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Notes on The Angel of History

Updated: Jul 15, 2022


It is exciting to be in the presence as true voice discovers itself. That was my experience rereading Carolyn Forché’s stunning The Angel of History, now, a quarter-century after its original appearance. That sense of originality and authenticity duplicated my original experience, but with this difference: Now that familiarity has dimmed the sheen of newness, other virtues show more clearly, including the clarity, control, and the unstrained musics of its poems. I felt again this poet’s ambition and voice come together in ways I would not have predicted from her prior work. She acknowledges the emergence of this unwilled happenstance in the book’s notes:

The Angel of History is not about experiences. It is for me the opening of a wound, the muffling and silence of a decade, and it is also a gathering of utterances that have lifted away from the earth and wrapped it in a weather of risen words. These utterances issue from my own encounter with the events of this century but do not represent “it.” The first-person, free-verse, lyric-narrative poem of my earlier years has given way to a work which has desired its own bodying forth: polyphonic, broken, haunted, and in ruins, with no possibility of restoration.

Not a history of things as was, she says, but a selective engagement with particular histories, memories of the poet and of others mixed, a poetic and memorial Rorschach. It is made-history at two removes, the first in the way that any poem that recounts a memory defines less what the memory is than what it could be—for the poem we read is not the record of the event as lived through or even as remembered or told shortly thereafter, but a thing made new by being shaped to fit the teller’s form. And second, this already-transformed instance now appears in a medium different from its original, consisting not of thought or mental or spoken images, but of words and symbols on a page; the lived events, recreated and transformed, become the fixed written presentation. As she says, the book is “a gathering of utterances that have lifted away from the earth and wrapped it in a weather of risen words. These utterances issue from my own encounter with the events of this century but do not represent ‘it.’”

Her note presents this process less as the result of the poet’s desire or will than as the book’s necessity and the voice’s need. Her earlier voice has given way, she says, to this new work, which has desired its own bodying forth: The book’s truth is in its process. She doesn’t write these poems—given their terms, how could she? The poems are rather presented as a gathering of utterances, a phrase that defines the poet’s sole willed act as this gathering-together. The poems arrive with their own fields, and make their own selections and demands in voices new and old. They rehearse their own success as they go along, on terms that reflect the recreated impress of this particular moment, that particular memory, and together create a version of collective memory. The poems are not written, she tells us, not as we think of a writing process, using paper, pen, perhaps a computer-screen: Rather, they are a wound opening, with the implication of something biological and anatomical, something painful. It is bloody, she says, in ruins, “with no possibility of restoration.” And yet—here it is, the evidence, the poetry, fixed and set before us on the page.

In this essay I want to talk about the creation of the work, insofar as it can be gleaned from Ms. Forché’s comments in various places, and about the origin of the Angel, and to look at some of the themes and modes of the book, with a focus on the methods and structure of the title poem as we see them in its first section. Each poem is a new beginning, of course, but the themes and modes of the composition of other sections of this first poem and of the other poems in the book are rehearsed in that beginning. These modes draw attention to themselves, insisting that their experience is unique, and also that, however impersonal or public or multi-voiced the presentation, their subject-matter is finally personal, and so they demand that the reaction to the ways in which suffering and evil is memorialized here must also be personal and moral, a full confrontation of each event by the full human self. One of these modes is the splintering of time and space, making the past present and the scene of horror present everywhere, and thus to force our hands into a wound that can never be closed—to make that penetration the price of the confrontation, the description of a debt that can never be paid.


The Angel first appears as “Angelus Novus” (“New Angel”), a 1920 monoprint oil transfer from watercolor by Paul Klee, which was purchased in 1921 by the German Jewish philosopher and literary critic, Walter Benjamin. Two decades later, Benjamin used the Angel figure in his 1940 “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” an influential and controversial critique of historicism, which is, crudely put, a theory that history progresses toward some desirable end point. The historical materialism of Karl Marx, with its claims of a scientific objectivity whose application leads to a paradisal endpoint, is an example of the historicism criticized in the essay. Benjamin said the historicism theory can only win its philosophical competition over other theories by availing itself with the services of theology, “which today, as we know, is wizened and has to keep out of sight.” He used the analogy of a chess-playing device to show historicism as not science at all but as a quasi-religious fraud (the analogy is discussed further below).

The Angel appears in paragraph IX of the essay’s twenty paragraphs, where it is introduced by a segment of a poem:

Mein Fliigel ist zum Schwung bereit, icb kebrte gem zuruck, denn blieb ich aucb lebendige Zeit, ich hiitte wenig Gluck. -Gerhard Scholem, “Gruss vom Angelus”·

A Klee painting named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. 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 upon 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 from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

The translation used by Forché, which I also use here, is from Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, a collection of essays by Benjamin edited by Hannah Arendt (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1968). The poem that introduces the paragraph is by Benjamin’s long-time friend, the philosopher and historian Gerhard Scholem, and is translated in the notes to the book as

My wing is ready for flight, I would like to turn back. If I stayed timeless time, I would have little luck.

