The Garden Shukkei-en
The Garden Shukkei-en
Carolyn Forché initially published "The Garden Shukkei-en" in Provincetown Arts in 1988 and included it in her third collection, The Angel of History (1994). The poem was also shown in conjunction with Danz Macabre photographic art exhibit at the School of Art, Arizona State University at Tempe and is included in the portfolio of show photographs, So to Speak. Forché takes the title and epigraph of The Angel of History from Walter Benjamin's essay, "Theses on the Philosophy of History." In haunting disembodied voices, the poems in the collection detail the atrocities of various twentieth-century horrors such as the Holocaust, the bombing of Hiroshima, and the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia. In "The Garden Shukkei-en," which appears towards the end of the collection, a Japanese woman who survived the bombing recounts the horrors of that time and how it has come to shape the ways in which she remembers the past and interacts with the world. Known as a strolling garden, Shukkei-en is dotted with islets of various sizes and surrounded by a range of hillocks on its north shore. The name "Shukkei-en" means "the Garden of Condensed Scenic Beauty." It was heavily damaged when the Enola Gay, an American Boeing B-29 bomber, dropped an atomic bomb dubbed "Little Boy" on Hiroshima at 8:15 on the morning of August 6, 1945. The survivor in the poem remembers the death and destruction she witnessed during the bombing. Primarily a descriptive poem, "The Garden Shukkei-en" uses two voices, the Japanese survivor's and a woman who accompanies her, to structure the poem.
Carolyn Louise Forché has built a reputation as a poet interested in chronicling injustices throughout the world. Her writing gives voice to the silenced and the oppressed and serves as a reminder of historical atrocities such as the Holocaust. Born in Detroit, Michigan, on April 28, 1950, to Michael Joseph and Louise Nada Blackford Sidlosky, Forché was raised in a city torn by racial tension and grinding poverty, facts that helped shape her world-view. Forché's grandmother, a Czechoslovakian immigrant, inspired her granddaughter with her refusal to adopt American ways and encouraged her to learn about experiences of people from other countries and cultures. Forché was also heavily influenced by Our Lady of Sorrows School, which she attended for twelve years, and its emphasis on morality and social issues.
In 1972, Forché graduated from Michigan State University and, in 1975, she received a master of fine arts degree from Bowling Green State University. In 1976, she published her first collection of poems, Gathering the Tribes, which received the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award. In these poems, Forché introduced the subject that she would develop throughout her career: the individual's responsibility to the past and to others. During the 1970s, Forché traveled to war-torn El Salvador, serving as a correspondent for National Public Radio and as a human rights observer for Amnesty International. Much of the material in her 1981 collection, The Country Between Us, derives from her experiences there. The book, which sold tens of thousands of copies, was the Academy of American Poets' 1981 Lamont Poetry Selection and helped cement Forché's reputation as a poet of political passions. In her third collection, The Angel of History, the title of which derives from an essay by critic Walter Benjamin, she evokes the loss and pain of those who have suffered from the consequences of twentieth-century wars. The poem, "The Garden Shukkei-en," for example, interweaves the ghostly voice of the narrator with that of a survivor of the Hiroshima bombing during World War II. The collection won the 1994 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for poetry.
In addition to her poetry collections, Forché has edited the popular poetry anthology Against
Forgetting (1993), contributed text for various collections of photography, and translated the poetry of Robert Desnos, Claribel Alegría, and Mahmoud Darwish, among others. Her next collection, The Blue Hour, will be published in March of 2003. Her numerous awards include the Poetry Society of America's Alice Fay di Castagnola Award for The Country Between Us, three fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, and a Lannan Foundation Literary Fellowship. She is also the recipient of the Edita and Ira Morris Hiroshima Foundation for Peace and Culture Award. Forché teaches in the master of fine arts program in poetry at George Mason University in Virginia.
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With its haunting simile, the opening lines of "The Garden Shukkei-en" create the tone for the poem. The speaker compares crossing a river "by way of a vanished bridge" to the way "a cloud of lifted snow would ascend a mountain." This imagery evokes an otherworldly place, where the details of the present are barely visible. The "she" of the third line refers to the speaker's companion, a Japanese survivor of the bombing of Hiroshima.
In these lines, the speaker is reporting on the memories of her companion, who is haunted by images of the past. The people "crying for help" are victims of the atomic bomb the United States dropped on Hiroshima. The bomb destroyed the city and killed more than half of its 400,000 residents. The shock of the bombing was such that neither "tears nor lamentation" made any difference to the burnt corpses that filled the river Ota or to the thousands crying for help.
