, she's got that restless thing in her." Also, when I traveled to the American Southwest, I was getting over the death of a friend, and I went there to wander around and was literally taken in by an older Indian couple in a pueblo in northern New Mexico. They gave me meals, and gradually I was taught a little Tewa, and one thing led to another. And always, wherever I would go, this seemed to happen.
I had very difficult, sad times in my early adulthood, and I thought, "Well, I'm not responsible for what has happened to me, but I am responsible for my responses. So I have to respond well or else I'll become deranged or whatever." Then, midway through my twenties, it occurred to me that I was also responsible for what happened to me, that I had a certain amount of choice, and that the ways in which I tended could determine events. So when I first felt the urge to translate the Salvadoran poet Claribel Alegrìa, who lives in exile in Mallorca, I realized that I was ignorant of the reality out of which her poems were written. Going to stay with her in Mallorca was not going to Latin America, but many writers who have fled Latin America for various reasons travel to visit her. I met women there who were tortured, one in an Argentine prison. And I became very depressed. I thought maybe I had island fever. Claribel would sit with a drink every afternoon and wait for the mail to come, blank-eyed, sad, unreachable. I couldn't speak to her. She would search through the mail for news of her friends or relatives, and then an hour later she would suddenly be all cheery and dressed and ready to engage in the evening. But these moments haunted me.
I kept working on the translations, but I left very saddened. And then I came back to California and began working very intensely for Amnesty International—I was writing my letters dutifully and all that—and one day, up pulls this dusty, white jeep into my driveway, and out gets this guy with two little girls and knocks on my door. Now, I had heard about this man, Leonel Gomez Vides—I'd heard about him in Spain; there were legends about him. He introduced himself to me, but I was properly terrified about Latin American strangers who purported to be this or that. But he had the two little girls with him, so I trusted him and let him into the house. I sat him down at the kitchen table and pointed to photographs I had taken in Spain and asked him to identify various people. He was amused and said that someone was so-and-so and someone else was the husband of so-and-so, and so on. "That's very good," he told me. "Now," he said, "how would you like to do something for Central America, since you've translated these poems and obviously have an interest?" I knew that he was associated with many humanitarian projects in El Salvador, and I thought I would be the lady in white working in the orphanage for one year who pats the little bottoms! I pictured myself that way, rather heroically. I had a Guggenheim fellowship to write poetry, so I had the year free, and I said yes, I'd like to go.
So he went out to the truck, got a roll of white butcher paper and about twenty pencils, and he smoothed the paper out on the table and began to diagram and doodle and make little drawings about the Salvadoran military and the American embassy and the various components of the Salvadoran society and economic and political structures. He did this for seventy-two hours straight, with many cups of coffee, and then he would test me. He'd say, "Okay, you are this colonel and this happens and there's possibly going to be a coup, what do you do?" He made me think of every component in this scenario. And he said, "Look, you have a dead Jesuit priest and a dead parish priest, you have forty nuns and priests expelled from the country or arrested, this is the situation, and I want you to come to Salvador to learn about it, because our country is your country's next Vietnam."
Now, my ex-husband had gone to Vietnam, as had my next-door neighbor and most of my friends in school and brothers and boyfriends and husbands of friends—they all went off to the war because we were of the class that went to Vietnam. We used to listen to those songs in high school—about the Green Berets and about pinning silver wings on my son's chest. We literally used to cry because our friends were there and we thought they would die. But I was a greaser, we thought this war was right, we were very patriotic. It didn't occur not to be until I went to the university, and I was the only one among my circle of friends who did go…. So I had to know about El Salvador. And here this man was offering me an opportunity to understand something, and also he promised me that, in an odd way, I would be able to make a contribution. So how could I not agree? I knew that I was ignorant about the situation there, and that it would be a worse ignorance to refuse this offer. But most of my friends at the time thought I was absolutely crazy to go.
The poet Robert Bly recently spoke of our not being conscious of what we were (and are) doing in El Salvador. "We did it in Vietnam," he said, "and ever since have refused to become conscious of it. It is said that a dream will repeat itself until you understand it, until you become conscious of what's there." And I have the sense that making things conscious is exactly what you've been trying to do in poetry.
For me, it's a process of understanding, a process that has not been completed and that probably can't be completed. But it certainly was startling for me to learn not only about Central America in a very immediate way, but also to learn about the limitations of my understanding. Because I wasn't equipped to see or analyze the world. My perceptions were very distorted—and I'm even talking about visual perception. I would notice things in very general terms, but there were certain things I would fail to see.
I would always marvel at the wealthy women in the suburbs of San Salvador—women playing canasta all day—and I spent many hours talking to them. They did not see poverty, it didn't exist for them. First of all, they never went outside the capital city, but even in the city, they could go through a street in a car and not see the mother who has made a nest in rubber tires for her babies. What they saw was an assembly of colors of delight, of baskets and jugs on the heads of women. Yet they were being as accurate as they could possibly be in their descriptions.
Now, as to what I didn't see: I was once driving past rows of cotton fields—all I could see on either side of the highway for miles was cotton fields, and it was dusty and hot, and I was rolling along thinking about something in my usual way, which is the way that has been nurtured in this country. But I didn't see between the rows, where there were women and children, emaciated, in a stupor, because pesticide planes had swept over and dropped chemicals all over them, and they were coughing and lethargic from those poisonous clouds … and also they were living in the middle of these fields because they had no place else to go, underneath sheet-plastic tarps that were no protection against the pesticides. The children had no clothing and were swollen-bellied and suffering from the second- and third-degree malnutrition that I had been taught to recognize in my work at the hospital. There they were, and I hadn't seen them. I had only seen cotton and soil between cotton plants, and a hot sky. I saw the thing endlessly and aesthetically; I saw it in a certain spatial way. So I had to be taught to look and to remember and to think about what I was seeing.
What you're saying reminds me of John Keats' notion that "poetry must work out its own salvation in a man: It cannot be matured by law and precept, but by sensation and watchfulness in itself…."
Yes, I certainly don't mean to be programmatic in my writing, or ever to be strident or polemical. I don't want to argue a position; rather, I want to present in language the re-creation of a moment. Any judgment, any expression, even a most carefully rendered eyewitness testimony is viewed as political if you locate that testimony in an area associated with turmoil; whereas you can describe something in an area that's not so associated, and it will be considered something else. I tried not to write about El Salvador in poetry, because I thought it might be better to do so in journalistic articles. But I couldn't—the poems just came.
At the conclusion of one of your earlier poems, "What It Cost,"which is about the forced migrations in Russia and Eastern Europe of members of your grandmother's generation, one reads the words of the ghosts of the dead:
Haul your language south.There are knives in your pillows.The white birds fall another month.
You've spent a lot of time in the American Southwest, and it's interesting that the first line of the first of your poems about El Salvador reads: "We have come far south." And it concludes:
… That is why we feelit is enough to listento the wind jostling lemons,to dogs ticking across the terraces,knowing that while birds andwarmer weatherare forever moving north,the cries of those who vanishmight take years to get here.
As Robert Bly, again, has said, "It isn't accidental, in a way, that El Salvador is south of us, because south in the psyche means down." I'm curious about your affinity with and gravitation toward the south that seems, in your case, to be physical and psychic.
I spent my entire childhood in Michigan, and I was always compelled by the north—I happen to love the winter and the snow. I was always enamored of Russia—perhaps a sort of distorted, romantic version of Russia that comes from a twentieth-century reinterpretation of the nineteenth century. But when I got older, my inward focus was drawn less to the familiar and more to those things about which I was ignorant. And I wanted to go to the Southwest and be in the desert. I learned a lot during those weeks that I camped in the desert at different times in my twenties. I went there a lot, and that was where I became clear inside—though it does sound cliché. When I was in the Mojave Desert one time, I had this experience: I was with a friend, and we didn't speak to each other for about three or four days—I mean except for absolute necessities—but we didn't make conversation, and all of a sudden I was on this rock and I heard this ba-bum ba-bum. I was shocked. I realized I was hearing myself, my own life processes, and I felt a certain consciousness outside myself as well. It was quite a transfiguring experience for me. And after that I was very much drawn to the re-creation of it, by going back to the desert. One time when I was watching the sunset out there—you couldn't see any visible signs of mankind or civilization, there was no grid, and there were no wires or roads or glow of lights or anything—I realized: this is the way it was, this is the emptiness, this is the empty earth … but it wasn't empty, and I didn't know what was filling it. I think that I felt the need for a replacement, a spiritual palpability to replace the Catholicism that I had intellectually rejected when I was younger. And there it was again, only it wasn't with the need for a personal or an anthropomorphic conception of God.
As far as going to El Salvador is concerned, I told you what the reasons were for that. I don't know whether there's some reason beyond those reasons. Until you suggested this, I didn't know it was there. But I never would have thought, when I was little, that I would feel so compelled toward that particular part of the world.
In your beautiful and extraordinary long poem"Kalaloch,"you describe a sexual encounter with a female stranger on a beach in the Pacific Northwest; in"For the Stranger,"you present a sexual encounter with a male stranger on a train; and in your prose reverie"This Is Their Fault,"you detail moments of a masochistic sexual fantasy. In all of these, there is no salaciousness, but rather a simple yet mysterious presentation of the life of desire.
One thing I try not to worry about in the poetry is how I appear. If you have a worry about what kind of appearance you're making, you'll censor yourself and will therefore diminish or reduce whatever it is that you've experienced. I made a rule for myself that I would have to be brave, and if something was embarrassing—and I'm very easily embarrassed—so what, it had to be put down, I had to write it.
