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Carolyn Forché The Angel of History

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Award: Los Angeles Times Book Award for Poetry

(Full name Carolyn Louise Forché) Born in 1950, Forché is an American poet, journalist, editor, and translator.

For further information on Forché's life and works, see CLC, Volumes 25 and 83.

The Angel of History (1994) focuses on various atrocities of the twentieth century, including the Holocaust, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and the occupation of Paris by the Nazis. Divided into five sections, the volume employs a fragmented structure and is told in part by the Angel of History, a being which can record humanity's miseries but is unable to prevent them or the pain and suffering associated with them. Stressing the importance of remembrance and chance, Forché frequently assumes a multitude of voices as she relates her speakers' observations, fears, and haunted memories. In one poem, for example, she focuses on a group of Jewish children who, hiding from Nazis during World War II, are eventually discovered and marched to Auschwitz; in another poem, "The Garden Shukkei-en," a Japanese woman comments that she dislikes the color of a beautiful flower since it reminds her of "a woman's brain crushed under a roof"—a sight she witnessed during the atomic attack on Hiroshima. The latter poem, however, like other pieces in the collection, ends on a note of resigned hope. The speaker asserts: "We have not, after all these years, felt what you call happiness. / But at times, with good fortune, we experience something close. / As our life resembles life, and this garden the garden. / And in the silence surrounding what happened to us / / it is the bell to awaken God that we've heard ringing." The Angel of History also contains numerous allusions to quotes by French poet Paul Valéry, Austrian writer Georg Trakl, and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. Noting Forché's desire to remember past events on personal and social levels—rather than as political abstractions, facts, or statistics—Susan Salter Reynolds observed: "[Forché] is not puzzling, not trying, first and foremost to figure out what to do with her own experience. She is, instead, speaking in the voices of the people whose stories are remembered. It is as though, beyond bearing witness and providing conscience, she has incorporated the history of others into her own genealogy."

Principal Works

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Gathering the Tribes (poetry) 1976
The Country between Us (poetry) 1982
Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness [editor] (poetry) 1993
The Angel of History (poetry) 1994

Publishers Weekly (review date 31 January 1994)

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SOURCE: A review of The Angel of History, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 241, No. 5, January 31, 1994, pp. 77-8.

[Here, the critic offers a favorable review of The Angel of History.]

Though Forché's (The Country Between Us) previous books have been groundbreaking works of political and moral depth, this new volume may be the most remarkable. Ambitious and authentic, The Angel of History is an overarching book-length poem, composed in numbered sections, that invokes the horror of contemporary times in a mode reminiscent of Eliot's The Waste Land. Much as Eliot's poem refracted WW I, the vacuity of culture and the fragmentation of modern life, Forché considers the Holocaust, Hiroshima and genocide in Latin America—the dismal past that predicates the chaotic present. Her vehicle is the Angel of History, who confronts human cruelty and misery but can do no more than record them, as explained by Walter Benjamin in an epigraph: "The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But … the storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward." Though the poetry is powerful, it is not always easily understandable; one must follow the Angel through serpentine lines, a disjointed and oblique nightmare whispered by an indeterminate narrator, and a splintered pastiche that borrows apocalyptic phrases from Elie Wiesel, Kafka, Canetti, Trakl, Char and Valery. But the journey ventured is well worth the occasional wrong turn: Forché has not only created poetry of consummate beauty, but has borne witness to the wounds of our collective history, fulfilling the conviction that "surely all art is the result of one's having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end."

Kevin Walker (review date 22 May 1994)

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SOURCE: "Inspired by War," in Detroit Free Press, Section G, May 22, 1994, p. 8.

[In the following review, Walker favorably assesses The Angel of History, briefly comparing it to The Country between Us and noting Forché's focus on World War II, survival, and remembrance.]

Carolyn Forche's second book, The Country Between Us, became one of the most talked-about books of poetry of the 1980s. The heart of it is a group of poems about the war in El Salvador. Forche wrote with haunting precision about the cruelty of that war and the questions of conscience it should have raised for all Americans.

In The Angel of History, Forche again bears witness to the shattering of lives. But her technique has evolved magnificently. In her 1981 work, she transformed suffering into the musical, unifying shape of the lyric poem. In The Angel of History, she has done something more challenging.