A "matsu" is a type of pine tree. The speaker juxtaposes the image of the tree with the image of "barbed wire" to shock the reader and to evoke a sense of both beauty and horror. Lines 9–16 are spoken in the voice of the Japanese survivor, who is remembering what used to be in the garden and comparing it to what she sees now. She is so consumed with the past that she hallucinates a teahouse that is no longer in the garden and in it the victims of the bombing. The Ota is a river that runs through Hiroshima. When the speaker says that the weeping willow "etches its memory of their faces into the water," she is figuratively saying that the tree's branches form shadows on the water that resemble the Japanese character for heart.
In these lines, the companion speaks, and then the Japanese woman speaks. The "burnt trunk wrapped in straw" is a memorial to those who died in Hiroshima, and touching it reminds the survivor of the physical effect the bomb had on her. The heat from the radiation was so intense that it literally melted the skin of people close to the blast. Her question, "Do you think for a moment we were human beings to them?" is rhetorical, which means that she obviously does not think that the Americans thought the Japanese were human beings. The woman's confusion of the angel and the woman further underscores her inability to live in the present and shows the powerful hold that her memories have on her. The image of clapping hands to call the fish to the surface evokes the way that memory often responds to sensory stimuli. Line 24 echoes line 19. The woman does not believe the Americans think of the Hiroshima survivors. This line also suggests that the survivor's companion is an American.
The survivor tells her companion that "nothing I say will be enough," meaning that words cannot adequately represent the anguish of her experience. The image of dressing (that is, treating) radiation burns with vegetable oil illustrates the desperation of the survivors to ease their pain. The speaker compares the survivor's mind to "the white froth of rice rising up kettlesides" to highlight her emotional and mental instability.
Forché links a common Japanese greeting to the Hiroshima bombing. The hibakusha refer to survivors of the Hiroshima bombing. By referring to Hiroshima as a "child's city," Forché links the past to the present and shows how the effects of the bomb, dropped more than fifty years ago, continue today in the emotional torment of the survivors. The graphic image of the crushed brain shows the persistence of memory and how the survivor cannot escape the past.
The survivor wonders if she is adequately expressing her experience to the companion, but ironically she worries that her words are "too precise" rather than too vague, a more common problem with communication, especially cross-cultural communication.
In these last lines, the survivor shifts to a more abstract, less detailed language in her attempt to represent her experience since the bombing. She tells her companion that, regardless of circumstances, she and other hibakusha have managed to live their lives with some degree of normalcy, though always carrying with them the memory of the war and the bombing. The final image suggests a kind of moral awakening for the human race as to the potentially world-ending capacity of atomic warfare.
Language and Meaning
Forché's poem shows the insufficiency of language to accurately represent the horrors of violence and war. By using two voices, one a report on the survivor's experience and the other direct speech from the survivor, Forché attempts to show the victim's trauma from two perspectives, as if testimony from the survivor herself were not enough. The survivor tells her companion, "If you want, I'll tell you, but nothing I say will be enough," and at another point she asks, "Perhaps my language is too precise, and therefore too difficult to understand?" The survivor's distrust of language to adequately convey her experience is a distrust shared by many poets and writers, who experiment with point of view, word choice, and narration to evoke rather than represent emotion and events. The shift in the survivor's speech at the end of the poem from concrete to abstract and her noting of the "silence surrounding what happened to us" also underscore this point. The "silence," however, is also literal. During the American occupation of Japan following World War II, the Japanese were strongly discouraged from discussing the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki because it was considered a sign of anti-Americanism.
- The Watershed Foundation released an audio-cassette of Forché reading from The Country Between Us in 1982.
- In 1994, the Academy of American Poets released an audiocassette of Forché reading selected poems.
Forché highlights the atrocities of war by describing its effects on survivors more than fifty years after the fact. This strategy enables her to illustrate the lasting damage that war has on its victims, especially when those victims are children. Because the bomb was dropped in 1945, almost all of the Hiroshima survivors were children or adolescents at the time. Since the bombing, while attempting to live "normal" lives, they have had to re-live on a daily basis the horror of what they witnessed. By setting the poem in a garden known for its natural beauty and having a survivor speak about her experiences in that very garden when the bomb was dropped, Forché exploits the contrast between past and present, innocence and experience, underscoring the irrevocable losses that war incurs.
