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When The Angel of History appeared in 1994, its author, Carolyn Forché, was lauded by The Nation as the “muse of history.” Forché had not published a volume of poems for more than a decade, in part because, as she would later admit, the reaction to her previous book had been bruising. That book, The Country Between Us, was published in 1981, and it included eight poems about El Salvador rooted in the year that Forché had spent working there as a human rights activist, sometimes alongside Oscar Romero, the renowned archbishop of San Salvador. Tens of thousands of readers bought The Country Between Us, but not even such success could protect Forché from being treated as a literary pariah. Some critics pilloried her for having dared to mix poetry and politics, while others belittled her particular politics as being nothing more than revolutionary tourism.
Calling Forché the muse of history was as provocative—and inaccurate—as labeling her a revolutionary tourist. The reason is that although two weighty historical events, the Holocaust and the bombing of Hiroshima, are the central subjects of The Angel of History, Forché’s own sense of the past here is largely ahistorical. For an epigraph to the book Forché chose a familiar passage from Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” viz. Thesis IX, the one about an angel of history. Benjamin explains that whereas we perceive in the past a chain of events, the angel sees “one single catastrophe” that keeps piling wreckage at his feet, and although the angel would like to restore this wreckage, he can’t, because a wind blowing in from paradise is pushing him into the future as he looks toward the past.
The notion that history is nothing but a panorama of chaos and despair is a bleak one, and Forché accentuated its bleakness by using a truncated version of Benjamin’s thesis as her epigraph. Thesis IX in fact begins with Benjamin alluding to Paul Klee’s painting Angelus Novelus, in which an angel is depicted as being on the verge of moving away from something he is contemplating beyond the frame. Only after describing Klee’s painting does Benjamin launch into his famous description: “This is how one pictures the angel of history. . . .” Curiously, it is with this sentence that the epigraph of The Angel of History begins. In effect, by omitting Benjamin’s remarks about Angelus NovelusForché eliminates perspective, interpretation, and artifice from the passage—and ends up depicting Benjamin’s deliberate diagramming of a point of view about history as the view of history.
If all of history is one vast disaster, then it’s worth asking why inThe Angel of History Forché singles out the Holocaust and Hiroshima as subjects. In the poems about El Salvador in The Country Between Us, Forché tried to think historically and to depict some of the particular circumstances and beliefs underlying that country’s civil war. “What you have heard is true. I was in his house,” begins the book’s best-known poem, “The Colonel.” In The Angel of History Forché is concerned less with thinking historically and more with defining the moral tone appropriate for memorializing suffering. “What was here before imperfectly erased / and memory a reliquary in a wall of silence,” she writes in “The Notebook of Uprising.” Focusing on the Holocaust and Hiroshima aids this project immensely. The nature of evil in these events is not difficult to discern, so the choice of using them as touchstones for thinking about memory is perversely comforting. The choice supplied Forché with gravitas and a ready-made pathos (if not also a guarantee that the poems would be less controversial than poems about El Salvador). As Forché explains in “The Recording Angel,” “It isn’t necessary to explain.”
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Thwarting the impulse to explain is also a motif of Forche’s new volume of poems, Blue Hour. “So why does it matter how, precisely?” she wonders in “Nocturne,” which eschews clarifying the circumstances of someone’s death and instead tries to evoke the liminal state between life and death, which in “Curfew” she calls “between the no-longer and the still-to-come.” Blue Hourdraws its title from the French phrase l’heure bleue, which is the time, as Forché explains in her notes, “between darkness and day, between the night of a soul and its redemption, an hour associated with pure hovering.” In the 11 poems of Blue HourForché tries to memorialize elusive emotional and psychological states, among them feeding her infant son during l’heure bleue, discovering that her grandmother was insane, or, in “Blue Hour,” being a child bedridden by leg problems:
The room turns white again, and white. For years I have opened my eyes and not known where I was.
It was like a kettle wrapped in towels and bubbling, spewing camphor clouds against walls turning the world beyond the windows white.
I couldn’t move, and when they lifted the tented sheet covering the crib it was only to touch my face.
The point of view Forché cultivates throughout Blue Hour is the perspective of this particular child, who has no calendar in which to locate events and no intellectual means to grasp their significance. “So why does it matter how, precisely?” is a question that such infant sight can’t possibly entertain or answer, and inBlue Hour Forché tries very hard not to look her infant sight away.
In a few poems this sight creates some stirring effects. In the first stanza of the book’s opening poem, “Sequestered Writing,” a child is about to be told of a death in the family, and Forché juxtaposes sharply drawn images to convey that moment’s austere, spooky serenity:
Horses were turned loose in the child’s sorrow. Black and
roan, cantering through snow.
The way light fills the hand with light, November with
graves, infancy with white.
White. Given lilacs, lilacs disappear. Then low voices
rising in walls.
The way they withdrew from the child’s body and spoke
as if it were not there.