After "Kalaloch" appeared, there was briefly a sort of letter-writing argument in the American Poetry Review about whether Carolyn Forché was gay, straight or bisexual. And I made no comment at all on it. I just thought, well, run with it, folks, you have a good time with that one because I really don't care what you think I am [laughing]. I thought it was a really superficial way of dealing with the poem, but it was also sort of interesting.
The way that poem came about was: There's this beach on the Olympic Peninsula where the land comes up into the water in these rock stacks and piles and formations. There's a lot of fog, and the ocean comes over the land; it's completely glazed and the land stretches out. I guess poets automatically think archetypically, and I was thinking: there're these two mothers, these two women—Earth and Water. I don't mean to make a cult of this idea, but it seemed as if it had to be that way. And they're making love. And there was a woman there named Jacynthe, and we did spend those weeks on the beach living in this little driftwood place like a couple of banshees.
Returning to the subject of masochistic fantasies, some people tend, unfortunately, to confuse sexual fantasies with the institutionalization of torture in police states.
I think many women in this culture—and I think that it's pretty well documented—imaginatively translate their experiences of childhood and develop masochism. I think most women confront that, and they are repelled by it or do battle with it. But many women whom I've spoken with do have this problem of eroticizing their oppression. Occasionally, however, there's a replay of this kind of fantasy when discussing human-rights abuses, and it has nothing to do with the reality of torture, imprisonment and assassination. It's what an inexperienced mind does with an abstraction that it has eroticized on another level in the light of its own culture. But if you're even willing to say: I had certain masochistic fantasies as a child that I later, to my own horror, saw the reality of somewhere … and if you're willing to acknowledge the complexity and admit that, for example, altruistic work isn't always simple, and to portray yourself as one of the people for whom it's not simple—that, then, is what's important. It's also important to see within ourselves first every manifestation of atrocity. The Holocaust didn't occur because only the Germans were somehow peculiar and therefore something like that couldn't happen again. We have to confront this now.
It must have been terrifying to confront the violent realities of El Salvador.
I was very close to Monsignor Oscar Romero just before he was killed. And I had a very, very close brush with death. I was with a young defecting member of the Christian Democratic party, and we confronted a death squad that had three machine guns trained on our windshield. They had enough time to kill us, but this young man had a sort of uncanny quickness of reflexes, and he managed to throw the car into reverse and floor it and get back through a walled gate. But though it was split-second, I had enough time to see the machine guns. There's no reason why I'm here. Functionally, it was a fluke.
Did you ever feel that you had come too close to the edge?
I could have, but I didn't lose my sanity even briefly. I became very lucid, but I knew what was going to happen. And I felt more and more powerless to do anything about it, because no one would listen to me. I began to realize that it wouldn't matter if they did. I had to experience the full impact of this horror, that this is indeed what happened in Vietnam … and that I couldn't stop it. And that I was going to have to see it almost like someone whose eyelids are held open and you can't stop looking at something. And it was very hard to get through that period.
One of the things that's very heartening is that I met a whole network of people—many of them journalists—who never went off the path, who got involved during the Vietnam period for whatever reasons, who didn't go and climb the corporate ladder, who have maintained that their work be subservient to their conscience.
Walt Whitman wrote: "The attitude of great poets is to cheer up slaves and horrify despots."
That's an interesting view. I don't want to think of everyone who's been horrified as a despot, because a lot of people who've been horrified are very good-hearted and well-intentioned, especially the young ones. They come and they say, "What should we do?" They think that to write in an engaged way means you have to go to exotic climes. People don't want to learn about what is in their own immediate sphere. And this is understandable, isn't it, because of all the duplicity. "What should we do?" "That's not the beginning," I have to say. "Set off now and find out what you should do. The answer is not the beginning. The answer is maybe at the end, if you're very lucky."
Jonathan Cott, "Poetry in Motion," in Rolling Stone, Issue 393, April 14, 1983, pp. 81, 83-7, 110-11.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2450
[An American educator and critic, Diggory is the author of Yeats and American Poetry: The Tradition of the Self (1983). In the following excerpt, he provides a thematic analysis of The Country between Us, discussing its relationship to Gathering the Tribes and its focus on political concerns.]
The honors showered upon Carolyn Forché during her brief career so far do not compensate for the misunderstanding that has accompanied them. Following her debut in the Yale Series of Younger Poets with Gathering the Tribes (1976), her second volume, The Country Between Us, was written under NEA and Guggenheim sponsorship, judged by the Poetry Society of America to be the best manuscript in progress, and awarded the Lamont Poetry Selection for 1981. A dust jacket blurb by Jacobo Timerman has Forché "replacing" Pablo Neruda as the poetic voice of South America.
Here the misunderstanding clearly surfaces. True, eight of the poems in Forché's volume deal with South America, specifically El Salvador—although, significantly, Forché takes her title from a poem about a friend from her Michigan girlhood ("Joseph") in another, longer section of the volume. That section serves as a confirmation of what should be apparent even in the El Salvador poems if they are read attentively. As the Cuban writer Mario Benedetti warned Forché prior to her involvement in El Salvador, her perspective on South American experience must inevitably remain North American. Further, poems written from that perspective must reflect an Anglo-American literary tradition. One of the great strengths of The Country Between Us is that, unlike so many of her reviewers, Forché does not allow herself the illusion that a cultural perspective or a literary tradition can be, or should be, simply wished away.
The ease with which Jacobo Timerman equates Forché and Neruda is made possible only by judging the work of each writer as "political poetry," according, that is, to its subject matter rather than to those features of style through which an author creates a distinctive voice. The functioning of Carolyn Forché's voice in The Country Between Us has been seriously misjudged because the term "political poetry" has seemed so appropriate to that volume. Even those critics who have not been merely distracted by the content, who have directly addressed themselves to the question of voice, have been misled by the spectre of "political poetry," because for them that genre was naturally associated with certain qualities of voice that they proceeded to discover, or find lacking, in Forché. Such preconceptions account for the confusing contradictions in the critical depiction of Forché's voice, with Joyce Carol Oates, in the [4 April 1982 issue of] New York Times Book Review, worrying about the "impersonal and at times rhetorical poetry" produced by Forché's "self-effacing technique," while Katha Pollitt, in [the 8 May 1982 issue of] The Nation, laments Forché's dependence on "the misty 'poetic' language of the isolated, private self." Although appearing to differ about Forché, these critics are in fact differing about "political poetry," and are so distracted by that issue that they have neglected to read Forché.
In an attempt to read Forché on her own terms, it is useful to step back for a minute to her first volume to perceive the continuities between its poetry, political or otherwise, and the somehow specially "political" poetry of the second volume. Stanley Kunitz's Foreword to Gathering the Tribe defines Forché's questions—"Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going?"—in the language of the private self that Katha Pollitt finds inhibiting in The Country Between Us. If Forché is inhibited in the latter volume, however, it is not merely a result of her language but of her intention, for she is still asking the same questions. Pollitt is embarrassed by "The Island," for example, because she wants, but is unable, to read it as an homage to the Salvadoran poet Claribel Alegria, but Forché says explicitly, "I look for myself in her." Like the Pueblo Indians of Gathering the Tribes and the Slavic relatives who appear in both volumes, the Salvadorans of The Country Between Us serve as mirrors in which Forché seeks to define herself, a major occupation of Anglo-American poets since the Romantics. Incidentally, the "Carolina" addressed at the end of "The Island" is not, as Joyce Carol Oates interprets it, an example of the obscurity that "political poetry" invites through its topical allusions, but rather the poet's own first name Hispanicized. Using Claribel Alegria as her speaker, Forché quite literally is talking to herself.
With regard to image as well as voice, Forché's earlier work offers a useful corrective to the distortions required to fit her recent poems into the category of "political poetry." In "The Memory of Elena," the poet and another woman, presumably the Elena of the title, lunch together in an atmosphere that, though geographically Spanish, is transformed by their awareness of South American atrocities:
The paella comes, a bed of rice and camarones, fingers and shells, the lips of those whose lips have been removed, mussels the soft blue of a leg socket.
Katha Pollitt's comment on this passage, that "It trivializes torture to present it in terms of lunch," derives from her assumption of a conflict between Forché's political intentions, to record torture, and her poetic technique, which places an undue emphasis, in Pollitt's view, on the sensibility that does the recording. What do we get, however, if we assume that intention and technique are at odds, that the poet's self enters here not as an unwanted intruder but as an intended part of the poem's subject?
We get something very much like Forché's earlier use of the image in "Kalaloch," the dramatic and sexual climax of Gathering the Tribes:
We went down to piles to get mussels, I made my shirt a bowl of mussel stones, carted them to our grate where they smoked apart. I pulled the mussel lip bodies out, chewed their squeak.
Here the image prepares for an act of oral sex between two women, described later in the poem. If we grant the author's presence its full weight in "The Memory of Elena," that poem, too, depicts the communication of two women, Forché and Elena. At the most immediate level, their communion is sacramental rather than sexual, a commemoration of the dead through the communal eating of their bodies. The extremity of atrocity that is Forché's subject is thus reflected in the extremity of the response, but that is what this meal is, a response to, not an image of torture, as Pollitt would read it. The meal symbolically enacts the more literal response of the friends of a Salvadoran labor leader who "was cut to pieces and buried." As Forché recounts in "Return":
his friends found the soldiers and made them dig him up and ask forgiveness of the corpse, once it was assembled again on the ground like a man.
