Carolyn Forché Forché, Carolyn (Vol. 86) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Carolyn Forché The Angel of History

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Sue Russell (review date July 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 1503 words.)

Calvin Bedient (review date Summer 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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."


(The entire section is 1441 words.)

Don Bogen (review date 24 October 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2034 words.)

Susan Salter Reynolds (essay date 13 November 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 955 words.)