In the Lateness of World, Carolyn Forché’s first poetry volume to appear in almost two decades, derives its title from line fourteen of Robert Duncan’s “Poetry, a Natural Thing.” Denise Levertov, some of whose finest poems vigorously protested U.S. intervention in Vietnam, said of Forché’s second collection, The Country Between Us (1981), “there is no seam between the personal and political, lyrical and engaged.” Duncan quarreled with Levertov over what he perceived to be her own privileging of political values over aesthetic ones. But Forché has built her reputation on “the poetry of witness,” which expresses a moral or ethical imperative to address events such as war, genocide, racism, dictatorial tyranny, and other acts of injustice. Why then, the titular nod to Duncan, when Forché’s “poetry of witness” seems to come down on Levertov’s side of the debate?
Perhaps the answer lies in the The Country Between Us, the crown jewel of which is “The Colonel,” a prose piece describing a sumptuous repast at the home of a hedonistic Salvadorean officer who after dinner spills a grocery sack full of human ears on the table: “They were like dried peach halves. There is no other way to say this. He took one of them in his hands, shook it in our faces, dropped it into a water glass. It came alive there.” That the quickening of dried fruit to an organ of sense requires only water to undergo this metamorphosis is as memorable an image as any in contemporary poetry. Having preyed on hapless campesinos who gathered ripe produce for cheap export, Forché’s cavalier representative of death squads clears the table with a swipe of his arm and theatrically raises his glass of cabernet: “Something for your poetry, no? he said.” Her response, which ends the poem, implies that many will discern little of consequence in his dismissive gesture, whereas others will hearken to the palpable evil that lies beneath it all: “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.”
This poem appears to represent a marked departure from those in her first volume, Gathering the Tribes (1976), which focused on familial relationships, sexual awakening, and haunting remembrances of Old World customs. But even these quasi-confessional efforts dealt with the themes of cultural displacement and hasty immigration. Simply put, Forché’s oeuvre has always embodied both personal and political concerns. For humanitarian reasons, “the poetry of witness” holds an irresistible allure for her, as is evident in her third collection, The Angel of History (1994), as well as her most recent, In the Lateness of the World.
While her detractors dismiss Forché as an ideologue unconcerned with aesthetic values, this is blatant nonsense. In an interview conducted by this critic on 17 November 1982, at the University of Memphis’s Faulkner Lounge, Forché stated, “Journalists attempting to write about El Salvador at the time were viewed as ‘the witting and unwitting dupes of international and Communist propagandists.’ ” “Elegy for an Unknown Poet” laments the death of Daniel Simko, a Czech poet and translator who defected to the United States after the Soviet invasion in 1968. She enters into a dialogue with her friend Simko when she adopts the color motifs employed by German Expressionist Georg Trakl, whose verse her friend lovingly rendered into English: “Black is the color of footsteps, frost, stillness, and tears. / It modifies branches and wings. Blue appears as cloud, flower, ice.” Typically associated with bereavement, here black actually connotes translation to a higher plane without necessarily being about the end of physical existence. Moreover, Forché is subtly attuned to the repetition of fricative f in “footsteps” and “frost,” as well as the sibilance of “stillness” that congeals to an icy bleb in the locution “tears.” One envisions “branches” glazed with frozen precipitation after a winter storm. “Blue” evokes spirituality and undergoes several permutations from the evanescence of “cloud,” to the pattern of lacy ferns that “flower” on winter panes, which returns us to the ineluctable image, “ice.” Forché mourns the death of a friend obliged to seek political sanctuary in this country, but she deftly sidesteps partisanship through aesthetically nuanced tropes of astonishing beauty. Her closure embodies what Jahan Ramazani termed compensatory mourning: “What is left us then but darkness? Oneself is always dark and near.”
