Skip to main content

All journeys are wise - when viewed with enough time and distance. Looking back on life's passages, the wrong turns and chance meetings, even dead-end streets can assume a place in a clear and purposeful progression. It's in the day-to-day navigation that an individual's inner compass and determination are tested. And for an artist, the sum of those daily choices, both mundane and monumental, leave an indelible mark on the character of the individual and the content of the creation.

Entering the middle passage of her life, poet Carolyn Forche has received more acclaim and notoriety, witnessed more instances of cold brutality and generosity of spirit than one might expect in several lifetimes. This past month saw the publication of "The Angel of History," the first new collection of her work in over 13 years. I met with the poet at her Maryland home. The two-hour interview I'd arranged somehow expanded into an eight-hour marathon conversation. And the lasting impression I came away with concerns the tangled, dangerous, and utterly guileless path she has traveled in her life. Hers has been a triumph of the honest choice over the expedient, the strength of personal commitment over the tidal sway of public opinion. Along the way, and very likely because of it, she has created a collection of verse that addresses the terror and inhumanity that have become standard elements in the 20th-century political landscape - and yet affirms as well the even greater reservoir of the human spirit.

Her literary career had the most auspicious of beginnings; her first book, "Gathering the Tribes," won the Yale Younger Poets Award in 1976. A Guggenheim Fellowship followed shortly after. Trying to work her way through writer's block, she began to translate the poetry of Claribel Alegria, a Salvadoran poet living in Spain. She was invited to spend the summer in Deya, Majorca, at Alegrs home. In 1977, Forche was a young poet making her first trip away from the United States.

Her friend, the writer Terrence Des Pres, insisted she make a little pilgrimage during her brief stopover in France. "Terrence said, `when you get to Paris, go to Notre Dame ... and walk across the quay and look for a black iron gate and a white stairwell."' He would not tell her beforehand what she'd find. Dragging her huge suitcase down the shadowy steps, she found herself in "the memorial to the 200,000 people who were deported from France during the shoah. There were white rooms with stone walls, poetry carved into the walls, different poets who had been in the camps. And there was a tunnel with 200,000 tiny beads of light embedded in its walls, one for each of the lives.... And you could hear the river rushing past the windows. I stayed there for a long time."

Forche copied down some of the poems in her journal, but later in Spain, the notebook was accidentally left out in the rain. The lines of poetry remained but the author's name was washed away. A decade of searching never turned up the poet's identity.

Forche spent three months working with Alegria, dazzled by the international coterie of artists and writers who would congregate daily at her house. The experience reinforced in her the desire to do something, to make a difference with her work.

After the summer, she returned to California, taught creative writing at San Diego State College, and felt largely uninspired. "One day I was home alone and I heard a truck pull up in the driveway.... It had Salvadoran license plates and was covered with dust." A man emerged accompanied by two little girls. With some trepidation, she ascertained that this was Leonel Gomez Vides, the "crazy nephew" of Claribel Alegria. "He carried a roll of white paper with him and a fistful of pencils.... He walked into my house like he owned the place and asked me to clear off my dining-room table ... and announced `we have work to do.' He put his books and papers down ... and didn't leave my house for three days and three nights."

He became her self-appointed teacher, conducting a crash course in Central American history from the Spanish conquest to the present. At first Forche was fascinated by his intensity and thought of his stories as background for her translations. But his final challenge was a daunting one: "He said, `Claribel tells me you've won a Guggenheim Fellowship. Congratulations!' Then he asked me if I'd understood the Vietnam War when it was going on? ...`Would you like to see one from the beginning? ... My country is going to be at war in three to five years. And your country is going to be involved ... and I want to invite a poet to come down there now so that when all of this happens, this person can inform people here about what's going on."'

Forche explained to him that poets lack a compelling credibility in the United States and suggested that it might be more useful to invite a journalist instead. But Leonel insisted that "he needed a peculiar kind of sensitivity" for this task. In the end, she believed that this man was either exaggerating or just plain wrong in his vision of American entanglement in another third-world conflict. But she allowed curiosity to win out over caution and accepted his invitation. Paris or Rome might have been the more romantic choice for a poet on a Guggenheim fellowship seeking the illusive muse. Though her friends were unanimously opposed to the idea, Forche journeyed, not east toward to the "city of lights," but south to San Salvador in 1978.

In the end, her mentor was not wrong in the details of his predictions, only in the timing. By the autumn of 1979, the first of several coups had toppled the government, a civil war was erupting, and Forche found herself in the very eye of the storm.

For a year she met with people from all around El Salvador, worked for Archbishop Oscar Romero's church group, documented horrifying cases of human rights abuses, and began to take her first tentative steps back toward poetry. By 1980, when the fighting was becoming too dangerous, Archbishop Romero requested that Ms. Forche return home. "`Talk to the American people,' he said. `Tell them what is happening to us. Convince them to stop the military aid.' He had this whole program of things he wanted me to do." He sat with his white cassock in the little kitchen of the nuns' Divine Providence Hospital, 20 feet from the chapel where, one week later, he would be assassinated.

Back in the United States, the young poet struggled to justify Romero's faith in her. She wrote articles and traveled across the country, reading her poetry and talking about the conflict in Central America. Her poems both startled and galvanized audiences with their depiction of the pervasive brutality being employed in El Salvador against their own people.

Literary publishers turned away from Forchs new book, citing the charged political nature of the poetry - even though the El Salvador poems comprised only an eight-poem section. Finally, with some assistance from writer Margaret Atwood, "The Country Between Us" was published and became an almost immediate success. The El Salvador conflict had suddenly been thrust into the American consciousness by the killing of four American church women, and Forchs book became a part of the national debate on Central American policy.