This book-length poem is as fragmented as a bombed-out house or a shattered mirror. But each puzzling fragment is exquisite, and the whole possesses a unity that defies easy understanding.

The Angel of History is a meditation on destruction, survival and memory. What the characters who float in and out of it like ghosts have in common is that their lives have been shaped irrevocably by the events of the World War II. Forche gives voice to survivors whose loved ones are all dead; to child victims who left behind only their names; to the countless human beings who were killed or ruined by events beyond their control and beyond their comprehension.

Like most of Forche's subject matter, this is grim territory. But The Angel of History is not a harrowing book, so much as an inspiring one. Forche has found a way of examining the unbearable that neither diminishes the terror nor drives the reader away.

The key to her success is the poem's unique blend of lucidity and elusiveness. Unwinding as it does in fragments of stories, wisps of personality, snapshots of landscapes, the poem resists the reader's desire to get a grip on it. It slips by like time itself. Left behind is the memory of wreckage, miraculously intertwined with the memory of beauty.

In one passage, a survivor of Hiroshima stands in a restored ornamental garden in that city, considering her life and that of fellow survivors:

       We have not, all these years, felt what you call happiness,
       But at times, with good fortune, we experience something close,
       As our life resembles life, and this garden the garden.
       And in the silence surrounding what happened to us
       it is the bell to awaken God that we've heard ringing.

This entire book is as bright, as serene, and as tender as those lines. The Angel of History achieves what Forche hopes for when she writes,

       And so we revolt against silence with a bit of speaking.
       The page is a charred field where the dead would have written
       We went on.

Sue Russell (review date July 1994)

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SOURCE: "The Workings of Chance and Memory," in The Women's Review of Books, Vol. XI, Nos. 10-11, July, 1994, p. 31.

[In the following favorable review, Russell examines the themes and structure of The Angel of History.]

With her latest collection, The Angel of History, Carolyn Forché proves once again that socially conscious poetry is not a contradiction in terms. When her first collection, Gathering the Tribes, won the coveted Yale Younger Poets prize in 1976, she was praised by Stanley Kunitz for the quality of her imagination, "at once passionate and tribal." Kunitz seems to be referring to Forché's empathic gift to see her way into other lives. Although these early poems document a connection to her own Slovak ancestry, they demonstrate as well a concern that moves beyond the boundaries of a particular family or cultural heritage toward a more global frame of reference. This global view is most clearly evident in The Angel of History, which takes as its subject nothing less than the devastations of war on every front in the latter part of the twentieth century.

It is illuminating to look back at the sources both within and outside her work which led Forché to this ambitious undertaking. With her second book, The Country Between Us, published in 1981, Forché's nascent political awareness was actualized by her experience with Amnesty International in El Salvador. Here she showed herself to be both poet and ethnographer, a participant observer whose reports from the field had the ring of truth. I bought the book at a B. Dalton store when it was in its third printing, which should say enough about its unique popularity among poetry collections. It was the rare occasion when a book that deserved to be read actually found its rightful audience.

In "The Colonel," a prose poem from this earlier volume, the speaker conveys in simple, flat sentences an unforgettable story:

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 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 …

The form of the poem will not allow for the shaping effect normally wrought by line breaks in free verse. By inference, such refinements would not be appropriate for the bald facts presented here. The prose poem can be seen as an appropriate vehicle for the poetry of witness. It enhances the implicit message: I have been there, I have seen these terrible things and now I must report them accurately. The tension between surface objectivity and underlying emotion comes to a head at the end of the poem, which breaks into another realm:

He swept the ears to the floor with his arm and held 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.

In The Angel of History, that other realm is fully realized. Each of the book's five parts begins in medias res either within a historical moment or in the midst of a meditation on the nature of history itself. As readers, whether we enter through Vichy France, Hiroshima, or Terezinstadt, we find our own way through a complex weave of people, events and objects. In the first three sections, the narrator floats like an angel through the ruins of Europe, moving from a French sanitarium to the streets of occupied Paris and into the Czech republic that, according to a note, was the home of Forché's paternal ancestors. The trail leads inevitably to the death camps and cuts across time to a string of more recent events—most notably the Chernobyl nuclear disaster—in the same terrain.

