How Poetry Can Bear Witness to Crisis and Revolution
(This article orginally appeared in The Nation magazine.)
In poet Carolyn Forché’s memoir of her multiple trips to El Salvador in the late 1970s and early ’80s, What You Have Heard Is True, which was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2019, she quotes 18th century Spanish painter Francisco Goya’s “Yo lo vi” (I saw it), which accompanies his series of sketches “The Disasters of War.” The quote is a neat encapsulation of Forché’s oeuvre as a poet, anthologist, memoirist, and witness to political revolution and upheaval. “I saw it,” Forché writes, “and this, and also this.” It’s what she’s been writing in her poetry (the title of the memoir comes from the first line of her famous poem “The Colonel”) since the 1970s. Her poetry not only is sometimes hauntingly beautiful but also can be painful, pointing out to the world a moment of oppression or violence. She has written of the “consequences” of poems, of poems “as trace, poem as evidence.” Her poems are necessary in that they point to something—imperceptible nuance or the psychic toll of indescribable suffering—we haven’t seen or can barely believe.
Forché’s most lauded early works were inspired by her travel to pre-civil-war El Salvador, where she bore witness to violence, atrocity, and fear: Broken bottles embedded in walls to “scoop the kneecaps from a man's legs or cut his hands to lace.” After returning to the United States, she wrote up evidence of what she witnessed and toured the country to educate Americans about the consequences of interventionism. (At some points in the 1980s, US aid to El Salvador—most of it destined for ruthless and murderous armed forces—was over a million dollars a day.) In later poems she continued exploring the same themes of oppression and violence, from Lebanon to the Holocaust to the atomic bomb. As an anthologist, she developed the concept of poetry as witness, or poetry in extremis, collecting international poets’ work responding to the 20th century’s many unprecedented upheavals, starting with the Armenian genocide and going through the Bosnian War. She expanded that collection with another anthology, exploring English language poetry of witness from 1500 to 2001.
Now in Forché’s latest book of poems—her first in 17 years—In the Lateness of the World, the “it” she has seen seems to have expanded beyond singular events and moments. Her new poems are more reflective and broader in scope, as if she has gained a higher quoin of vantage. The poems seem elegies less of individual moments than of life itself.
Forché wrote the memoir and the new book of poems simultaneously, and they tug and lean on each other. “Part of my soul went into my memoir, and another part went into the poetry book,” she told me. “In the memoir, I was reliving a past self. I was inhabiting the woman I once was. In the poetry book, I’m the woman I am now.” In the nearly two decades it took to produce both works, she survived cancer—an experience she has called “terrifying and illuminating.” But the new poems hardly seem autobiographical, as they explore landscapes of migrations and mourning and the creation of tenuous spaces of refuge throughout the world. And like the rest of her poetry, they have a broad range, from Greece to El Salvador to Hangzhou.
Her work here is anchored to place and, at the same time, placeless. Take the beguiling and mesmeric opening poem, “Museum of Stones,” which begins:
These are your stones, assembled in matchbox and tin,
collected from roadside, culvert, and viaduct,
battlefield, threshing floor, basilica, abattoir—
stones, loosened by tanks in the streets,
from a city whose earliest map was drawn in ink on linen,
schoolyard stones in the hand of a corpse,
pebble from Baudelaire’s oui,
We are unfixed here to time or to place; we are nowhere, but we are in a meticulously particular nowhere. The rocks, pebbles, and stones are far from concepts, metaphors, or abstractions. The specificity almost takes on an animism, a beating element that Forché captures in a crescendoing, rhythmic drama, spiked with occasional shards of human agency:
stones where the bells had fallen, where the bridges were blown,
those that had flown through windows, weighted petitions,
feldspar, rose quartz, blue schist, gneiss, and chert
These traces of humanity are traces of violence as well. The collapsing of the fallen bells and the blown bridges into a single poem is a different approach: a survey rather than an autopsy. The poem ends with the “hope that this assemblage of rubble”—this beautiful and frightening litany of dead matter—“taken together, would become / a shrine or holy place, an ossuary, immovable and sacred.”
Though there is a timeless quality to Forché’s latest book of poems, plunking from one global crisis to another, the book is also explicitly of the now. In “The Boatman,” one the most explicitly localizable of her poems, a taxi driver tells of when he was one of the 31 souls in a raft “in the gray sick of sea.” They are Afghan refugees crossing the Mediterranean to Europe, fearing death by drowning and being sent to “camp misery” or “camp remain here.” Few turns of phrase capture the choice between Scylla and Charybdis facing today’s refugees fleeing Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Honduras, among other places. It is classic Forché. Are the abstractions of “misery” and “remain here” real places? Of course they are.