The brand "political poet" was used to both damn and lionize her work. She found herself mired in what she now sees is "the cyclic debate peculiar to the United States concerning the relationship between poetry and politics .... And I felt that the debate wasn't a useful one, that the grounds were reductive and simplistic and unhelpful to anyone who wanted to think about the responsibility of citizens, much less writers.... There was no notion that language might be inherently political or perhaps ideologically charged whatever the subject matter and even when the person isn't aware of [it]."

A few writers went so far as to suggest that Forche fabricated her entire El Salvador experience. (The mention of this brings an ironic smile to her husband's face; photojournalist Harry Mattison met his future wife in El Salvador while covering the war for Time magazine.) Yet others defended her work, arguing that no one would have thought anything amiss had a man ventured into this war zone and authored these poems. The sadness for Forche was that all this sound and fury focused attention on the personality of the writer, obscuring the poems themselves.

Still, "The Country Between Us" was awarded the prestigious Lamont Poetry Prize, and the poet found herself reading and teaching all around the country. Most writers would thrive on the prospect of a national readership; it had the opposite effect on Forche. Between the hectic travel schedule, the absence of solitude, and anguish over the deaths of Salvadoran friends, she felt that something of herself was being obliterated in the process. She was learning that this was the price of her desire to "do" something. In the following years, she taught, traveled, reported for National Public Radio from war-torn Beirut and South Africa, and worked for Amnesty International. But the inner voice that had brought her the poetry was gone.

Or, if not "gone," altered. "At this time," she remembers, "I was writing something that was unrecognizable to me.... The work on the page was rather fragmented and unusual looking. And so I thought these must constitute notes toward poems. Because I was still laboring under the assumption ... that a poem was a first-person lyric narrative free-verse construct. That it had a voice which was governed by an authoritative subjectivity that could experience the world and express that experience with all its truth-claims.... And what I was doing was not that at all.... I was very frustrated, and I put it all in boxes and didn't know what to do. And seven years passed."

About to have her first baby, Forche and her husband moved to Paris. To ease the physical discomfort and the lonely hours, she embarked on a new project: "There was a book in the cupboard of French poetry. I went and got a very large French-English dictionary ... because I decided that if I was going to have a baby in France, I should learn some French! And I had this romantic notion that I was going to learn French by translating poetry.... I had almost worked my way through the French text. And what was on the last page? The lines I had copied from the Holocaust memorial! I had found him! It was the poet Robert Desnos who died in the concentration camps."

The discovery not only led her to eventually publish a translation of Desnos's work, but also inspired an even larger undertaking. "I was having difficulty writing at all, much less writing politically or nonpolitically.... I felt there was something broken within me, and that brokenness manifested itself in the language on the page. And I began to read the works of other poets who had endured warfare or ... had been imprisoned or forced into exile. I was interested in the impress of extremity on the poetic imagination.... And if a work was not explicitly about war, would you be able to tell that the poet had been through this?"

She began obsessively reading and collecting contemporary poetry from around the world. In 1992, after a decade of gathering poems, she published "Against Forgetting," a giant compendium of what she calls "the poetry of witness." Forche sees this anthology as "a symphony of utterance, a living memorial to those who had died and those who survived the horrors of the 20th century." And indeed, her reading of this literature convinced her that "if a poet is a survivor of the camps during the shoah, for example, and the poet chooses to write about snow falling, one can discern the camps in the snow falling...." Perhaps without realizing it, she had also opened the next path on her own journey.

In 1987, Forche moved back to the United States. While her husband had to be away, she and her young son, Sean, took a small apartment in Provincetown, Mass. A friend, poet Daniel Simko, lived nearby. "He was upset that I wasn't writing ... and he said, `I'll take Sean for two hours every afternoon.... I'll take him out in the carriage, I'll take him to the beach.... but you have to promise to write poetry while I'm gone...."' And knowing she might succumb to the impulse to clean or shop during these respites, he added "And I want to see the pages when I get back here with him."

The gift of time was precisely what was needed. The same cryptic multivoiced lines began appearing in her mind, but now she had the means to receive them, to pursue their leads, to shape them on the page. "And I realized that now it was emerging as something intact in and of itself. And yes, there were absences in it and disruptions in it, and there was not this discernible first-person voice sustaining itself and gathering momentum.... No, this was something ongoing and building, interrupting itself and shifting course."

What emerged as "The Angel of History" is a mosaic of voices in four long poem-sequences; it creates the feel of an overarching memory in which the people and events of our century hover. So transparent and unaffected is the writing, we are drawn into offering our own memories, our personal voices into the gathering presence. "There's a line in [`Angel'] that says: `The earth is wrapped in weather, and the weather in risen voices.' And all I could feel when I was writing was that I was somehow pulling at these pieces, these fragments, these swatches of human language. Some of the work obviously issues from my own circumstances, but I don't know where the others come from."

April 7 is Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel, and for two minutes each year the entire country comes to a standstill. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin commented that "the Holocaust is part of all our personal biographies, even if we were not there." Creating a more expansive stillness, Carolyn Forchs book accomplishes much the same purpose. Its web of voices lifts us from the benumbed condition in which we usually consume the daily news and compels us to experience other lives, other struggles, as if they were part of our own memories. The gift of Ms. Forchs "Angel" is that we emerge from this text feeling not less but more human, more aware of the motion of our lives and - though I say it with some sadness -- a bit wiser for the journey.