A few lines later, Forché indicates the relevance of this image to the body politic: "We are / all assembled."
Being so much of the body, Forché's political vision is naturally sexual as well. Underlying the sacramental communion of Forché and her companion in "The Memory of Elena" is the companion's recollection of sexual communion with her dead husband, a victim of political oppression:
In Buenos Aires only three years ago, it was the last time his hand slipped into her dress, with pearls cooling her throat and bells like these, chipping at the night—
Because sexual union, which joins bodies, is Forché's answer to political conflict, which tears bodies apart, the section of El Salvador poems in The Country Between Us is followed by a section, appropriately entitled "Reunion," of even more personal poems, many of them explicitly sexual. One of these, "For the Stranger," about a brief romantic encounter on a train travelling across Europe, brings into the present the sexual invitation that is trapped in the past in "The Memory of Elena":
Each time I find you again between the cars, holding out a scrap of bread for me, something hot to drink, until there are no more cities and you pull me toward you, sliding your hands into my coat, telling me your name over and over, hurrying your mouth into mine.
Here the vehicle of communion is seen in successive meta-morphoses as food (including the sacramental bread that was so important an image in Gathering the Tribes), as the body, and finally as language, an obsessive naming that gathers ritualistic force during the progress of this volume, which seeks to rescue the dead from oblivion by remembering their names. Similarly, Forché seeks to rescue the oppressed from silence by sharing her voice. When she adopts the persona of Claribel Alegria, whose poems Forché has translated, she is "hurrying your mouth into mine."
Clearly, Forché's purpose in entering into the lives of others is not merely selfish. She is concerned with the interaction of selves, or, to use the formulation applied by Stanley Kunitz to Gathering the Tribes, her theme is kinship. If her treatment of that theme in The Country Between Us seems more mature, this growth must be partly attributed to Forché's politicization, her greater awareness and acceptance of the conflict that exists among kin. We should not expect Forché's political poetry to constitute a gesture of "solidarity" any more than we should expect Robert Lowell's "dynastic poetry" to conclude in a gesture of filial piety. Nevertheless, such expectations have misled even Forché's most sympathetic interpreters. In an otherwise acute discussion of Forché published in the [January-February 1983 issue of] American Poetry Review, Larry Levis equates the title phrase of Forché's concluding poem, "Ourselves or Nothing," with the famous line from Auden's "September 1, 1939," "We must love one another or die," a line whose simplistic assumptions later embarrassed Auden himself. To study Forché's line in its context is to see the difference between political slogan and political poetry:
There is a cyclone fence between ourselves and the slaughter and behind it we hover in a calm protected world like netted fish, exactly like netted fish. It is either the beginning or the end of the world, and the choice is ourselves or nothing.
How broad a scope is implied in the word "ourselves" here? Most immediately it includes two people, Forché and the person she is addressing, Terrence Des Pres, who wrote in The Survivor about atrocities similar to those Forché witnessed in El Salvador. More broadly, the first reference to "ourselves" excludes the slaughtered Salvadorans and embraces only those who share the North American perspective of "a calm protected world." Given such restrictions, is Levis justified in taking, as he seems to do, the second reference to "ourselves" as embracing all humanity? I think not; in fact, I think ultimately Forché would restrict "ourselves" to the individual self that separates each of us. Such separation is what we have in common, and what we must tackle first if we are to make adjustments to a world that includes others. We cannot simply leap over the cyclone fence, leaving the self behind—the gesture that proponents of "political poetry" seem to demand. It is "ourselves or nothing" because it is only through ourselves that we have access to others.
Despite Forché's refusal to let go of the self, there is in The Country Between Us an occasional hint of the self-effacement to which Joyce Carol Oates responded with a slight chill. Within "Ourselves or Nothing," Forché quotes a sentence from Des Pres' book that might stand as a statement of Forché's intention in her own: "They turned to face the worst straight on, without sentiment or hope, simply to keep watch over life." In the context of the Nazi death camps that Des Pres describes, such unflinching confrontation can appear as heroic self-assertion, but in the idea of simply keeping watch there is an invitation to passivity that can be heard not so much in Forché's poems as in her own and others' comments about them.
About "The Colonel," in which the title figure dumps a sack of human ears onto the table from which he and Forché have just dined, Forché says that, "I had only to pare down the memory and render it whole, unlined and as precise as recollection would have it. I did not wish to endanger myself by the act of poeticizing such a necessary reportage" (American Poetry Review, July-August 1981). If to "poeticize" means to prettify, Forché's statement is unobjectionable; if however, she means that "The Colonel" is a "reportage" rather than poetry, Forché is disavowing her own very significant role in giving her experience the shape of art. That "The Colonel" has such shape can be demonstrated by quoting its last two sentences, which provide perfect closure to a text in which each word is placed with artful precision: "Some of the ears on the floor caught this scrap of his voice. Some of the ears on the floor were pressed to the ground." Even if we follow Forché's instructions to read "The Colonel" as "unlined," that is, as prose, the repetition in these sentences produces very formal prose indeed. And if, despite Forché's temporary banishment of lineation to the composing room, we read each sentence as a line of poetry, we discover that each is almost perfectly anapestic, thus lending special significance to the crucial disyllabic substitution that compresses the rhythm at the very moment that the ears are seen to be pressed to the ground. In the context of the volume as a whole, the image of ears has a special resonance, for Forché is continually aware of how difficult it is for one person's voice to reach the ears of another, spanning the distance of "the country between us." That her voice reaches us so distinctly is a tribute to her art as well as a measure of the horror to which her art bears witness….
Terence Diggory, "Witnesses and Seers," in Salmagundi, Vol. 61, Fall, 1983, pp. 112-24.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 251
Doubiago, Sharon. "Towards an American Criticism: A Reading of Carolyn Forché's The Country between Us." The American Poetry Review 12, No. 1 (January-February 1983): 35-9.
Responding to negative reviews of The Country between Us, Doubiago lauds the volume's political content and calls for a new school of criticism that recognizes that all writing—whether poetry or criticism—is politically motivated.
Gleason, Judith. "The Lesson of Bread." Parnassus 10, No. 1 (Spring-Summer 1982): 9-21.
Applauds Forché's focus on the Salvadoran Civil War and the need for community in The Country between Us.
Lapinski, Ann Marie. "The Education of a Poet: El Salvador Sojourn Gives Life to Her Art." Chicago Tribune, No. 347 (13 December 1982), 1-3.
Feature article in which Forché discusses her experiences in El Salvador and the composition, publication, and reception of the poems collected in The Country between Us.
Mann, John. "Carolyn Forché: Poetry and Survival." American Poetry 3, No. 3 (Spring 1986): 51-69.
Thematic and stylistic analysis of The Country between Us.
Walker, Kevin. "Inspired by War." Detroit Free Press (22 May 1994): 8G.
Positive review of The Angel of History, which Walker describes as "exquisite" and possessing "a unity that defies easy understanding."
Montenegro, David. "Carolyn Forché." The American Poetry Review 17, No. 6 (November-December 1988): 35-40.
Interview in which Forché discusses her new work, her experiences in El Salvador and abroad, and the thematic concerns of her work.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6513
[In the essay below, Greer examines Forché's poetry "as a phenomenon that is, in its very constitution and production, social, historical, and political."]
In the four years since their publication, the poems of Carolyn Forché's The Country Between Us have been identified with a renewed debate concerning the claims, the merits, and the possibilities for "political poetry" in contemporary America. They have been taken as an occasion for critical pronouncements on the question of "mixing art and politics" and have been widely praised as well as strenuously criticized. The apparent plurality of critical opinion surrounding The Country Between Us would seem to suggest that the question of poetry's relationship to politics is once again productively open, but in fact it masks a more disturbing consensus: whatever their merit, these poems belong to a specialized genre—"political poetry." They are to be evaluated for their ability to "reconcile" or "balance" impulses generally regarded as contradictory: the personal or lyrical on the one hand, the political or engaged on the other. I see several problems with such a notion of political poetry. First, it implies that certain poems are political while others (the majority) are not, and it thus functions to marginalize those poems regarded as political without yet having explored the social and political constitution of all literary discourse. More importantly, such a notion of political poetry adopts unquestioningly an already reified conception of the social; it is incapable of helping us to think of relationships between individuals and society in terms other than those of opposition. As a result, it replicates the split in contemporary ideology between private and public. That subjects may be socially constituted is a question usually not asked. Finally, this taken-for-granted definition of political poetry is not a historical definition: it fails to consider the ways in which lyric poetry, since the Romantics at least, has been constituted in opposition or reaction to dominant modes of social and political discourse. Severed from history, the lyric poet becomes an isolated voice crying out in the empty wasteland of modernist despair: politics becomes mere psychologism and the struggle to wrest freedom from necessity is rewritten as a purely individual quest. The compulsion to read Forché's poetry as political in this narrower sense, then, has resulted in readings that distort and diminish the real accomplishments of the poems while undermining any claim they, or any contemporary poems, have to be political in any deeper sense.
