Carolyn Forché Poetry

All by Carolyn Forché, 2011 Featured Poet

Ancapagari

In the morning of the tribe this name Ancapagari was given to these mountains. The name, then alive, spread into the world and never returned. Ancapagari: no foot-step ever spoken, no mule deer killed from its foothold, left for dead. Ancapagari opened the stones. Pine roots gripped peak rock with their claws. Water dug into the earth and vanished, boiling up again in another place. The water was bitten by aspen, generations of aspen shot their light colored trunks into space. Ancapagari. At that time, if the whisper was in your mouth, you were lighted.

Now these people are buried. The root-taking, finished. Buried in everything, thousands taken root. The roots swell, nesting. Openings widen for the roots to surface.

They sway within you in steady wind of your breath. You are forever swinging between this being and another, one being and another. There is a word for it crawling in your mouth each night. Speak it.

Ancapagari has circled, returned to these highlands. The yellow pines deathless, the sparrow hawks scull, the waters are going numb. Ancapagari longs to be spoken in each tongue. It is the name of the god who has come from among us.

As Children Together

Under the sloped snow
pinned all winter with Christmas
lights, we waited for your father
to whittle his soap cakes
away, finish the whisky,
your mother carry her coffee
from room to room closing lights
cubed in the snow at our feet.
Holding each other’s
coat sleeves we slid down
the roads in our tight
black dresses, past
crystal swamps and the death
face of each dark house,
over the golden ice
of tobacco spit, the blue
quiet of ponds, with town
glowing behind the blind
white hills and a scant
snow ticking in the stars.
You hummed blanche comme
la neige and spoke of Montreal
where a québecoise could sing,
take any man’s face
to her unfastened blouse
and wake to wine
on the bedside table.
I always believed this,
Victoria, that there might
be a way to get out.

You were ashamed of that house,
its round tins of surplus flour,
chipped beef and white beans,
relief checks and winter trips
that always ended in deer
tied stiff to the car rack,
the accordion breath of your uncles
down from the north, and what
you called the stupidity
of the Michigan French.

Your mirror grew ringed
with photos of servicemen
who had taken your breasts
in their hands, the buttons
of your blouses in their teeth,
who had given you the silk
tassels of their graduation,
jackets embroidered with dragons
from the Far East. You kept
the corks that had fired
from bottles over their beds
their letters with each city
blackened, envelopes of hair
from their shaved heads.

I am going to have it, you said.
Flowers wrapped in paper from carts
in Montreal, a plane lifting out
of Detroit, a satin bed, a table
cluttered with bottles of scent.
So standing in a platter of ice
outside a Catholic dance hall
you took their collars
in your fine chilled hands
and lied your age to adulthood.

I did not then have breasts of my own,
nor any letters from bootcamp
and when one of the men who had
gathered around you took my mouth
to his own there was nothing
other than the dance hall music
rising to the arms of iced trees.

I don’t know where you are now, Victoria.
They say you have children, a trailer
in the snow near our town,
and the husband you found as a girl
returned from the Far East broken
cursing holy blood at the table
where nightly a pile of white shavings
is paid from the edge of his knife.

If you read this poem, write to me.
I have been to Paris since we parted.

Sequestered Writing

Horses were turned loose in the child’s sorrow. Black and roan, cantering through snow.
The way light fills the hand with light, November with graves, infancy with white.
White. Given lilacs, lilacs disappear. Then low voices rising in walls.
The way they withdrew from the child’s body and spoke as if it were not there.

What ghost comes to the bedside whispering You?
— With its no one without its I —
A dwarf ghost? A closet of empty clothes?
Ours was a ghost who stole household goods. Nothing anyone would miss.
Supper plates. Apples. Barbed wire behind the house.

At the end of the hall, it sleepwalks into a mirror wearing mother’s robe.
A bedsheet lifts from the bed and hovers. Face with no face. Come here.
The bookcase knows, and also the darkness of books. Long passages into,
Endless histories toward, sleeping pages about. Why else toss gloves into a grave?

A language that once sent ravens through firs. The open world from which it came.
Words holding the scent of an asylum fifty years. It is fifty years, then.
The child hears from within: Come here and know, below
And unbeknownst to us, what these fields had been.

I Belong There

I belong there. I have many memories. I was born as everyone is born.
I have a mother, a house with many windows, brothers, friends, and a prison cell
with a chilly window! I have a wave snatched by seagulls, a panorama of my own.
I have a saturated meadow. In the deep horizon of my word, I have a moon,
a bird’s sustenance, and an immortal olive tree.
I have lived on the land long before swords turned man into prey.
I belong there. When heaven mourns for her mother, I return heaven to
her mother.
And I cry so that a returning cloud might carry my tears.
To break the rules, I have learned all the words needed for a trial by blood.
I have learned and dismantled all the words in order to draw from them a
single word: Home.

The Morning Baking

Grandma, come back, I forgot
How much lard for these rolls

Think you can put yourself in the ground
Like plain potatoes and grow in Ohio?
I am damn sick of getting fat like you

Think you can lie through your Slovak?
Tell filthy stories about the blood sausage?
Pish-pish nights at the virgin in Detroit?

I blame your raising me up for my Slav tongue
You beat me up out back, taught me to dance

I’ll tell you I don’t remember any kind of bread
Your wavy loaves of flesh
Stink through my sleep
The stars on your silk robes

But I’m glad I’ll look when I’m old
Like a gypsy dusha hauling milk.