Interestingly, Ms. Forché uses only a portion of the paragraph in her book’s epigraph, starting from “This is how one pictures…” I believe the excision is an intentional repositioning of the Angel. In Benjamin’s original, the poem and references to the painting are the paragraph’s starting point. He says that the Angel is “looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history.” He thus gives the Angel an origin, and a point of view, a location, even an expression: “This is how one pictures the angel of history,” he says (emphasis mine). It is only after referencing the picture and invoking the Angel that Benjamin describes the Angel’s relationship to history. Taken together, the reference to the painting, the description, and the poem create an artifice that frames the paragraph and directs our response.

Ms. Forché introduces the Angel but without the poem and the two introductory sentences. This changes the meaning of the sentence she begins with. “This is how one pictures the angel of history.” The artifice of selfhood in Benjamin’s definition is extinguished in favor of treating the angel dynamically, as a metaphysical figure whose self is defined in relation to the piled-up calamity which is history. Ms. Forché’s purpose is to make us see history as calamity and not as artifice, to thus dissolve the time and the distance between ourselves and that storm of horrors, and the manner in which she uses the paragraph adumbrates this purpose. There is no resting place, no start, no end, only this dynamic of the horrible, the quotidian nightmare that defines our existence in in relation to itself. If I have understood this correctly, the mischief done to Benjamin’s original structure in this paragraph was done with cause, to make the angel of a piece with the fragmented and dynamic aesthetic and philosophy of her book.


Benjamin and Klee, the creators of the Angel, were Jewish refugees who fled Nazi Germany in fear for their lives. Their personal stories ally them with the themes of the poem, as witnesses and victims in the historical piling up of calamities that was Nazi Germany. Klee made it to Switzerland with his family in 1933 just as the Gestapo closed in, while Benjamin tragically committed suicide when his 1940 effort to escape to the United States through Spain was blocked.

A member of the Frankfort School, Benjamin was known as a writer of important essays on Baudelaire, Kafka, Goethe, Proust, and others. He was friends with many prominent intellectuals, including Bertolt Brecht, Georg Lukács, and Hannah Arendt. Fearing the rise of Nazi power, he moved to Paris for much of the 1930’s, but when Germany stripped Jews of their German citizenship in 1939, he was arrested and incarcerated for three months by the collaborating French government. He knew from this that his safe refuge was disappearing, and when he was released from jail, he fled Paris in 1940 just a day before German soldiers arrived at his apartment to arrest him. Obtaining a travel visa to America, he planned to embark from Portbou, in Catalonia, but Franco Spain closed the border on the day he arrived, and announced that all emigres would have to return to France. Rather than be repatriated to France, where he was certain to be turned over to Nazi hands, the 48-year old Benjamin committed suicide with an overdose of morphine tablets that night, September 26, 1940. His act was premature, as it turned out, for the next day his party was allowed passage, and reached Lisbon four days later.

“Theses on the Philosophy of History” was apparently the last thing Benjamin wrote. He gave it to Hannah Arendt, who took it with her as she fled Paris after the Nazi invasion in 1940, making her way to America in 1941. Though Benjamin had asked that it not be published, his friends, members of the Frankfurt School, which had supported him for the past decade, decided that the essay was too important to keep private. The School had relocated in 1935 from Germany to New York City, where it joined Columbia University, and where Benjamin hoped to become a member of the faculty. The first printing was as a mimeographed memorial to the author in 1942. It has since been published, translated, and widely commented on in several languages. The essay created interest in his other work, and made him famous.

The originator of the Angel figure, Paul Klee, was a Swiss-born artist who worked in Germany, teaching at Bauhaus and then at the Dusseldorf Academy through the 1920’s and into the early 1930’s. But after being singled out in a Nazi newspaper and having his home searched by the Gestapo in 1933, he emigrated to Switzerland with his family. In Germany, his work was considered “Degenerate Art,” and 102 of his pictures in public collections were seized by the Nazis. He died in 1940, in Switzerland, of scleroderma, a fatal disease that made swallowing very difficult and left him in great pain in his final years.

Klee created “Angelus Novus” during a breakthrough year in his career: In 1920 he had his first large-scale exhibition in Munich, was about to join the Weimar Bauhaus, and completed his artistic credo, “Creative Confession,” in which he set forth his metaphysical perception of reality. The supernatural beings that inhabit Klee’s work—during the last years of his life he created some fifty celestial angels—give a his work a metaphysical context.

“Angelus Novus” was recently found to have its own interesting back story. In 2013 the New York artist R. H. Quaytman was invited to do a show at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, which includes the Klee work in one of its collections. After two years of research, Quaytman saw something previously unnoticed—that Klee had glued the Angelus Novus monoprint onto an old engraving. The engraving, clearly visible around all four sides, hinted at a portrait of a single figure in a black robe made by someone with the initials LC in the 1520’s. She eventually determined that Klee had mounted his image on an 1838 copper-plate engraving by Friedrich Muller after a portrait by Lucas Cranach (1472-1553) of Martin Luther, who, late in life, became an outspoken anti-Semite. We cannot know whether Klee’s choice of the portrait to stand behind his work in what we might consider a gesture of defacement was deliberate; but if not intentional, it was at least fortuitous.