In a way, "The Garden Shukkei-en" is a sustained exploration of the power and persistence of memory. The survivor of the Hiroshima bombing cannot escape her memories of the event, as they continue to shape the ways in which she interacts with her present. She "sees" a teahouse that is no longer there "and the corpses of those who slept in it." Often, something she sees or touches triggers the intrusion of the past. For example, when she touches "a burnt trunk wrapped in straw," she remembers how her own skin fell off as a result of radiation burn. Survivors of violent events such as bombings often suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, a psychiatric disorder marked by flashbacks, nightmares, and a general sense of estrangement from daily life. This would account for the survivor's dreamlike speech. Her emotional instability is also highlighted by the other speaker's comparison of the survivor's mind to "the white froth of rice rising up kettlesides."
The term "voice" refers to the agent, or narrator, who is speaking through the poem. Throughout the The Angel of History, Forché uses multiple voices to illustrate the violence and tragedy of the twentieth century. Instead of using one speaker who witnesses a particular atrocity and attempts to convey that experience to readers, Forché employs a number of speakers who interrupt and, at times, babble incoherently. Her structure of polyglot and fragmented speech, quotations from other writers, and description creates a collage-like effect. By using two speakers in "The Garden Shukkei-en," a narrator who reports her experience walking through a garden with a survivor of the Hiroshima bombing and the survivor herself, Forché gives context and shape to the memories of the survivor, who has the last words in the poem. Other wellknown, twentieth-century poems that employ a similar structure include T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," William Carlos Williams's "Paterson," and Ezra Pound's cantos.
Topics for Further Study
- Research the American bombing of Nagasaki during World War II, and compare it to the bombing of Hiroshima in terms of lost lives, destroyed buildings, and defeated morale. Present your findings to the class.
- Compare the two voices in the poem: the American's and the survivor's. Which is more powerful, and why? Write a short essay backing up your claim with well-developed reasons.
- Research the religions of Japan, and discuss how "The Garden Shukkei-en" can be considered a religious poem.
- Compare "The Garden Shukkei-en" with the poem that comes after it, "The Testimony of Light," in terms of how each represents the catastrophe of Hiroshima. Which is more powerful, and why? Discuss your responses in groups.
- Many historians continue to claim that the United States had to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki or else the war would never have ended. After researching the history of the decision to drop the bombs, hold a class debate arguing for and against the idea that the bombs had to be used.
- In groups, compose a psychological profile of both speakers in the poem. Describe their values, emotional states, and desires. Be prepared to defend your descriptions with evidence from the poem.
Forché juxtaposes images of nature with images of war to create a landscape that is at once beautiful and fraught with danger. For example, she begins the poem comparing how the companion and the survivor cross a river "as a cloud of lifted snow would ascend a mountain." A few lines down, however, there is mention of "barbed wire" and corpses in a teahouse. However, because the war imagery is in the mind of the survivor, the danger is emotional. The survivor is reliving the trauma of the bombing, and readers, perhaps especially American readers, are experiencing shame or guilt.
Rhetorical questions are not really questions per se. They are statements that are also sometimes evaluations posed as questions. Forché employs two of them in "The Garden Shukkei-en" to highlight the bombing survivor's feeling of being a victim. The first, "Do you think for a moment we were human beings to them?" means "They did not even consider us human beings to have done this to us." The second, "Do Americans think of us?" suggests that "Americans do not even think of us" ("us" meaning the survivors of the bombing).
Forché has cultivated a reputation as a political poet. After her popular second volume of poetry, The Country Between Us, a collection of poems about the war in El Salvador, she set her sights on a more global target: the entire twentieth century. In the late 1980s, when she wrote "The Garden Shukkei-en," Ronald Reagan was just finishing his second term as president of the United States. Reagan's term was marked by a strident self-righteousness and, during his administration, the United States became involved in a number of civil wars, including ones in El Salvador and Nicaragua. The Reagan administration's relations with Japan, however, were strong, and during this time Japan was America's major trading partner. Indeed, the Japanese economy during the 1980s was on track to surpass that of America, with Japan having overtaken the United States as the number one producer of automobiles and semiconductors. Japanese-American relations were also helped by the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which provided a formal U.S. government apology and $20,000 redress to more than eighty thousand Japanese Americans who were forced from their homes and placed in U.S. internment camps during World War II.
Compare & Contrast
- 1980s: After a decade of astounding stock market gains, Japan's economy crashes in the late 1980s.
Today: After a decade of astounding stock market gains, the U.S. economy crashes in 2001.
- 1980s: President Ronald Reagan announces plans for a program to examine the feasibility of a missile defense system. Congressional critics deride the idea, calling it "Star Wars."
Today: Although China, Russia, and North Korea tell the United Nations Disarmament Commission that a U.S. missile defense system would threaten international security, trigger a new arms race, and undermine the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, President Bush pushes to develop the system.