“Visitation” is perhaps the most compelling poem in Forché’s new volume. It depicts the creatural existence embedded in the Central European upbringing of her paternal grandmother, Anna Sidlosky. This ethnic genealogical piece lends amplitude to the “poetry of witness” espoused in The Country Between Us, even as it revisits the folkways initially broached in Gathering the Tribes. Forché remembers a Christmas fir that stood in her own cramped living room as a young girl: “On the nativity tree, a tiny lute, a French horn and painted egg, / a crèche carved from olive wood, a trumpeting angel.” Forché’s disarmingly quaint inventory includes a teardrop-shaped instrument of resonant wood, a “painted egg” that recalls the jeweled ornaments designed by Peter Carl Fabergé for members of the corrupt Romanov dynasty under the reign of Czar Nicholas II, a tableau of Christ’s birth carved from olive wood that conjures the rough-hewn beams of the Crucifixion, and the seraph whose trumpet signifies burst cerements and erupting graves on the Last Day. Forché’s opening images trace Christ’s journey from birth to resurrection, resonating with T. S. Eliot’s dramatic monologue “Journey of the Magi.” In Eliot’s conclusion, his Magus is “no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, / With an alien people clutching their gods.” If the Redeemer comes a dark way, early Christianity had sociopolitical as well as religious implications. Thus Forché introduces her grandmother’s irrepressible and subversive character into her corpus for the first time in several decades: “Anna is there, crocheting smoke, not speaking English anymore, as if / English had put out her memory like a broom on a fire.” The old Slovak woman fires up her pipe, and begins a yarn about the Yuletide rituals of her homeland:
She tells us that on this night in her village, they would carry home
a live carp wrapped up in paper that had just been swimming in a barrel.
The fish would silver the snow and have its life taken by a sharp ax.
The potatoes that had grown eyes in the cellar would be brought up
and baked with the fish, and there would be beet soup, bread, and wine
made from mulberries.
Something mellifluous inheres in Forché’s straightforward narrative. The carp shunned as trash fish in this country is netted from a chilled cask and fetched home wrapped in butcher’s paper. The colors silver and white connote spirituality even as an ax’s abrupt stroke severs the scaly denizen of boreal cold from all being. The tubers that sprouted eyes in the psychic depths of the cellar go well with the apportioned fish, beet soup, baked loaves, and wine fermented from dark berries. The meal the poet describes by proxy of her grandmother summons up the Christian commensality seldom encountered in America’s largely secular milieu. Forché’s numinous remembrance of Anna’s presence in her household proves deeply affecting, as the old matriarch leaves behind a token of her ghostly visitation: “a holy card with her own birth and death dates so we would know / she hadn’t visited us, that her satin-pillowed coffin lay still in the ground.” The poem’s ending is one of sublime loveliness: “and in every glass bulb, there we were—children descended from her on a winter night.”
If “Visitation” is reminiscent of the turf-fire snugness of the Gaeltacht so prominent in the poetry of Seamus Heaney, Forché’s poem “The Refuge of Art” conflates aesthetic and political concerns much as he did in “A Dream of the Solstice,” depicting the megalithic passage tombs at Newgrange. It is not surprising that the Irish Catholic Nobel laureate’s work would inform hers. Their religious upbringing provided both poets with a grounding in the Judeo-Christian mythos that pervades their writing about injustice. Indeed, Heaney’s poetry, both about the primacy of art and about the ongoing extreme violence between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland suggests he is a crucial literary predecessor for her. Before her first volume ever appeared, he was writing poetry about the insulted and marginalized in poems such as “Punishment,” which portrays the Windeby Girl, who was strangled and drowned in a bog for merely having committed adultery. Forché’s poem opens with a description of an unknown artist who sets the walls of his studio blazing with rich pigment: “In an atelier once a shoe factory, an artist paints walls, / cromlechs, and cairns.” Her protagonist brings his subject to life in the manner of a prehistoric shaman animating the Lascaux caves in the Dordogne region of France: “Slate tiles light his vigil over stags in flight, / bison stampeding, wild aurochs with lyre-shaped / horns.” Forché’s cadenced hard i sounds capture the clatter of the stag’s cleft hooves and the rumbling gait of even-toed ungulates such as bison. But the real masterstroke comes into play when she invokes the “lyre-shaped” horns adorning the shaggy-headed aurochs. One immediately calls to mind the untrammeled power of the lyric, its capacity to both celebrate and subvert. Although the Paleolithic chambers she alludes to were not burial crypts, the poet proceeds to illustrate those that were: “In the dawn of humanity, children built passage tombs / for the dead: stone hives in earth for the hum of spirit.” The beehive tomb or tholos can be traced to Agamemnon’s Mycenae; moreover, Forché’s trope “hum of spirit” is deceptively facile. If we delve into Heaney’s lexicon and read “hum” as Irish slang meaning a bad odor, Forché implies that the realms of the spirit and flesh are one. According to scripture, the dead shall be raised incorruptible, but even Christ lay three days in the tomb. Forché’s poem is ultimately a testament to human suffering in times of political upheaval:
In hollow pits the dead repose, bones whitening
in utter dark, where not even bats sing, and until
seen from the air by pilots during the Great War,
the domes slept, round and risen in the fields.