Benjamin was a committed Marxist who had lost faith in that doctrine’s historicism. His friend Gerhard Scholem, the author of the poem quoted in the paragraph of the “Theses” essay, considered him a “theologian marooned in the realm of the profane,” a description that seems self-confirmed by the essay’s opening paragraph, which portrays the philosophy of history as a mechanical chess game with a cheat:

The story is told of an automaton constructed in such a way that it could play a winning game of chess, answering each move of an opponent with a countermove. A puppet in Turkish attire and with a hookah in its mouth sat before a chessboard placed on a large table. A system of mirrors created the illusion that this table was transparent from all sides. Actually, a little hunchback who was an expert chess player sat inside and guided the puppet’s hand by means of strings. One can imagine a philosophical counterpart to this device. The puppet called “historical materialism” is to win all the time. It can easily be a match for anyone if it enlists the services of theology, which today, as we know, is wizened and has to keep out of sight.

Theology makes an odd figure in this paragraph, where it is portrayed as “a little hunchback” who is an expert at chess but also part of the fraud played on the viewers and participants who challenge the chess-playing “automaton.” To trick out the analogy a little further, the puppet is historical materialism, and the expert chess-playing hunchback who must be hidden within it to win is theology. It is easy to understand why the automaton needs the hunchback to win, but what services does Benjamin suggest that “historical materialism” needs that theology can provide? Belief or compelled assent, with or without proof, perhaps is one; but I think as important is the view we have seen described in the Angel paragraph, that historical progress is an illusion, that history is a series of catastrophes piling wreckage upon wreckage to the heavens. The theological reference here is to Jewish mysticism, as Benjamin notes in paragraph B, the final paragraph in the essay. I take it from this that the service historical materialism needs from theology is faith in redemption through a savior:

The soothsayers who found out from time what it had in store certainly did not experience time as either homogeneous or empty. Anyone who keeps this in mind will perhaps get an idea of how past times were experienced in remembrance-namely, in just the same way. We know that the Jews were prohibited from investigating the future. The Torah and the prayers instruct them in remembrance, however. This stripped the future of its magic, to which all those succumb who turn to the soothsayers for enlightenment. This does not imply, however, that for the Jews the future turned into homogeneous, empty time. For every second of time was the strait gate through which the Messiah might enter.


We discussed earlier Ms. Forché’s description of the making of the poem as involving more receptiveness than control, and the way the processes of memory and creation interplay in its making. Interestingly, Benjamin describes a similar process of history seized by memory, in his paragraph VI: To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it “the way it really was” (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger. Perhaps tellingly, Ms. Forché offers a variation of this precept in the opening of one of the sections of her poem: Surely all art is the result of one’s having been in danger, of having gone through an / experience all the way to the end. During a recent visit to Syracuse, as Ms. Forché discussed the composition of the poem and the book, she referred to her sense of presence in the articulation of the past and her compositional sense of danger. Some of what she said tracks her comments in a print interview in Under a Warm Green Linden in 2009 (´):

…when I had come out of El Salvador, I was not in very good shape, and I was not strong enough for what transpired. So once again, a decade long retreat and the project of the anthology, Against Forgetting, which was really a beautiful experience for me. I was so engaged, and it was such a pleasure to do the research and the reading and editing. I didn’t have to worry about anyone else. It was a labor of love. My friend Daniel Simko encouraged me and made it possible for me to start writing my own work again because he came and took care of my son everyday for a few hours, on the condition that I would write while they were gone. So I started The Angel of History really because of Daniel.

She told us in Syracuse that she didn’t know that what was coming onto the page was poetry—that it seemed at the time more like notes toward a poem. She shared the notes with her friend, and gained confidence in what she was doing because of his encouragement. The poem in this sense was a “gift,” and her description in the notes to the book exactly mirrors her experience:

In some of those polyphonic poems in The Angel of History I allowed myself great leaps in time and space between the different sections. I let myself move from Beirut back to the place along the sea shore: maybe I felt the spray, the salt foam, that was lifted out of the Mediterranean by the helicopters in Beirut, and I was writing through that, and then I was back at a window facing the sea. When I was in Beirut it was a very difficult time. It was the winter of ’83–’84. We came under shell fire. One night I was in the basement listening to all the explosions. After that night, for awhile I felt that my mind was behaving as a kaleidoscope: I couldn’t sustain a thought the same way, and when I wrote, I couldn’t sustain the speaker on the page. It was a kind of staccato rapid firing of images, perceptions, and memories in my consciousness—all the time. I thought, to my horror, that it was going to last forever, and that’s how I was going to be. It didn’t last forever, but while it was happening, I decided that since I couldn’t stop it, I would set it to paper, that I would work with it, rather than against it—write my way out of it. The breaking up of the language in The Angel of History started because I was writing in that mental state. Everything was kind of swirling around, so I thought I will make something with this broken glass; I will glue it together, because if I don’t do that I won’t be able to do anything.

