Introduction for Carolyn Forché reading, Sarah Lawrence College


As every writer in the room knows, “Every art leans on some other,” as Adrienne Rich has written, and I owe such a debt to Carolyn Forché. In 1982 I was living in San Francisco, twenty-one years old, drinking too much, not writing poetry—and then I read The Country Between Us. In that book, the poet took what I thought were two irreconcilably separate rooms—the poet’s and the activist’s—and brought them together, and made a room where I could live. And she did this without trivializing the worldly on one hand and without emptying the worldly of intimacy on the other: she spoke about public matters in a private voice. And not cheerily—not, as James Baldwin once said about some white singers, in a “brave and sexless little voice”—but in a grown voice, a knowing voice, a grieving voice. When I left San Francisco I moved back to Scituate, the town in Massachusetts where I grew up--one of the poems in The Country Between Us ends with the line, “Hikmet did not choose to be Hikmet,” and I must have spent three months ransacking the provincial resources of my hometown trying to figure out who Hikmet was. Eventually I did, and in this way Carolyn Forché also introduced me to her tradition, to the writers of the 20th century bent on this same project, like Nazim Hikmet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Yannis Ritsos, and Pablo Neruda.

Long before she went to El Salvador, Carolyn Forché had embarked on this project; in her first book, Gathering the Tribes, there are lines quoting her grandmother:

Before we have a village Across the Slovakian border Now There is no Slovakia

These lines coexist beside others indicating Forché’s capacity for the kind of radical nearness that the forces arranging the world—which Subcomandante Marcos calls in shorthand “la máquina”—would prefer we not have with anyone:

She took up against her hoe stick, watched the moon
She could hear snow touch chopped wood
Her room smelled of advent candles
Cake flour clung to her face

In his introduction to that book, Stanley Kunitz wrote, “Kinship is the theme that preoccupies Carolyn Forché.” And as she’s kept on, she’s extended that kinship, to strangers:  in particular to suffering strangers, to the survivors of what she calls in Against Forgetting ‘historical extremity,’ and to its victims, the dead.

Carolyn called this in one interview “a meditation on the century”: “I’m friends with a lot of dead people,” she said, and she seems determined to keep to that kind of friendship’s stringent terms. There’s a man called Moshe Zuckermann who runs the Institute for German Studies at Tel Aviv University, whose parents survived Auschwitz, who’s written an article called, “The Shoah on Trial,” about what he calls the ‘instrumentalization’ of the Holocaust: “the Israeli political culture,” he writes, “has never been able to openly confront the true situation of the Holocaust victim, a situation of total helplessness.” He tells the story of a man named Katzetnik who tried to testify at the Eichmann trial and collapsed on the witness stand: “From this perspective, it seems that the only true confrontation possible between the horrors of the Holocaust (personified by Eichmann) and the survivor was expressed by the collapse of Katzetnik in the witness-box, when he was facing the mass-murderer--the definitive representation of what he referred to, at that time, as ‘the other planet’--and had to remember what happened ‘there.’”

Carolyn Forché lives on ‘the other planet,’ which is of course, here, although we try desperately to avoid that—especially in this country, struggling with what James Baldwin called “the American affliction—their stubborn, manic refusal to accept their history.” She describes the voice animating the poems in her book The Angel of History as “polyphonic, broken, haunted, and in ruins, with no possibility of restoration.” But the language in which she expresses this is beautiful—it says secretly that what’s left is alive, that the body is alive, that if grief is possible so is another world—that the victory of la máquina is not complete if a woman can refuse to forget, and can keep singing sorrow songs this way.

In a poem called “North American Time,” Adrienne Rich wrote about “the thought that what I must meant to break my heart and reduce me to silence” —that silence haunts Carolyn Forché’s work but does not consume it. She is intent on something else, something like what Muriel Rukeyser referred to in a poem that begins “I lived in the first century of world wars”:

Most mornings I would be more or less insane,
The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,
The news would pour out of various devices
Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen.
 ... In the day I would be reminded of those men and women
Brave, setting up signals across vast distances,
Considering a nameless way of living, of almost unimagined values.

There’s a book of translations of the poems of Juan Gelman, great poet of Argentina, called Unthinkable Tenderness, which hints at something about Carolyn Forché’s voice--la derrota, defeat--“Bajo la lluvia ajena,” “Under Foreign Rain,” 1980, when the counterrevolution whose triumph we’re now witnessing entered the world stage:

Here’s to you, beauty (Gelman wrote). We are pieces of the universal journey, different, opposite, carried along by the same waves.

We will land on some beach. We’ll build a little fire against cold and hunger. We’ll be passionate under the same night. We’ll see each other, we’ll see.

Please welcome Carolyn Forché.