- 1980s: The Reagan administration develops close ties to Japan as a Cold War ally.
Today: The Bush administration cultivates closer ties to Japan, after the Clinton administration frequently clashed with Japan over trade issues.
Forché's interest in writing about the effects of the Hiroshima bombing almost fifty years after the fact coincided with the Reagan administration's Cold War rhetoric of the 1980s and the public's fear that President Reagan might lead the United States into a nuclear war. Numerous nuclear warthemed films and songs were produced during this decade. The 1985 movie Back to the Future, directed by Robert Zemeckis, features a car powered by nuclear fuel stolen from Libyan terrorists who are trying to build an atomic bomb. The trio of Mad Max movies, Mad Max (1979), The Road Warrior (1981), and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985) that launched Mel Gibson's career, are all set in the post-apocalypse outback of Australia and peopled with human survivors from World War III. Blockbuster movies such as the James Bond film Octopussy (1983) and director James Cameron's Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle The Terminator (1984) similarly have scenarios in which the world is either on the brink of nuclear holocaust or dealing with its aftermath. Perhaps the most controversial film of this time is The Day After (1983), a television movie set in the Midwest that explores one family's response to global nuclear war. Images of American nuclear missiles taking off from silos and atomic bombs exploding on American soil ignited controversy and reminded a younger generation of Americans of the ever-looming threat of nuclear war.
The subject of nuclear war pervaded the music of the 1980s as well, including heavy metal, reggae, rock, and folk. Pink Floyd sang about the finality of nuclear war in "Two Suns in the Sunset," while Underworld's "Underneath the Radar" used early warning systems for nuclear war as a metaphor for love. Many songs protested the Reagan administration's pro-nuclear stance in their lyrics, such as Escape Club's tune, "Wild, Wild West": "Gotta live it up, live it up / Ronnie's got a new gun. / Headin' for the nineties, livin' in the eighties, / screamin' in the backroom, / waitin' for the big boom." Reagan did not help matters when, before one of his weekly Saturday radio addresses in 1984, he joked into the microphone (which he thought was turned off), that the United States would commence bombing Russia in fifteen minutes. Musical groups including The Talking Heads incorporated his gaffe into their songs.
Although Forché has been widely lauded for her poetry and her humanitarian work, she has also been criticized for writing overtly political poetry. Critical reception for The Angel of History, in which "The Garden Shukkei-en" appears, however, has been mostly positive. Writing for Magill Book Reviews, David Buehrer notes Forché's penchant for preachiness as well as her lyric brilliance, observing, "The Angel of History preserves and critiques, in a moralistic if stark tone, crimes against humanity and decency." Don Bogen is effusive in his praise in his review of the book for the Nation. Bogen notes that Forché has changed her first-person, "look at this" reportorial style she worked so well in her previous two collections, and he claims that The Angel of History is "clearly a breakthrough [volume]." A writer for The Virginia Quarterly Review gives the collection a mixed review, saying about Forché: "Her ambition is admirable, and the book is emotionally and intellectually moving." However, the reviewer criticizes the collection, claiming, "at times [it] feels like Forché is trying too hard to convey the importance of what she has to say." In a review for World Literature Today, Rochelle Owens faults Forché's poetry for being so much like everyone else's, asserting, "The writing is familiar in tone and reminiscent of sundry poets." Owens ends her review with this unflattering observation: "The Angel of History does demonstrate its familiarity with modern and post-modern stylistics, a safe and skillful miming of one of the major experimental enterprises of the day." More recently, Alicia Ostriker has written about the collection for American Poetry Review. In her essay "Beyond Confession: The Poetics of Postmodern Witness," Ostriker sees Forché's collection as an attempt to engage the material horrors of twentieth-century violence: "Both in content and structure, Forché's poems attempt to represent both 'the pile of debris' that is twentieth-century history and the helpless yet indestructible impulse 'to make whole what has been smashed.'"
Semansky is an instructor of literature whose writing appears regularly in literary journals. In this essay, Semansky considers the idea of witness in Forché's poem.
Forché is known for writing a poetry of witness. Her first two collections are full of first-person poems, the "I" who sees this or that atrocity and reports on it. She became famous for poems such as "The Colonel," a thinly veiled autobiographical account of an experience in El Salvador with a diabolical military man. With her edited collection Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness, Forché lets the victims speak for themselves. Poets such as Yusef Komunyakaa, Richard Wright, Bei Dao, and Dennis Brutus write about their direct experiences with racism, oppression, and war. In her introduction to that collection, Forché calls the poems "a poetry of witness," asserting that such a poetry "reclaims the social from the political and in so doing defends the individual against illegitimate forms of coercion."