For the most part such lines are rare in Blue Hour because Forché’s infant sight is often inadvertently befuddling. The language of her poems is both hypersensitive and desensitized, emotionally charged yet unable to convey pathos effectively. In “Prayer” she urges herself to
Begin again among the poorest, moments off, in another
time and place.
Belongings gathered in the last hour, visible invisible:
Tin spoon, teacup, tremble of tray, carpet hanging from
Say goodbye to everything. With a wave of the hand,
gesture to all you have known.
Forché’s imperatives create a sense of urgency that the poem’s indistinct language fails to match. How can the tremble of a tray be a belonging? What is sorrow’s balcony? And who exactly are the poorest—the poor in spirit, the poor in health, the slum dwellers of Calcutta? Forché exhorts herself to do the irrevocable, to say goodbye to everything, but her own language is not up to the task, for she evokes lost things without intimating why their loss would be exacting and lasting and consequently poignant and worthy of memorialization. Forché seems concerned more with making elegy sound heroic than with creating a language adequate for reckoning with the vicissitudes of her particular losses.
The centerpiece of Blue Hour is “On Earth,” a 46-page abecedarius of arrhythmic fragments that range from pithy phrases (“a ticking telex”) to long catalogues such as “flowers rotting on mounds: air plant, allamanda, amaryllis, spider lily, bougainvillea, shellflower, hibiscus, ashanti blood, trumpet vines, oleander.” It’s a rhetorical mix that Forché first used, and to considerable effect, in “The Notebook of Uprising,” a journal-like poem in The Angel of History that weaves together memories and observations about life in postwar Eastern Europe. But whereas “The Notebook of Uprising” is archaeological in its evocation of the fragmentary layers of historical wreckage, “On Earth” is a continuous, almost depthless stream of discontinuity, a litany of broken images and speech fragments propelled forward only by the order of the alphabet.
“On Earth” is meant to convey an acute sense of the temporal, of things quickly appearing and passing as one heads towards the inevitable end of “zero.” But the poem is mostly static, because the sequencing of lines, despite the abecedarian scheme, feels inadvertently arbitrary. It’s not hard to find lines that, shorn of their leading article or conjunction or fitted with a different leading pronoun or adjective, could be transposed to a slot in the abecedarian sequence where they would coalesce with other lines to create interesting juxtapositions and a patch of decent poetry. I found myself playing this game after reading the few passages in “On Earth” that feel irrevocable, usually because the lines piece together the scraps of a portrait or story. These passages can be brief and abstract (“a white road / a white road billowing behind the relief trucks / a white road ending in one’s own life”), but they work because they hint at a scene or an event within the larger event of life’s inevitable movement toward zero. Consequently, they are vivid in a way that lines like “the soul weighs twenty-six grams and is migratory like the birds / the soul, enamored of greatness” are definitely not. The ineffectual rhetoric that hobbles “Prayer” (heroic pronouncements hitched to non-descriptive descriptions) also weakens “On Earth.”
Those who share Forché’s interest in a religious sublime might find such rhetoric alluring. The epigraph of Blue Hour is from Martin Buber: “‘These moments are immortal, and most transitory of all; no content may be secured from them. . . . Beams of their power stream into the ordered world and dissolve it again and again.’” Forché glosses this notion in a line that appears in both “Blue Hour” and “Afterdeath”: “from the quarry of souls they come into being / supernal lights, concealed light, that which has no end.” When in “On Earth” she writes about “searching for something one knows will not be found / set in language and deserted by God,” it’s hard not to conclude that for Forché language is the remnant of a spiritual power that has withdrawn from the world but is destined, for some inexplicable reason, to return in full force in the future.
While I was reading Blue Hour and puzzling over its brittle, ready-made pathos, two images from Forché’s work kept coming to mind. One image is from the title poem of The Angel of History, in which Forché records a remark she overheard on a boat steaming away from war-ravaged Beirut: “So beautiful, ma’am, from here, the sailor said, if you don’t stop to think.” The other is from Blue Hour itself, and it’s the white towel at the end of “In The Exclusion Zones”:
Ash over conifers and birches, over berry thickets.
Resembling snow and its synonyms. Silvered fields
A silence approaching bees of the invisible or the scent
One need not go further than a white towel hung in an
What exactly are the “exclusion zones”? Forché explains in her notes that they lie within the 30-mile radius surrounding the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl. This fact is intriguing but ultimately beside the point, for what matters is not the poem’s setting but the image dangling at its end. For Forché the towel is not simply a towel; it is a sign of purity, something from which no content may be secured, something that looks beautiful when seen from afar, just as Beirut does to the sailor. The white towel, in other words, is the ideal exclusion zone.
I can’t help but see something different: The white towel as a flag of surrender, just as the sailor’s remark is a tacit admission of surrender, of giving up and choosing not to think. And it’s because of this surrender that for me, the white towel and l’heure bleue are not enough.