This Old Poem #98:
Carolyn Forché’s Return
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 8/7/04

  Carolyn Forché: even the name makes the non-congenitally PC want to vomit. A few years ago I 1st pointed out this abysmal writer’s lack of accomplishment, her hypocrisy in dealing with fellow poetasters, & general all-around misunderstanding of the very purpose of art. What makes her poetastry even worse is that the woman once- & that is the key word, once- actually had talent, & seemed poised upon a career as a pretty good poet. What happened? A need to conform, a desire to be accepted, a void in her soul, a lack of self-esteem? These are not mutually exclusive maladies, nor are they unexpected in Academia.
  In this realm all emphasis on achievement has fled, knowledge means nothing vis-à-vis feeling good about oneself. Whereas writers & poets whose names were recognizable were so because they achieved their fame via achievement, now a writer is known simply because they represent a certain group, or identify with a certain ism. In short, the writers whose names are known today are not famous writers, merely celebrity writers- known for being known. CF is a titan in that breed. Let’s see if her ungodly ubiquitous c.v. can help discern how she became a celebrity: 

  Carolyn Forché was born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1950. She studied at Michigan State University and earned an MFA from Bowling Green State University. Her first poetry collection, Gathering The Tribes (Yale University Press, 1976) won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award. Her second book, The Country Between Us (Harper & Row, 1982) received the Poetry Society of America’s Alice Fay di Castagnola Award, and was the Lamont Selection of the Academy of American Poets. Her translation of Claribel Alegria’s work, Flowers From The Volcano, was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 1983, and that same year, Writers and Readers Cooperative published El Salvador: Work of Thirty Photographers, for which she wrote the text. She has worked as a correspondent in Beirut, Lebanon and as a human rights liaison in South Africa. The Ecco Press published her translations of surrealist and French Resistance poet Robert Desnos in 1991. Carolyn Forché’s awards include a John Simon Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, as well as three fellowships from The National Endowment for the Arts, and a Lannan Literary Award. In 1992, she received the Charity Randall Citation from the International Poetry Forum. In 1993, W.W. Norton & Co. published her anthology, Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness. In March, 1994, her third book of poetry, The Angel of History, (HarperCollins Publishers) received the Los Angeles Times Book Award. Her fourth book of poetry is Blue Hour (HarperCollins, 2004). She also translated Mahmoud Darwish's Unfortunately, It Was Paradise: Selected Poems with Munir Akash (2003), Claribel Alegria's Flowers from the Volcano (1983), and Robert Desnos's Selected Poetry (with William Kulik, 1991). Carolyn Forché teaches in the MFA Program at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

  As usual, the c.v. is far more impressive than the poetry. Oy! CF even has her own webpage,, & her own email,, but don’t expect a reply, especially if you even hint that you agree with the premise of this essay. CF is notorious for her lack of wanting to engage in actual debate about poetry for poetry is about accepting others- or as Sally Field said years ago when she won an Oscar. ‘You like me. You really, really like me!
  On to the doggerel. Check that- lemme give you a brief snippet of things to come. This poem was from her 2nd book, over 20 years ago. It contains seeds for possible excellence, as well as those for the tripewriter she’s become:

The Visitor
In Spanish he whispers there is no time left. 
It is the sound of scythes arcing in wheat,
the ache of some field song in Salvador.
The wind along the prison, cautious
as Francisco’s hands on the inside, touching 
the walls as he walks, it is his wife’s breath
slipping into his cell each night while he
imagines his hand to be hers.  It is a small country.

There is nothing one man will not do to another.

    The good is the whole poem save the 1st & last lines- why? Aside from decent music & imagery the poem lends an otherness to the idea of masturbation- in this case, forced masturbation. The title is also good because it elicits a duality in the main character that might not be associated with onanism. The bad in the poem are those 2 framing lines. The fact that this prison is in El Salvador is no matter- it could be anywhere. The implication of the location is that the prisoner has suffered injustice. But that concept is not as interesting (nor subsequently developed in an interesting enough manner) as the loneliness any prisoner feels- justly or not. The last line is especially egregious because it shoves the 1st stanza’s idea of political injustice down the reader’s throat. The idea of the ‘small country’- be it El Salvador, or the country of the prison cell, is far more original & powerful.
  Of course, CF’s verse ran with the condescending, in-your-face, weepy PC approach rather than the artistically trusting & inspiring obliqueness in the middle of the poem. On to the tripe in question. 1st off it’s far too long for its banal sentiment:

For Josephine Crum

Upon my return to America, Josephine:
the iced drinks and paper umbrellas, clean
toilets and Los Angeles palm trees moving
like lean women, I was afraid more than 
I had been, even of motels so much so 
that for months every tire blow-out
was final, every strange car near the house
kept watch and I strained even to remember 
things impossible to forget.  You took
my stories apart for hours, sitting
on your sofa with your legs under you
and fifty years in your face.
                                       So you know
now, you said, what kind of money
is involved and that campesinos knife
one another and you know you should
not trust anyone and so you find a few
people you will trust.  You know the mix 
of machetes with whiskey, the slip of the tongue
that costs hundreds of deaths.
You’ve seen the pits where men and women
are kept the few days it takes without
food and water.  You’ve heard the cocktail
conversation on which their release depends.
So you’ve come to understand why
men and women of good will read
torture reports with fascination.
Such things as water pumps 
and co-op farms are of little importance
and take years.
It is not Che Guevara, this struggle.
Camillo Torres is dead.  Victor Jara
was rounded up with the others, and Jose
Marti is a landing strip for planes 
from Miami to Cuba.  Go try on
Americans your long, dull story
of corruption, but better to give
them what they want: Lil Milagro Ramirez,
who after years of confinement did not
know what year it was, how she walked
with help and was forced to shit in public.
Tell them about the razor, the live wire,
dry ice and concrete, grey rats and above all
who fucked her, how many times and when.
Tell them about retaliation:  Jose lying 
on the flat bed truck, waving his stumps
in your face, his hands cut off by his
captors and thrown to the many acres
of cotton, lost, still, and holding
the last few lumps of leeched earth.
Tell them of Jose in his last few hours
and later how, many months later,
a labor leader was cut to pieces and buried.
Tell them how his friends found
the soldiers and made them dig him up
and ask forgiveness of the corpse, once
it was assembled again on the ground 
like a man.  As for the cars, of course 
they watch you and for this don’t flatter 
yourself.  We are all watched.  We are 
all assembled.
                              Josephine, I tell you
I have not rested, not since I drove
those streets with a gun in my lap,
not since all manner of speaking has
failed and the remnant of my life 
continues onward.  I go mad, for example,
in the Safeway, at the many heads
of lettuce, papayas and sugar, pineapples
and coffee, especially the coffee.
And when I speak to American men, 
there is some absence of recognition:
their constant Scotch and fine white
hands, many hours of business, penises
hardened by motor inns and a faint
resemblance to their wives.  I cannot
keep going.  I remember the American
attaché in that country: his tanks 
of fish, his clicking pen, his rapt
devotion to reports.  His wife wrote
his reports.  She said as much as she
gathered him each day from the embassy
compound, that she was tired of covering
up, sick of his drinking and the loss
of his last promotion.  She was a woman
who flew her own plane, stalling out 
after four martinis to taxi on an empty
field in the campo and to those men
and women announce she was there to help.
She flew where she pleased in that country
with her drunken kindness, while Marines
in white gloves were assigned to protect
her husband. It was difficult work, what
with the suspicion on the rise in smaller
countries that gringos die like other men.
I cannot, Josephine, talk to them.

And so, you say, you’ve learned a little 
about starvation:  a child like a supper scrap
filling with worms, many children strung
together, as if they were cut from paper
and all in a delicate chain.  And that people
who rescue physicists, lawyers and poets
lie in their beds at night with reports
of mice introduced into women, of men
whose testicles are crushed like eggs.
That they cup their own parts
with their bedsheets and move themselves
slowly, imagining bracelets affixing 
their wrists to a wall where the naked
are pinned, where the naked are tied open
and left to the hands of those who erase
what they touch.  We are all erased 
by them, and no longer resemble decent
men.  We no longer have the hearts,
the strength, the lives of women.
Your problem is not your life as it is
in America, not that your hands, as you 
tell me, are tied to do something.  It is 
that you were born to an island of greed
and grace where you have this sense
of yourself as apart from others.  It is 
not your right to feel powerless.  Better
people than you were powerless.
You have not returned to your country,
but to a life you never left.  

  Do you recall that I said this was too long a poem? Ok, is there any music, or poetic structure? No. There are no repetons, there are no assonances nor alliterations beyond the normal that occur in casual speech, & there is no deft wordplay nor vivid imagery. This poem is simply another laundry list of PC complaints wherein CF enumerates obscure heroes of causes she believes in. Other than the overused & laughable Guevara the impact any of these names has on the American public are about akin to what a modern day Rumi could expect to elicit from an apotheosis of Michael Jordan to Uzbekhs.  & I won’t even touch the melodrama. The poem basically says ‘America sucks!’ Ok, I’ll go along, but NOW you’d better deliver, honey. Houston, we have a problem.
  Instead of the same old same old I will make this poem more of a plaint that shows the overwhelm of American shallowness, nor merely repeats it ad nauseam.

For Josephine Crum

Upon my return to America, Josephine:
the iced drinks and paper umbrellas, clean
toilets and Los Angeles palm trees moving
like lean women, I was afraid more than 
I had been. You’ve heard the cocktail
conversation: It is not Che Guevara, 
this struggle. Go try on
Americans your long, dull stories
of corruption, but better to give
them what they want. Josephine,
I have not rested. I go mad
when I speak to American men.
I cannot keep going….I remember 
stalling out after four martinis to taxi 
on an empty field in the campo.
We are all erased. We no longer 
have the hearts, the lives of women.
You have not returned to a life you never left.  

  The speaker is now worldly-wise, weary, & resigned. It’s not Romantic, but it is far more unique. Added to the fact that it is not so bloated a poem & the rewrite is a definite improvement, but merely a jumping off point from which a better poet could start kicking into high gear. CF? 20 years in neutral is enough- no?

Final Score: (1-100):

Carolyn Forché’s Return: 35
TOP’s Return: 70

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