In the autobiographical "El Salvador: An Aide-Memoire," Forché herself has provided us with a text that asks to be read as both a preface to and a theoretical defense of the project undertaken in The Country Between Us. "Aide-Memoire" is pervaded by an uneasiness regarding the critical terms in which the poems have been received and discussed. In response to critics' classification of the poems as "political poetry," Forché writes: "I suspect that underlying this … is a naive assumption: that to locate a poem in an area associated with political trouble automatically renders it political." The essay, in fact, concludes with an enumeration of several of the more problematic questions concerning the theoretical status of poetry as political—suggestions, perhaps, of ways in which the political constitution of all poetry might more productively be explored. What emerges is the notion that there are really two different senses of the term "political." The first, more limited sense sees "politics" as the largely institutionalized, two-dimensional discourse of political programs and "ideologies" in the official sense; the second, invoked in response to the confinement of the first, defines politics far more broadly and flexibly as any action or discourse carried out in a social world. These two competing definitions are made dramatically clear in the juxtaposition, on the final pages of "Aide-Memoire," of the following two statements. First, Forché's own allegation that "there is no such thing as nonpolitical poetry"; second, a statement from Hans Magnus Enzensberger's "Poetry and Politics": "The poem expresses in an exemplary way the fact that it is not at the disposal of politics: this is its political content" [The Consciousness Industry, 1974]. Where most American readers of Forché seek to reduce the political to the more limited of these two senses, Forché and Enzensberger attempt to open up the notion, to make "the political" again the site of an ongoing, daily contestation.
Enzensberger's "Poetry and Politics" effectively defines the theoretical impasse at which American practical criticism finds itself when it attempts to discuss poetry like Forché's.
As sociology, literary criticism cannot see that language constitutes the social character of poetry, and not its entanglement in the political battle. Bourgeois literary esthetics is blind to, or else conceals, the fact that poetry is essentially social. The answers offered by the two doctrines to the question of the relationship of the poetic to the political process are correspondingly clumsy and useless: complete dependence in one case, complete independence in the other…. The real question remains unexamined and indeed unasked.
This essay seeks, if not to answer, at least to ask that real question: how can we, in contemporary America, begin to think poetry as an immanently social and political act? How can poetry like Forché's help us to read other poetry in a way that avoids reproducing the bourgeois ideological separation of "the private" from "the public"? By moving between Forché's Salvadoran poems and the critical languages constructed around them, this essay seeks to begin sketching out more productive ways of thinking and talking about poetry as a phenomenon that is, in its very constitution and production, social, historical, and political.
The text in question here is "In Salvador, 1978–80," a sequence of eight poems that forms the first section of Carolyn Forché's The Country Between Us. It is primarily these poems that have been responsible for the association of Forché with political poetry, and more often than not they are characterized as "explicitly political" at the outset, only to be reclaimed later as successful personal lyric. [In his "War as Parable and War as Fact," American Poetry Review 12, No. 1 (1983)] Larry Levis, for example, begins by praising the poems for their ability to engage the political realities of Central American violence and struggle, but ends by translating the sequence into the romanticized terms of an internal struggle, "the process of a human psyche learning and becoming more openly human and vulnerable." This gesture is a common one in the criticism of American poetry: to translate external landscapes and journeys into predominantly psychological terms—but in the case of these Salvador poems this project would appear to be subverted at every turn by a poetic voice which repeatedly displaces or decenters its own subject position. The last lines of "The Island," for instance, pose a question which undoes any sense we might have of a unified speaking subject, bringing vividly before us [Emile] Benveniste's fundamentally important fracturing of the subject of the enunciation from the subject of the enounced: "Carolina [Carolyn?] do you know how long it takes / any one voice to reach another?"
The epigraph to "In Salvador" is from Antonio Machado (his epitaph, in fact) and introduces one of the important structural motifs of the sequence: "Caminante, no hay camino / se hace camino al andar." (In English, roughly, "Walker, there is no road; the road is made by walking.") While the eight poem sequence does not explicitly comprise a coherent narrative journey, it does imply such a narrative progression, and it relies on our sense of the grouping as a whole and roughly chronological sequence. The trip is problematically framed, but remains circular and complete, the poem "Return" (the sixth) explicitly ending the travels and replacing the speaker in America.
The outline of this journey is as follows: "San Onofre, California" opens the sequence with the speaker physically—and perhaps ideologically—"at home" in the States; "The Island" initiates the journey to Salvador, but indirectly, through the intermediary figure of the Salvadoran poet Claribel Alegria, herself in voluntary exile on a Mallorquin island; "The Memory of Elena" and, especially, "The Visitor" and "The Colonel" speak from the darkest recesses of Salvador itself, the three poems together forming the sequence's literal and metaphorical center; "Return," as its title suggests, expresses its speaker's moral and communicative dislocation upon her return to North America. The final two poems, "Message" and "Because One Is Always Forgotten," complete the sequence by turning once again to the south, to face, from a now more educated—but also more unstable—North American position, those who remain in Salvador, those who will fight "for the most hopeless of revolutions."
Given this sense of a general narrative construct, it becomes important to consider how each poem undercuts or problematizes the sequence's implied linear progression: the haunting ambivalence of the first poem ("San Onofre") for instance, depends on its speaker's knowing what it is she will see further south—on her having, in effect, already undertaken the journey toward which the poem gazes. A similar confusion of narrative time and tense informs "The Island" and "The Colonel," in which the speaker's rhetorical strategies are based on a knowledge of the problem of poetic communication in a North American context, itself not explicitly encountered until later, in "Return." These more subtle ambivalences, of course, depend on the stability of the narrative framework from which they depart—a fact emphasized by Forché's own determination, both in public readings and in the prefatorial "Aide-Memoire," to explicate and clarify the major episodes and turning points of her actual journey to Salvador.
The primary subject matter—to speak in thematic terms—of "In Salvador," that which, more than simply its setting, makes the sequence in some broad sense "political," is what Forché has called, in a provocative but largely unexamined phrase in "Aide-Memoire," "the politics of cultural immersion." "It was thought important that a few North Americans, particularly writers, be sensitized to Salvador prior to any military conflict," she writes; "the lessons were simple and critical, the methods somewhat more difficult to detect." Forché herself was recruited by a group of Salvadorans to travel in and observe the Salvadoran situation as a poet (a fact which surprised her—"mere poetry" she says, not having in Salvador the pejorative connotations it has in an American context). Carolyn Forché, of course, is by no means the first North American writer to find herself in the role of witness and reporter: a decade earlier, for instance (in 1968) Susan Sontag undertook a similar journey into North Vietnam and chronicled her experience in her well known "Trip to Hanoi" [collected in her 1969 Styles of Radical Will]. And a year or so after Forché the American essayist and novelist Joan Didion traveled to El Salvador and wrote about it in her popular Salvador. An examination of the structural and thematic similarities among "Aide-Memoire," Salvador, and "Trip to Hanoi" will help to define some of the key issues and problematics implied by Forché's notion of a "politics of cultural immersion."
"In the end, of course," writes Susan Sontag at the conclusion of "Trip to Hanoi," "an American has no way of incorporating Vietnam into [her] consciousness." For Sontag, a journey into North Vietnam which began as "a somewhat passive experience of historical education" became, "as it had to, an active confrontation with the limits of [her] own thinking." To immerse oneself in a revolutionary Third World culture, Sontag discovers, is to confront the profoundly ideological character of one's own vision and perception; it is to experience a dislocating alienation in which all that is real about a foreign culture seems most "unreal," and in which one's own perception is, in Russian formalist or Brechtian fashion, radically defamiliarized. As Sontag recognized early in her travels, "I had only my own culture-bound, disoriented sensibility for an instrument" with which to interpret Hanoi. Didion's Salvador records a similar experience of cultural dislocation: "to land at this airport [El Salvador International, outside San Salvador] … is to plunge directly into a state in which no ground is solid, no depth of field reliable, no perception so definite that it might not dissolve into its reverse."
If a single overriding concern unites these three writers' approaches to Salvador or Vietnam, it is a concern to respect the primacy and inescapability of cultural difference—the sense that an American writer is inhabited by America as she inhabits it, that to leave the States is far more than to simply cross a geopolitical boundary. Theirs is a project of solidarity with a foreign culture born of mutual difference, characterized by a self-conscious attention to the limits of their own perspectives, and it contrasts instructively with the anthropologist's or the ethnographer's faith in his ability to write his way into a culture. Sontag most explicitly addresses the contradictions of this felt difference when she writes: "My sense of solidarity with the Vietnamese, however genuine and felt, is a moral abstraction developed (and meant to be lived out) at a great distance from them. Since my arrival in Hanoi, I must maintain that sense of solidarity alongside new unexpected feelings which indicate that, unhappily, it will always remain a moral abstraction." Throughout these writers' descriptions of their experiences of dislocation and cultural difference, it seems, their attention to their own perceptions and interpretations, while apparently directed "inward," is also profoundly political—they seem in their own ways to have arrived at a working definition of ideology not unlike Louis Althusser's [in his 1971 Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays]: "a representation of the imaginary relationships of individuals to their real conditions of existence."
