The Country Between Us
Carolyn Forché’s first book of poems, the highly praised Gathering the Tribes, was published in 1976 in the Yale Series of Younger Poets. Her second book, The Country Between Us, was the Lamont Poetry Selection for 1981. The Country Between Us makes extraordinary demands of its readers, not because Forché organizes her poems in obviously complicated ways nor because her language is obscure or esoteric, but because her subjects are extraordinarily painful: political torture and murder, powerlessness, the psychic damage to those who survive as witnesses to atrocity, and the difficulty of orienting oneself in a world in which grotesque injustice and suffering are the stuff of the nightly news. The reader may recoil from the recorded pain or, alternatively, put up defenses against Forché’s strong poems, dodging their hard meanings with exaggerated attention to her purposely inconspicuous craft or with disproportionate emphasis on her lapses into falseness or self-indulgence.
The first section of The Country Between Us draws on Forché’s two years as a journalist in El Salvador. A key poem in this section, “The Colonel,” is in fact not a “poem” at all: Forché is reduced to the most banal prose to describe her dinner with a Salvadoran Colonel who, after the rack of lamb and good wine, spills from a grocery sack many human ears on the dinner table: “I am tired of fooling around he said. As for the rights of anyone, tell your people they can go fuck themselves.” In “The Colonel,” Forché confronts in unadorned prose the brutal reality out of which she has made poetry. The poems tell of a labor leader cut to pieces, of prisoners sexually mutilated: “the naked are tied open/ and left to the hands of those who erase/ what they touch.” Hundreds die because of a slip of the tongue, and numberless people simply vanish. In California, thinking of the vanished of El Salvador, Forché says that their cries “might take years to get here,” but not, one must add, to reach the minds and hearts of those who read Forché’s powerful poems on behalf of the victims of torture and murder in Central America.
In the second section of the volume, the focus widens. The poet writes of a young man from Prague who has been imprisoned for ten years for toasting Alexander Dubek. She writes of loneliness and the deep insatiable yearning of long-gone or imperfectly realized loves: a love recalled by an old woman on a train coming into Detroit, for example, and a love between strangers on a train near Bucharest (“We have, each of us, nothing./ We will give it to each other”). She writes also of the dispossessed and forlorn of America, of a childhood boyfriend, Joseph, whose spirit has been blasted by service in Vietnam and whose life is now a drab dead-end in the steel-mill town in Northern Michigan where they grew up; and of Victoria, a girlfriend of her youth, who has not escaped, as the poet has, to Paris among many other places, but who lives in a trailer “in the snow near our town” with a husband (Joseph?) “returned from the Far East broken/...
(The entire section is 1272 words.)