What she describes here, and what we glean from the book, is how the theory follows the act. She wrote, as she says, because she had to, as a necessity to preserve life and sanity. This is the process she describes in the book as “The first-person, free-verse, lyric-narrative poem of my earlier years has given way to a work which has desired its own bodying forth: polyphonic, broken, haunted, and in ruins, with no possibility of restoration.” Her life changed, and the physical and mental experience changed the materials and forms of her poetry. The process of making it new, of editing the vertiginous swirl, saved her.

It is not clear to me from her written or oral materials when the process of change started or when it ended. Clearly it was a difficult aesthetic journey, and from all that she has said, she had to find her way through doubt from the kind of poetry she had written and been celebrated for, to this new form, capable of accommodating the shaggy monsters that now sought inclusion. It is interesting to me that she portrays the process and the result as sui generis, something forcing itself onto the page and into her poetry, or as a random sequence of notes toward poems that she did not recognize as poetry in themselves until her friend told her differently. But it is clear that the poems of The Angel of History have distinguished modernist ancestors. The imagistic time- and space-shifting method is Poundian, as he used it in The Cantos, and the disjunct scene-shifting was pioneered by Eliot in “The Wasteland,” as edited by Pound. In both those poems, the argument is often carried, as here, by the train of images and the music of the lines, and the reach of the argument is deep into history. I think, to draw the parallels with ancestors out a little further, that the writing of “The Wasteland” saved Eliot, just as Ms. Forché says the writing of The Angel of History saved her.


I mentioned earlier that much of the method and approach of the rest of the book are signaled in the opening section of the title poem:

There are times when the child seems delicate, as if he had not yet crossed into the world. When French was the secret music of the street, the café, the train, my own receded and became intimacy and sleep. In the world it was the language of propaganda, the agreed-upon lie, and it bound me to itself, demanding of my life an explanation. When my son was born I became mortal.

Our days at Cape Enrage, a bleached shack of rented rooms and white air. April. At the low tide acres of light, boats abandoned by water. While sleeping, the child vanishes from his life.

Years later, on the boat from Beirut, or before the boat, an hour before, helicopters lifting a white veil of sea. A woman broken into many women.

These boats, forgotten, have no keels. So it is safe for them, and the emptiness beneath them safe. April was here briefly. The breakwater visible, the lighthouse, but no horizon. The music resembled April, the gulls, April, but you weren’t walking toward this house. If the child knew words, if it weren’t necessary for him to question me with his hands— To have known returning would be like this, that the sea light of April had been your vigilance.

The structure is intuitive, not narrative, guided by what we might call the felt logic of its images. If it feels sometimes arbitrary and non-linear in its particulars it also feels necessary in the fullness of its gesture—as if the poet had arrived suddenly in a foreign capital and was looking at everything in no particular order or priority in an effort to orient herself, but you feel that the view is completed at the end. The voice is impassive in its engagement with this world, neither numb nor casual, but removed, even affectless. I wish that Ms. Forché had described her method as multi-voiced rather than polyphonic, as the later leads us to expect a structure of voices, contrapuntal perhaps, or counterpoint, with intertwined melodies, as we would get in music; but that is not what is on display. Rather, there are many voices speaking besides the poet’s own, and I would divide them into speakers as witnesses and speakers as validation, what in computer methodology would be a validator, a program used to check the validity or syntactical correctness of a fragment of code or document. Think of the structure as that of unwilled choices, like being like a bus where people get on and off, where some sit beside you and tell their stories, and then you never see them again, and some stay with you all the way through, and meanwhile the imagery keeps changing as the bus moves forward.

The several other voices in the full poem besides Ms. Forché’s include voices with reputation, like Eli Weisel, Rene Char, Gershom Scholem, C.W. King, and then the others that would remain anonymous but for their recognition in this poem, like the singing children, Ellie, Simone, the anonymous letter-writer, the soldiers, and others. But they are all important, they all lend something significant to the whole. The otherwise-anonymous are important because they drive the poem by words that describe their memories, and so create their memory collectively, until it fuses into a single collective of calamitous history. That history and those words are then buttressed by the words of the others, the group I called the names of reputation. Their contributions and uses are all different. For example, the words quoted throughout from Eli Weisel’s poem, “Ani Maamin,” le silence de Dieu est Dieu (“the silence of God is God”), already powerful in themselves become more powerful when we realize that this is a long poem about the Holocaust, which Weisel has called “a war against memory.” In his poem the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob rise up to challenge God about the atrocities they have seen, even as the speaker and others condemned to death say repeatedly, I believe, I still believe.