Forché and I connected by phone in late March, a few weeks after the publication of her new book of poems. We spoke about the coronavirus precautions we were taking, then veered into politics and poetry and ended by talking about cooking. She gave me a one-pot pasta recipe—browned mushrooms in cream—and a couple of days later, I made it. The following is an edited excerpt from our conversation.
John Washington: You write in the last poem of In the Lateness of the World about the “arrival of what has been,” which seems like a neat encapsulation of the art of memoir. You also write, throughout your oeuvre, of haunting—the past and people of the past appearing in ghostly forms in your work. Would you say these poems are in some way haunted as well?
Carolyn Forché: Yes, they are, not by ghosts in the supernatural sense but by presences, apparitions of memory, traces of the past still legible in the natural and built worlds, by silences, ruins, regions no longer inhabited, even regions of mind. You are right in saying that I am more interested in the presence of the past in the present than I am in the past itself, which is irrecoverable. The past itself can neither be remembered nor restored.
Staying on the ghostly track for a moment, is haunting a metaphor or perhaps just a simple description of what happens after a disaster? Your gaze seems pulled to existential disasters, not only in the anthology Against Forgetting but in your own poetry.
It is not a metaphor and, in fact, resists becoming figural. We do not live after atrocity or trauma but in the aftermath of all that happened, all that remains with us, that scars and craters our memory, our consciousness, our vision of the world. I was born just after the Second World War and grew up in its silences and slow disclosures. The war ended, but the arms were not laid down. War flared again in our souls and in the world. Wislawa Szymborska wrote, “War will no longer be declared / but only continued / and the shadow of eternal armament / darken the heavens.” I have felt the pull of disaster as a centripetal force for as long as I can remember. This is the ground of Against Forgetting, and my awareness of this goes back to earliest childhood and has only become more acute with time.
Your experience, as well as that for plenty of other Americans, in El Salvador—or at least their consciousness of El Salvador—in the 1980s and 1990s was a politicizing or even radicalizing force.
It was. During the period of the war, a lot of them got involved in the anti-intervention work, the sanctuary movement, Witness for Peace.
But are Americans reacting differently today to the situation and politics in Central America? There is another exodus of refugees, but it doesn’t seem to be mobilizing the same spirit of political solidarity.
My experience in the early days of organizing on behalf of El Salvador is that many people had already been politicized during the Vietnam War, which had only ended in 1975, so by 1980 they had been, in a way, quiet, like a sleeping volcano. They had been marching and active against the war, and there was a lack of focus for their efforts, and Central America gave that back to them. So the solidarity movements grew like mushrooms all over the country. I thought it was going to be really challenging to persuade North Americans to be concerned, but it was not at all. I went to 49 states, and everywhere I went, communities were so immediately active that it was shocking to me. I think some of that came in the aftermath of Vietnam.
And I think now the problem is you had that radicalization and politicization that happened during the war in El Salvador and during the contra war against Nicaragua, but that’s now 35, 40 years ago. So there was a long period in between the present moment for refugees at our border and that movement that was organized 40 years ago. People were very active at the airports when the [travel] ban first went into effect, but there’s been a really effective [Immigration and Customs Enforcement]–Border Patrol lockdown. This administration lets no one in, no one out, so there’s very little that activists can do other than appeal to moral conscience, appeal to the public to pressure the Congress. But as long as we have this White House, it’s going to be very difficult to effect any change through US American institutions of governance. We have these thousands of children and tens of thousands of adults in detention, and our government is not even willing to release them during a pandemic.
We saw the first case in New Jersey of someone in ICE detention infected with the coronavirus just recently.
I don’t know how aware US Americans are of the vast network of US detention centers. We tend to imagine them along the borders in Texas, but if you look at a map of detention centers, there’s a detention center near you, is what I would say. I think this pandemic has overwhelmed everyone in so many respects. I don’t want these children in detention to be forgotten. I don’t have any answers regarding activation of political organizing and solidarity work at this time, because I’m not sure, in an era of shelter in place and social distancing, it’s going to be very easy. We can’t go out on the streets en masse and protest. There’s so much we can’t do.
I’m not saying it was easy to organize prior to the pandemic. There was an element of frustration. No one exactly knew how to be efficacious, what could be done, other than initially bringing this into the eye, the idea of shocking people about the circumstances in the detention centers and the activities of ICE agents in our cities and towns and also the assault on sanctuary cities by the federal government. There’s a kind of rolling confusion that this administration has specialized in. If you can’t see that you have any collective strength politically to influence your legislative representatives, then I’m not sure what to do.
What does work?
