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/ cursing holy blood at the table.”
The third and final section of The Country Between Us is a single long poem called “Ourselves or Nothing.” It is a meditation on the scathing pain of a lover who spent years writing a book about the Holocaust. The subject evokes “all the mass graves of the century’s dead.” We ourselves, Forché says, are doomed if we do not reach out to the murdered, for if we remain insulated from their reality we are not human but subhuman:
There is a cyclone fence betweenourselves and the slaughter and behind itwe hover in a calm protected world likenetted fish, exactly like netted fish.It is either the beginning or the endof the world, and the choice is ourselvesor nothing.
The word “nothing” reverberates throughout this volume, echoed in poem after poem—“nothing” also sounds resonantly throughout Forché’s first book, Gathering the Tribes. This insistent awareness of nothingness is balanced by Forché’s tenderness, her understated affirmations of love and of political heroism, and her resilient faith—never stated, but implicit throughout The Country Between Us—that to make poems is to defy sheer negation, the more so when the poems are witnesses to inhumanity and to the defiant, astonishing persistence of humanity—the persistence, that is, of ourselves.
Forché’s language in these new poems is at times intense and metaphoric, yet the poet retains control in large part because her tone is more often than not flatly journalistic. With such a dominant tonality, moreover, the color of the poet’s language cools, the sound becomes less musical. “This is the ring/ of a rifle report on the stones” (“The Memory of Elena”) is lovely in its muted alliteration (compare Wilfred Owen’s appropriately harsher and more strident “only the stuttering rifle’s rapid rattle”), dramatic in its strong dactylic beat, and witty in its play on the meanings of “report.” The tautly governed craft of the lines is not obtrusive; the poet is not calling attention to herself or to her command of her medium. Her ability to understate material that in the hands of a lesser writer would be vulgarly sensational validates her authority. Carolyn Forché is the rare poet who can speak persuasively of the unspeakable.
Forché does pay a price, however, for the powerful restraint of the verse in The Country Between Us. The phrase “the ring/ of a rifle report” exemplifies the language of Forché’s collection at its most musical, its most frisky. Forché’s journalistic tone may be dictated by her difficult subject matter, yet one must also concede that the language of this second book is less lively than that of her first. There are thematic links between the two books, particularly in the poems about love and about the talismanic figure of Anna (Forché’s Uzbek grandmother) and also in the reverberation through both works of the word “nothing,” but the language of the new poems is by contrast drier, slacker, and simply duller. The loss is palpable, even if on balance one finds abundant recompense in the increased range, philosophical depth, and emotional power of this rapidly maturing poet.
The Country Between Us has received the sort of media attention generally reserved for best-selling novels, and it has often been described as “a book of poems about El Salvador,” a highly misleading summary, as these lines from the conclusion of the volume suggest:
In the mass graves, a woman’s handcaged in the ribs of her child,a single stone in Spain beneath olives,in Germany the silent windy fields,in the Soviet Union where the snowis scarred with wire, in Salvadorwhere the blood will never soakinto the ground, everywhere and alwaysgo after that which is lost.
What or where, then, one must finally ask, is the country between us? Perhaps the country is any country, “between us” because of the power of nationality and nationalism to divide us from one another; perhaps “the country” is a trope for our humanity, “between us” because it is what we share in spite of all divisions; perhaps “the country” is the poetry that unites poet and reader in a community of feeling and insight. Forché’s poetry does so unite. She is still gathering the tribes, but under much greater burdens and at far higher risk than before. The satisfying complexity of the title of The Country Between Us is one among many tokens of her success.
American Book Review. V, November, 1982, p. 24.
Georgia Review. XXXVI, Winter, 1982, p. 911.
Library Journal. CVII, March 1, 1982, p. 552.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. May 23, 1982, p. 16.
Ms. XI, September, 1982, p. 94.
The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, April 18, 1982, p. 13.
Time. CXIX, March 15, 1982, p. 83.
Virginia Quarterly Review. LVIII, Autumn, 1982, p. 133.