If these experiences of cultural dislocation and defamiliarization form a kind of first moment in what might be called a "dynamic" of cultural immersion, a second, perhaps more unsettling moment occurs when these writers witness the economic colonization of the Third World by America firsthand and in so doing implicate themselves in the economic and political exchange systems that have, in a very real sense, produced the violence that pervades a Vietnam or a Salvador. Didion, in San Salvador's Metrocenter shopping mall, becomes fascinated with the consumer exports from the States—the Muzak and the pâté de foie gras, "the young matrons in tight Sergio Valente jeans, trailing maids and babies behind them and buying towels, big beach towels printed with maps of Manhattan that featured Bloomingdale's … the number of things that seemed to suggest a fashion for 'smart drinking,' to evoke modish cocktail hours." "This was a shopping center that embodied the future for which El Salvador was presumably being saved," she writes, with more than a touch of her characteristic irony. But a moment later the irony gives way to a painful moment of self-recognition and self-implication: "As I waited to cross back over the Boulevard de los Heroes to the Camino Real I noticed soldiers herding a young civilian into a van, their guns at the boy's back, and I walked straight ahead, not wanting to see anything at all." In this moment, Didion realizes that she, like the towels or the blue jeans, is herself an export from the capitol of consumption, is herself not only a consumer but a commodity as well. And in that moment, Didion catches herself looking the other way and confronts herself for the first time as a norteamericana.
A related moment of self-implication forms the climax of Forché's "Aide-Memoire": "On the final trip to the airport we swerved to avoid a corpse, a man spread eagled, his stomach hacked open, his entrails stretched from one side of the road to the other. We drove over them like a garden hose. My friend looked at me. Just another dead man, he said. And by then it had become true for me as well: the unthinkable, the sense of death within life before death." It is this sense of "death within life" that will pervade the central poems of "In Salvador" and lend to them their haunting, macabre quality, but it has more to do with than simply aesthetic tone. In this moment, Forché acknowledges and foregrounds difference at the same time that difference gives way and opens upon a larger network of political and economic exchange in which Forché, like Didion, is forced to recognize her own complicity. This dual stance—I am other and outside, but at the same time implicated—informs many of the best lines of "In Salvador" itself. It seems to reveal an interesting paradox which places Forché in the context, oddly enough perhaps, of high modernism: for her, the kind of fracturing and defamiliarizing of perception which is such a central strategy to the modernists takes on a distinctly political purpose and direction. To write about Salvador to an American audience, Forché discovers, requires one to self-consciously attend to the ideological and semiotic boundaries of one's own vision. It is in this context, too, that we may begin to see what Forché means when she describes her own poetic as a confrontation of "the impulse to witness" with the "prevailing poetic." Her own project is not to develop a political program in verse, but rather to take the American inheritance from Romanticism and modernism, which she sees as encouraging a "self-regarding, inward-looking poetry" and rewrite them in broadly political and ideological (in Althusser's sense) terms. Her project is to make a type of modernism once again historically aware of its own motivations and ideological biases. With this notion of Forché's poetics in mind, we may at last turn to some of the Salvadoran poems themselves, to follow through the implications of this confrontation of modernism and the political.
In "San Onofre, California," first of the eight Salvador poems, the poet stands poised on the southern border of the United States. She lingers at the boundary, not only of a political state, but of knowledge and experience, and can conceive of Salvador only in stereotypical tourist's images. That nation before her, further south, is known to her only as images of rural poverty—and the frightening possibility of "being disappeared."
We have come far south. Beyond here, the oldest women shelling limas into black shawls. Portillo scratching his name on the walls, the slender ribbons of piss, children patting the mud. If we go on, we might stop in the street in the very place where someone disappeared and the words Come with us! we might hear them.
The alternatives presented by the situation are not, however, as simple as they at first appear to be and the momentary acceptance of separation is not entirely motivated by selfish fear. The speaker also expresses a discretion that knows rushing south to be killed or kidnapped would stifle any hopes of extending what, from the point of view of the rest of the poems in the sequence, must be the only gesture that can help, an effort of the hands—like scratching your name into the wall. Her cultural isolation from the Central American destination of this sequence of poems is thus a knowing acceptance of distance and temporary inefficacy. The fact that is then confronted in the last lines, the knowledge that "the cries of those who vanish / might take years to get here," is not simply a signal of a refusal to accept the responsibility to act for those who have been disappeared. In a public reading, Forché has explained that this poem is in fact addressed to the people of San Onofre—some of whom were her students—and that she wanted it to make them feel their nearness to Salvador as well as their distance from it. These last lines undercut any simple geographical sense of the present, of the "here," by radically blurring the boundaries between the "here" and the "beyond here." While we are moving further south, the "birds and warmer weather / are forever moving north."
To explain what makes these last lines so haunting and successful, one needs to move to more literary and formal considerations: the poet's use of this inclusive, plural "we." When Forché writes "We feel / it is enough to listen" (rather than to act, to continue the movement southward) she does so in a voice which allows her to speak for two groups of people at once: those who know that, further south in Central America, people are vanishing every day, and those who have chosen not to accept such knowledge. She avoids a tone that would place her apart from the Californians addressed by and included in the "we," opening her voice and her poetry to the expressions of the American that she has always been and known. She speaks to the complacent residents of San Onofre, but at the same time she is able to speak for them. In the sense that we are all like the residents of San Onofre, it becomes us—the readers of the poem—who are incorporated into this poem's rationalizing logic. We become part of the poem's ambivalent collective voice; we are the ones who continue to listen placidly, knowing that as long as we may listen, the "cries of those who vanish" may never reach us. Not "here" anyway. If Salvador itself and the experience of oppression cannot be brought out of nothingness in a North American language, perhaps we can at least be made to feel our own role in the ongoing reproduction of that language. "San Onofre" is an effective political poem because it implicates us as readers in the production of a language for which El Salvador is little more than a distant little country "about the size of Massachusetts." We are no longer given a simple image or spatial representation of Salvador, as we are in the poem's opening lines, but are instead placed in the position of having to view our own inaction and complacency as itself part of an ongoing production of an imaginary relationship of spatial, not to mention ethical, distanciation.
Several of the poems following "San Onofre" engage or address the reader in a more direct, explicit fashion. In "The Island," the poet, who has been describing what happens "in Deya when the mist / rises out of the rocks," responds to what she imagines would be an American reader's natural question: "Deya? A cluster of the teeth / the bones of the world, greener / than Corsica. In English / you have no word for this. I can't / help you." "The Memory of Elena" implies the presence of an imaginary listener, to whom the poem's speaker exhibits various meaningful objects: "These are the flowers we bought / this morning." And perhaps most vividly, the prose poem "The Colonel" begins by invoking the presence of a listener: "What you have heard is true." Only the sequence's centerpiece poem, "The Visitor," is without a strong sense of implied dialogue or direct address. (It takes place in la oscura, the dark recesses of a Salvadoran prison, where the intolerable isolation makes all dialogue impossible.) Unlike the discourses of journalism or formalized politics, these poems do not assume a fixed or stable speaker-listener, self-other relationship. The reader is repeatedly made to feel that his or her reading of the poem is inseparable from the poem's very production and existence. In this sense, Forché's poetry may be seen as working against the ongoing commodification of poetry and of literary discourse in general, by its reinsertion of the reader at the center of textual production—as opposed to an address to an absent or distant consumer.
Here we may begin to see how Forché's poetry is ideological in Althusser's sense of ideology as an imaginary resolution of real contradictions. In contemporary America, such a gap exists between the bourgeois consumer of books of poetry (meaning all of us) and the implied reader or listener of poems like "San Onofre" that the former has become completely unrecognizable to the latter. Contemporary poetry has never known an environment in which the oral presentation of poems was not made a superfluous gesture by the production and distribution of books of poems, never known the reading (aloud) of a poem to be anything but a performance or spectacle. A poem like "San Onofre" or "The Island" may thus be perceived as an ideological and symbolic gesture whose purpose is to destabilize the poet-audience relationship and place the listener again—at least in the imaginary—at the center of poetic production. With this observation, we have begun to historicize Forché's poems, begun to see the objective contradictions in our own culture which make her poems possible, and necessary. By making available to us these fundamental structural contradictions of our own moment, I would argue, Forché's poetry is political in Enzensberger's second, more flexible sense.
In "Return," the sixth poem of "In Salvador," the questions that have lurked behind the poet's self-consciousness about her own political role become an explicit theme. The poem is a dialogue in verse between the speaker and her friend and critic Josephine Crum, to whom the poem is dedicated, and in it the poet's doubts about her ability to communicate her experiences of immersion come to be fully expressed: "When I speak with American men / there is some absence of recognition…. I cannot, Josephine, talk to them." For this frustrated poet, the American attaché to Salvador is the perfect emblem of the audience she feels incapable of reaching: while his wife writes his reports and flies her plane around the country, he drinks, clicks his pen, and stares into his fish tanks, all the while surrounded by Marines in white gloves. But Josephine is a strenuous critic, and she is quick to point out that the poet's feelings of powerlessness are in themselves a retreat into self-pity and self-indulgence: "It is / not your right to feel powerless." In response to the poet's desires to retreat into a traditionally modernist stance of isolated repose and distance, the character of Josephine in this poetic drama urges the poet to assume a more collective role, to blend journalism and reportage with the "traditional" poetic mode, and thereby to reach her intended audience through a subversive infiltration of their own media discourse. Responding in her most powerful lines to the poet's sense that "I cannot keep going," Josephine challenges:
Your problem is not your life as it is in America, not that your hands, as you tell me, are tied to do something. It is that you were born to an island of greed and grace where you have this sense of yourself as apart from others. It is not your right to feel powerless.