There’s a limit to what people are willing to give up and risk on behalf of others. And I’m not judging that. I’m just pointing it out. Everyone has their own limit. In El Salvador, I met many people who had no limit. They would die for other people. Many people would die for other people. And that was what, when I came back to the United States for the last time, that was the commitment, that was the love of humanity that I felt I would have to live the rest of my life without. That sounds too melodramatic. I knew that I wasn’t going to be experiencing that as vividly as before.
There’s a difference between what you were seeing in El Salvador and the situation in the United States. Though for parts of the population, maybe it’s not all that different.
We’re a very different country, but repression is repression. And we haven’t had the kind of repression that Salvadorans were suffering—yet. But I have glimpsed the seeds of it in various moments. I glimpse it with ICE SWAT teams entering houses.
I want to talk more about your poetry, but I have a couple of other big-picture political questions.
I’m not a sage, John.
One of the things we began discussing today is about taking people into your home and the danger of doing so during a pandemic. One of the false narratives and insidious clichés, throughout history, with refugees and migrants, is that they bring disease.
That's racist and untrue, and it has always been. The people stepping off the boats in Ellis Island were seen the same way. They were doused for lice. My own great-grandfather was turned away for a sore on his leg. I have news for people who regard migrants that way: Their great grandparents were also regarded that way. We simply have to continue a relentless counternarrative that is anti-racist and scientific and compassionate and empathic. We have to cultivate our collective empathy. The contagion of lack of empathy is going to be more harmful to us in the long run than anything else, because it will have no bounds. If we lose our empathy, we lose our empathy for everyone. And we isolate and atomize our society until it dries up, until it has nothing left.
I bet people tell you their stories occasionally about how they came to your poetry. I’m going to tell you mine briefly. I was camping on Mount Lemmon, outside Tucson, Arizona, the first time I heard any of your poetry, and a friend recited the entire poem “The Colonel,” and I was floored and flabbergasted by what I heard.
It’s lovely for me to imagine a campfire and that poem being recited. That’s very moving.
It was moving for all of us. A line from that poem is the title of your memoir, What You Have Heard Is True. There’s something in that phrase that responds to a doubt. There’s an assumption that you’re speaking to someone who needs assurance that what that person has heard is true. And that doubt or the desire to quell that doubt interests me a lot.
That’s it. That’s very important. The US government was denying what we were saying. Therefore, we were thought to be either exaggerating or lying. And whenever I was talking about the most horrific things I had seen in El Salvador, people would ask me, “Well, is that true? Or are you just a writer or a poet embellishing things?” We were confronted with doubt at every turn in the United States.
One of the things that I learned in working out the idea of poetry of witness, which studies poetry written in the aftermath of extremity: There were many qualities and gestures that these poems had in common, and one of them—and this was all over the world in the 20th century, you find this gesture in Polish poetry, in poetry of the Holocaust—[was] the gesture of the appeal to be believed. That opens many poems, and I began to notice this gesture, and then I realized that I myself had done it in “The Colonel.” This gesture is a fear that no one will believe you. This gesture is “How do I say this in such a way that it can be taken in by another? How do I find the words?”
That appeal comes across so clearly in your memoir and in your earlier books of poems, especially The Country Between Us and The Angel of History, but there seems to be a difference in In the Lateness of the World. Did you take a different approach to your poems in this book?
It has a different atmosphere, doesn’t it? It was written alongside the memoir, so I think all of that anxiety about being believed was worked out in the writing of the memoir. The book of poems is more elegiac. It’s a book of remembrance, and it’s a book of warning, I think. It’s not a dark book. It’s a book of having come to terms, a book about having found an inner peace. Part of my soul went into my memoir, and another part went into the poetry book. Because I had survived cancer during the writing of both books, I think that what I came to in the survival was a quietude that is manifest in the poetry book. In the memoir, I was reliving a past self. I was inhabiting the woman I once was. In the poetry book, I’m the woman I am now.
I agree that it’s not a dark book, but you don’t hold back, and you do go to some of today’s places or moments of extremity.
Oh, yeah, it’s true, it’s true. The book is about extremity. It’s about death. It’s about collective humanity. I don’t choose what to write when I’m writing poetry. I move into a certain region of mind when I write, and I work out of that. I didn’t hold back. There are a couple of poems that are as difficult in my mind as “The Colonel.” So it’s not held back. It could be accused, as The Country Between Us was, as being political, as Americans mean that term.
Americans mean that term as anything ideologically oppositional or uncomfortable. They do not mean organized political activity, action. They mean the views or sentiments expressed are creating discomfort or challenging the belief systems of the reader. I had to learn what the US meant by that term “political” when it was applied pejoratively about my work. And that’s the only explanation I came to. Because in El Salvador, for instance, if you’re political, you go to meetings. You take risks. You organize. I wasn’t political in that sense. I didn’t belong to any political party or group or organization.
