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15th Annual Los Angeles Times Book Prizes : WINNER: CAROLYN FORCHE 'THE ANGEL OF HISTORY' : The Personal as Political

November 13, 1994|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS | Susan Salter Reynolds is an assistant book editor

When Carolyn Forche returned from El Salvador in 1980, where she had been working as a human rights activist, she wrote in her poem "Return": "I go mad, for example, / in the Safeway, at the many heads / of lettuce, papaya and sugar, pineapples / and coffee, especially the coffee. / And when I speak with American men, / there is some absence of recognition."

It may not have been the first time that Forche was witness to the kind of cruelty El Salvador became known for at that time, but her response, recorded in "The Country Between Us," became a sort of bible for puzzling over cruelty and the atrocities of war. The poems feel as though they were written when Forche came home, unable to reconcile daily life with what she had seen and heard. "Better / people than you were powerless" she wrote in "Return." "You have not returned to your country, / but to a life you never left."

These were Forche's poems of witness. If you were fortunate enough to read them in college, when history and the news and literature all left enormous black holes in your understanding; when debates in various seminars over the artificial/official separation of the personal and the political violated your still youthful instincts about how individuals should treat each other, when political science professors almost never let their students read poetry or novels, then you will never ever forget them, even if your well-worn copy was given away in a moment of generous weakness.

After we had lived with them for a while, digested her experiences, Forche's voice became part of our conscience. "To think of the writer as conscience of the world," Daniel Boorstin has written in a new collection of essays, "is only to recognize that the writer, as we have seen, is inevitably a divided self, condemned at the same time to express and to communicate, to speak for the writer and speak to others." Forche's next book, "Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness" collected more than 140 poets from five continents, poems in which the reader can hear "the trace of extremity . . . evidence of what occurred." These poems are written in this century, from the Armenian genocide to Tian An Men Square. The poets must have personally experienced what they write about, they must be considered important to their national literatures, and they must be "available in quality translation."

"What comes to us in the newspapers is not necessarily factual, nor is it necessarily cogent," Forche reminds. Seeing these poems together in one collection reinforces the fact that poetry is an active thing, a triumph of will over circumstance, as Forche paraphrases Walter Benjamin in her introduction: "a poem is itself an event." "The poetry of witness," she writes, "reclaims the social from the political and in so doing defends the individual against illegitimate forms of coercion."

With this collection, Forche gives her readers a place between the personal and the political, a realm she calls "the social," in which voices like that of the Hungarian poet Miklos Radnoti (1909-1944), whose widow found his last poems on his body in a mass grave of prisoners returned from Germany, are respected as historical evidence and testimony to the human spirit all at once: "I believe in miracles, forgot their days;/above me I see a bomber squadron cruise. I was just admiring, up there, your eyes' blue sheen" ( from "Letter to My Wife," Lager Heidenau, above Zagubica in the mountains, August-September, 1944). All of these writers are victims, in one way or another, but their dignity is exquisite, and their experience must be trusted. One very fine form of revenge, a way of annihilating evil, a hopeful reader could conclude, is to make something beautiful.

"The Angel of History," Forche's most recent collection of poems, are so very different from the poems in "The Country Between Us." She is not puzzling, not trying, first and foremost to figure out what to do with her own experience. She is, instead, speaking in the voices of the people whose stories are remembered. It is as though, beyond bearing witness and providing conscience, she has incorporated the history of others into her own genealogy. And there is some calm, some respite from what must be, by now, a terrible roaring inside her; respite in the form of children, pear trees, France and the French. Even names such as Le Monde, and words such as Mais oui! contain slight comfort.

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