As a suggestion toward a possible source of rhetorical power and persuasiveness, Josephine challenges the poet to "give them what they want: Tell them about the razor, the live wire … tell them about retaliation." While this encouragement to adopt the strategies of sensationalism is, in the long run, not an effective characterization of Forché's poetics, it does point to the fact that torture reports, the tales of prisons told by their few survivors, and photographs of mutilated death squad victims' corpses have, since the early 1980s, become available and known by the potential readers of Forché's poems. In fact, such narratives and images have in some sense already been incorporated into the North American sociolect. Besides the popularity of books like Didion's Salvador here in the U.S., the popular media culture has as well begun to display its own images of Salvador. A Rolling Stones video, "Under Cover of the Night," for example, includes one scene in which a young woman searches through one of Salvador's infamous photo albums of the dead, hunting in desperation for clues about a brother, or a lover; in another scene, the character played by Mick Jagger witnesses a death squad style execution being carried out on a deserted bridge. A related confrontation with Latin American brutality is presented in the opening sequence of a September, 1985 season premiere episode of NBC's Miami Vice: Crockett and Tubbs, the protagonists, newly arrived in Bogata on a cocaine investigation, witness the torture and machine-gun murder of a drug trafficker. "Welcome to the Third World"—the Colombian agent tells them.
But there are clearly differences between these media representations of the Latin American Third World and Forché's imagings of Salvador. Crockett and Tubbs, for instance, never experience the sense of dislocation that characterizes Forché, Sontag and Didion as they are welcomed to the Third World—the drug agent's welcome is in fact a reassurance to the Miami pair that their position, at least, is secure, elsewhere. The shock their facial expressions is supposed to register in fact reconfirms their complacent superiority as Americans—they don't, as Didion does, find the need to complicate their own role in the murder. Theirs is a stable position from which to judge the Colombians, without any hint of their own implication. And the Rolling Stones video, because its narrative is controlled or recontained by the musical soundtrack, also reduces murder to a spectacle—a hollow image which assures a viewer of his own distance from the murder. (But there is one difference between these two media representations: the film technique employed in the Stones video gives the impression that the filmed murder is "real"—one is caught for a moment in a disconcerting voyeuristic position.) Raymond Williams, in his important discussion of dominant, residual, and emergent cultural forms [in his 1977 Marxism and Literature] describes the power of dominant cultural forms to incorporate potentially alternative or oppositional forms by rewriting them in its own terms. A project like Forché's, which wishes to produce a genuinely oppositional alternative to media and officially "political" representations of Salvador, is always susceptible to being rewritten in the terms of the dominant cultural mode. The production of oppositional forms is "usually made much more difficult," writes Williams, "by the fact that much incorporation looks like recognition, acknowledgment, and thus a form of acceptance." The television industry in the States repeatedly congratulates itself on its ability to "raise viewer consciousness" by "covering" such stories as the Ethiopian famine, or the murder of Jose Rudolfo Viera, but it is actually its frightening ability to incorporate into its own language a whole range of world events and practices—without considering its own role in their production—of which it speaks in such self-congratulatory moments. And television's own cultural dominant is, of course, the commodity, the conversion of history into a domestic spectacle.
Where television wishes to say that it "acknowledges" or "confronts" such problems as Salvadoran agrarian inequity, Williams, and, indirectly, Forché, would argue that it has instead effected its ownstyle of colonization: the representation of world as spectacle. This commodification of such images operates to effect its own kind of censorship—a censorship which it then becomes Forché's purpose to dismantle or deconstruct. Commodification, because it reinscribes these images of brutality within the familiar North American domestic context—the cop show, the music video, the evening newscast—erases all traces of those images' histories and transforms them into symbolic representations without any material referent. Cut off from their now repressed histories, these commodified images float freely among all the other "floating signifiers" produced by the technological media. In such a form, they pose no disconcerting threat to the American viewer—they are as easily absorbed as new brand names into the popular social repository.In this context, a different strategy by which to politicize the dominant poetic comes into view. Forché's political task as a poet becomes one of reinterpreting these ungrounded images by restoring to them their repressed, obliviated histories. To politicize the modernist, or postmodernist, poetic lexicon, then, is not simply to introduce images of brutality and violence which will shock readers out of their complacency (television's self-proclaimed purpose); it becomes the far more difficult task of making the material traces visible again on the surface of an already commodified, Americanized El Salvador.
Where media discourse represents Salvador, "pictures" it in a way that liquidates any historical traces and relegates present images to a securely bounded, formalized, and easily forgotten past, Forché's poetry makes a historical past once again available in the present. While most of the poems in the Salvador sequence effect this kind of a recuperation, "The Memory of Elena" most distinctively takes this movement as its formal principle. At the heart of "The Memory of Elena" is a macabre transformation not unlike a version of the Thyestean feast. Sitting over her lunch, the poet realizes in terror, "This is not paella, this is what / has become of those who remained / in Buenos Aires. This is the ring / of a rifle report on the stones." The pleasant surfaces of a cafe luncheon open onto a more terrifying memory:
In Buenos Aires only three years ago, it was the last time his hand slipped into her dress, with pearls cooling her throat and bells like these, chipping at the night—
In "The Memory of Elena" the silence evoked by a description of the sounds which intrude upon it is transformed from a potentially calm and regenerative leisure into a historicized terror—the memory of a husband's murder.
These are the flowers we bought this morning, the dahlias tossed on his grave and bells waiting with their tongues cut out for this particular silence.
In this poem, "this particular silence," this empty, quiet moment in the present, undergoes a transformation from an inert, quotidian presence and becomes the emblem of a distinct past. Onto the moment of silence between the bells is superimposed the rifle report that sounded the death of Elena's husband; the silence of the present is made to contain a three years' absence. A present and a past are seen to coexist at the very moment that the poem itself begins to dissolve into silence.
The historicizing movement of "The Memory of Elena" may be more fully illuminated through a consideration of the notion of history developed by a writer whose vision of the past intersects with Forché's at many points: the German critic whose work is a dazzlingly contradictory combination of Marxism and apocalyptic gnosticism—Walter Benjamin. In his "Theses on the Philosophy of History," a text whose fragmentary, runic style has itself become an emblem of the struggle against fascism, Benjamin offers glimpses of a conception of history which sees revolution not as a struggle to liberate the future, but as a fight to redeem the past. Benjamin's Messianic version of historical materialism arises as a critique of bourgeois "universal history," or progressivism—that empirical notion of historical development which seeks to establish causal connections between successive moments, and which looks forward into a future of homogeneous, empty time. In contrast to this notion of history which "assigns to the working class the role of the redeemer of future generations," Benjamin turns his back on the future and warns: "Even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins" [Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt, 1968].
To articulate the past historically, for Benjamin, "means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger." Radical history does not involve simply rewriting the past "the way it really was." It becomes a struggle to make available to the present images of the past which will allow "the sign of a Messianic cessation or happening … a revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past." As I have been reading Forché here, her project seems to be just such an attempt to make these signs available to us, her North American audience. A poem like "The Memory of Elena" singles out and redeems a single moment of the past, makes that moment again "citable," to use Benjamin's phrase, in the very moment of the poem's reading. "Every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably," writes Benjamin. In that moment of horror in which an everyday bowl of soup becomes the fingers and leg sockets of the murdered, a new relationship of present to past is established, the traces of a violent history are restored to the objects of a seemingly inert present. Forché does not allow the images of Elena's memory to disappear; she reinscribes them in our own present.
The culture of contemporary America is dominated by a discourse of forgetfulness which liquidates our history, transforming our past into a commodified image—palatable, certainly, because it no longer bears the marks of the violence and aggression that have produced our nation, our world. With our gaze turned forever forward, our faith placed in a technological progress which offers the empty hope of a utopian future, we willfully erase all records of our own history. A scant ten years later, the Vietnam war appears to have been made all but totally irretrievable; the more recent events in Salvador, the murders of Monsignor Oscar Romero, Jose Rudolfo Viera, and the thousands of other Salvadoran workers and campesinos have been recorded by the media and the press as if they were spectacles intended for our own momentary edification. Carolyn Forché's journey of cultural immersion in her Salvador sequence tries to combat this willful forgetfulness by politicizing our vision, making visible to us the all too immaterial traces on our own present world of America's ongoing colonization of Central America…. Three lines from "Ourselves or Nothing," the closing poem of The Country Between Us, summarize what I take to be her redemptive project: "Go after that which is lost / and all the mass graves of the century's dead / will open into your early waking hours."
A single image from Benjamin's "Theses," with which this essay will end, gives us a way to imagine what a transcendent perspective on our own history might be like, were such a vision ever to be available to Benjamin, to Forché, or to ourselves. In it is pictured a fully redeemed vision of the past—glimpses of which it is Forché's purpose to evoke in poems like "The Memory of Elena." Benjamin's "angel of history," itself taken from Paul Klee's painting Angelus Novus, compresses all of our own irretrievable past into a single instant and image:
His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread … His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
Michael Greer, "Politicizing the Modern: Carolyn Forché in El Salvador and America," in The Centennial Review, Vol. XXX, No. 2, Spring, 1986, pp. 160-80.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1681
[Taft-Kaufman is an educator. In the following interview, Forché discusses her aims as a poet, her works-in-progress, and her experiences as a public speaker and political activist.]
[Taft-Kaufman]: Carolyn, you described your original experience in El Salvador as having created a "focused obsession" for you. Can you speak a little bit about that?