This is something I’ve thought a lot about as well, that the political writer is relegated into being exactly that, a political writer.
Here in the US, it’s used to taint the work. To imagine that the work has designs upon us. That it’s not pure. That it’s not written as a literary work of art but that it’s infected or tainted with message. And in the United States there’s also the fiction that there’s nonpolitical or apolitical work. In other words, that somehow there’s this little hermetically sealed egg that the poet writes within, uninfluenced by any events, by his or her time, outside of anything but this hopelessly solipsistic self. But I think that’s changing. That notion is breaking down. If you take a look at the young poets publishing very exciting work in the United States, they are very rarely dismissed as being political. I think they are dismissed for their identities. There’s an element in literary culture that says, “Oh, this work is just read because this person is from this or that group,” which is another way of dismissing. But “the political” isn’t a pejorative term anymore. It’s an expectation that the most exciting work being done will be informed by awareness, part of which is political awareness.
Do you worry about making suffering too beautiful? What is the relationship in poetry between beauty and violence? Do they lend something to each other? What becomes of the truth of an event or its memory when it is ghastly and violent but its recording is lyrical and beautiful?
I’m very much against the anesthetization of violence. I work hard not to beautify the ghastly. For this, the language must be pared, must be cold, in Chekhov’s sense. It is a difficult thing to know when one has erred in this sense. For me, it is a matter of not embellishing, dramatizing, of not lighting an unnecessary fire beneath the already sufficient words.
Claribel Alegría is one of the most important Salvadoran poets. How did your familiarity with her work, before you were able to go to El Salvador, influence the way you saw and understood the country? And did your subsequent experience in the country, then, influence how you read her poetry?
I translated her first book, Flowers from the Volcano, before I went to El Salvador. The poems in that book that concerned El Salvador largely arose out of her memories in childhood, so they didn’t correspond to the El Salvador I encountered in 1978, but they did help me to understand the culture and terrain. Claribel continued to write throughout the war and beyond; her poetry reflected her passionate support of those who opposed the dictatorship, but she was sadly, writing at some distance from the country itself. These were poems of exile. She lived in Nicaragua, in the early years following the overthrow of Somoza. Some of her work concerned this, her actual birth country. I think she was afraid for me during my time in El Salvador, but she recognized that for me, there was a new level of commitment and a new understanding. This brought us much closer to each other.
I have to mention that yesterday was the 40th anniversary of Monseñor Romero’s assassination, and I wonder if there’s a particular lesson from him that you’re thinking about today, in today’s age. Is there a new way you’re seeing him or his legacy these days?
I believe that what he taught me was the importance of cultivating moral courage in the presence of fear. That courage does not mean that we’re not afraid. Courage means that we find our peace within ourselves and we do what is right regardless of the cost to ourselves. It’s very difficult. He was not a man who was unfearful. He trembled. He said his knees would tremble. So he knew he was afraid. He could feel it in his body, but this did not alter his course. He was a human being for others. He didn’t live a day without thinking of others and what was good for others. He did not take anything for himself. He lived in a tiny cottage. For a long time he drove his own car. He didn’t have a security detail. He went everywhere without security. Even at the end, when he knew that they wanted to kill him more than they wanted to kill anyone else. So it was because I knew that he felt fear, and because I saw that he stood against repression and for others, nevertheless, what he modeled was the human capacity to do that. To be morally courageous while afraid. All human beings feel fear. It’s not that people who are courageous have some special dispensation that exempts them from fear. He was also very measured. He was careful. He was judicious. He was not dramatic. He was not emotionally effusive. He didn’t indulge his emotions. He didn’t indulge himself. There was a tranquility about him, especially at the end. The last time I saw him it was very palpable, this tranquility. He was exuding it. It was peaceful to be with him. I felt that in his presence.
What are you reading or writing when we’re all holed up right now?
I’m keeping a notebook, but I find myself unable to write in this moment. I’m really trying to cope with worry and concern for certain others, and I don’t have the tranquility of mind to write. Perhaps other writers do. I’m also teaching online, for Georgetown University. That’s much more challenging for me than teaching in person, and I’ve realized how much presence has mattered to my pedagogy, and I’m deprived of that, so I’ve had to compensate for lack of presence. So there’s a lot of that.
I’m also going through the museum of my life. Because I can’t leave the house, I’ve decided to finally organize things and get rid of things. And that is a strange experience, because with photographs or old notebooks, it’s an excavation of memory, and a realization of how long one has lived, and how much one has seen, and how many people are gone. I’m in the fragmentary museum of my life.
FI name: April 2020