Another name of reputation is Rene Char, a French poet and fighter in the Resistance who was active as a poet and writer from the 1920’s to the end of his life in 1988. He was a friend and associate of Albert Camus, Georges Bataille, Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro, and others. He was to have been in the car involved in the accident that killed Camus and Michel Gallimard, but there was not enough room, and so he returned instead that day by train to Paris. His line in the poem, Comment me vint l’écriture? Comme un duvet d’oiseau sur ma vitre, en hiver (“How did writing come to me? Like a bird’s down on my window in winter.”) is from his long poem “La Bibliotecheque Est En Feu” (“The Library is on Fire”), from La Parole en Archipel, 1952 – 1960 (The Word As Archipelago). I quote below the first page (my translation). I can see the appeal to the poet of these long lines here and through the rest of the poem, with their discontinuous imagery and exhortations to write what comes:

Through the muzzle of this cannon it snows. It was hell in our heads. At the same time, it’s spring at our fingertips. It is a way of walking allowed again, the earth in love, the exuberant grass.

The mind too, like everything else, trembles.

The eagle is in the future.

Any action which engages the soul, even if the soul doesn’t know of it, will have as its epilogue repentance or sorrow. You have to agree to it.

How did writing come to me? Like a bird’s down on my window in winter. Immediately arose a battle of embers in the hearth that has not yet ended.

Silky cities of daily gaze, inserted among other cities, with streets traced by us alone, under the wing of lightning which responds to our attentions.

Everything in us should only be a joyous feast when something is accomplished that we have not foreseen, that we shed no light on, which will speak to our heart, by its own means.

Let us continue to plumb our soundings, to speak in an even voice, in words grouped together, we will end up silencing all these dogs, by getting them to merge with the grass, watching us with a smoky eye, while the wind will wash away their backs.

The lightning lasts me.

The method is not the same, of course, but the aesthetic appeal of having lines come to you like feathers on a window in winter suggests the kind of willed unwillingness at work in Ms. Forché’s poems in this book. My reading of the poem suggests that the use of Weisel’s line is philosophic or metaphysical, and judgmental, while that of Char’s is aesthetic. There are other possibilities, of course. In the case of the Char line, think how many scenes in this poem take place in winter—for example, We held roses, then the roses rested on the snow as if someone had died there. Winter. Think of those scenes of winter, and then of the line abo9ut how the writing comes, and how acid a self-judgment it seems of the work, effectively saying that I make poetry from your tragedy. The reader can make his or her own judgments concerning the use of these and others voices.


I am fascinated by the poem’s relationship to the child. Consider the opening four lines:

There are times when the child seems delicate, as if he had not yet crossed into the world. When French was the secret music of the street, the café, the train, my own receded and became intimacy and sleep. In the world it was the language of propaganda, the agreed-upon lie, and it bound me to itself, demanding of my life an explanation. When my son was born I became mortal.

This first section has many tasks, one of which is to set up the poem’s series of oppositions. The first line, for example, speaks of seeing the child “as if he had not yet crossed into the world,” which is the poem’s delineation of the first of its many borders. This one is the border of life at the entrance to the world, a position where a child’s delicacy is still possible. The opposition here is delicacy and life as against the rest of the poem which contains and speaks of so much death, in a world where delicacy is not prized, and roughness is everywhere. The child opens and closes this first stanza, as the speaker tells us in a lovely line, “When my son was born I became mortal.” This is closure, as in the intervening lines the speaker tells us that she lives in a world where a foreign language is all around her and her native language thus becomes an interior one, for intimacy and sleep (another series of oppositions, interior and exterior), and then that this intimate language becomes in the world around her the language of propaganda and the agreed-upon lie, “and it bound me to itself, demanding of my life an explanation.” As becomes apparent in the rest if the poem, the “explanation” demanded is for her life itself, explaining why she should be freed from the surround of death and waste. It is the guilt of asking oneself, why am I like this while they are all like that.

There is much that is odd about this first stanza. The poet is looking at the child, her son, and then discussing the effect on her of its birth, but there is no exclamation of joy or of anything else, no moment of current or recollected happiness. She tells us about the child in several separate lines in this section:

There are times when the child seems delicate, as if he had not yet crossed into the world…

When my son was born I became mortal…

While sleeping, the child vanishes from his life…

If the child knew words, if it weren’t necessary for him to question me with his hands—

But the language in these lines is impersonal, not scientific but passive, numb, as if she might say, Today is Tuesday, or The color of that wall is blue. The “he” of that opening line becomes the more distanced and impersonal “the child” in the rest of this section. Think about what is not said, what we are not told about the child: A name, a description, parents, home, demeanor… Is he slight, heavy, colicy, happy, what color is his hair, what kind of clothes or toys does he have—but no, there is nothing, no information. This is not a mother giving us a picture of her child. We don’t know if she is happy with him, or proud of him. We know that she observes him, and that she mentally pits his life against the world’s. We can almost infer her general view of life and the world, but we don’t know if the things she reveals are true.

