A Note on Carolyn Forche's "Blue Hour", (Harper Collins Publishers, 2003)
    Ilya Kaminsky and Kathryn Farris
Carolyn Forche never fails to surprise her readers. With every new book of poems, from her first collection, "Gathering the Tribes" to her most recent, "Blue Hour," Forche has discovered and investigated a new territory in American poetry-- a territory which no one before her has examined with such power, precision and beauty. One only needs to quote a single poem from each of her volumes to illustrate how easily this poet is able to bring about dramatic changes in her tone, voice and scope.

For instance, here is her "The Morning Baking," a beautiful invocation to her grandmother from the earliest book, "Gathering the Tribes:"

The Morning Baking

Grandma, come back, I forgot
How much lard for these rolls

Think you can put yourself in the ground
Like plain potatoes and grow in Ohio?
I am damn sick of getting fat like you

Think you can lie through your Slovak?
Tell filthy stories about the blood sausage?
Pish-pish nights at the virgin in Detroit?

I blame your raising me up for my Slav tongue
You beat me up out back, taught me to dance

I'll tell you I don't remember any kind of bread
Your wavy loaves of flesh
Stink through my sleep
The stars on your silk robes

But I'm glad I'll look when I'm old
Like a gypsy dusha hauling milk

And here is "The Colonel", a brilliant first hand account of experiencing atrocity in "The Country Between Us":

The Colonel

What you have heard is true. I was in his house. His wife carried a tray of coffee and sugar. His daughter filed her nails, his son went out for the night. There were daily papers, pet dogs, a pistol on the cushion beside him. The moon swung bare on its black cord over the house. On the television was a cop show. It was in English. Broken bottles were embedded in the walls around the house to scoop the kneecaps from a man's legs or cut his hands to lace. On the windows there were gratings like those in liquor stores. We had dinner, rack of lamb, good wine, a gold bell was on the table for calling the maid. The maid brought green mangoes, salt, a type of bread. I was asked how I enjoyed the country. There was a brief commercial in Spanish. His wife took everything away. There was some talk then of how difficult it had become to govern. The parrot said hello on the terrace. The colonel told it to shut up, and pushed himself from the table. My friend said to me with his eyes: say nothing. The colonel returned with a sack used to bring groceries home. He spilled many 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. I am tired of fooling around he said. As for the rights of anyone, tell your people they can go fuck themselves. He swept the ears to the floor with his arm and held the last of the wine in the air. Something for your poetry, no? he said. 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.

From her third book, "Angel of History," comes a magical elegy for the victims of Hirosima, "The Garden Shukkei-en":

The Garden Shukkei-en

By way of a vanished bridge we cross this river
As a cloud of lifted snow would ascend a mountain.

She has always been afraid to come here.

It is the river she most
Remembers, the living
And the dead both crying for help

A world that allowed neither tears nor lamentation

The matsu trees brush her hair as she passes
Beneath them, as do the shining strands of barbed wire

Where this lake is, there was a lake,
Where these black pine grow, there grew black pine.

Where there is no teahouse I see a wooden teahouse
and the corpses of those who slept in it.

On the opposite bank of the Ota, a weeping willow
Etches its memory of their faces into the water

Where light touches the face, the character for heart is written.

She strokes a burnt trunk wrapped in straw:
I was weak and my skin hung from my fingertips like cloth

Do you think for a moment we were human beings to them?

She comes to the stone angel holding paper cranes
Not an angel, but a woman where she once had been

Who walks through the garden Shukkei-en
Calling the carp to the surface by clapping her hands

Do Americans think of us?

So she began as we squatted over the toilets
If you want, I'll tell you, but nothing I say will be enough

We tried to dress our burns with vegetable oil

Her hair is the white froth of rice rising up kettlesides, her mind also
In the post-war years she thought deeply about how to live

The common greeting dozo-hiroskhu is please take care of me
All hibakusha still alive were children then

A cemetery seen from the air is a child's city

I don't like this particular red flower because
It reminds me of a woman's brain crushed under a roof

Perhaps my language is too precise, and therefore difficult to understand?

We have not, all these years, felt what you call happiness
But at times, with good fortune, we experience something close

As our life resembles life, and this garden the garden
And in the silence surrounding what happened to us

It is the bell to awaken God that we've heard ringing.

What is immediately evident after reading these three poems is how strikingly different they are in their style and form. In fact, they almost seem to be written by a different author. I know no other contemporary American poet whose work has changed so much over the years, no other poet who is able to excel at one genre with such ease and move on, tirelessly exploring. Our critics call Forche a Poet of Witness, focusing on the part of her work which deals with worldly affairs-- and for a good reason, for so many of her poems, deal with societal preservation of memory, dislocation, and human rights abuse. What most critics fail to mention and what is now more visible in her new book, "Blue Hour," is the fact that Forche has for many years been writing powerful poetry of the spirit, poetry of--to borrow her own line--"the silence surrounding what happened to us / It is the bell to awaken God that we've heard ringing."