The poems in The Angel of History also constitute a poetry of witness, but a different kind. Here, Forché tells readers (in her "Notes" to the poems) she has jettisoned the first-person narrative lyric in favor of a poetry that is "polyphonic, broken, haunted, and in ruins, with no possibility of restoration." In these poems, she patches together a range of voices, each of which vies for the reader's attention and understanding. The "I" in the poems is never located, never identified fully, but rather floats in and out of the soup of other voices on the page. Sometimes, it is the angel of history who speaks. For example, in "The Garden Shukkeien," Forché uses two speakers, who have a particular function in relation to each other. By structuring her poem this way, Forché can tell the story of the survivors of the Hiroshima atomic bombing in two ways: through an eyewitness's point of view and through a witness to that eyewitness's suffering.
The first speaker opens the poem. She accompanies the woman later identified as a survivor of the Hiroshima bombing. The voice is spectral, haunting, and one can imagine the angel of history crossing the "vanished bridge." The first speaker has access to the survivor's thoughts, emotions, and actions. She tells readers about the woman with whom she travels:
It is the river she most
remembers, the living
and the dead both crying for help.
It is a cold world that the speaker notes the woman remembers, one that "allowed neither tears nor lamentations." Such a description underscores the utter shock of being hit by an atomic bomb and the fact that history is unforgiving. Survivors of the blast often talk about the hordes of injured and crazed people shoving their way through the streets, pushing one another into the river. Events happened too quickly to allow for mourning or tears. The past is there now, to be witnessed, but never undone. The survivor herself begins to talk in the tenth line:
Where this lake is, there was a lake,
Where these black pine grow, there grew black pine.
Where there is no teahouse I see a wooden teahouse
and the corpses of those who slept in it.
Shukkei-en is a garden of miniatures, full of replicas of famous landscapes. It was built on the banks of the Kyobashi-gawa, which is modeled on Xihu (West Lake) in Hangzhou, China. The garden gains some of its effects, then, by manipulating space. Forché, in her collection in general and in this poem in particular, gains her poetic effects by manipulating time. The survivor witnesses a lake and pines in the present but cannot see them without also seeing the lake and pines of the past. In this way, she echoes the "seeing" of the angel of history. The figure of the angel comes from philosopher Walter Benjamin's "Theses on the Philosophy of History," an excerpt from which Forché uses as an epigraph for her collection:
This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward.
The perspective of the angel parallels the image of Hiroshima in the poem, depicted as "A cemetery seen from the air." It also parallels the idea of an adult looking back on the debris of her childhood, the suffering that formed her and continues to form her still. The image of childhood is central to this poem, because the victims of the bombing, the hibakusha, who are still alive today, were children in 1945. Their memories of the bombing are the memories of children, and Forché emphasizes this by making the voice of the survivor childlike and innocent. In the preface to his collection of first-person children's accounts of the bombing, Children of Hiroshima, Arata Osada writes:
These children, who had survived only by the merest of chances, had seen their parents, brothers and sisters, teachers or friends dying, crushed by the timbers of a fallen house, or being burned alive.
In their study of the psychological effects of living in an age of nuclear weaponry, Indefensible Weapons, Robert Jay Lifton and Richard Falk note that survivors of Hiroshima experienced "a permanent encounter with death" and "a lifelong identification with the dead." Falk and Lifton write that often the survivors behaved and lived "as-if dead." Forché evokes this kind of death-in-life existence by alternating between the voice of the survivor and the voice of her companion, which the text suggests is an American woman. If Forché wrote the poem in the first person about the survivor, she would be returning to the kind of lyric that dominated her first two collections and that she had sworn off. If she wrote the poem solely from the first-person point of view of the survivor, she might be accused of appropriating her experience. Alternating voices, often without any warning, dramatizes the poem, letting the action speak as well as the characters. One example of this technique occurs after the description of the willow tree on the banks of the Ota. After the first speaker describes the survivor as stroking "a burnt trunk wrapped in straw," the survivor says, "I was weak and my skin hung from my fingertips like cloth." The effect is something close to a voice-over in movies and deepens the texture of the poem, providing readers with more than one access point to the emotion, conscience, and thoughts of both speakers.
