Notes on The Angel of History

Updated: Jul 15

1.

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