Jim Schley's Essays

Carolyn Forché’s Blue Hour

Over thirty years, Carolyn Forché has published only four volumes of poetry, each entirely unique, and all still in print. Arriving so infrequently and after such clearly painstaking gestation, Forché’s books are  anticipated by many readers with heightened expectations.

Forché’s second release, The Country Between Us (Harper & Row, 1981), was one of American poetry’s rare bestsellers, surprising indeed given its complicated and agonizing theme: the disparity between our alleged principles of democracy and justice and the shocking violence of life in the world at large.

For many of us, this was a watershed book — my generation’s Howl, comparable in its erotic candor and political verve to Allen Ginsberg’s legendary jeremiad. 

Her latest book, Blue Hour, is composed of eleven poems, a linked sequence. Dramatically unlike the first-person narrative lyrics of The Country Between Us, the new work is musical rather than discursive in manner, as delicate as Chopin and likewise muscular and precise. As always in Forché’s books, the visual imagery is gorgeous, in movements of strobe-like intensity:

The room turns white again, and white. For years I have opened my eyes

and not known where I was.

It was like a kettle wrapped in towels and bubbling, spewing camphor

clouds against walls turning the world beyond the windows white.

I couldn’t move, and when they lifted the tented sheet covering the crib

it was only to touch my face.

This was the year my mother’s mother died in the asylum, Eloise.

Mindless. Without protection from the world.

Her hair, white, everywhere, her eyes the windows of a ruined house.

Like a kettle, but made of apothecary glass, so that it was possible to

watch the liquid boil inside. 

In their edgy sensations and atmosphere, the poems in Blue Hour evoke the political world that surrounds us, alluding to cordite and strafing — "checkpoints, road blocks, barricades . . ." — but are never explicit about setting or subject. The poet assiduously avoids conventional anecdotes with characters and scenes. Often the pronouns are ambiguous; who is the "she," "he," "I," "we" to whom we’re referred? Explanation or "story" are evident only by implication, like an embedded armature.

Blue Hour is Forché’s "Song of Not Myself," and in lieu of Whitman’s pastoral leaves of grass her gaze surveys endless sheaves of ash. 

The book’s longest poem, "On Earth," occupying forty-five pages, seems without precedent in recent American poetry. Forché explains in a note that its origins are in a form of "Gnostic abecedarian hymns . . . from the third century A.D.," which "along with Christian and Buddhist texts . . . were recovered from . . . the northern fringe of the Taklamakan Desert early in the twentieth century." 

Thinking of this poem’s aphoristic, syntactically fragmentary, and alphabetically ordered lines as hymn-like is very helpful. One hears them in the mind’s ear as a psalmody of modern catastrophe: "the trembling of river stones, the ignition of spirit, the firing of human thought . . ."

 "On Earth" accrues in page after page of incremental segments, periodically adjusting its key or tonal register. Visually the left-hand margin shifts like an index through an alphabetical progression of initial letters. While the form of the abecedary is completely flexible, the motif of alphabetical ordering lends solidity to a structure that could otherwise seem amorphous. Here is segment that shows the transition from u to v to w:

une enfant qui meurt wrapped in a trouser leg

unspeakable in language

unspoken thoughts, leaving us in their proximity, alone

until dawn in the fire tower

until this, that

vesture, vigil light, votive

visible only to God

walking the streets, tented in bedclothes

war-eyed in the warehouse of history

war no longer declared but only continued

warning us of its nature and our own

washing its windows until they vanish

One risk of this poem’s continuous reliance upon sentence fragments is lassitude: the poetic material can seem loosely organized, nascent, like lists or notations in a private journal.

Yet Forché’s poems unfold with ceremonious elegance, maintaining a tone of utmost seriousness. Piercing descriptive images and intricate phrasing, like a dancer’s cadenced gait across the page, keep pulling this reader back steadily, though these poems are undeniably demanding, revealing their intentions only gradually. 

As Forché acknowledges in an interview with Michael Silverblatt, (Lannan Literary Videos #40, 1994). "I came of age as a poet . . . during the evolution of the first person narrative free verse poem." In such poems, typical of their era, recognizable "subject matter" serves as what Forché calls "paraphrasable content."

Forché explains that she eventually "came to see memory as a kind of fiction." So writing began to be "an experience of moving through the past and memory as though through rubble, or a ruin. You can retrieve from the ground little chips . . . , and you can assemble something that might possibly resemble or suggest what occurred." 

Instead of taking the form of one individual’s thoughts and confiding, for Forché a sequence of poems is capable of encompassing many voices together, "a symphony of utterance . . . not representational but presentational." 

Many readers, drawn to Blue Hour with desire intensified by the resilience of Forché’s early books, may long for  the directness of her older poems. The new work is undeniably more difficult, a sprawling assemblage of sonic fragments and imagery cracked under pressure. Over successive readings, these poems ultimately yield not prosaic "comprehension" but a tactile, empathic equation of our lives and the lives of strangers — exiles and refugees, hibakusha survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and those who carry the carnage of the Shoah and Stalinism to their deaths.

Sustained concentration yields the shock of discovery. Here is a polyrhythmic, multilingual poetry, best understood — that is, experienced — in the hearing as well as reading.  Blue Hour offers a choral form "large" enough, as Whitman  avowed, to "contain multitudes."

― Published in abbreviated form in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 2, 2003