In Part Four, three relatively short single poems examine the perspective of holocaust survivors, both from Hitler's camps ("Elegy") and from Hiroshima ("The Garden Shukkei-en" and "The Testimony of Light"). The concluding section, "Book Codes," consists of three unpunctuated poems, partly fragments lifted from Wittgenstein, and partly commentary on the necessity of fragmentation. The familiar photographic image of the mushroom cloud hovers over the last several lines and reinvents itself as a generative image:

       smaller clouds spread out a golden screen
       given the task of painting wounds
       through the darkened town as though it had been light
       at the moment of the birth of this cloud

Perhaps the most striking element of the book is Forché's deep understanding of the workings of chance and memory. She explains in a note to The Angel of History that "The first-person, free-verse, lyric narrative poem of my earlier years has given way to a work which has desired its own bodying forth: polyphonic, broken, haunted, and in ruins, with no possibility of restoration." In the unnumbered sections of Part One, that "broken" or "haunted" narrative begins to define itself. The "I" of the poem is neither the poet nor a designated other but "a memory through which one hasn't lived."

I am a reader who has long admired those first-person lyric efforts that Forché has, for the moment, outgrown. I was therefore a bit sceptical in approaching this recent endeavor. Attempts at extended narrative, from Eliot and Pound to Suzanne Gardinier and Forché herself, seem to carry with them a heavy load of baggage that can be daunting even to the most generous of readers. I was afraid that the forceful clarity I have found in Forché's earlier work might be obscured by the complexities of the exercise. In other words, I was afraid that I would not be able to find vestiges of the poet in this new work.

What saves Forché from the postmodern trap, however, is the continuity between the persona of the current collection and that of her earlier work. Though the "I" may not be as close as it once was to the poet herself, both the thematic concerns and the precision of language remain constant.

This continuity is most evident through the presentation of specific details. In Part Three, "The Recording Angel," a singular image reminded me of that Salvadoran bag of ears:

       Hundreds of small clay heads discovered while planting coffee
       A telescope through which it was possible to watch a fly crawling the neighbors' roof tiles
       The last-minute journey to the border for no reason, the secret house where sports trophies were kept
       That weren't sports trophies
       Someone is trying to kill me, he said …

While the narrator of "The Colonel" forced herself and, consequently, the reader, to stay with a single image, in these later lives the very concept of first-person narration is blurred through the use of sentence fragments and passive verbs.

These quick shifts in imagery are representative of the freedom of movement Forché has sought, which is in fact more cinematic than literary. Yet Forché is no omniscient "auteur" who controls the camera. Instead, I sense in these poems a suspension of authority, a willingness to channel other voices without losing the impact of a singular poetic intelligence.

Because of Forché's sharp, though changing, focus on individual details, the language is never distancing. Although the structure of the work as a whole is complex, and we may not always know who is speaking or who is being spoken to, the book is nonetheless fully inhabited by people and things. In Part Three, "The Recording Angel," for instance, we are made to see the "china cups" and hear the echo of "chiming tables" left in a house whose inhabitants abandon it and return after many years. One page later, we meet up with a Nazi sympathizer, "the woman with the shaved head seen twice in different arrondissements," whose spectral image more than hints at the depravity that encompasses the scene. And in Part Four, [in the poem] "The Garden Shukkei-en," we encounter an elderly female survivor of Hiroshima who states matter-of-factly, "I don't like this particular red flower because / it reminds me of a woman's brain crushed under a roof."

The Angel of History may be difficult to describe, but it is also a difficult book to put down, or to forget. Images such as these have remained with me in the weeks during which I have lived with this book. Carolyn Forché has managed to write a poem that remains humble toward its sources without effacing her own distinctive voice. I hope that her rendering of twentieth-century events will also serve as a touchstone for the continuing discussion of how history is to be represented in a way that truly honors the lives that are lost.

Calvin Bedient (review date Summer 1994)

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SOURCE: "Postlyrically yours," in The Threepenny Review, Vol. XV, No. 2, Summer, 1994, pp. 18-20.

[In the excerpt below, Bedient offers a favorable assessment of The Angel of History.]