[Forché]: Well, I've discussed elsewhere at great length the conditions under which I went to El Salvador and what happened to me there. But to address the concern about the singular focus that emerged from that experience, I think it was highly personal for me, my response to the sense of obligation that I felt toward people that I had left behind there, people who had educated me and who were in very grave danger themselves. And because of the intricate complicity of my own government in those conditions, I felt a moral obligation to respond when I returned home. And I feel that there was a period in which I believed that American public opinion influenced foreign policy decision making. And as long as I believed that there was a direct relationship between American public opinion and foreign policy decision making, I continued to believe in the validity of speaking in this country of conditions in El Salvador. So I spoke for five years in universities, and churches, and synagogues, and Kiwanis Clubs, and community centers. And finally I realized … it was a slow realization … that I had said what I could say, that I had done what I could do, and I was very tired. I reached a point where I was unable to resuscitate myself, and this coincided with the period at which I met my husband again. We had met in El Salvador earlier in a refugee camp, but we met in New York when we collaborated on photographs and text for a book, El Salvador: work of thirty photographers, which was a collection of photographic work of 30 journalists from Europe, Latin America, and North America, and I was engaged to do the text for the work and became very interested in the relationship between text and photographs. I believed that poetry was the wrong form for the text, and I also came to realize that discursive prose was also wrong. I was not interested in writing an extended caption for the works nor did I want the photographic work to merely illustrate what the text was talking about, so I developed for my own use a form which I felt contributed something to the work without weakening the photographic intelligence of the work. Well, not weakening, but detracting from it. It was a series of prose vignettes in various voices. Those voices were actually retrieved from memory but transformed literarily. In other words, the text was going to be written and not spoken; and so, of course, as written language differs from spoken language, it was not going to be an attempt to imitate speech. But I wanted to create a kind of symphony of voices that in juxtaposition would somehow approach for me the complexity of the situation in El Salvador at that time. Various of them were arranged sequentially within the work, with photographs appearing between these different pieces. And I did that. And I understand that the kind of work that I do as a poet, as a writer, requires a measure of tranquillity and solitude or the work simply is not done. And living on the road such as I did and speaking in public participates in another kind of life entirely, what's been called the life of applause. And I wasn't interested in public performance at that time. I began to also understand something of the nature of the function of my speaking in public. It was an unfortunate disempowerment that would occur. I would be before the audience speaking as a voice of some authority on the region, and the members of the audience would listen to this, and I watched the process by which they would internalize a kind of … they would internalize a feeling of general despair of sorts, an idea that there was nothing that they themselves could do. And the distance between myself and the audience and my experience of their experience maintained this, and I began to see it as a disempowering activity that I didn't want to participate in any longer. I also did not want to participate in creating the illusion that if one, say, goes to an auditorium on a Thursday evening and hears someone speak about conditions in one country or another, and then has wine and cheese afterward with the person who is speaking and goes home to the life and the life does not change at all, that there is a kind of illusion-that one has done their part. And I began to question the value of informing people, or educating them, when the experience was a kind of commodification of that … that the education began to be something that certain people wanted to acquire. For example, I was lecturing at a preparatory school in the East, a very good preparatory school, and this school had recruited black South African students to come and had gone to some effort to bring them to the school and to provide them with a tuition-free American education of the highest quality. One of these black South African students, in particular, had been, over the Christmas break, detained and tortured. Because of the intervention of the school, he was subsequently released and permitted to return to school. The privileged students who gathered around him when they came to hear me … we were having a little coffee or something with the students then … one of the teachers mentioned to me, introducing me to the student, that he had been detained and this and that had happened, and the white students turned to him and then said, "Oh, tell us what happened to you. We want to know everything that happened to you." The black student became very shy and very afraid and ashamed, in a way, to be singled out, and didn't want to talk. And one of the white students said, "It's important for us to know." And I thought within myself, why? for what? So that this can be part of your educational experience, as much as the privilege of your very high quality education, as much as lacrosse is? In other words, that this boy's experience was viewed by the other students in a very innocent way as material for them to absorb and possess. Information that they would then have. It was a crisis for me to observe this … an internal crisis … and I began to enter a period of withdrawal, not in a sense from my own commitments, but a withdrawal into a more secluded time. I married; I became pregnant; I worked abroad. But I was very interested in entering fully into literary work again, and I had experienced a fragmentation within myself that had to do with what I believed about the authority of voice. I began reading some critical theory…. And I became interested in European deconstructivists. I was particularly interested in their work on holocaust testimony. That interest was life-long for me, but was heightened by my twelve year friendship with Terrence Des Pres who died a year ago. He had written a book called The Survivor, Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps. And I found myself meditating on the holocaust and reading on the holocaust a great deal. I was profoundly influenced by Claude Lanzmann's work on Shoah. Yet when I approached the page, I found that the form that I had been writing in, which, for want of something better, I can call first-person lyric free verse narrative, was not sufficient to what I wanted to do on the page. And I had experienced something that was rather more fragmentary and something that, in a sense, was engaged constantly in an attempt to expose its own artifice and to interrogate itself. And so began the work on The Angel of History. And I've been working now for two years. The work is profoundly exhilarating. I'm trying to make a form which would push my work further, breaking open the forms I had been writing on before. So this work is visually very different on the page. And I've read it a few times at readings…. I've performed it a few times, and I find that its effect on the audience is also very different.
Can you be more specific about the visuals and the effect?
The work is in long lines, but not even lines. The breaks or pauses are between sections of it; the breaks and pauses are horizontal; the lines are not broken. This poetry establishes a rhythmic pattern, highly varied or otherwise or not, but these lines go all the way to the margin, and certain thoughts are completed and certain are not. There are intruding voices and interrupting voices and interrogating voices, and the work seems to float on the page. It's nonlinear.
No one authoritative voice, in other words.
Right. No one authoritative voice.
… that guides the reader.
No beginning, middle, and end.
It's very experimental. No closure. It began in me with a break with this idea of resolution, of closure. And I didn't know where it was going and I didn't know what it was becoming, but eventually it seemed to me that it had something to do with the 20th century and I was very influenced by Walter Benjamin, so the work begins with a Walter Benjamin quote from Illuminations. And that is the work from which the title derives, The Angel of History. So it's an exploration for me and an extension of concerns that I've probably had for a long time. I think the break, the silence…. I had written many, many notebooks during this silence, but I didn't want to publish poetry, and I didn't publish poetry. I haven't published a book since 1981.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3162
Right. So, it's now eight years. I've many, many notebooks, but what I see when I examine the notebooks now are phases of development toward the work I'm doing at present. I see it in embryonic stages early on, and I begin to see what I thought were simply notes, because they didn't resemble my earlier work, were, actually in early form, the work that I have now begun to do … the new work, in other words. I didn't recognize it at first. I thought it was failed old work.
So, you see it now as the culmination of an implicit building process, that you were not aware was actually happening. Can you describe how your 1981 work, which was, as a lot of people would say, political … although I think that's an artificial distinction … and I know certainly you feel that all work is political…. Can you see a through line between what you're doing now and what you were doing then? Can you articulate that through line?
Well, you see, the way that I composed my work has changed. I still recognize and accept that work as my own, and the person who composed that work is me in another form in an earlier version of myself. But even though with The Country Between Us I had been radically transformed in writing that work, the form that the work took was very conventional. There was nothing particularly transformative or evolutionary about it.
Despite the fact that there was"The Colonel"and….
But that's a prose poem, and it engages the imagination in a certain way. There's a single voice, and it really is not very interesting. It doesn't do anything. I began to feel that there was a certain kind of poem that I was writing, that my contemporaries were writing, and we were doing it well and less well; some of us were very good at it; some would grow fatigued and write this particular poem less well. And something that was probably very obvious to most people but wasn't obvious to me was that I began to notice that we were doing the same thing all the time. Well,… in other words … you know those little craft shops where you can learn to make figurines out of clay and paint them?…
Well, you get these little molds where you pour the plaster in and you peel the plaster off. And women learn that you paint the eyes a certain blue, you paint them sort of like paint-by-number figurines. And I didn't see much difference between that and what we were doing as poets. In other words, you could do that thing and you might do it very well but it still was that and you're not … there's no correspondence between the consciousness and the language. There's no pushing further; there's no exploration; there's no risk; there's no altering of possibilities; there's no extension. There's always a limit, but there's no extending of the limit. And so I began to realize that I didn't want to write that poem, necessarily. I didn't want to necessarily abandon it forever, but I wanted to see what else might happen.
And you've said that you've had different effects on your audience by performing pieces from this new work.
Well, the new work is very strange for the audience. The audience has to enter a different kind of receptivity for it. In other words, the poems that I used to write, and that many people write, are first person free verse narrative. One knows what to expect. There is a voice. There is a momentum of building of the voice. There is often an epiphany. There is usually a turn. There is a resolution. It is maybe sixteen lines or thirty-two lines or even one hundred lines, but basically the audience is led to the resolution.
And however startling or fresh the imagery, however compelling the resolution, the audience will like or not like the outcome. In other words, you can recognize a poem on the page at quite some distance, if every poem has the same presence on the page, the same arrangement, the same form. And in performing well … in reading the new work … the audience doesn't have the security of knowing how the poem is going to proceed. The audience has to become suspended because the voices intrude on one another, interrupt each other … the audience has to be prepared to make these leaps of interruptions continually … that will loop back. And they begin to get a kind of texture for what is going on … a feeling of the texture of the work, without the usual footholds … without the usual stepping stones.
… guidelines …
So my experience is that for a lot of people … at least they tell me … that they feel "suspended," or they feel like they just floated through something. The work corresponds to my own experience of consciousness at this time, and I have to trust it. It seems to have its own life, and it seems to have its own imperatives, and so I'm just following it.
