Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Forché's Child


In The Angel of History, Carolyn Forché uses repetitions, patterns, and tension as the pallet for her book length sequence of poems. The result is a cubist painting of the darkest parts of the twentieth century. It attempts to present the essential bits. Even human life is distilled to only what is important: “How incomplete a moment is human life,” (76). Forché dwells on humanity, but not through the perspective of a single life. This book is not about accuracy. It is about truth. Accuracy is always allied with perspective and there is little truth there, or, as Forché writes it, “the visual field has not a form like this,” (75). This hypothesis that accuracy, the visual field, “the agreed upon lie,” (3) has no truth, carries throughout the book in her attack on western media and the melding of characters and events through similar artifacts. The child is one of the primary artifacts, appearing on at least thirty-one pages.

“The child on my back, how was it ever kept from singing?” (65) Here, innocence couples implied threat in a theme that haunts the children of this book. It seems like Forché says, Wherever there are children, wherever human beauty and innocence, there the next tragedy. Thus the child plays the role of vanguard and rearguard and resistance fighter of innocence. It “thinks only of love,” (61). Its supreme innocence in contrast with the children running through fire, being killed, and hiding, is an effective means of poignancy and tension.

The child is also a mix of past, future, and to a smaller extent, the now. The scars the child receives remind the reader of scars in his own life. The fact that children get thirty-one pages of screen-time is another constant reminder to the reader of his own past. In the present, the child hardly exists, except for in the blank canvas of Forché’s son. However, the child will carry the scars it receives into the future. The child seems unaffected by the scars in the present. Perhaps it ignores the now on a conscious level, or perhaps it is desensitized, or maybe even too traumatized to notice, but the subconscious remembers its fear. In essence, Forché says, what we do to our children we do to our future. This thought must have been overshadowing her mind when she was writing this, having just birthed a son. But this mixture of past and future doubles the child's threat. By saying that we are ruining our children, and showing the depths that people go, Forché expands on the above by saying, if we brutalize our children, they will brutalize others. Or, this book is but one witness of a tragic cycle around since the world began. Therefore the child is something to both admire and fear. This admiration and fear, coupled with the implication of past, certainly seems to put the child in the position of Angel of History. But though the child takes on that burden at times in this book, I do not believe it is meant to be the namesake throughout.

The title, Angel of History, has two main connotations: history can save us if we let it and the angel that is no longer here. With these connotations, Forché says both, history can save us but we ignore it, and the church is no longer our hope. The church gets beat up in these poems, as does the western media. Often she uses one to beat up the other. Less blatant attacks include Forché and Ellie sitting in Hotel-Dieu discussing the Holocaust, but her rage really comes out in “Book Codes: II:"

the sign of the cross on an invisible face with the calm of a butcher
as if it bore witness to some truth
with whom every connection had been severed (76)

This attack on the un-attuned nature of the church continues when she says, “cathedrals [are] at the tip of our tongues.” But Forché places no hope there. The only hopes in this book are the children and the earth. Therefore, "the child on my back" has humanity, their burdens, and their future on its back. The book ends one poem later with an image of rebirth among ruin. The birth is directly attached to clouds and flies, but it also implies the child because of the heavy references throughout the rest of the poems.

Also in that final poem, "Book Codes: III," Forché attacks the western media for the last time. She says they tell

stories no more substantial than the clouds or what had been his face
...
for our having tried to cross the river caught between walls
one could hear a voice 'Bear the unbearable'
and the broadcast was at an end

you might relay the message the rivers and mountains remained (77)

This passage is a direct response to the closing line of "Book Codes: II:" "whoever can cry should come here," (76). This complete disillusionment with media, "that carnival of resistance," (29) is a theme throughout the book and serves to discredit adults as uncaring, unenergized, and satisfied to stagnation. This further places the burden on the children's shoulders.

The child is the second most repeated idea in the book, the earth being the first. The earth is merely the final ace, the last chance. The child is proactive and it can think, therefore it is by far the best hope, and the only hope in our time. The child plays a vital role to this book by contrasting the events around it but still being in them. Forché has created a masterful painting, and the child is one of the main colors and shapes.

I hope to take a much more in depth look at this book soon. I am merely scratching the surface here. But right now I don't have the time. Maybe over the summer I will.

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