To the casual reader bats would seem prone to jibber rather than sing, but these chiropterans do emit multisyllabic trills and chirps as complex as any songbird’s. Forché is not engaging in mere poetic license, but offering us a poem that is aesthetically pleasing and at the same time vigorously interrogates the plight of humankind when ideologies come into armed conflict.
The poetry of witness embraced by Forché in The Country Between Us is revisited in a number of her latest efforts, but the poet provides her readers with a new point of departure when she advocates for animal rights in “Water Crisis.” Here she decries the barbarity of a blood sport that exploits the gamecock’s natural propensity for combat: “The gamecocks are forced to fight with knives taped to their feet. / This is illegal.” These are not plump fryers for the Sunday table, but banty roosters, lean-thewed and muscular, bred for the pit and fitted with steel spurs to facilitate the kill. Moreover, Forché’s unadorned accents are all the more efficacious for their straightforward simplicity: “They transport the cocks in baskets covered by plastic bags— / their entire lives tethered to the ground, trapped in wicker.” One does catch the speaker’s outrage in a run of plosives and glottal stops—“cocks,” “baskets,” “plastic,” “wicker”—that lays bare the pyrotechnics embedded in discrete locutions.
In the Lateness of the World also serves as a verse intertext to What You’ve Heard Is True (2019), Forché’s prose memoir about the social and political upheaval in developing nations, which she dedicated to the memory of Leonel Gómez Vides, the man who urged her to visit El Salvador during the late seventies. What she terms “the poetry of witness” became an integral part of her own life at that time, and all the more so because Vides insisted that the crisis in his country required the voice of a gifted poet to chronicle events. Forché would soon join her lyric powers to those of Wilfred Owen following the 1916 Somme Offensive, Osip Mandelstam during the Stalinist purges, and Pablo Neruda before the 1973 coup in Chile that ushered in the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. “The Ghost of Heaven” recapitulates the beauty and atrocity that Forché encountered during her sojourn in Central America. Although Vides is never specifically named, he is the genius loci or presiding spirit of this poem. The fifth section of the poem is remarkable for its clipped diction and brevity of phrasing: “Walking through a firelit river / to a burning house: dead Singer / sewing machine and piece of dress.” We listen for the cicada clack of the antique Singer’s treadle and the sibylline whisper of thread stitching both the dress and the poet’s narrative together. Lightning bugs hover in the twilight: “Outside paper fireflies rose to the stars.” In section six, Vides itemizes a survival kit:
Bring penicillin if you can, you said, surgical tape,
a whetstone, mosquito repellant but not the aerosol kind.
Especially bring a syringe for sucking phlegm,
a knife, wooden sticks, a clamp, and plastic bags.
Medical aid is apparently self-administered in these environs; especially ominous is the syringe for siphoning the body’s corruption, the necessity for clamps that secure severed arteries in surgical emergencies, and the “mosquito repellent” for fending off pestilential insects. Other parasites are abundant, and measures for coping with them extreme: “When a leech opens your flesh, it leaves a small volcano. / Always pour turpentine over your hair before going to sleep.” Moreover, Vides’s final admonition is all the more eloquent for its directness: “If they capture you, talk. // Talk. Please, yes. / You heard me the first time.” Forché’s closure alludes to the penultimate stanza of Eliot’s “The Hollow Men”: “All who come / All who come into the world / All who come into the world are sent.” However, her Weltanschauung is more auspicious, inasmuch as it holds out the hope of redemption for those determined to make a difference in such turbulent times. In the Lateness of the World bears witness to the courage and dignity of Carolyn Forché’s vision as well as to her preternatural gift for the language arts.
In the Lateness of the World. By Carolyn Forché. New York: Penguin Press, 2020. 96 pp. $32.00.