Back on The Razor's Edge, Again: Carolyn Forche's "Blue Hour": A Personal Reflection After Reading
We all know the morning drill as households empty and the members head off to their various occupations and activities. Saturday morning, though, as long as there are no early sports events, means I can linger -- and that is always when my best thinking happens. Perhaps that's why I woke in my own blue hour thinking about Blue Hour, but it wasn't actually thinking; it never is for me in the mornings. It's more intuitive than that. That time in the morning, when I'm lucky enough to wake before I have to rise, is when I often get the ending to a poem, or the answer to how to run a particular lesson plan more successfully, or, even, knowing which house to buy out of the batch we'd been looking it. So I wasn't surprised to find myself mulling over Forche's "On Earth" or her "Blue Hour" dedicated to her son. On my dresser, I have a beautifully carved jewelry box. Inside it, I have many things: baby's teeth, a score of earrings, glass beads that my children made at the Corning Glass Museum that I'll give them back someday. There's also a little plastics bag of sand. This sand came from the time my family attended a Tibetan sand mandala creation, a thing I've seen only a couple of times in my life. It's part of what's called "kalachakra" meaning "cycles of time," a series of rituals and teachings intended to help believers on the path to enlightenment.
The ceremony involves the creation of a mandala, a painting using variously colored sands in complex representations of gods and items from nature all flowing out in concentric circles. When the painting is done, the monks sweep up the sand and pour it into a local body of water. Sometimes, they give out little bags to the folks who've come to watch like us.
That's what I woke thinking: that Forche's book is like the little bag of sand collected to remind us of and give witness to what we've seen, participated in, experienced though those things are not tangible, are not fully apprehensible, indeed, may leave us thinking about them in many blue hours to come until we've assembled something approaching wisdom, elusive and impossible to sustain.
No one should come to Blue Hour expecting to "get it" the way you don't go to the Upanishads that way either. Forche's book is like that, and just as the Upanishads are about both spiritual vision and philosophical argument that the seeker must embrace and wrestle with, likewise Forche's constructions requires a certain commitment and fortitude from the reader.
At the book's core is sense of certainty which can't be communicated through the strictly and minutely lyric poem that life is, at its essence, incommunicable and must be experiences to be known. Forche reinforces for us that truth is arrived at by personal effort and willingness to engage it. It is a startling book to read after so many weeks of war as the major form of entertainment on television. We're reminded by her book that we don't know anything by proxy.
But it is not an easy book, not one that you can open and nibble at the way you might a less complex work. "On Earth" for example, is 47 pages long and is based, according to Forche's notes, on gnostic abecedarian hymns dating from the third century. That's surely a bit on the esoteric side, and outside my experience, but such an accomplishment! Not as easy as, say, watching PBS on a Friday night -- I gave up Bill Moyers's Now to read this.
The week prior to reading Forche's book, I had interviewed poet Yusef Komunyakaa for the television station. Of the many interesting things that Komunyakaa said, one thing keeps coming back to me in relation to Blue Hour; he said, in the context of a larger conversation, that poetry is not entertainment. T he implications are tremendous. Poetry is like the sand mandala; like Forche's "On Earth" and her recognition of what a blue hour is and that we need to approach our whole lives as if living in a blue hour: between night and day, life and death, childhood and adulthood, a moral landscape that is neither black or white, but begs our deep consideration.
We don't live in this age! We watch Crossfire! and The O'Reilly Factor and let that stand for civic involvement. Forche's book is not easy. It requires, as Stephen Dunn has said, "a willing and intelligent reader" most certainly. It is a book that I will have to return to over and over and be grateful that it helps bring me back to a place so elemental that it reduces to inconsequential the adolescent concerns of the time. It's no walk in the park. It's for the mountain climber in all of us: you'll have to hold on, scale it, sit in its crevasses, be humbled, lost, reclaimed. It is a breathtaking piece of work. It's the razor's edge, and Forche beckons you to come out there with her, be there with her, and let the world wash over you. From her "Sequestered Writing": The child hears from within: come here and know, below/And unbeknownst to us, what these fields have been.