Carolyn Forché's The Angel of History is instantly recognizable as a great book, the most humanitarian and aesthetically "inevitable" response to a half-century of atrocities that has yet been written in English. Each rereading becomes more hushed, more understanding, more painful, more rapt. A sort of bedrock of acquaintance with human misery, as of memory's capacity to witness it, emerges in lines that are each peculiarly forlorn: "The cry is cut from its stalk."

Forché creates—was given—a new tone, at once sensitive and bleak, a new rhythm, at once prose-like and exquisite, a new line and method of sequencing, at once fluid and fragmentary, frozen at the turn. Take the third unnumbered section of the title poem, which confronts the farmhouse in Izieu where forty-four Jewish children were "hidden April to April" during the war:

       Within the house, the silence of God. Forty-four bedrolls, forty-four metal cups.
       And the silence of God is God.
 
       In Pithiviers and Beaune-la-Rolande, in Les Milles, Les Tourelles, Moussac and Aubagne,
 
                 the silence of God is God.
 
       The children were taken to Poland.
       The children were taken to Auschwitz in Poland
 
                      singing Vous n'aurez pas l'Alsace
 
         
et la Lorraine
.
       In a farmhouse still standing in Izieu, le silence de Dieu est Dieu.

Hypnotic, painfully ice-cold, the repetitions, the catalogue of place names (and they are beautiful: could God not have trusted speech in them?), the horridly mechanical primer's incremental creep from "to Poland" to "To Auschwitz in Poland," and Elie Wiesel's line on the inhuman purity of a silent God—these are part of an aesthetic which is unable to blame, explain, or console: a stunned aesthetic of bafflement, poised like an ear before "le silence de Dieu."

Forché is not concerned to connect up even related material closely and clearly; she is not mapping anything (except maybe silence). The gaps between her lines and sections count as much as the words, the artistry is half in the evocation of what cannot be retrieved from the ashes or forced from the silence. Exiled, displaced, ephemeral, cut off from the old dream of natural happiness, natural time, each line is an unfinished separation, an item in an infinite field of disappointment, forced into aimless drift, an untotalizable disaster implicit in it. The poet thus makes a small book huge. She earns her title.

Wallace Stevens's description of poetry, "particles of order, a single majesty," fits an earlier, a more naive kind of poetry than Forché's, whose "rage against chaos," in Stevens's words, is scarified into the angel of history's appalled witness of our times. Witness is not contemplation, it is far more passive; its goals are to see, tell, not forget, and withstand. Quick-pulsed, plangent activist in her famous book The Country Between Us, Forché is here encased in a giant block of ice, helpless, but no less compassionate for that. (The old voice starts up only once, in the most anonymous and jumbled of the long [sections], "The Recording Angel": "Each small act of defiance a force"). How do you reach out to "history"? To that which gives the lie to succession, to optimism? To that whose heart is extremity? The poet underwrites the pessimism of [Walter] Benjamin's sublime figure for history: "a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in [the angel's] wings with such violence that [he] can no longer close them. The storm … propels him [backward] into the future … while the pile of debris before him grows skyward."

The Angel of History writes disaster. Maurice Blanchot's The Writing of the Disaster is the best single guide to its assumptions, to the stone-hard equanimity of

      It isn't necessary to explain
      The dead girl was thought to be with child
      Until it was discovered that her belly had already been cut open
      And a man's head placed where the child would have been

or to the tinge of horror in "Memory a wind passing through the blood trees within us," or to "the defenselessness for which there is no cure" (I quote from "The Recording Angel"), or to the conviction that "The worst is over. / The worst is yet to come," in words from "The Testimony of Light." The disaster, which is history's thumped-down trump card, cannot be thought; to think it, Blanchot says, "is to have no longer any future in which to think it." It can only be evoked, and with a "sort of disinterest, detached from the disaster"—disaster's chemical warfare having damaged the nerves. It is the affirmation and repetition of extremity, the fragmentariness of endemic disarray. At its threshold one is always turned back, yet there is no turning away. It makes of the anonymous continuity of humanity a rumor. To write the disaster is "to refuse to write—to write by way of this refusal"; to offer a text that is almost empty, and to which the reader has to jump to failure's intensity.

