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Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness.

After Auschwitz, there can be no poetry, Theodor Adorno wrote shortly after World War II. This collection by Carolyn Forche is one long passionate rejoinder.

Forche, who herself has written powerful poems opposed to the brutality in El Salvador, has collected here some of the most dramatic antiwar and anti-torture poetry written in this benighted century. It is her claim, ably defended by the poems she includes, that such art is vital not only for understanding the Auschwitzes of the age, but also for overcoming them.

"The poetry of witness," she writes in her introduction, "defends the individual against illegitimate forms of coercion. . . . "The resistance to terror is what makes the world habitable: the protest against violence will not be forgotten and this insistent memory renders life possible in communal situations."

Forche organizes her ambitious work into fifteen sections, encompassing wars and repressions from around the globe. And she presents 145 poets. For each section, Forche provides a few paragraphs of prologue; for each poet, a few sentences. Many of the poets are expected, such as the obligatory Wilfred Owen and other familiar names: W.H. Auden, Pablo Neruda, Bertolt Brecht, Andre Breton, Anna Akhmatova, Ariel Dorfman, Joseph Brodsky, Federico Garcia Lorca, Gunter Grass, Primo Levi, Paul Celan, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, and Daniel Berrigan. But there are more obscure writers here, as well, and one of the joys of the book is to make their acquaintance.

Forche begins with the Armenian genocide of 1909-1918, when the Ottoman Turkish government killed 1.5 million Armenians. In the prologue to her first section, she quotes the telling remark Hitler made to his military cabinet shortly before invading Poland: "Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?"

Carolyn Forche does. She includes the Armenian poet Siamento, who was executed on April 24, 1915. "Don't be afraid. I must tell you what I say/so people will understand/the crimes men do to men," Siamento writes in "The Dance," retelling a witness's account of a gruesome atrocity against twenty Armenian women, which ended in them being burned alive. "How can I dig out my eyes,/how can I dig, tell me?" the witness asks a corpse at the end of the poem.

Many of the poems here are eyes-open, horrifyingly graphic portrayals of human brutality. But other poems are of defiance, demonstrating resolve and extracting hope even in the most extreme circumstances. Vahan Tekeyan, who survived the Turkish onslaught, writes:

Any shock can erase you forever and no eye will even blink. Yours alone the concern.

But hope rises like the sun. Accumulate.

Dust consolidates into stone.

Other poems are a curse to those who dare forget the atrocities of our time. For instance, in a later section, Primo Levi orders "You who live secure / in your warm houses" to "engrave" the atrocities "on your hearts" and "repeat them to your children." If you do not, "may your house crumble, / disease render you powerless, / Your offspring avert their faces from you."

From Armenia, Forche moves on to World War I, where she refreshingly includes the work of e.e. cummings, which will surprise those who know him for his light verse and not his pacifism and his politics. His poem, "(i sing of Olaf glad and big)," is an unforgettable ode to a conscientious objector who was brutalized and violated by his own comrades because he would not fight and would not kiss the flag. "our president," cummings writes, "threw the yellowsonofabitch/into a dungeon, where he died."

Next on Forche's grisly tour is the Soviet Union, where defiant poetry flourished even amidst the purges. The Akhmatova selections are wonderful, but I was struck most by one line of Osip Mandelstam's poem, "The Stalin Epigram," the reading of which cost him a three-year term of exile and five years in a labor camp, which he did not survive. The line: "He rolls the executions on his tongue like berries."

Forche spends a few dozen pages on the Spanish Civil War and then goes on to World War II, where she loses her way - or at least I lost mine. She sprawls out 180 pages on the poetry of the war, not counting the Holocaust, and it proves almost impossible to get through, especially many selections from French surrealists. Also, why include even a single selection from the fascist Ezra Pound, who can hardly be called a poet of witness?

The problem with the World War II section is a problem of the entire book. After a while, most of the poems start to run together. The sameness of subject matter, the repetition of detail, and the overwhelmingly depressing content make it virtually impossible to read this work all the way through even in fifty sittings. This is more of a compendium than a book.

I have one other, more serious criticism: Forche has made a huge error of omission by not including poetry of women's liberation, and poetry from the struggle for lesbian and gay rights. Where is Allen Ginsberg? Where is Audre Lorde? Where is Adrienne Rich? Where is June Jordan?

Forche's own criteria do not offer grounds for exclusion. She has grandiose aims, as she puts it in her introduction, to "describe the trajectory of our modernity." And she describes her selection process as follows: "I decided to limit the poets in the anthology to those for whom the social had been irrevocably invaded by the political in ways that were sanctioned neither by law nor by the fictions of the social contract. The writers I have chosen are those for whom the normative promises of the nation-state have failed. They have not been afforded the legal or the physical protections that the modern state is supposed to lend its citizens."

Certainly the struggle for legal protections for women, lesbians, and gays would fall within this rubric, just as the struggle for civil rights does - which Forche includes. But it is her focus on "the modern state" that throws her off. It's as though to qualify for inclusion in her work the oppression needed to be confined within national boundaries. But sexism and homophobia have their passports stamped in every country.

This unwarranted exclusion also lends a moldy, almost dessicated feel to much of the work. The poems become more like historical benchmarks than vital testaments in an ongoing struggle. By contrast, the poems of the universal struggles for women's liberation and lesbian and gay liberation have an urgency and a currency that would have lent a tonic to this tome.

Still, I admire and recommend this work. It rebuts Adorno; poetry can hold sway after Auschwitz. It rebuts Hitler; we do and must recall the annihilations of the century. It rebuts much of academic contemporary poetry, which starchly and foolishly denies politics a place at the table. It exalts the power of the word, and the power of witness. It is a valiant act of remembering.
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Author:Rothschild, Matthew
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1993
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