January 29, 2014

A Bit of Speaking: Carolyn Forché's "Elegy"

 Carolyn Forché, in the end note to her 1994 book: "The Angel of History is not about experiences. It is for me the opening of a wound...."

Paul Klee, Angelus Novus (1920)

For awhile in the late '90s I carried this book around and wrote passionate, deeply personal responses to the poems in it. Although at the time I was attending more to the racking anguish Forché was reporting than to the events at its source, the book gave weight and substance to the idea that the personal and the political are intertwined, an idea that had so far been, for me, largely theoretical.

In "Elegy," Forché places in conjunction two of the book's deeply resonant questions: "To what and to whom does one say yes?/If God were the uncertain, would you cling to him?" I said yes to the lyric back then, clung to it as a possibility, a redemption, just what in the end note Forché seems to say it is not.

Redemptive or not, they are poems I return to, and not just out of nostalgia, or a wish to revisit some youthful impassioned seeking.

Looking into The Angel of History now, as my own country seems to be slouching toward a social condition I do not associate with the civil, humane place I grew up, I am struck again, forcefully, by the devastations that underlie Forché's words.

And I do not know exactly what I want to say about it.

Praising The Angel of History on its publication twenty years ago, Derek Walcott averred that "her mutterings will continue to haunt the future...during whatever fresh horrors our century will report..."

In her 2011 essay for Poetry Magazine, Reading the Living Archives, Forché defines poetry of witness as "a mode of reading, a readerly encounter with the literature of that-which-happened."  And further: "evidentiary rather than representational."

So I look to the poems for evidence about what happened, in the hope that I will recognize its many future forms.

On the one hand, my concerns about what's happening now in Canada pale in comparison to those "fresh horrors." By "what's happening" I mean things like the closing of libraries, destruction of research records, dismantling of  information resources, silencing of voices of knowledge and experience in the sciences, promotion of economic development at the expense of the very environment it inhabits.... These are a far cry from the horrors of Forché's witnessing.

And yet. I can't help feeling it's in exactly these kinds of seemingly small increments that a society changes, so that ordinary people wake up one day to find themselves part of a previously unimagined, unrecognizable regime of repression, even atrocity, and wonder how and when it happened.

My country is becoming strange to me. I don't recognize my values in its politics.

"And so we revolt against silence with a bit of speaking."

Goya, Caprichos, #43 (The sleep of reason produces monsters), 1799
Read more about Carolyn Forché and the poetry of witness in her address to the 2009 Reykjavik International Literary Festival and in this 2011 essay from Poetry Magazine

1 comment:

  1. It seems to me we need the poetry of witness now, here, for exactly the reasons you speak of: "...it's in exactly these kinds of seemingly small increments that a society changes, so that ordinary people wake up one day to find themselves part of a previously unimagined, unrecognizable regime of repression, even atrocity, and wonder how and when it happened."
    I've read -- and been inspired by -- Carolyn Forché, book by book, since 1976.
    Thanks, Susan, for her quotation about the poetry of witness -- that is should be "evidentiary rather than representational." This is something I will think about.

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