I keep coming back to read the opening sentence because so much seems left out: “There are times when the child seems delicate, as if he had not yet crossed into the world.” Delicate how? What does “seems delicate” mean—is this different than being delicate? What is the delicacy of someone who has “not yet crossed into the world”? The delicacy of the womb? Is this meant to convey a physical or a mental state? She says, “When my son was born I became mortal,” the reverse of the usual metamorphosis, in which the child of a god becomes mortal because its mother is, or God is born to a mortal mother and becomes, for a time, mortal. I read that sentence and wonder again, what was she before she became mortal?

Later in the poem we are told that the child takes its first step, but it is “In my absence.” The child has few other references in this poem, but none are descriptive, none tell us of its impact as a presence, making it less a figure than almost a passing moment, a thought succeeded in this construction by another, a shadow.

Yet the child is an important reference, even with this small notice, for as a figure of a living child is he is juxtaposed to the dead children we will meet two sections later, and to the terrible loss experienced by one of the other speakers. We know also know that, external to the poem, the child’s absence in the care of another made the poem possible, giving the poet two or so hours per day to wrote.

This first section sets up walls, delineations, boundaries, that encompass or imprison the poet as in a maze that tempers feeling. The lines in this first stanza, as indeed in the section and the poem as a whole, are disjunct, and one senses large silences or spaces between them. This is not a conversation, rather a hesitant presentation stitched by silences, a voice almost impersonal.

If the child seems fragmentary, defined more by its usefulness than its relationship to its mother, so too the speaker, whose words are fragments, who speaks so many words in this section and in the whole poem, but about whom at the end we know almost nothing. Who is she? What age? Tall, short, what? Where is she? We are given places but not location, or location stripped of details.


The reference in the second stanza to Cape Enrage seemed to be at first too… well, too fortuitous, like something made up:

Our days at Cape Enrage, a bleached shack of rented rooms and white air. April.

That place-name, Cape Enrage, seemed such a perfect place name to occur at the start of a work about civilizational horrors and insisting on a moral response to them—but no, it’s a real place, with a real history, and links to a famous work by one of our country’s greatest poets. It is the name of the southern tip of Barn Marsh Island, in New Brunswick, Canada. The island is surrounded by high sea cliffs, and separated from the mainland by a narrow tidal creek. The name, Cape Enrage, comes from the effect of the large reef that extends south into Chignecto Bay on the ocean water off the point, causing it to become extremely violent, particularly at half tide when the reef is partially exposed and the water is moving quickly. The name Cape Enrage is an Anglicization of “Cap Enragé” the phrase used by Acadian sailors to describe the boiling waters. In 1840, the area became the site of the first lighthouse in Chignecto Bay, referenced in the poem’s third stanza. As storms frequently destroyed or damaged the lighthouse and other boathouses and the houses of the lighthouse keepers, the lighthouse was frequently rebuilt. The current lighthouse is circa 1952, automated in the 1980’s, but then subject to enough vandalism to make the government slate it for demolition. It was saved by a group of high school students, who restored the lighthouse and turned it into a tourist attraction in 1993. It is now owned by a for-profit group, Cape Enrage Adventures and Cape Enrage Interpretive Centre.

It is probably not a coincidence that this site, like most everything else in the poem, touches on the maltreatment of one group of people by another. The original settlers of the area were the Acadian people, descendants of the Indigenous Peoples who comprised the Wabanaki Confederacy and the French who settled in parts of eastern Quebec, the Maritime Provinces, and Maine, calling it “Acadia,” during the 17th and 18th centuries. The area was subject to many colonial wars fought between the British, French, and Dutch—ten in the first eighty years and another six in the following seventy years. Between the mid 1750’s and mid 1760’s, having finally taken control of the area in the midst of the French and Indian War, and fearful of military or subversive threat, the British began to expel the Acadians, first to the Thirteen British-American Colonies, then to Britain and France. In all, of the 14,100 Acadians in the region, some 11,500 were deported, with about 2,600 remaining behind, after having eluded capture—this from a 1764 census. Many of the expelled migrated from Britain or France to Spain, and then to Spanish Louisiana, where the Acadians became Cajuns.

The result of the Expulsion was devastation of both the civilian population and the economy of the region. Thousands of Acadians died in the expulsions, mainly from diseases and drowning when ships were lost. The Expulsion is memorialized in the epic poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie, written at the suggestion of his friend, Nathaniel Hawthorne. The poem became Longfellow’s most famous work in his lifetime and remains one of his most popular and enduring works. The poem’s prologue reads

THIS is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks, Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight, Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic, Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms. Loud from its rocky caverns, the deep-voiced neighboring ocean Speaks, and in accents disconsolate answers the wail of the forest.

This is the forest primeval; but where are the hearts that beneath it Leaped like the roe, when he hears in the woodland the voice of the huntsman? Where is the thatch-roofed village, the home of Acadian farmers,— Men whose lives glided on like rivers that water the woodlands, Darkened by shadows of earth, but reflecting an image of heaven? Waste are those pleasant farms, and the farmers forever departed! Scattered like dust and leaves, when the mighty blasts of October Seize them, and whirl them aloft, and sprinkle them far o’er the ocean. Naught but tradition remains of the beautiful village of Grand-Pré.