The poet's Czech grandmother ("They didn't want you to know the past. They were hoping in this way you could escape it") and other accidents of her history, including her travels with her photojournalist husband Harry Mattison to South Africa, Beirut, Paris, etc., have led her to this non-American acquaintance with extremity. But a blessed fatality of her nature, her liability to lose herself to others (and the effacement of the subject is anyway almost a precondition of writing poetry), explains it best. Like Simone Weil, Forché lacks whatever thickness it takes to refuse to see that history has been refusal for so many.

In the title poem, there is Ellie, once a refugee from the Nazis ("Winter took one of her sons and her own attempt to silence / him, the other")—the poet's ward mate in a Paris hospital, peeling skin from her arm like an opera glove: "Le Dieu est un feu. A psychopath … I wish to leave life." There is, also in Paris, a Salvadoran revenant ("And just now it was as if someone not alive were watching"), whose room, he says, was once ("filled with vultures … belching and vomiting flesh, / as you saw them at Puerto Diablo and El Playon … so fat with flesh they weren't able to fly"). Further, an identification with a Salvadoran woman whose eight-year-old letter Forché still carries ("It was years before my face would become hers … / As if it were possible to go on living for someone else"), who wrote, "Please, when you write, describe again how I looked in the white dress that improbable morning / when my random life was caught in a net of purpose." In the second long "The Notebook of Uprising," there is her grandmother, Anna ("Alenka: You must not speak anymore. I am going to tell you"), and Anna's niece, traced down in what is now the Czech Republic: "She stood on the landing in disbelief in Brno as if the war were translucent behind us, / the little ones in graves the size of pillows." And so on. The litany brings tears.

So much in The Angel of History is mysteriously beautiful, has the dully rich gleam of pewter, is so tinctured with the disaster ("The train rose along the bank above the tiled roofs, its windows blinded by mud and smoke"), and is so cumulative that it is misleading to single out passages, as if they were high points. The whole book must be picked up together, carefully, like the most fragile and most cutting of wonders.

But one of the three poems in Part IV, following the longer poems that make up the first three parts, will doubtless become an anthology piece (even though it deserves better). "The Garden Shukkei-en" finds the poet in Hiroshima. The poem ends with the Japanese woman guide saying in the restored garden:

      I don't like this particular red flower because
      it reminds me of a woman's brain crushed under a roof.
 
      Perhaps my language is too precise, and therefore difficult to understand?
 
      We have not, all these years, felt what you call happiness.
      But at times, with good fortune, we experience something close.
      As our life resembles life, and this garden the garden.
      And in the silence surrounding what happened to us
 
      it is the bell to awaken God that we've heard ringing.

The pained eloquence is characteristic of the book. As for Eden in what "The Recording Angel" calls "the worst of centuries," it is but a simulacrum of a former paradise, painted in the red of disaster.

Don Bogen (review date 24 October 1994)

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SOURCE: "Muses of History," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 259, No. 13, October 24, 1994, pp. 464-68.

[In the excerpt below, Bogen extols Forché's ability to document historical atrocities, individual experience, and political vision in The Angel of History, noting that the book is a breakthrough from Forché's earlier works.]

The history of our age is not the stuff of epic poetry. It has plenty of warfare, of course, but not much in the way of heroism; there is more bureaucratese than grandiloquence in the speeches of its leaders; and its chaotic pace would chew up any meter after a dithyramb or two. So what's a poet to do? Many tend their gardens. But a poetry that withdraws from the public concerns of its time for whatever reasons—aesthetic objections, information overload, lack of firsthand experience, indifference—impoverishes itself and its readers. We're left with the schizoid vision of the 6 o'clock news: a chaotic sense of the present—what was that country we're invading?—coupled with a handful of clichés that anesthetize the past. Poets of history like Neruda and Milosz take us beyond that split, revivifying the past as they uncover its links to the world today.

A poet of history inevitably offers some kind of political vision, and Carolyn Forché has long been aware of this dimension in her work. Her first book, Gathering the Tribes, which won the Yale Younger Poets Award in 1976, is grounded in a politics of identity: ethnic (with her Eastern European ancestors), spiritual (with Native Americans) and sexual. Her second collection, The Country Between Us (1981), moved toward a more overtly political stance, dramatizing her personal reaction to struggles in Europe, Vietnam and most notably El Salvador, where she worked as a human rights activist. This book derives much of its force from an insistence on the poet's witnessing of the events. Her well-known account of dinner with a Salvadoran colonel who collected the severed ears of his victims begins, "What you have heard is true. I was in his house."