By using an American speaker and a Japanese speaker to illustrate the evils of atomic warfare, Forché foregrounds history itself rather than the travails of one individual. The Japanese survivor strolling through the garden is representative of the hundreds of thousands of other hibakusha. She is an example of how war can destroy lives but also of how good can come from evil. Her ability to survive more than fifty years after the atomic blast and after witnessing the incineration of her city attests to the strength of the human spirit and its capacity to cull hope from the grimmest of circumstances. The city itself has been rebuilt as a monument to memory. Small reminders of the bomb, such as the burnt trunk wrapped in straw in Shukkei-en, appear throughout Hiroshima. The Genbaku Dome (A-Bomb Dome), one of the few surviving buildings from the bomb, stands as a memorial to the dead, and Heiwa-koen (Peace Memorial Park), close to the epicenter of the explosion, includes a cenotaph, which contains the names of all known victims of the tragedy.
Source: Chris Semansky, Critical Essay on "The Garden Shukkei-en," in Poetry for Students, Gale, 2003.
Barnhisel directs the Writing Center at the University of Southern California. In this essay, Barnhisel discusses Forché's poem in the context of her larger concern with war, violence, and the effects of brutality on humans and their surroundings.
Against the common stereotype that poetry restricts its subject matter to the individual psyche stands the work of Carolyn Forché, a poet who has relentlessly explored the vicious and violent history of the twentieth century in her poems. Winner of the prestigious Yale Younger Poets Award for her book Gathering the Tribes in 1976, Forché soon turned her focus away from the themes of family and descent that characterized that work. In 1978, Forché met Leonel Gomez Vides, the nephew of the El Salvadorian poet Claribel Alegria (whose work Forché was translating), and Vides prodded Forché to use her Guggenheim Fellowship money to come to El Salvador and witness that country's poverty and growing violence.
Always sensitive to the ways that war and political forces disrupt and destroy the lives of ordinary people, in El Salvador, Forché walked into a country that was about to descend into a decade of brutal war. A leftist insurgency, the FMLN, battled the conservative government. In response, the wealthy and the military organized paramilitary forces—death squads—to keep the population in fear. The election of Ronald Reagan to the U.S. presidency in 1980 provided the right-wing forces with moral, financial, and ultimately military support from the American superpower. During the 1980s, tens of thousands of Salvadorians died in battle and in acts of terrorism perpetrated largely by the military and death squads. These forces even killed Roman Catholic Cardinal Oscar Romero (who had asked Forché to return home for her own safety) and four American nuns. The brutality of those years in El Salvador is hard to overstate.
Forché's response was to try to address the unrest in her verse. In one of her most famous poems, "The Colonel," she describes a Salvadorian military officer who dumps a sackful of human ears—the ears of his torture victims—onto the table. "They were like dried peach halves. There is no other way to say this," the narrator remarks. The colonel says to the poem's narrator, "I am tired of fooling around … As for the rights of anyone, tell your people they can f—themselves." The poem ends with this haunting image: "Some of the ears on the floor caught this scrap of his voice. Some of the ears on the floor were pressed to the ground."
The Country Between Us, the collection containing "The Colonel" and Forché's other seven El Salvador poems, was very controversial. Many critics and poets complained that Forché had traded in pure poetry for an excessively political agenda. However, the book had great admirers in other quarters. Forché, for her part, defended the change in her poetry. In "El Salvador: An Aide-Memoire," she wrote that by her trip to El Salvador
I was to be blessed with the rarity of a moral and political education—what at times would seem an unbearable immersion, what eventually would become a focused obsession. It would change my life and work, propel me toward engagement, test my endurance and find it wanting, and prevent me from ever viewing myself or my country again through precisely the same fog of unwitting connivance.
For Forché, after this experience in El Salvador, any poetry that did not address issues of oppression and violence would constitute "unwitting connivance" with the perpetrating forces.
During the 1980s, Forché remained active in social and political causes, even working as a reporter for National Public Radio in war-torn Beirut in the early 1980s. In 1992, she published an anthology of poetry, Against Forgetting, that compiled what Forché called in an interview in the Christian Science Monitor "the poetry of witness" of poets across the world. Also in this interview, Forché described this book as "a symphony of utterance, a living memorial to those who had died and those who survived the horrors of the twentieth century."
But, it was not until 1994 that Forché would publish another book of her own verse. In that year, The Angel of History appeared. Like Against Forgetting and The Country Between Us, The Angel of History takes as its subject witness: witness to the atrocities of the century, especially those of war. The title comes from the writings of the German Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin, himself a victim of the Nazis. In his "Theses on the Philosophy of History" (in a passage included as the The Angel of History's epigraph), Benjamin writes that the angel of history was a spirit with his face turned toward the past. Benjamin writes
Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole that which has been smashed. But, a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him toward the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward.