Ye who believe in affection that hopes, and endures, and is patient, Ye who believe in the beauty and strength of woman’s devotion, List to the mournful tradition still sung by the pines of the forest; List to a Tale of Love in Acadie, home of the happy.


I was puzzled for a time by the imagistic centrality of boats to all the relationships in this section—boat and child, boat and woman / many women, boat and unnamed you:

Our days at Cape Enrage, a bleached shack of rented rooms and white air. April. At the low tide acres of light, boats abandoned by water. While sleeping, the child vanishes from his life.

Years later, on the boat from Beirut, or before the boat, an hour before, helicopters lifting a white veil of sea. A woman broken into many women.

These boats, forgotten, have no keels. So it is safe for them, and the emptiness beneath them safe. April was here briefly. The breakwater visible, the lighthouse, but no horizon. The music resembled April, the gulls, April, but you weren’t walking toward this house. If the child knew words, if it weren’t necessary for him to question me with his hands— To have known returning would be like this, that the sea light of April had been your vigilance.

The lines about the child and the boats are striking and beautiful—a wonderful leap of imagination to describe how the light occurs at low tide when the boats are abandoned by water, and the child in sleep vanishes from his life. But there is a twist in the lines, as the apparent structure inverts our expectations by its parallelism: That is, read as parallel in sense, as the structure invites us to do, the child’s life would be the boat, and the sleeping child the water that vanishes from his life. But a thought shows that correspondence can’t hold; instead, I think that the two quoted lines are analogous, the one a development of the other, similar in structure but not parallel in sense. They are images that follow one another in the composition of a scene: The writer at Cape Enrage in rented rooms (in a “beached” shack, a punning reference to the writer’s stay after travel and before other journeys—Beirut is mentioned in the next stanza—and to the boats later in this section), looking out at low tide while her child sleeps. Her thought is perhaps also her prayer, for we are told that the child disappears from its life while sleeping—meaning, I take it, that it thus avoids the cruelty of this life being described in the rest of the poem, and the shattering experience of the war in Beirut referenced in the next stanza that breaks a woman “into many women.” This form of differential parallelism occurs elsewhere in the rest of the poem. It is one of the many modes of psychological dislocation. For example:

If a city, ruin, if an animal, hunger. If a grave, anonymous. If a century, this.


A colander of starlight, the sky in that part of the world.

A wedding dress hanging in a toolshed outside Warsaw.


Night terrors. A city with all its windows blank. A memory through which one hasn’t lived.

The images in these two stanzas of different locations, Cape Enrage and Beirut, draw the scenes together: the sea, the whiteness of the air and the water, the boats. These are neither plot-lines nor a piling on of hysterical chaos, where images come without sense or order, but are threads, reference filaments, indications of the personality that sees and records these things as they come. They are related to each other as the scenes in a life are related, by the person speaking, recounting events as imperfect echoes of each other.

The final stanza in this section is a summing up of what has been said, an effort, as I read it, to draw a moral: “These boats, forgotten, have no keels.” The boats are the physical boats seen at Cape Enrage, and the remembered boat from the flight from Beirut. Memory is what makes them safe, without keels, an emptiness beneath them, able to be brought into relation in this way.

In the final lines of this section, an ambiguous “you” appears: it is not the poet, or the child. Perhaps it is the lover or the husband, but whoever it is, we overhear the poet saying to the person that he is not walking toward the beached shack at Cape Enrage. The child is questioning that return, but the sea light in April is what brings the memories back: it is “your vigilance.”

I notice, reading this line, what it is not, and what is not included here: It is not love, or comfort, not even recognition. It is your vigilance, which my dictionary defines as “the action or state of keeping careful watch for possible danger or difficulties.” The reference to the child, and to “you,” does not mean family, or love, or community. The child and the you are both startlingly undetailed, and the reaction to them affectless. Even the time passes too quickly to be more than a passing notion: “April was here briefly.” The lines telling us of boats without keels tear away from any sense of grounding of life or memory. The geographic references of France, Canada, and Beirut both bring in and dismiss a world, as if the names of the countries were signs passed on the way to the memories they contain: as insignificant as candy wrappers.


The next section begins, “In the night-vaulted corridors of the Hôtel-Dieu, a sleepless woman pushes her stretcher / along the corridors of the past.” The time is autumn, and the memory is of the burning of the fields, where children played. The Hôtel-Dieu is a real place, the oldest operating hospital in Paris, founded in 651 by Saint Landry. It is near Notre Dame, and contains a private garden. When we are first introduced to the hospital, we meet a woman named Ellie. The time is indeterminate, though she remembers trains and fields, and fire in Autumn.

