Carolyn Forché’s single-authored 2003 collection, Blue Hour, is reviewed here in advance of her appearance at the StAnza 2015 International Poetry Festival. The eleven poems which make up the collection contemplate remembrance, the transition between life and death, and the effects of war. Above all, it seems to me that Forché is concerned to present the fullness of the experience of life – its beauty, suffering, cruelty and its otherliness.
The title of the collection is a translation of the French phrase meaning “dawn”, described beautifully in the poem, “Blue Hour”:
When my son was an infant we woke for his early feeding at l’heure
bleue – cerulean, gentian, hyacinth, delft, jouvence. What were also
the milk hours.
The image of the infant, the shades of blue, the italicisation and fragments of French, the spacing and layout, the dash, the white space, all fuse synesthetically to suggest the strange and beautiful otherness of “the milk hours”. As readers, we are not mere observers – we are transfigured into the fullness of the original experience. Again, from “Blue Hour”,
My son rows toward me against the wind. For thirty-six years, he rows.
In 1986, he is born in Paris.
Bice the clouds, watchet, indigo, woad.
We lived overlooking the cemetery. It was the summer of the Paris
bombings. I walked him among the graves for what seemed hours but
were clouds drifting across marble.
Here, again, Forché evokes several dimensions of remembrance – images, events, associated colours, and the intersection of all of these in space and time.
Political events interweave personal memory in the fragmentary, partial process of remembering – in “Blue Hour”, from the specifics of the Paris bombings to the shocking generality of, “You see, one can live without having survived.” In “Writing Kept Hidden”, composed in Beirut in winter 1983,
In the barracks, those who had sketched themselves in coal and smoke
became coal and smoke.
And the living remained, linking unknown things to the known: residue,
scapular, matchlight, name on a tongue.
There are also philosophical, aphoristic and spiritual ruminations scattered in amongst the beautiful imagery:
What one of us lives through, each must, so that this, of which we are
part, will know itself. (“Blue Hour”)
And from “Hive”, “we are so made that nothing contents us”. “Nocturne”, like “Blue Hour”, is an elegy, considering the experience of death:
The people of this world are moving into the next, and with them their
hours and the ink of their ability to make thought.
Particles of light have taken from them antiphon, asylum, balefire,
Themes of war and dying continue in the long poem, “On Earth” which takes the form of a fragmentary, abecedarian, a form used in gnostic hymns. From the sections for the letters “s” and “t”,
the sun will turn into a red giant, and then into a white dwarf
the sweet stench of gangrene, a cloud of flies, in its hand a child’s
the temptation of temptation
the three hidden lights beyond the grasp of thought
the tomb into which we escape
the trains. sometimes a silent coupling
the trees: almond, annatto, sweetsop, banana, monkey-bread, bay rum,
sandal bead, breadfruit, yellowsilk, camphor, candle
the trees mortared into flower.
This is a beautiful collection – hopeful, horrific but never gratuitous on the experiences of alienation, otherliness and suffering. I look forward with great anticipation to Carolyn Forché’s reading at StAnza 2015.