Benjamin's pessimistic idea of history—the belief that catastrophes will continue to happen and will even gain momentum, and are in fact not separate events but simply manifestations of a greater unitary violence and evil in the world—strongly influenced Forché's own view. In The Angel of History, Forché brings together the voices of victims of seemingly singular tragedies all over the world: the Holocaust in Europe, the "low-intensity conflicts" (a Pentagon term of the 1980s referring to the little wars around the globe) of the Cold War in the Americas and Africa, the atomic bombs in Japan. Her job is to record and to give voice, and by doing so to point out to her audience that all of these tragedies may not have the same causes, but they have the same effects on individual people. The Holocaust and the Cold War and the bombing of Hiroshima were very different events with different victims and different causes. Forché's work emphasizes the commonality of these events in terms of their impact on individuals without glossing over the events' differences.
"The Garden Shukkei-en" takes its name from a garden in Hiroshima, Japan. In 1940, the Asano family—the feudal dynastic family of the Hiroshima area—donated the park to the government. Five years later, the park saw the unimaginable destruction of the atomic bomb. Forché chooses this site in which to locate her poem primarily for the shocking juxtaposition, of course; the horrific aftermath of the bomb could not contrast more starkly with the characteristically Japanese beauty of a carefully-landscaped pond with trees and even ceremonial tearooms. In the poem, a woman comes to the park, presumably accompanied by the narrator (who may or may not be Forché herself) and tells the narrator about her feelings about returning here, where she may have walked during the war.
For Forché, violence and brutality change people and things fundamentally, in ways that only the survivors can understand or even perceive. Her poems are filled with images of survivors—both people and landscapes—that are somehow different after experiencing war. Forché conceives of this change as not exactly a scar; it is more of a transformation of the self. Yet, even in their alteration, the survivors bear witness to what has occurred. The ears in "The Colonel" are now "dried peach halves," but they can still hear. In "The Notebook of Uprising," another poem from The Angel of History, Forché speaks extensively about the city of Prague and about how its inhabitants can sense the changes that first the Nazis and then the Soviets caused in the city as they crushed resistance. Throughout her work, Forché returns to a site very near the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, where in a basement a small Holocaust memorial served as one of Forché's first introductions to the changes that great violence can wreak upon a whole city. Paris is never just Paris to Forché; it is always different from what it might otherwise have been, in ways that survivors can sense.
Hiroshima's almost unique destruction (only Nagasaki can compare) transformed the woman in the poem in small, subtle ways. In what she says, the woman does not focus on the actual aftermath of the violence to any great extent; compared to the true carnage, the few images of horror (flesh hanging from her fingers "like cloth," a woman's brain crushed under a roof) are spare, yet they give an idea of how fundamentally this woman's mind must have been changed by what she saw. She is a hibakusha, an A-bomb survivor, and it is not hard to imagine that when she closes her eyes all she can see are the corpse-choked rivers and the hanging flesh. Happiness in its true sense is no longer possible for her, as she says at the end of the poem. All she can experience is "something close." By identifying herself as a member of a group (the hibakusha), she implicitly makes it clear that these experiences are shared by other survivors.
What Do I Read Next?
- In 1995, Coffee House Press released an anthology of poetry titled Atomic Ghost: Poets Respond to the Nuclear Age, addressing the possibility of nuclear apocalypse. The collection, edited by John Bradley, contains poems from more than one hundred poets, including Adrienne Rich and William Dickey.
- Paul Brian's Nuclear Holocausts: Atomic War in Fiction, 1895–1984 (1986) provides a highly readable and detailed annotated bibliography of fiction depicting nuclear war and its aftermath.
- Marguerite Duras's screenplay of Alain Resnais's 1959 film Hiroshima Mon Amour was reissued by Grove Press in 1987. The film tells the story of an unidentified French woman and a Japanese man, both married, who are having a brief love affair in Hiroshima many years after World War II. Both struggle to escape their past and live in the present.
- John Hersey's classic Hiroshima (1946) focuses on the lives of six survivors of the Hiroshima bombing. It remains one of the most useful and provocative accounts of the bomb's aftermath.
- James Merrill was a widely respected poet whose work often explored human responses to living in the nuclear age. Timothy Materer's James Merrill's Apocalypse (2000) shows how apocalyptic motifs inspire and inform Merrill's poetry.