What kinds of performance choices has it demanded, because I would imagine that you cannot perform it the same way you could perform a conventional poem.
No. In performing the conventional poem, I always felt that one should read expressively and should project and one should at best memorize the poem so that it could be delivered without burying the face in the book. And often readings are helped by the poet telling little anecdotes or stories between the poems, sometimes having to do with the poems. And so much did this become the case that many poets would simply explain each poem before they read it, and then go on to the next one. I still, for certain audiences, such as I will have tonight, do a certain amount of that in the beginning because they are unfamiliar with some of that work, and they do want to hear it, so I will do it. With the new work, I discovered that the less I say the better. The work has to stand on its own. Sometimes I warn the audience that it will not be what they have been accustomed to hearing, and that they will have to be prepared to become lost. And I sometimes say more than that, I elaborate a little, but I found that it's best that it be done without the scaffolding of these comments. And a certain amount of it, I suppose, resembles play rather than poem. So I attempt to provide a slight alteration for the voices so that they're separated for the ear, and without engaging in very much dramatization. And the voices are figures; they're not characters; they don't develop as characters, so I don't establish a character for them in the performance. I simply pause between them and allow certain tonalities to change so that they are distinct.
What is your goal for an audience, with these performances? What would you most like an audience to come away feeling and thinking? Do you want the pieces to be … such as it is sometimes called with post-modern drama … interrogative pieces? Can you talk a little bit about that?
I don't have an objective with regard to how the work is consumed. I don't believe that that is ever in the artist's control anyway. I suppose that at best, I mean it has been a very happy situation for me when people have described how the work has affected them … that they were able within a certain duration to experience another consciousness or another way of being conscious. I'm not sure what happens in an audience when they hear the book. But I don't think I could be aware of that. I know the work too well to be affected the way that people who don't know it would be. So, I can't duplicate it. I can only say that either a shock of recognition that this is how the mind feels at play with the relations between things—this is how the mind receives a speech … that would please me … or someone to say that they find it very fine and strange and not at all resembling something that they would have expected or anticipated. I suppose either response is a happy one for me. But I'm not writing for a particular purpose.
Would you say that you were writing for a purpose before with your poems?
No. I would say that I was completely unaware of that issue. I think I was writing a certain way because it was how I had apprehended poetry. In other words, I grew up in a certain period, and I received a certain education, which included a Master of Fine Arts in poetry, and the particular aesthetic concerns of that institutionalized education became my own, unquestioned. I never thought about moving beyond certain conventions that I had learned. I think that I, during a period of time in my twenties, accepted on faith this idea that my work was to find my voice, and that this voice was somehow within me, that it needed only to mature, that I had to locate it, as if it was lost. And then that I had to perfect it. And then I would speak with it. And I began to see a certain artificiality in that construct, and also it seemed to me to be … there was a falseness to the representation of self. The voice was actually a fictional utterance. Memory was relied upon heavily in this aesthetic, without the realization that memory is fictional. There was very little understanding of what was excluded by this voice. And developing this voice in the unquestioning way that I did, what seemingly distinguished one poet from another had largely to do with either sensibility or subject matter. And slowly I came to realize that poems were not about; they simply were. I began to try other prepositions. Poems were amid, or around, or near, or beyond certain subjects. And I began to understand that language would perhaps have an apparent or initiating subject but that poems were generally "about" something else altogether. And one of the things that began to bother me was this mention of sincerity,… you know, that poems would be judged as good or less good depending on the degree to which this artificial, fictional constructional voice seemed sincere, whatever that means. And the dangers in this particular form were dangers of sentimentality, of memory becoming falsified into nostalgia. And, of course, if the material for one's art was to be one's life, well … I felt that I could not continue to … I did not want to appropriate experience. I was reading George Bataille's Inner Experience, and realizing, of course, that all project[s were] an invasion of inner experience, and I didn't want any longer to have to live in such a way as to produce in material … to experience so as to return to the experience in the work and I believed elitist, too, that one should not endure the experience once in life and a second time in art. In other words, this form that I had been writing on heavily depended on things that were no longer reliable for me. So, I began to see,… well I suppose other people see this very easily and very early in their lives, but I didn't … the idea of what art can do, and that I did not want any longer to make clay figures, even very good ones. I wanted to break the figures. I wanted to go out into territory that was unfamiliar to me. I wanted something that seemed more … that seemed to correspond … not to represent consciousness…. But I was after equivalencies; I was after explorations of language, interrogations of language, understanding, of course, that there will always be limitations. But I wanted to produce something that would move, for me, move me forward out of that reliance upon voice and representation of self in that way. It's hard because I haven't really formulated these ideas, I haven't discussed them.
Would you say that your work in some ways … I don't want to say "resembles" since we're trying to get away from resemblances … but has echoes of the kinds of work of people like … and these are not poets … like Coover and Barthelme and some of the fiction writers who are people experimenting with forms….
Right, meta-fiction writers….
Well, you go to … French modernists and you find fictional attempts to work narrative in other ways. I'm very interested in them. I've returned personally to Gertrude Stein and to Joyce, and a whole seventy-year conversation in poetic form that has occurred through certain experimental artists, through American surrealists and through objectivists, and I'm very interested in that evolution. I'm now doing a load of reading of that kind. Mostly, I'm also reading the philosophy of Geary, but not because of the work that I'm doing, but because of my own interests and curiosities. I'm not sure how much influence there is there, but you see, I think it came to be a crisis for me, the crisis for this voice, that I realized that if I could write something I could just as well write its opposite. I didn't want to falsify by use of this voice, by development of this voice and how this voice would exclude any other possibility. And I also became very suspect, well … you know … the role of being a North American witness in a Latin American situation. I was uneasy with my job, my role that Monsignor Romero had wanted me to do, which was … they more or less said, look, an American audience will listen to a North American poet. You resemble them. If we send a Salvadoran, no one will come. And it's true, to a degree, at least it was true then, that it was much easier for me to speak. So much so was this the case, that when I was at the Human Rights Congress in Toronto in 1981, the Amnesty International meeting, I was made chairman of the Latin America and the Caribbean by the writers from the Latin America and the Caribbean because they wanted a North American spokesperson. They believed that they would be listened to, that their concerns would receive more attention, if they were voiced by a North American. I argued with them, and they said, "This is our choice. We have elected you. We have come to this decision by consensus and we would like you to respect it." So I did, but it was very difficult. And I can't tell you, I mean there is a constellation of moving forces, of entities that have influenced this move, this decision that has evolved over a long period of time.
Does the role of metaphor change when you make such a big leap into a different area?
Metaphor for me changes in extremity. For example, I'm now interested in the idea of historical markers, of certain images, of signed languages that are … that signify whether or not there is an interpreter. In other words, for example, a bullet hole in a piece of cloth remains a marker of a bullet regardless of whether the apprehender knows that a bullet passed through the cloth. In other words, its nature as a sign of the bullet does not change just because the apprehender does not realize.
I think that the nature of metaphor became problematic with the historical rupture of the holocaust, because, for example, you see, the ashes of the chimneys of the extermination camps are not figurative, and they can never be. And in a certain constellation of images having to do with rail lines, ashes, chimneys, crematoria, you are not other than in the holocaust, and they have become historical markers. Now, with an historical marker what happens is that I began to perceive things in a kind of web of indeterminacy. In other words, for example, I read "The Colonel" poem, and these severed ears …
"The Colonel"poem which comes from your experience in El Salvador …
Right. I'm using this as an example. I read it and the severed ears, even though there is a little attempt with having the ears actually still be able to hear things, to engage them as figurative, they resist the figurative because they are actual. Now what happens when people hear the poem, if they are affected by it in a way that they enter into and accept this occurrence, they are then responsible for that information; they become witnesses as well; they are marked by the poem. If someone wants to resist the poem and question its authenticity, etc., there is an exertion of resistance, of anger, of whatever, they are also marked by their avoidance of it.
So people become historical markers as well.
Yes. And witnesses create other witnesses, and it's infinite.
And this involves what you've said in the past about the need for a poet, in the twentieth century, to be a poet of witness.
Yes. We are responsible for everything we hear and everything we see, and we in turn can make others responsible, as well. Let me give you another example. A friend of mine is working closely on some scholarship with a man whose parents survived Auschwitz. In Auschwitz it became very important for them to be punctual, to obey orders absolutely promptly. Part of the constellation of reasons why they might have survived had to do with their fear of today. They had to act always in a very quick fashion. As a result, they gave birth to a son, and in the United States, the son rebelled against this severe preoccupation and obsession with punctuality, and he became always a person who procrastinates and delays. Tony has a hard time getting his work done with this person because the person makes a religion of procrastination. When Tony understood where this tendency came from, Tony realized that the parents had been marked by the Nazis in this regard. They had, in turn marked their son, by his aversion to this punctuality. Now Tony is marked by Auschwitz because of the difficulty in their collaboration. So you see, it's an infinite kind of thing. That's one example that's experiential and not literary. But I began to see … for example, people ask me "Does poetry have any effect, politically or otherwise?" Everything has an effect. Everything goes out into this web. It's like a humming web of interrelations, and it would be arrogant of us to try to suppose that we could track its activity through the web, but it will have an activity in the web, as everything does….
Carolyn Forché and Jill Taft-Kaufman, in an interview in Text & Performance Quarterly, Vol. 10, No. 1, January, 1990, pp. 61-70.