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Blue Hour

Carolyn Forche

(HarperCollins)

Together Into the Blue But Unbroken Perishing

This doesn’t happen often, but there is a jacket-blurb so perfect, I have to quote it: “Somewhere between screenplay and screen there is a zone of thought that Blue Hour conjures up. A trail of luminous images and scenes, personal flashbacks, the politics and literature of the 20th century float toward the inevitable ghost-past-ghost-future. In transit, in half-turnings and rushes of syntax, the true state is a film state in this fascinating book” (Fanny Howe).


These “rushes of syntax” are the run-on fusion of subject and predicate, reminiscent-though more fragile, more tremble than surge-of Allen Ginsberg’s catalogic pile-up lyricism in Howl. But whereas Ginsberg thrills with “the impulse of winter midnight streetlight smalltown rain”, the less confessional nature of Forche’s work elicits “Objects in the room grew small grew large again”, “An iron bridge railing one moment its shadow the next”, and “It lasted as long as a dream it was no dream.”


Grammar might seem an unusual thing to admire in poetry, but here, the run-on contradictions and transformations, fragmented near-closures (“Until the derelict house offered its last apparition”, “And the cries were those of gulls following a seed plough”), and chants of wordlists (”Flour-sacks, school-chalk, a coherent life, “Refugee, relic, reverie”) tend to heighten tension by a kind of rhythmic peeking-into, through the flickering pulse of the line.


More importantly, and more fascinating, the narrator (and there is one, just not the standard, seemingly-stable first person, or a falsely omniscient third) floats through the fleeting, and in the process presents us with the primacy of visual and sonic images.


This is especially evident in “On Earth”, the forty-six page alphabetically arranged chant of images and phrases, based on ancient Gnostic hymns. Robert Boyers calls it “a transcription of a mind passing from life into death”, similar to the long poem “Mural” by Mahmoud Darwish, a Palestinian poet Forche has recently translated.


“On Earth” is the poem that will almost undoubtedly get the most attention-and deservedly so-its momentum is slow, hypnotic, gorgeous, and at times frightening. An interesting characteristic of this poem, are lines both “in” the poem as well as “towards” the book, lines crucial to the poem, but also descriptive of what we’re reading, sort of teaching us how to move through and look at the work: “a litany of broken but remembered events”, “sparks of holiness”, “our hymnic song against death”, “a chaos of microphones”, “a message deflected by other messages.”


Here is a stretch from early on:


as for children, so for the dead
as gloves into a grave
as God withdrawing so as to open an absence


as he appears and reappears in the unknown
as if a flock of geese were following
as if there were no other source of food
as if to say goodbye to his own mind
as if we had only one more hour


as if with the future we could replace the past
as in the childhood of terror and holiness


What often happens here is an enactment of the remarkable possibilities of form-in the same way that Mark Craver’s “Index”, a 26-poem sequence of 26-line abecedariums, allows things to be said that could not be said outside of that form. At its best, explicit form is not only a way to harness the energy of a poem, but a way to create more energy, images that seem born from mere momentum, lyrics drawn up out of a well of chanting, a frame that chisels its own body.


Turning back to Howe’s remark, some believe that film is the ultimate medium for artistic communication, and on one hand, this book might reclaim that herald for poetry. On the other, at the very least, its procedures and effects are filmic, like the later, shorter stories of Marguerite Duras: a hybrid of language and vision, and the swells of an eerie yet elegant momentum built on narrative pauses, gaps, and reelings.


The title poem is particularly like this. Autobiographical episodes-beginning with a mother nursing her infant son in Paris during an hour of pre-dawn called “the blue hour”, leaping further back to the mother’s memories of her childhood, back to Paris-take turns voicing in a cyclic, waterwheel-like rhythm.


Just before “On Earth” is a kind of prelude, and what might be my favorite poem here. “Prayer” has a relentless calm of declarations: “Say goodbye to everything. With a wave of your hand, gesture to all you have known./Begin with bread torn from bread, beans given to the hungriest, a carcass of flies.” These are instructions for prayer, as well as prayer itself, giving voice to that moment of acutely conscious solitude—so characteristic of Forche—where word and action are one.


In a recent interview in Phoebe, Forche remarks:


I believe that the acceleration of the velocity of our experience has eroded our capacity to sustain contemplation…it is not only a question of time, but of the fragmentation of perceptual experience. Blue Hour doesn’t tell stories…My poetry doesn’t tell stories, but it does trace a kind of luminous web of obsessions and psychic and actual events.


This book is a great fusion of Forche’s previous work, and an opening as well. While “On Earth” recalls the polyphonic “symphony of utterance” of The Angel of History, much of the subject matter turns back towards the intimacy of her first book, Gathering the Tribes, and that is precisely the luminous web of obsessions, psychic and actual events she refers to.


There is something new here, too—something both deeply personal and passionately of-the-world, without the at-times-obscurity of The Angel of History or the passive poetic conventions of The Country Between Us. The only thing I can call it is the awesome balance of art and life. As for “the acceleration of the velocity of our experience” and “the fragmentation of perceptual experience”, Blue Hour offers the fragmented speed of our lives the possibility that we can in fact make sense of ourselves and this world, but it must be through something quieter and more independent than mass media or “word from the top”; it must be through the contemplative space of literacy, conscience, and individuality. In a phrase, this is what place art has on this earth.

Related Articles
By Andy Fogle
4 Mar 2003
[Mahmoud Darwish] is a force, undoubtedly the most popular and powerful poet of the Middle East.
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