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Honors Project Prep: Carolyn Forché, “The Country Between Us”

May 1, 2014

Next school year (2014-15), I will be working on a senior honors project: a collection of politically-oriented poetry.  My goal will be to use verse forms to explore the current state of American political life, while also offering potential solutions to our current ills.  I plan to spend the summer researching both current American politics and current political poetry–and writing poems, of course.

Normally, I would consider this yet-another obstacle to blogging, but it might represent an opportunity.  I’ll be doing a lot of reading, and it may be difficult to keep track of.  So perhaps using this space as a notebook, like the darn title suggests, could be helpful.  Besides, I enjoy talking about books regardless.

I might include all sorts of writing here: poetry collections, nonfiction books, essays, Supreme Court decisions, whatever relates to political writing.  (If you want to know what I’m reading currently, my Goodreads profile is here.)  I don’t expect especially profound thoughts, just observations and comments.

Without further ado, let’s talk about Carolyn Forché.

First, some backstory: my current professor for poetry workshop (who, not coincidentally, is my thesis adviser) lent me a copy of Forché’s 1982 collection The Country Between Us for an individual reading assignment.  I finished it yesterday, so I might as well talk about it now.

Forché’s poems are not, by and large, political in the sense of advocacy.  Instead, she uses poetry to describe society in all it’s grimy, dust-ridden beauty.  Frequently these setting a told from the point-of-view of outsiders.  In “San Onofre, California,” the first poem in the book, the speak imagines life across the border: “Portillo scratching his name / on the walls, the slender ribbons / of piss, children patting the mud” (lines 4-6).  Other poems feature American speaker confronting Europe, as if updating a Henry James novel.

One of the decidedly “political” poems in one I had before: “The Colonel.”  A prose poem, “The Colonel” takes place at a dinner engagement with a Salvadoran military leader.  Through unadorned, almost droning sentences, Forché slowly shows the brutality of the colonel.  She juxtaposes the finery of the dinner table with his instruments of torture and sack of human ears.  When the colonel pronounces, “As for the rights of anyone, tell your people they can go fuck themselves,” there’s no mistaking Forché support for human rights (20-22).

Still, I think the scene descriptions are what I most admire.  Her longer explorations of life in the streets, along with our mental pictures of it, remind me of Larry Levis, one of my new favorite writers (who, fittingly, has a review quoted on the back cover.)  It’s a style I’m not sure I can emulate, as it’s formally not my strong-suit, but I nonetheless have great respect for it.

That’s all for now.  Now go read it already!

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