A Review of Carolyn Forche's "Blue Hour" (Harper Collins Publishers, 2003)
Though nearly a decade separates this book from its predecessor, the first poem of Blue Hour centers, like much of The Angel of History, on the image of a child. At once Forche's own son (to whom both the collection as a whole and several of its poems are dedicated) and a broader, more generic figure, the child of both books is less an emblem of hopeful, redemptive innocence than of the challenges facing a life shadowed by the twentieth century. Forche has always been the most European of American poets, and Blue Hour finds her again exploring the themes "of devastation, exile, and, above all, memory" that have haunted a Europe sensing itself at twilight. Even so, and while the famously political content of her poems (The Country Between Us, her second book, ignited a debate about "political poetry" that is in some quarters still waged) is intact, Blue Hour also contains Forche's most personal work to date, poems in which she writes hauntingly of her own childhood and of her relationship with her son.
But, of course, she does so in a way that makes the continuities between these domains "the personal and the political, the domestic and the historical" perfectly apparent. Faced with the question of how one lives after catastrophe, Forche answers one lives:
In the years just after the war, it was not as certain that a child would live to be
grown. Trucks delivered ice and poured coal into bins below the houses.
You see, one can live without having survived.
Not physical, then, but moral survival is the problem that Forchi addresses, attempting to imagine a future both for herself and for her child. And yet, perhaps strangely, she finds this future only by looking to the past. History, for Forche, is resolutely archival: fully aware of the ease with which voices can be silenced, she places her hopes for witness in artifacts that survive their makers: "In the barracks, those who had sketched themselves on the walls in coal and smoke became coal and smoke." And yet, faced with a death that seems ever hungrier and more efficient, there is no medium quick enough to catch what's lost: "The people of this world are moving into the next, and with them their hours and the ink of their ability to make thought."
In the theory of witness Forche articulated while composing The Angel of History (and which she states most succinctly in the preface to her anthology Against Forgetting), poetry becomes part of the attempt, however partial, to resist this loss, to participate in an act of memory that must transcend not only the individual but also the boundaries of nation and culture: "What one of us lives through, each must, so that this, of which we are part, will know itself." While implicit in this stuttered syntax is the uncertainty Forche makes evident elsewhere in Blue Hour ("memory, a futile attempt"), at her most hopeful there is the possibility of, if not redemption, at least a saving remembrance: "and the living remained, linking unknown things to the known."
Formally, the first half of Blue Hour revisits and extends techniques Forche developed for The Angel of History. Two sizeable autobiographical poems, "Blue Hour" and "Nocturne," make use of long, end-stopped lines reminiscent of Jabhs:
The moon slips from its cerement, and my son, already disappearing into
a man, moves toward his bed for the night, wrapped in a towel of
A viola, night-voiced, calls into its past but nothing comes.
Each line is composed of its own sentence (sometimes several sentences), each comprises its own stanza. And yet these lines never feel like prose, or even like prose poetry: the line, infused with an often breathtaking lyrical intensity, is still the unit of measure, however long:
In the morning, footsteps, a wind caught between roofs. From the quarry
of souls they come into being: supernal lights, concealed light,
light which has no end.
Everything in the world has a spirit released by its sound.
The room turns white again, and white. For years I have opened my eyes
and not known where I was.
If the poems of the book's first half make use of techniques that feel familiar from Forche's earlier work, however, the grand achievement of Blue Hour is the long and utterly strange "On Earth." Taking as its model (Forchi tells us in the notes) Gnostic abecedarian hymns, it is a poem of nearly fifty pages, composed of alphabetically arranged lines. These lines are not syntactically, imagistically, or narratively continuous, one follows another without any clear attempt to make a larger sense:
garbage fires along the picket lines
gasoline coupons and rations, an event no longer remote
Georg leaning against the winter pine eating a sparrow
ghost hands appearing in windows, rubbing them clear
ghost swift, grisaille, guardian spirit
Disparate scenes, unidentified figures, finally a list of words shorn of syntactical context: these five lines give in miniature the experience of the poem as a whole. "On Earth" is a huge risk: in its apparent abdication of craft, the ceaseless flow of line after line should be tedious, even infuriating. Instead, its mesmerizing, and after several readings what seems at first an arbitrary arrangement of language feels inevitable.
Indeed, far from an abdication of craft, the extreme constraint of Forche's chosen form demands from her the technical prowess of a master. What she creates is a new sort of prosody, a line more perfectly a measure of breath than anything Olson managed:
even if by forgetting
even if he is thousands of miles away or dead
even the trembling of souls turning into light
every line in his face the river of a single year
except to be gentle with one who loved you mistakenly and very much
expectation, the presence of the not-yet-exiled from itself
In the pelagic swell and ebb of her lines, Forche has found a prosodic movement that is entrancing, dispelling any trace of tedium. And as one reads, the relationship between lines feels ever less static, even hinting, at times, at enjambment:
under what conditions can we speak of
une enfant qui meurt wrapped in a trouser leg
unspeakable in language
unspoken thoughts, leaving us in their proximity, alone
until dawn in the fire tower
until this, that
vesture, vigil light, votive
visible only to God
Compared to the severe disjunction in the lines quoted earlier, there's a fairly easy play of syntax across line in several places here: "under what conditions can we speak of / une enfant qui meurt; leaving us in their proximity, alone / until dawn"
The very texture of the language, then, as it modulates between long and short, end-stopped and somewhat enjambed lines provides its own drama, and "On Earth" is as compelling a musical achievement as anything Forche has written. But it is not only that: it is also a fantasia, at mid-career, of the themes and obsessions that have filled Forche's work, a poem of fragments that gain cogency in the context of her other poems. Though widely admired, Forche has faced two camps of critics since the publication of her second book: on one hand, she is accused of betraying poetry by infusing it with politics; on the other, of aestheticizing atrocity, diffusing the horror of events by presenting them in poems that never lose their enchantment with the aesthetic properties of language. It's certainly true that Forche has been nearly alone among her contemporaries, at least in this country, in attempting to write a beautiful poetry that does not turn away from the world, and "On Earth" almost belligerently refuses to privilege either endeavor over the other:
the trains. sometimes a silent coupling
the trees: almond, annatto, sweetsop, banana, monkey-bread, bay rum,
breadfruit, yellowsilk, camphor, candle
the trees mortared into flower
the trembling of river stones, the ignition of spirit, the firing of human
the trip wire in white grass at one with the footfall, the latch
No other poem I know so closely intertwines beauty and horror: at one moment lovingly listing the names of trees, in the next showing them "mortared into flower"; at once extolling "the ignition of spirit, the firing of human thought," and presenting, in the final line, a very different kind of firing.
But surely, for Forche, to refuse either aspect of the experience of her poems would be a betrayal not only of her own aesthetics, but of a larger, moral attempt "to see other than from without / to see the world as it actually is," a world that however battered remains beautiful. Forche's achievement is to have made a poetry that refuses to choose between a commitment to "politics" and to "aesthetics" and, finally, to have made the distinction between the terms spurious. In so doing, she has made a poetry that rings with personal and communal urgency, convinced as few poets allow themselves any more to be that the work art must attempt is essential: "these are my contents / these paving stones this hymnal / these ruins are to the future what the past is to us."
Garth Greenwell is a Mellon Fellow at Harvard University, where he studies English literature. He holds an MFA from Washington University in St. Louis, and has new work in current or forthcoming issues of Pleiades, Slope, American Book Review, Good Foot, and Beloit Poetry Journal. This essay has previously appreared in "Pleiades". Greenwell is a frequent contributor to In Posse.
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