Forché, Carolyn (Louise)

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FORCHÉ, Carolyn (Louise)

Nationality: American. Born: Detroit, Michigan, 28 April 1950. Education: Michigan State University, East Lansing, B.A. in international relations and creative writing 1972; Bowling Green State University, Ohio, M.F.A. 1975. Family: Married Harry E. Mattison in 1984; one son. Career: Visiting lecturer, Michigan State University, 1974; visiting lecturer, 1975, and assistant professor, 1976–78, San Diego State University; visiting lecturer, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, 1979, 1982–83; assistant professor, 1980, and associate professor, 1981, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville; visiting lecturer, New York University, 1983, 1985, and Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, New York, 1984; adjunct associate professor, Columbia University, New York, 1984–85; writer-in-residence, State University of New York, Albany, 1985; visiting associate professor, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, summer 1985. Since 1994 associate professor, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia. Poetry editor, New Virginia Review, Norfolk, 1981; editor, Tendril, Green Harbor, Massachusetts. Journalist for Amnesty International in El Salvador, 1978–80, and Beirut correspondent, "All Things Considered" radio program, 1983. Awards: Yale Series of Younger Poets award 1975; Chicago Review award, 1975; Devine Memorial prize, 1975, Bread Loaf Writers Conference Tennessee Williams fellowship, 1976; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1977, 1984; Guggenheim fellowship, 1978; Emily Clark Balch prize (Virginia Quarterly Review), 1979; Lamont Poetry Selection award, 1981; Poetry Society of America Alice Fay di Castagnola award, 1981; Los Angeles Times book award, 1994, for The Angel of History; Edita and Ira Morris Award for Peace and Culture (Stockholm), 1988. H.D.L.: Russell Sage College, Troy, New York, 1985. Agent: Virginia Barber Literary Agency, 101 5th Avenue, 11th Floor, New York, New York 10003, U.S.A. Address: George Mason University, Department of English, 4400 University Drive, Fairfax, Virginia 22030–4444, U.S.A.



Gathering the Tribes. New Haven, Connecticut, Yale University Press, 1976.

The Country between Us. Port Townsend, Washington, Copper Canyon Press, 1981; London, Cape, 1983.

The Angel of History. New York, HarperCollins, and Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1994.

Recording: Ourselves, or Nothing, Watershed, 1982.


Women in American Labor History 1825–1935: An Annotated Bibliography, with Martha Jane Soltow. East Lansing, Michigan State University School of Labor and Industrial Relations, 1972.

El Salvador: The Work of Thirty Photographers, edited by Harry Mattison, Susan Meiselas, and Fae Rubenstein. New York and London, Writers and Readers, 1983.

Fever Dreams: Contemporary Arizona Poetry. Tucson, University of Arizona Press, 1997.

Editor, Women and War in El Salvador. New York, Women's International Resource Exchange, 1980.

Editor, Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness. New York, Norton, 1993.

Editor, with Marilyn Sewell, Claiming the Spirit Within: A Source-book of Women's Poetry. Boston, Beacon Press, 1996.

Editor, The New Intimacy, by Barbara Cully. New York, Penguin, 1997.

Editor, with George Trakl and translator Daniel Simko, Autumn Sonata. N.p., Moyer Bell, 1998.

Translator, Flowers from the Volcano, by Claribel Alegria. Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1982.

Translator, Sorrow, by Claribel Alegria. Willimantic, Connecticut, Curbstone Press, 1999.


Critical Studies: By Terrence Diggory, in Salmagundi (Saratoga Springs, New York), spring 1984; "Politicizing the Modern: Carolyn Forche in El Salvador and America" by Michael Greer, in Centennial Review (East Lansing, Michigan), 30(2), spring 1986; "Carolyn Forche: Poetry and Survival" by John Mann, in American Poetry (Jefferson, North Carolina), 3(3), spring 1986; "The Poet as Witness: Carolyn Forche's Powerful Pleas from El Salvador" by Paul Rea, in Confluencia (Greeley, Colorado), 2(2), spring 1987; "Secrets Left to Tell: Creativity and Continuity in the Mother/Daughter Dyad" by Martha M. Vertreace, in Mother Puzzles: Daughters and Mothers in Contemporary American Literature, edited by Mickey Pearlman, Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood, 1989; Imaging the Body in Contemporary Women's Poetry: Helga Novak, Ursula Krechel, Carolyn Forche, Nikki Giovanni (dissertation) by Amy Jo Kepple, Ohio State University, 1991; "Elegy As Political Expression in Women's Poetry: Akhmatova, Levertov, Forche" by Carole Stone, in College Literature (West Chester, Pennsylvania), 18(1), February 1991; "Protocols of Power: Performance, Pleasure and the Textual Economy" by Mary S. Strine, in Text and Performance Quarterly (Annandale, Virginia), 12(1), January 1992; "Carolyn Forche: Poet of Witness" by Leonora Smith, in Still the Frame Holds: Essays on Women Poets and Writers, edited by Sheila Roberts and Yvonne Tevis, San Bernardino, Borgo, 1993; "History, Death, Politics, Despair" by Nora Mitchell and Emily Skoler, in New England Review (Hanover, New Hampshire), 17(2), spring 1995; "Elegy As History: Three Women Poets 'By the Century's Deathbed'" by Anita Helle, in South Atlantic Review (Atlanta, Georgia), 61(2), spring 1996.