Two sections later in the poem, we will see the hospital again, but this time it is in the winter of the dead, an image that brings deadening phrases after itself: the ruined city, the anonymous grave. The reason is in the intervening section, which begins, “This is Izieu during the war, Izieu and the neighboring village of Bregnier-Cordon.”

This is Izieu during the war, Izieu and the neighboring village of Bregnier-Cordon. This is a farmhouse in Izieu. Itself a quiet place of stone houses over the Rhône, where between Aprils, forty-four children were hidden successfully for a year in view of the mountains. Until the fields were black and snow fell all night over the little plaque which does not mention that they were Jewish children hidden April to April in Izieu near Bregnier- Cordon.

Comment me vint l’écriture? Comme un duvet d’oiseau sur ma vitre, en hiver. In every window a blank photograph of their internment.

Within the house, the silence of God. Forty-four bedrolls, forty-four metal cups. And the silence of God is God.

In Pithiviers and Beaune-la-Rolande, in Les Milles, Les Tourelles, Moussac and Aubagne, the silence of God is God.

The children were taken to Poland. The children were taken to Auschwitz in Poland singing Vous n’aurez pas L’Alsace et la Lorraine. In a farmhouse still standing in Izieu, le silence de Dieu est Dieu.

This shattering section references a terrible story. Izieu was the site of a Jewish orphanage during the Second World War. Many of the children there were not orphans, but had been sent there because the area under Italian rule seemed safer than under French. On April 6, 1944, the Gestapo arrived under the direction of the Butcher of Lyon, Klaus Barbie, and took 44 children and their supervisors to the concentration camps. Forty-two of the children were gassed at Auschwitz, and two were shot in Estonia.

After this section we are back to the hospital: “We lived in Ste. Monique ward over the main corridor, Ellie and myself, in the Hôtel-Dieu on the Place du Parvis Notre Dame. / Below us jonquils opened.” The spring of the poem contrasts with the story of the woman who has lost her sons and her husband. For the speaker, the time is death. The next section begins, “We must wear our slippers,” a section I understand as a comment on the sections that have gone before, with its key phrase, “And if language is an arbitrary system, one must not go further than the sign No / ADMITTANCE.” The Hôtel-Dieu has become the world. Two sections later she will pun on the name of the hospital: “Hôtel-Dieu? Some people say so. I say this God is insane.”

Another section begins, “We held roses, then the roses rested on the snow as if someone had died there. Winter.” The roses are on the snow because, as it turns out, this is a military cemetery. The remainder of the poem moves to the present, then back to occupied Paris, then conflates the history recounted and the pain of the individual: “How can one confuse that much destruction with one woman’s painful life?” What has been seen cannot be unseen, what has been said cannot be unsaid. “…the world is worse now than it was then,” said the woman Ellie, earlier in the poem, and then she says something that links God to the fires in the fields: Le Dieu est un feu. A psychopath. Le Dieu est un feu. She has nothing, not even knowledge of how her parents died, and lives a life of sadness in a world that is, she says, “No good,” that is “worse than memory, the open country of death.” The final section begins, “As if someone not alive were watching,” as the poet dreams the memory of another person. It ends without ending, because a poem of memory like this can have no term for its ending.

You see, I told Madame about my life. I told her everything. And what did she say?


Each section of this lead poem is rich enough to engender extended discussion, and so my notes here, though lengthy, provide only a brief tour, suggesting a way of reading the poem. The vision of the poem is always in motion, cinematically, quick shots from one view to the next, and the conjunctions are Poundian, many of them references to events or conversations without the full context being apparent. In some cases the gaps can be filled by research, in others the event is personal, and impenetrable in its fullness but with enough apparent to get the gist or the relation. We want to ask as we read the ordinary questions of a reader—who is speaking? Who is being spoken to? Why does the poem have this structure instead of some other?—and realize that those questions have all been answered or anticipated by the poet. The poet is not always the speaker in the poem, but the poem always reflects the poet’s consciousness, and its construction is always mindful of the poet’s argument. The audience for the poem is unselective, that is, it is everyone who can read it.

The poems and the book seem to me to be an in extremis demonstration of why we can say that regardless of subject-matter or origin, each authentic poem truly is a new creation, something that by its nature and terms did not and could not exist before. Each adds the to the poetic storehouse, the universe of poetry, and alters how we view all other poetry. It’s why each new poem matters when composed at this level, and why each poem rightfully demands a serious moral response. This is very serious poetry, of a high order.

Perhaps we can conclude this exploration with the resurgence of the feather imagery that Rene Char used to describe how poetry came to him. Ms. Forché used it as part of a judgment on her own writing. The heater imagery recurs again toward the end of the poem:

While the white phosphorous bombs plumed into the air like ostrich feathers of light and I cursed you for remaining there without me, for tricking me into this departure.

Parlez-vous français? Est-ce que vous le parlez bien?

So beautiful, ma’am, from here, the sailor said, if you don’t stop to think.

And it went on like that all night, questions in French, and it went on, radiant white feathers along the coast of Lebanon, until Ellie slept.

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