The question of humanity is always close to the surface in Forché's poems, and this one is no different. The Japanese woman poses the question, "Do you think for a moment we were human beings to them?" The answer, quite simply, is no. Acts of great violence strip victims of their humanity, transforming them into objects: the ears in El Salvador, the cattle car loads of Jews and Gypsies going to Nazi death camps, the 300,000 civilians turned instantaneously into corpses in Hiroshima. Conventional ethics demand that human beings treat each other always as ends in themselves, never as means to a greater end. In "The Garden Shukkei-en," the Japanese woman's rhetorical questions make it clear that in dropping the bomb the Americans have violated this ethical tenet and treated the inhabitants of Hiroshima merely as means, as objects, as less than human. The ironic corollary to this, Forché shows, is that the objects of violence are then transformed: once treated as something other than human, they are changed into something different, people whose lives merely "resemble" life.
Fundamentally, violence will always do this. "How can these fields continue as simple fields?" the narrator in "The Angel of History" (the first poem in the volume The Angel of History) asks about the fields of battle in France and Poland. In "The Garden Shukkei-en," the narrator says of the landscape that "where this lake is, there was a lake, / where these black pine grow, there grew black pine." It may seem identical but it is not. Not even sensations or emotions can remain unaltered by the experience of violence: the Japanese woman says that
We have not, in all these years, felt what you call
But at times, with good fortune, we experience
As our life resembles life, and this garden the garden.
Nothing, whether people or landscape or feelings themselves, can be the same after going through the trauma of war and violence.
Forché's poems rarely leave the reader with any kind of uplifting possibility, any question of transcending tragedy, and "The Garden Shukkeien" is no different. The victims of the A-bomb are surrounded by "silence": the silence of the grave, the silence of history, the silence of the garden itself. Providing faint comfort is the fact that in that silence they hear "the bell to awaken God." What this means is ominously left unsaid.
Source: Greg Barnhisel, Critical Essay on "The Garden Shukkei-en," in Poetry for Students, Gale, 2003.
Benjamin, Walter, "Theses on the Philosophy of History," in Illuminations, edited and translated by Hannah Arendt, Schocken Books, 1969, pp. 257–58.
Bogen, Don, "Muses of History," in the Nation, Vol. 259, No. 13, October 24, 1994, pp. 464–68.
Buehrer, David, Review of The Angel of History, in Magill Book Reviews, November 1, 1994.
Forché, Carolyn, "El Salvador: An Aide-Memoire," in American Poetry Review, Vol. 10, No. 4, July–August 1981, p. 7.
——, "The Garden Shukkei-en," in The Angel of History, HarperCollins, 1994, pp. 70–71.
——, "Notes," in The Angel of History, HarperCollins, 1994, p. 81.
Lifton, Robert Jay, and Richard Falk, Indefensible Weapons, Basic Books, 1982, pp. 38–48.
"Notes on Current Books: Poetry," in Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 70, Issue 4, Autumn 1994, p. 136.
Osada, Arata, ed., Children of Hiroshima, Harper Colophon Books, 1980, p. xx.
Ostriker, Alicia, "Beyond Confession: The Poetics of Post-modern Witness," in American Poetry Review, Vol. 30, Issue 2, March–April 2001, pp. 35–40.
Owens, Rochelle, "World Literature in Review: English," in World Literature Today, Vol. 68, Issue 4, Autumn 1994, p. 816.
Ratiner, Steven, "Carolyn Forché: The Poetry of Witness," in Christian Science Monitor, April 20, 1994.
Gery, John, Nuclear Annihilation and Contemporary Poetry: Ways of Nothingness, University Press of Florida, 1996.
Gery examines both the direct and the indirect impact of the nuclear threat on American poets from Gertrude Stein to James Merrill, providing detailed readings of over fifty poems and four general groups into which poems might be categorized: protest poetry, apocalyptic lyric poetry, psycho-historical poetry, and the poetry of uncertainty.
Forché, Carolyn, Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness, W. W. Norton, 1993.
In this extremely popular anthology, Forché collects the works of poets from around the world who bear witness in their poems to atrocities such as war, famine, and violent discrimination.
Lifton, Robert Jay, and Nicholas Humphrey, eds., In a Dark Time, Harvard University Press, 1984.
Psychiatrists Lifton and Humphrey have collected excerpts from literature of the last 2,500 years that comment on the psychological and imaginative confusion surrounding war. Lifton is known for his psychological studies of survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.
Takaki, Ronald T., Hiroshima: Why America Dropped the Atomic Bomb, Back Bay Books, 1996.
Takaki provides a concise exploration of America's use of atomic weapons during World War II and questions the military necessity of dropping the bomb, suggesting that desire for intimidation, anti-Asian sentiment, and Harry Truman's personality were all factors.