For all its power, however, the limits of this approach have become clear to Forché in the thirteen years since her last book came out. But her new volume turns away from what she calls the "first-person, free-verse, lyric-narrative poem" of her earlier work. It reflects her increased awareness of the pitfalls of a reportorial approach to oppression: a naïve faith that verse will change the world, the unconscious egotism of the witness, traces of voyeurism in the portrayal of the oppressed. Her work compiling and editing the anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness has also been instrumental in moving her poetry beyond the politics of personal encounter. The Angel of History is rather an extended poetic meditation on the broader contexts—historical, aesthetic, philosophical—which include our century's atrocities. The collection represents a deeper and more complex engagement with her political concerns and a startling departure in style to achieve this. It's clearly a breakthrough.

Forché's new book is well aware of its situation at the end of the century. It takes its title from Walter Benjamin's "Theses on the Philosophy of History," in which history is seen as a growing pile of debris from what appears to the observing angel to be one single catastrophe; he looks back at it but can do nothing, as he is propelled continuously into an unknown future. His situation, of course, parallels that of the poet, and the fragmentary units with which Forché works have a rubblelike combination of specificity and disconnectedness. The core poetic material for The Angel of History is a body of shattered elegiac evocations, running from as little as a phrase to a few stanzas in length. Some of these arise from personal experience and memory, others from her reading, others from the words and experiences of real or imagined characters. To her credit, Forché has resisted the postmodern temptation to juggle with the ruins. Though aware of the slipperiness and essential relativity of language, she holds to the idea that history demands something more than an arbitrary order from those who would engage it.

At the heart of the book are the three long sequences with which it opens: "The Angel of History," "The Notebook of Uprising" and "The Recording Angel." As their titles suggest, these pieces are to some extent interwoven, sharing common concerns with the violence of our century and the challenge of getting it on paper. Within the one vast disaster that the angel sees, Forché singles out the Holocaust and Hiroshima as the two defining atrocities of our time, approaching them from different perspectives in the opening sequences (Parts I, II and III) and then defining her points more directly in the three short elegies of Part IV. The final section of the volume, "Book Codes" (Part V), sets the work in perspective by raising questions about the power of writing to deal with this material. Forché's goal in focusing on the two catastrophes is not so much to explain them—who could do that?—as to keep them from being forgotten or distorted as they recede in time and survivors die. If memory is, as she puts it in "The Notebook of Uprising," "a reliquary in a wall of silence," it's important to have scenes there that will continue to speak.

It's also important to make distinctions. As The Angel of History progresses, Forché's specific vision of the two atrocities becomes clear. The atomic bomb represents a single starting point for the age, "the moment of the birth of this cloud," as she puts it in "Book Codes: III," while the death camps are the center of a web that binds us inextricably to the past. The obsessive, grinding, all-encompassing quality of the Holocaust—the way it intertwines the living and the dead, perpetrators, victims and those not yet born—comes out vividly in the poet's engagement with diverse sources, from the notes in a child's prayer book found at Theresienstadt—"V.K. 1940, hearts, a police doll wearing the star" ("The Notebook of Uprising")—to the deadened phrases of those who worked at the ovens ("Elegy") and the fractured, multilingual testimony of the survivor Ellie in the title sequence. Everything about this topic is speaking, complex, demandingly human. Forché's treatment of Hiroshima, by contrast, captures the suddenness and horrible simplicity of the act:

       After the city vanished, they were carried on black mats from one place
       To another with no one to answer them
       Vultures watching from the white trees
       A portable safe found stuffed with charred paper
       An incense burner fused to its black prayer
                 ("The Recording Angel")

The account is flat, end-stopped, largely unpunctuated, with everything in black and white, a list of seemingly disconnected facts inhabited by an anonymous dying "they." When a survivor speaks in "The Garden Shukkei-en," her comments are hauntingly laconic, set off in brief stanzas of a line or two:

       Do you think for a moment we were human beings to them?
 
       We tried to dress our burns with vegetable oil.
 
