Authors: Carolyn Forché

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American poet

Author Works

Poetry:

Gathering the Tribes, 1976

The Country Between Us, 1981

The Angel of History, 1994

Blue Hour, 2003

Nonfiction:

El Salvador: The Work of Thirty Photographers, 1983 (text for photographs)

Translations:

Flowers from the Volcano, 1982 (of Claribel Alegría)

The Selected Poems of Robert Desnos, 1991 (with William Kulik)

Sorrow, 1999 (of Alegría)

Edited Texts:

Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness, 1993

Writing Creative Nonfiction: Instruction and Insight from Teachers of the Associated Writing Programs, 2001 (with Philip Gerard)

Biography

The early life of Carolyn Louise Forché (fohr-SHAY) in a working-class immigrant family in Detroit colored her feelings about her work as a writer, and it supplied her with themes for her first volume of poetry, Gathering the Tribes. That volume was done as part of her work for the M.F.A. degree she received from Bowling Green State University; it later was selected for the Yale Younger Poets Award. Forché’s topics in that collection portray the world from which she came. In the introduction to the volume, the poet Stanley Kunitz discusses the kinship theme.{$I[AN]9810001945}{$I[A]Forché, Carolyn}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Forché, Carolyn}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Forché, Carolyn}{$I[tim]1950;Forché, Carolyn}

Carolyn Forché

(© Jerry Bauer)

An important poem in the collection is “Burning the Tomato Worms.” Here Forché portrays an immigrant Uzbek woman, Anna (her grandmother), whose life still reflects her peasant past. “Eat Bread and Salt and Speak the Truth,” she says; Forché refers to the flowers and vegetables Anna grew, and to the china Virgin on her mantle, complete with an electric-bulb heart. In the poem Forché also claims relationships with the voices of Native Americans, with Hispanic speakers in the Southwest, and with speakers from bleak early farm life in the upper Midwest where Forché grew up. Taken together, they are the voices of the dispossessed.

Forché next spent time in Central America, where she worked with Amnesty International and observed the region’s terrible poverty and human rights abuses, particularly in El Salvador. Her outrage at what she saw led to her second book, The Country Between Us. Here she does more than claim kinship with the dispossessed; she clearly feels a moral imperative to act as a witness to what has happened among them. The poems in this volume range from descriptions of the country to painful statements about the barbarisms of military terrorism. In “The Visitor,” for example, Forché concludes that “There is nothing one man will not do to another.” Two poems in the collection stand out particularly, “The Return” and “The Colonel.” Here Forché promises to tell Americans what she has witnessed, “machetes with whiskey” and people kept for days in pits; she calls it a “long, dull story of corruption.” Forché realizes that Americans are uncomfortable hearing these truths, but she must tell them. “The Colonel,” her most powerful witness to the corruption, is a prose poem that tells of Forché’s visit to the home of a Salvadoran colonel for dinner. His house is a fortress, and he talks small talk about the difficulty of governing in trying times while his children act like American teenagers, his daughter filing her nails, his son going out for the evening. At last he brings out a sack of human ears and pours them onto the table, saying that he is sick of the talk of human rights. The ears look like dried peach halves, and he drops one in a glass of water, where it seems to come alive. He says at the end, “Something for your poetry, no?” In the poem’s final image a few of the ears have fallen to the floor, where they seem to be pressed to the ground, symbolizing Forché’s warning that the very earth cries out against such abuses and that everywhere there are ears to hear.

After The Country Between Us Forché spent several years traveling and speaking about what she had seen in Central America. She was amazed to realize that her poems constituted the major U.S. reporting on the situation. At about this time she met Claribel Alegría and began working on a translation of her poems. During this period she traveled to Lebanon and South Africa with her husband, a journalist.

Her travels and speaking engagements left little time for writing, but by the beginning of 1989 Forché was preparing to begin teaching in George Mason University’s M.F.A. program. In an interview with David Montenegro from that time, she talked about plans for a new collection of poems that would be called The Angel of History, the volume she saw as the unlocking of her writer’s block, which had gone on for five years. The collection explores a new level of lyricism while at the same time honoring Forché’s sense of obligation to the voiceless people of the world, and won the Los Angeles Times Book Award for poetry in 1994. Her anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness stands as another testament to her commitment. In discussing that collection Forché has written that people rely too much on easy categories for poetry, categories that allow the labeling of one poem as personal, of another as political. She herself sees no need to separate such categories, and she fears that as a result of what she has called “institutionalized suffering that has been globalized” all human beings could become dispossessed, voiceless, and displaced. Forché has always honored the task of the poet to become the voice of those who cannot speak.

BibliographyBedient, Calvin. “Poetry and Silence at the End of the Century.” Salmagundi, no. 111 (Summer, 1996): 195-207. Bedient compares The Angel of History with Charles Wright’s Chickamauga (1995) and T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922).Bogan, Don. “The Muses of History.” The Nation 24 (October, 1994): 464-469. This brief but careful reading of The Angel of History attends to its structure and tone. Bogan sets Forché’s work alongside James Fenton’s collection Out of Danger (1993).Doubiago, Sharon. “Towards an American Criticism: A Reading of Carolyn Forché’s The Country Between Us.” The American Poetry Review 12 (January/February, 1983): 35-39. Doubiago faults other critics who have no tolerance for a political message in poetry and suggests that any aesthetic has a political basis. She argues that Forché’s work points to the need for “a new poetic ethic.”Forché, Carolyn. Interview by David Montenegro. The American Poetry Review 17 (November/December, 1988): 35-40. Forché discusses a number of issues, including her work-in-progress, the influence of her grandmother on her poetry, her childhood, and Vietnam. She defends her incorporation of historical and political concerns into her poetry.Gleason, Judith. “The Lesson of Bread.” Parnassus: Poetry in Review 10 (Spring/Summer, 1982): 9-21. Gleason finds Forché effective in transmitting the horror of El Salvador in The Country Between Us, but also effective in suggesting a hope for the future by the use of the image of bread making in this volume and in Gathering the Tribes.Greer, Michael. “Politicizing the Modern: Carolyn Forché in El Salvador and America.” The Centennial Review 30 (Spring, 1986): 125-135. Greer presents a useful critical discussion of the eight Salvadoran poems in The Country Between Us, showing how Forché employs modernist poetics to examine political events. The vocabulary drawn from literary theory might prove an obstacle to the uninitiated reader of this article.Ostriker, Alicia. “Beyond Confession: The Poetics of Postmodern Witness.” American Poetry Review 30, no. 2 (March/April, 2001): 35-39. Offers a look at what is likely to be called the poetics of postmodern witness by examining the title poem of Adrienne Rich’s An Atlas of the Difficult World (1991), Forché’s The Angel of History, and Sharon Doubiago’s South America Mi Hija (1992). Ostriker notes how “the fragmentary quality of Forché’s writing registers the way consciousness cracks under the weight” of witnessed horrors.
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