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'Blue Hour' By Carolyn Forche

Forche's new poetry collection is musical

Sunday, September 21, 2003

By Jim Schley

In 30 years, Carolyn Forche has published just four volumes of poetry, but each is unique and all are still in print. Arriving so infrequently and after such clearly painstaking gestation, her books are anticipated by many readers with heightened expectations.

"Blue Hour"

By Carolyn Forche

HarperCollins ($24.95)


Forche's second collection, "The Country Between Us," was one of American poetry's rare best sellers, surprising indeed given its complicated and agonizing theme: the disparity between our alleged principles of democracy and justice and the shocking violence 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 11 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 similarly muscular and precise.

As always in Forche'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, these poems evoke the political world that surrounds us, alluding to cordite and strafing -- "checkpoints, road blocks, barricades ..." -- but are never explicit about setting or subject.

This collection is Forche'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," covering 45 pages, seems without precedent in recent American poetry. She explains in a note that its origins are in a form of "Gnostic abecedarian [of the alphabet] 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.

"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 a 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 like notations in a private journal.

Yet Forche'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.

Many readers, drawn to Forche's new collection with desire intensified by the resilience of her 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."

Vermont resident Jim Schley is the author of "One Another."

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