       Perhaps my language is too precise, and therefore difficult to understand?

Forché uses these complementary formats—the polyglot and the muted, the intricate and the simple—to frame the brutality of our epoch. Each in its own way shows both the essentially unspeakable quality of the event and the necessity that the subject be engaged.

The differences between Forché's treatment of the Holocaust and that of Hiroshima suggest the wealth of possibilities her new style can bring to bear. Linked by themes and occasional repeated phrases as they are, the opening sequences represent distinct approaches to the horrors of our time. The first [sequence], "The Angel of History," works with fairly large units, scenes really—the story of Ellie, a hospital stay, the poet leaving Beirut, the birth of her son—which are presented early in the sequence and then broken, juxtaposed and repeated in variations of different lengths as the work progresses. Forché's mode here is not narrative but analytical, as if the encounter with Ellie were a jewel she holds up to the light and revolves, each facet presenting the scene in a different context. Viewed this way, the life of one survivor documents an era.

The second sequence, "The Notebook of Uprising," is, as the title suggests, more journal-like in approach, its twenty-eight numbered sections loosely following a trip to Eastern Europe where the poet finds the niece of her grandmother Anna in the Czech Republic. Instead of shifting angles here, Forché is digging through layers—Prague today, during the Warsaw Pact invasion, under the Nazis—to clarify what has lasted and what has been lost. Her lines have less of the documentary and more of the diary to them, with a focus on numinous moments and their ramifications, as in the second entry:

       Anna stands in a ring of thawed snow, stirring a trash fire in an iron drum until her face
              flares, shriveled and intent, and sparks rise in the night along with pages of
       burning
              ash from the week's papers,
              one peeling away from the rest,
       an ashen page framed in brilliance.
 
       For a moment, the words are visible, even though fire has destroyed them, so
              transparent has the page become.
       The sparks from this fire hiss out among the stars and in thirty years appear
              as tracer rounds.
       They didn't want you to know the past. They were hoping in this way you could escape it.

The final sequence of ten large sections is the broadest in its focus and the most meditative. In big stanzas of long endstopped lines with minimal punctuation, "The Recording Angel" washes across passages of memory and description like a tide, gathering up references to the two previous sequences and quotations from René Char, Georg Trakl, Elias Canetti and others along with its own new material. The motifs underlying this sequence are broad, almost archetypes—a shipwreck, a child asking questions, a man walking and walking—and each section ends with a kind of residue of understanding, as the work's conclusions remain after the scenes have passed. The lyricism of the fourth is typical:

       On the water's map, little x's: a cross-stitched sampler of cries for help
       And yet every lost one has been seen, mornings in winter, and at night
       When the fishermen have cast their nets one too many times
       They surface, the lost, drawing great hillocks of breath
       We on the shore no longer vanish when the beacon strokes us
       The child's boat plies the water in imitation of boats
       Years they sought her, whose crew left on the water a sad Welsh hymn
       Voices from a ketch lit by candles
       Days pass and nothing occurs, nights pass, nights, and life continues in its passing
       We must try then to send a message ending with the word night

Forché's elegiac vision in "The Recording Angel" provides a moving conclusion to the three sequences. The poetic singing here is the most beautiful of Forché's modes in the book, but she has found an appropriately jagged music for the first sequence and an intimate density for the second. In each sequence she makes brilliant use of the possibilities her approach offers, controlling juxtapositions, variations on themes, repetition and sudden bursts of the new.

The "Book Codes" poems that conclude The Angel of History bring to the surface Forché's questions about the power and value of her craft. The last two—one carrying references to the Holocaust, the other to Hiroshima—are set in parallel forms of equal-length stanzas with closure on a haunting isolated line. The effect is striking aesthetically and emotionally:

        an afternoon swallowing down whole years its every hour
        troops marching by in the snow until they are transparent
        from the woods through tall firs a wood with no apparent end
        cathedrals at the tip of our tongues with countries not yet seen
        whoever can cry should come here
                     ("Book Codes: II")

The boldness of Forché's move at the end is typical of the volume as a whole. The Angel of History is challenging, ambitious poetry, and the book lives up to its claims.

Susan Salter Reynolds (essay date 13 November 1994)

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 955

SOURCE: "The Personal as Political," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 13, 1994, p. F.

