On Thursday night I was deliriously happy to have the opportunity to give a small speech introducing the poet Carolyn Forché, who was the keynote speaker for the week long celebration of art, literature and social justice at Loyola Marymount University called the Bellarmine Forum.
It was risky of the Forum’s organizer, my wonderful friend, the gifted poet Gail Wronsky, to assign a non-poet—namely me— to introduce Forché.
But internationally known poet, translator, anthologist and human rights activist Carolyn Forché is one of my heroes, so I said yes right away when Gail asked me—risk or no risk.
If by chance you don’t know Forché’s work, allow me to introduce you—as she is exactly the right poet to talk about on a social justice news site.
Carolyn Forché writes what she describes as the “poetry of witness.”
In her famous anthology, Against Forgetting, Forché quotes the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca. who wrote the following to a friend just before he was abducted and executed in 1936 by fascist troops under the command of General Francisco Franco:
“Art for art’s sake is something that would be cruel, if it won’t fortunately so ridiculous.”
Forché never writes art for art’s sake. She creates her art as an act of engagement with the wounds of the world around her.
Yet, just to be clear, Carolyn Forché does not write political poetry. There are no polemics in her work. She doesn’t lecture. As she herself describes the distinction, there is personal poetry, and there is political poetry.
And then…. there is a third category, a third literary path, which is the one that she inhabits. The third category is poetry of witness, in which one does not take a side, but leaves notes….bread crumbs…. traces—for the rest of us to find.
Forché writes poetry as evidence.
Here, for example, is her most notorious poem, the one that is the most often anthologized, written after her year-long stay in El Salvador, working with Amnesty International, during the late 1970’s at the height of that country’s brutal and deadly civil war.
WHAT YOU HAVE HEARD is true. I was in his house. His wife carried
a tray of coffee and sugar. His daughter filed her nails, his son went
out for the night. There were daily papers, pet dogs, a pistol on the
cushion beside him. The moon swung bare on its black cord over
the house. On the television was a cop show. It was in English.
Broken bottles were embedded in the walls around the house to
scoop the kneecaps from a man’s legs or cut his hands to lace. On
the windows there were gratings like those in liquor stores. We had
dinner, rack of lamb, good wine, a gold bell was on the table for
calling the maid. The maid brought green mangoes, salt, a type of
bread. I was asked how I enjoyed the country. There was a brief
commercial in Spanish. His wife took everything away. There was
some talk then of how difficult it had become to govern. The parrot
said hello on the terrace. The colonel told it to shut up, and pushed
himself from the table. My friend said to me with his eyes: say
nothing. The colonel 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. He took one
of them in his hands, shook it in our faces, dropped it into a water
glass. It came alive there. I am tired of fooling around he said. As
for the rights of anyone, tell your people they can go fuck them-
selves. He swept the ears to the floor with his arm and held the last
of his wine in the air. Something for your poetry, no? he said. Some
of the ears on the floor caught this scrap of his voice. Some of the
ears on the floor were pressed to the ground.
The poet Hannah Arendt once wrote the following about how we must actively reject the unwarranted pain that some humans inflict on others.
One man will always be left alive to tell the story. The lesson of such stories is simple and within everybody’s grasp. It is that, under conditions of terror, most people will comply—but some will not. Humanly speaking, no more is required, and no more can reasonably asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation.
Carolyn Forché never complies. She notices, she illuminates what she has seen and, in doing so, she mends, she repairs, she heals and she restores.
In her recent poem, The Lightkeeper published in the New Yorker this past spring—and which she said will be part of her newest book, nearly finished now— she wrote:
Nothing to be afraid. Nothing but happiness as unbearable as the dread
from which it comes. Go toward the light always, be without ships
Carolyn Forché’s work goes toward the light—always.
PS: There are two of Forché’s books that are among the pile of I always keep by my bed for emotional security: The Angel of History and her 760-page anthology, Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness.
Nelson Mandela wrote of the latter, “Against Forgetting is itself a blow against tyranny, against prejudice, against injustice.”
Against Forgetting in particular is one of the handful of books I would save in a fire, not because I can’t get the thing again, (Obviously, I can order it from Amazon) but because, in a time of duress, I would want to have it with me as a talisman.
PPS: No, this is not the introduction I gave for Carolyn Forché, but yes, I did snip a few things from it.
Okay, back to our regularly scheduled programming.