In order to understand what Forché is doing on the page, you have to look between the rows of type, and see what she leaves in the white space of your imagination. You have to rejigger, if not jettison entirely, your ideas or preconceptions about political writing and about what makes a poem. Forché’s stately stanzas—her writing is never hurried—are the work of a literary reporter, Gloria Emerson as filtered through the eyes of Elizabeth Bishop or Grace Paley. Free of jingoism but not of moral gravity, Forché’s work questions—when it does question—how to be or to become a thinking, caring, communicating adult. Taken together, Forché’s five books of verse—the most recent, “In the Lateness of the World” (Penguin Press), was published in March—are about action: memory as action, vision and writing as action. She asks us to consider the sometimes unrecognized, though always felt, ways in which power inserts itself into our lives and to think about how we can move forward with what we know. History—with its construction and its destruction—is at the heart of “In the Lateness of the World.” In “Museum of Stones,” the first poem in the book, Forché’s delicate but hawklike observations show us the broken dreams and false idols that are left in the wake of violence, folly, and time. She also shows how to pick our way through that detritus to search for clues as to who we were or might have been:

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,
stone of the mind within us
carried from one silence to another . . .
stone from the tunnel lined with bones,
lava of a city’s entombment, stones
chipped from lighthouse, cell wall, scriptorium,
paving stones from the hands of those who rose against the army,
stones where the bells had fallen, where the bridges were blown . . .
all earth a quarry, all life a labor, stone faced, stone-drunk
with hope that this assemblage of rubble, taken together, would become
a shrine or holy place, an ossuary, immovable and sacred
like the stone that marked the path of the sun as it entered the human dawn.

Faith has been part of Forché’s story from the beginning. Born in 1950, she is the oldest of seven children. Her working-class religious Catholic parents, Louise and Michael, a tool-and-die maker, raised their brood in Farmington, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. When Forché was about nine, her mother, whom she has described as a feminist, suggested that her bright, bookish daughter entertain herself by composing a poem. To show her how, Louise dusted off an old textbook—she had attended college for two years before marrying—and explained to Carolyn what meter was and taught her the importance of stresses. Forché was instantly taken by the poetic form. “I began to work in iambic pentameter because I didn’t know there was anything else,” she told Cott. “Writing was simply the reverie that I recorded.”

While the surreal horror of the Vietnam War was still a daily reality, Forché completed a bachelor’s degree in international relations at Michigan State University in 1972, and a master’s of fine arts at Bowling Green State University three years later. In an essay for her essential 2014 anthology, “Poetry of Witness: The Tradition in English, 1500-2001,” co-edited with the scholar Duncan Wu, Forché relates how, in her early twenties, she read excerpts from the transcript of the 1964 trial, in Leningrad, of the Russian-born poet Joseph Brodsky—Soviet officials weren’t thrilled by his assertion, among other things, that it was God who gave him the authority to be a poet—and sent him some poems. Brodsky, who was then teaching in Ann Arbor, Michigan, near where Forché grew up, wrote back to the burgeoning writer, suggesting, first, that she include more of her own philosophy in her writing, and, second, that she read Anna Akhmatova. This was another turning point for Forché. She was moved not only by Akhmatova’s spare, dissident “Requiem” but by how, under Stalinist rule, Akhmatova had largely composed the poem in her mind and, with help from some friends, memorized it to avoid committing anything to paper—an act that, according to Akhmatova’s biographer Amanda Haight, was possible only “if one was convinced of the absolute importance and necessity of poetry.” All of this—Brodsky’s sense that his vocation was a gift from God, the fleeting smile of a woman who’d asked Akhmatova if she could describe the horror of the Yezhov terror (Akhmatova’s answer: “I can”)—began to change Forché. In her essay for “Poetry of Witness,” she writes:

 As I was still in my early twenties and educated in the United States, I hadn’t thought of poetry in these terms. I had not yet encountered evil in anything resembling this form, and had not yet, therefore, imagined the impress of extremity upon the poetic imagination, nor conceived of our relation to others as one of infinite obligation: to stand with them in the hour of need, even abject and destitute, in supplication and without need of response. If it were so—if description were possible, of the world and its sufferings, then the response would be that smile, or rather something resembling it.



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