Carolyn Forche doesn't shy away from atrocity. The power she wields makes the political horrifyingly real.
Hers is a vital voice, bearing witness to the sins of the world and showing how people live through it.
Her latest collection is The Angel of History. She says the poems in it are less about experiences and more "consciousness of passing through them."
"I'm attempting to show the voice of the soul through this," she said during a phone interview from her Maryland home.
Forche seems to speak of her own voice in the poem "The Notebook of Uprising": "You loved the shabbiness of the world: countries invaded, cities bombed, houses whose roofs have fallen in, / women who have lost their men, orphans, amputees, the war wounded. / What you did not love any longer was a world that had lost its soul."
"Yes, that's an important line," she said. "It's a deep spiritual worry that I have."
She offers haunting images: a blank-eyed boy aimlessly pedaling a bicycle with a naked broken doll in its basket, crows descending on a child to pull hair for their nests, a baby crawling over its dead mother seeking milk. These she seems to draw into her, embracing them with a kind of maternal love.
It's the search for the world's soul that is more troubling.
"And the world is worse now than it was then," she writes in the voice of a woman whose husband was a soldier fighting the Nazis.
Spanning decades and continents, the ambitious The Angel of History was 14 years in the writing, and a lifetime in the making.
Forche (pronounced For-SHAY) began writing at her mother's encouragement when she was 9, and seriously at 19. By 24, she had published Gathering the Tribes, a collection of poems that spoke of the bonds between families. She recalls her childhood and adolescence, calls upon her ancestors, delves into American Indian culture and explores her emerging sexuality in this volume.
She invokes the memory of a Slovak grandmother whose "hands were like wheat rolls shelling snow peas," who "knew how much grease / How deep to seed / That cukes were crawlers." She recalls waiting in a pony stall "for a boy / To come, circle his tongue / In my mouth" and loving a woman: "With her palms she / spread my calves, she / moved my heels from each other."
Her work then lead her to the poetry of Salvadorian writers. She translated Claribel Algeria's Flowers from the Volcano and she also co-authored Women in the Labor Movement.
This then "lead to human rights work," she said of her experience as an activist in El Salvador. She lectured on human rights and was a correspondent for National Public Radio in Beruit.
"The human rights work lead to socially engaging poetry," she said of her collection The Country Between Us. The book was controversial at the time in its awakening of political consciousness.
One of its most noted poems, "The Colonel," tells of how the man at a dinner party in his home "returned with a sack used to bring groceries home. He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like dried peach halves. There is no other way to say this."
Rather than recoil in horror at the almost surreal experiences of human cruelty, Forche shows how people survive in an unbearable world.
After she was changed forever by what she had seen and experienced, she was moved to find other poets of witness, other writers who had the ability to tell of atrocities humans commit against each other. She compiled and edited a collection, Against Forgetting: 20th Century Poetry of Witness.
"During the gathering of these poems, The Angel of History came out," she said. The poems trace the landscape of France, Japan and Germany and the effects of war on the land and its people.
The book is in homage to Jewish German philosopher Walter Benjamin, who died in 1940. She prefaces the book with a quote from Benjamin that the angel of history sees the past as "one single catastrophe" and that he would "like to make whole what has been smashed" but is rendered helpless by the future.
When Forche reads from her work, she hopes her words will stir her listeners, move them forward. "I enjoy creating a community with an audience," she said. "I'm always hoping the audience will be somehow moved to thoughtful contemplation in some way."
A dynamic storyteller and reader of her work, Forche said she has always enjoyed performing. "When I was a child in Catholic school, the nuns encouraged me to read interpretively," she said. "It seemed coincidental to writing when I was growing up."
Consequently, when she speaks her work, the words come alive from the page, as relevant now as when she first wrote them.