[Salter Reynolds is the assistant book editor for the Los Angeles Times Book Review. In the following essay, announcing that Forché is the recipient of the 1994 Los Angeles Times Book Award for Poetry, she praises the fragmented structure and style of The Angel of History as well as its focus on the "social" realm.]

When Carolyn Forché returned from El Salvador in 1980, where she had been working as a human rights activist, she wrote in her poem "Return": "I go mad, for example, / in the Safeway, at the many heads / of lettuce, papaya and sugar, pineapples / and coffee, especially the coffee. / And when I speak with American men, / there is some absence of recognition."

It may not have been the first time that Forché was witness to the kind of cruelty El Salvador became known for at that time, but her response, recorded in The Country Between Us, became a sort of bible for puzzling over cruelty and the atrocities of war. The poems feel as though they were written when Forché came home, unable to reconcile daily life with what she had seen and heard. "Better / people than you were powerless" she wrote in "Return." "You have not returned to your country, / but to a life you never left."

These were Forché's poems of witness. If you were fortunate enough to read them in college, when history and the news and literature all left enormous black holes in your understanding; when debates in various seminars over the artificial/official separation of the personal and the political violated your still youthful instincts about how individuals should treat each other, when political science professors almost never let their students read poetry or novels, then you will never ever forget them, even if your well-worn copy was given away in a moment of generous weakness.

After we had lived with them for a while, digested her experiences, Forché's voice became part of our conscience. "To think of the writer as conscience of the world," Daniel Boorstin has written in a new collection of essays, "is only to recognize that the writer, as we have seen, is inevitably a divided self, condemned at the same time to express and to communicate, to speak for the writer and speak to others." Forché's next book, Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness collected more than 140 poets from five continents, poems in which the reader can hear "the trace of extremity … evidence of what occurred." These poems are written in this century, from the Armenian genocide to Tian An Men Square. The poets must have personally experienced what they write about, they must be considered important to their national literatures, and they must be "available in quality translation."

"What comes to us in the newspapers is not necessarily factual, nor is it necessarily cogent," Forché reminds. Seeing these poems together in one collection reinforces the fact that poetry is an active thing, a triumph of will over circumstance, as Forché paraphrases Walter Benjamin in her introduction: "a poem is itself an event." "The poetry of witness," she writes, "reclaims the social from the political and in so doing defends the individual against illegitimate forms of coercion."

With [The Angel of History] Forché gives her readers a place between the personal and the political, a realm she calls "the social," in which voices like that of the Hungarian poet Miklos Radnoti (1909–1944), whose widow found his last poems on his body in a mass grave of prisoners returned from Germany, are respected as historical evidence and testimony to the human spirit all at once: "I believe in miracles, forgot their days; / above me I see a bomber squadron cruise. I was just admiring, up there, your eyes' blue sheen" (from "Letter to My Wife," Larger Heidenau, above Zagubica in the mountains, August-September, 1944). All of these writers are victims, in one way or another, but their dignity is exquisite, and their experience must be trusted. One very fine form of revenge, a way of annihilating evil, a hopeful reader could conclude, is to make something beautiful.

The Angel of History, Forché's most recent collection of poems, are so very different from the poems in The Country Between Us. She is not puzzling, not trying, first and foremost to figure out what to do with her own experience. She is, instead, speaking in the voices of the people whose stories are remembered. It is as though, beyond bearing witness and providing conscience, she has incorporated the history of others into her own genealogy. And there is some calm, some respite from what must be, by now, a terrible roaring inside her; respite in the form of children, pear trees, France and the French.

These poems don't have the neatness of the earlier poems, they are not distinct stories. They are a babble of fragments: "fragments together into a story before the shape of the whole / like a madman—time and again torn from my mouth / out of a nearby chimney each child's hand was taken / though this is not a fairy tale explained in advance" (from "Book Codes: II"). And, like the remains in El Playon or Puerto Diablo ("body dumps" in El Salvador), they cannot always be pieced back together to form whole bodies. They are, instead, as Forché wrote in "The Testimony of Light," a poem about Hiroshima, "Mugamu-chu: without self, without center. Thrown up in the sky by a wind."

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Forché, Carolyn (Vol. 83)