Here, I won't ask why some critics need to pigeon-hole this remarkable poet of the spirit as Political Poet and only see her in that light -- I simply do not know the answer to this question. But I do know that the past century's three or four most wonderful poets of the spirit, Anna Akhmatova, Paul Celan, Edmond Jabes, Osip Mandelshtam-- were all once seen as solely political. Having read Carolyn Forche's Blue Hour, I have no hesitation in placing her name next to theirs. For what a magical book Blue Hour is! The book's central poem, On Earth, is the hymnal recitation of moments, which one after another restore the picture of human existence. Composed in alphabetical order, the lines of this poem, at first seemingly out of place from each other, rhythmically fall into the music of expectation making the reader turn page after page, filled with "song[s] of abundance, psalms of grief." This visionary account of passages from one life to next, is the poetry of witness, yes: witness of the sublime, the "visible invisible." So the words on the page become moments that allow us to see "a door standing not now where once it stood / we are so made that nothing contents us." And so, from moment to moment, we begin to understand:

"Begin with bread torn from bread, beans given to the hungriest, a carcass of flies.
Take the polished stillness from a locked church, prayer notes left between stones.
Answer them and in your net hoist voices from the troubled hours.
Sleep only when the least among them sleeps, and then only until the birds.
Make the flat-bed truck your time and place. Make the least daily wage your value.
Language will rise then like language from the mouth of a still river. No one's mouth.
Bring night to your imagenings. Bring the darkest passage of your holy book."

What is interesting about this book from a purely critical stand point is that Forche arrives in "Blue Hour" with a new and unique ability to blend genres in a way that is both inventive and classic. In "On Earth," for instance, she is employing a lyric form, but her scope clearly attempts to take on an epic proportion. Her form is connected to the ages-old tradition of the hymnal yet, it seems very fresh in its rhythmical possibilities. Curiously, as it progresses, this hymn itself gives us the guidance on how it should be read, on how these polyphonic moments should fall into a single uttering.

Such weaving of voices and moments is very inventive and becomes strangely memorable when fragments begin to respond to each other through the text. Forche writes, "The room turns white again, and white. For years I have opened my eyes and not known where I was," whose inner uncertainty echoes her landscape "and unbeknown to us, what these fields had been" while in a few pages we find that "the first love is also there, running through the fields as if he could escape." This echoing of images creates a progress of its own, running a narrative threat through the longer poems. What begins with "a woman alone rows across the lake. Her life is intact but what she thought could never be taken away has been taken," opens up a page or two latter for the readers to discover that "...My son rows toward me against the wind. For thirty six years, he rows/ In 1986, he is born in Paris." It almost seems to me that by placing lyrical fragments in a certain way, she is able to have them tell a narrative of their own without actually employing the narrative form as her tool.

Still, the book's strongest point, it seems to me, is not its inventions, not even its breath-taking catalogue of lyrical moments, but its attempt to deliver a true vision of a larger scope. Forches attainment of almost Rilkean visionary intensity in this book is what I find most noteworthy, most deserving of praise. Her intensity is, above all, serious. As Calvin Bedient implied in Salmagundi (in his essay on Jorie Graham), Carolyn Forche is the most serious poet writing in English today. I find myself in total agreement with Bedients statement. For example, when I think of 9/11 and want to find poem that would respond adequately --not on the political but on a seriously visionary level-- to such an event, I think of Forche's "Hive":


into a light most unexpected the glass hives
executed labors whose writings in a darkness are lost

meanwhile they exhaust the city's supplies
and live only in the midst however abundant

inaudible to them the murmur that comes to us
song of abundance psalms of grief

an entire absence of hesitation
whereby they break with the past as though with an enemy

it is not without prescience their summoning
as though nothing is happening will come back

to live as long as the world itself in those who come after

too vast to be seen too alien to be understood
prefers what is not yet visible to that which is

as a society organizes itself and rises so does a shrinkage enter
so crowded does the too prosperous city become

the era of revolutions may close and work become the barricade
suddenly abandoning generations to come
the abode of the future wrapped in a shroud
a door standing not now where once it stood

we are so made that nothing contents us

It is no secret that contemporary American poetry is bitterly divided. Many of our experimental poets are writing rather well, but they seem to have nothing to write about. Their opponents in the so called "humanist" camp certainly do have an idea of what the moral fable is about, but their treatment of words on a page is, often boring. This is not helped by our critics who seem to like the idea of "divide and conquer," pigeonholing writers right and left without mercy (in the end, who can say that Anne Carson of "Essay On Glass" is not a narrative poet and Loise Gluck of "Arrarat" is not a confessional?). Such classifications are clearly pointless and the purpose of this discussion is neither to lament them nor to pick a fight. But since these divisions are commonplace on the pages of our leading journals, it is interesting to observe that Forche's new work brings a sense of unity and wholeness, which is rare. While her linguistic strengths are apparent, they are more than a simple show; she writes magical poetry that has a serious, moral and spiritual purpose.

Kathryn Farris is an assistant poetry edtor of In Posse Review and Ilya Kaminsky is the poetry editor.



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