Carolyn Forché’s poetry of witness and confrontation encourages readers to cross national, geographical, and personal boundaries, boundaries that she believes serve to isolate and brutalize the less powerful. Her first volume, Gathering the Tribes, was published in the prestigious Yale Series of Younger Poets. These poems are about three main topics: her immigrant relatives, especially Anna, her Slavic paternal grandmother; her encounters with Native Americans in the southwestern United States; and the sexual initiation of the poet, whose search for physical fulfillment indicates her desire to escape the exile status that defines immigrants and Native Americans.
Forché’s next volume, The Country Between Us, was a Lamont Poetry Selection of the Academy of American Poets and solidified her reputation as a writer. Despite the critical acclaim for the volume and its status as a best-seller—at least by poetry standards—some critics complained that her work was too political, even sensational. Their criticism focused almost exclusively on the eight poems titled “In Salvador, 1978-80,” which deal with her experiences as a human rights activist in that country.
Yet the other two sections of the volume, “Reunion” and “Ourselves or Nothing” are set in such diverse places as the midwestern United States, Mallorca, and eastern Europe. What unites the poems in The Country Between Us is not geography or a specific political ideology but simply a sensitivity to the many faces of human loss. The poems document the human proclivity to hurt or maim, on a personal and a political level. Forché continues to assert, however, that the human touch is redemptive, if only temporarily.
The Angel of History is Forché’s most complex work to date. Abandoning what she describes as “The first person, free-verse, lyric narrative poem of my earlier years,” The Angel of History is, as she says, “polyphonic, broken, haunted, and in ruins, with no possibility of restoration.” The five sections of this long poem, with all their different voices and locales, speak to the power of memory and confrontation. Forché suggests that by reexamining the moral failures that led to the death camps in Nazi Germany, as well as to the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, other mass assaults on the human body and spirit can be prevented. Similarly, Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness is an anthology, edited by Forché, of protest poetry that documents the curative powers of memory and engagement.