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Since the publication of Carolyn Forché's second collection of poems, The Country between Us, she has become visible as a political poet as well as a poet of consummate craft. (The latter is attested to by the fact that her first book won the Yale Series of Younger Poets award; the second, the Lamont Poetry Selection award.) But there are dangers in all such categorizations, for to call Forché "political" is to deny the excellence of all of her poems, not only those that deal with life in El Salvador or with the political concerns of both America and the world. Forché, who received the Edita and Ira Morris Award for Peace and Culture in 1998, is political in the broadest, healthiest possible sense, in that her poems grow from the genuine, intense concerns of the poet as a living person. They bespeak her age, her craft, her education, her origins, her sex, and her intellectual persuasions. They also reflect the fact that she spent a number of years living in El Salvador, becoming a translator of several poets (she is known particularly as a translator of Claribel Alegria), a friend of many others, and a keen observer of life in that country. But her Salvadoran experience is no more important to her development as a poet than was her experience in the desert of the American Southwest or in the Midwest. Forché is a poet who uses whatever she has experienced, transmuting her material regardless of its source into sharply defined images that reach far past the personal or local.

Forché's roots are clearly in the Williams and Roethke schools of American poetry, but she has moved past their sometimes academic limitations to a free expression of all of her concerns. She is an impassioned poet, whether she writes about a girlhood friend she has lost track of, a dying idealist, or a brutal military man. Whatever subject Forché chooses, the shape and movement of the poem evokes the appropriate mood.

Forché is a poet of great versatility. What unifies the poems in her collections is not style but rather the repetition of images. Images of loss, absence, muted or stilled voices, broken lives, the simple and often tawdry objects of poverty, and—in contrast—touch appear in poems that range from stark external description to implicit dramatic monologue to letter to confession.

When Forché writes in "The Visitor," a short, image-centered poem, "In Spanish he whispers there is no time left," she establishes the pattern of language forestalled, forbidden. This whisper is amplified in other of the Salvadoran poems. "The Memory of Elena" gives us apparent language ("We find a table, ask for paella … As she talks, the hollow / clopping of a horse, the sound / of bones touched together"), but the central image, of the dark tongues of bells, ends in perversion. "The Island" also re-creates language, a dialogue between the poet persona and a worn Salvadoran woman who insistently demands, "Carolina, do you know how long it takes / any one voice to reach another?" "San Onofre, California" sets up another ironic dialogue between the living and the missing. Ironically, the only successful communication in The Country between Us occurs in "The Colonel" when the military figure pours a sackful of human ears on the dinner table where the poet has been dining. Speech has been realized, but instead of saving it desecrates everything human. The Country between Us becomes Forché's "epistemology of loss," just as Gathering the Tribes is her more positive statement of human endurance. As she writes in "Message," where voices are "sprayed over the walls / dry to the touch of morning" and patriots are sent off to be killed as the poet pledges,

        I will live
   and living cry out until my voice is gone
   to its hollow of earth, where with our
   hands and by the lives we have chosen
   we will dig deep into our deaths.

For all the variety of Forché's forms, for all the somber stain of her Salvadoran experience, for all the poignancy of her personal fabric of recollection, The Country between Us succeeds in creating a sense of joy. "Because One Is Always Forgotten," "Poem for Maya," "Ourselves or Nothing," "For the Stranger"—each poem embodies images and tones of hope: "all things human take time"; "We have, each of us, nothing. / We will give it to each other."

Forché's poems are meditative and lyrical, narrative and songlike. They draw from dream and myth both directly and subtly. They escape categorization as they lace together images of terrain and language, touch and separation, and brutality and love that are so closely related as to fuse through metaphor. The unity of Forché's collections is achieved through a singleness of vision, a finely expressed, various vision that is delightful in its chameleon-like trappings despite the seriousness of its intention. She has become a major poet.

—Linda W. Wagner-Martin