Poem For Maya

Dipping our bread in oil tins
we talked of morning peeling
open our rooms to a moment
of almonds, olives and wind
when we did not yet know what we were.
The days in Mallorca were alike:
footprints down goat-paths
from the beds we had left,
at night the stars locked to darkness.
At that time we were learning
to dance, take our clothes
in our fingers and open
ourselves to their hands.
The veranera was with us.
For a month the almond trees bloomed,
their droppings the delicate silks
we removed when each time a touch
took us closer to the window where
we whispered yes, there on the intricate
balconies of breath, overlooking
the rest of our lives.

The Colonel

What you have heard is true. I was in his house.
His wife carried a tray of coffee and sugar. His
daughter filed her nails, his son went out for the
night. There were daily papers, pet dogs, a pistol
on the cushion beside him. The moon swung bare on
its black cord over the house. On the television
was a cop show. It was in English. Broken bottles
were embedded in the walls around the house to
scoop the kneecaps from a man’s legs or cut his
hands to lace. On the windows there were gratings
like those in liquor stores. We had dinner, rack of
lamb, good wine, a gold bell was on the table for
calling the maid. The maid brought green mangoes,
salt, a type of bread. I was asked how I enjoyed
the country. There was a brief commercial in
Spanish. His wife took everything away. There was
some talk of how difficult it had become to govern.
The parrot said hello on the terrace. The colonel
told it to shut up, and pushed himself from the
table. My friend said to me with his eyes: say
nothing. The colonel returned with a sack used to
bring groceries home. He spilled many human ears on
the table. They were like dried peach halves. There
is no other way to say this. He took one of them in
his hands, shook it in our faces, dropped it into a
water glass. It came alive there. I am tired of
fooling around he said. As for the rights of anyone,
tell your people they can go f— themselves. He
swept the ears to the floor with his arm and held
the last of his wine in the air. Something for your
poetry, no? he said. Some of the ears on the floor
caught this scrap of his voice. Some of the ears on
the floor were pressed to the ground.

The Testimony of Light

Our life is a fire dampened, or a fire shut up in stone.
–Jacob Boehme, De Incarnatione Verbi

Outside everything visible and invisible a blazing maple.
Daybreak: a seam at the curve of the world. The trousered legs of the women
shimmered.
They held their arms in front of them like ghosts.

The coal bones of the house clinked in a kimono of smoke.
An attention hovered over the dream where the world had been.

For if Hiroshima in the morning, after the bomb has fallen,
is like a dream, one must ask whose dream it is. {1}

Must understand how not to speak would carry it with us.
With bones put into rice bowls.
While the baby crawled over its dead mother seeking milk.

Muga-muchu {2}: without self, without center. Thrown up in the sky by a wind.

The way back is lost, the one obsession.
The worst is over.
The worst is yet to come.

1–…is the question asked by Peter Schwenger in Letter Bomb.
Nuclear Holocaust and the Exploding Word.
2–…is from Robert Jay Lifton’s Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima.

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.

Elegy

The page opens to snow on a field: boot-holed month, black hour
the bottle in your coat half voda half winter light.
To what and to whom does one say yes?
If God were the uncertain, would you cling to him?

Beneath a tattoo of stars the gate open, so silent so like a tomb.
This is the city you most loved, an empty stairwell
where the next rain lifts invisibly from the Seine.

With solitude, your coat open, you walk
steadily as if the railings were there and your hands weren’t passing
through them.

“When things were ready, they poured on fuel and touched off the fire.
They waited for a high wind. It was very fine, that powdered bone.
It was put into sacks, and when there was enough we went to a bridge
on the Narew River.”

And even less explicit phrases survived:
“To make charcoal.
For laundry irons.”
And so we revolt against silence with a bit of speaking.
The page is a charred field where the dead would have written
We went on. And it was like living through something again one
could not live through again.

The soul behind you no longer inhabits your life: the unlit house
with its breathless windows and a chimney of ruined wings
where wind becomes an aria, your name, voices from a field,
And you, smoke, dissonance, a psalm, a stairwell.

The Garden Shukkei-en

By way of a vanished bridge we cross this river
as a cloud of lifted snow would ascend a mountain.

She has always been afraid to come here.

It is the river she most
remembers, the living
and the dead both crying for help.

A world that allowed neither tears nor lamentation.

The matsu trees brush her hair as she passes
beneath them, as do the shining strands of barbed wire.

Where this lake is, there was a lake,
where these black pine grow, there grew black pine.

Where there is no teahouse I see a wooden teahouse
and the corpses of those who slept in it.

On the opposite bank of the Ota, a weeping willow
etches its memory of their faces into the water.

Where light touches the face, the character for heart is written.

She strokes a burnt trunk wrapped in straw:
I was weak and my skin hung from my fingertips like cloth

Do you think for a moment we were human beings to them?

She comes to the stone angel holding paper cranes.
Not an angel, but a woman where she once had been,
who walks through the garden Shukkei-en
calling the carp to the surface by clapping her hands.

Do Americans think of us?

So she began as we squatted over the toilets:
If you want, I’ll tell you, but nothing I say will be enough.

We tried to dress our burns with vegetable oil.

Her hair is the white froth of rice rising up kettlesides, her mind also.
In the postwar years she thought deeply about how to live.

The common greeting dozo-yiroshku is please take care of me.
All hibakusha still alive were children then.

A cemetery seen from the air is a child’s city.

I don’t like this particular red flower because
it reminds me of a woman’s brain crushed under a roof.

Perhaps my language is too precise, and therefore difficult to understand?

We have not, all these years, felt what you call happiness.
But at times, with good fortune, we experience something close.
As our life resembles life, and this garden the garden.
And in the silence surrounding what happened to us

it is the bell to awaken God that we’ve heard ringing.

Curfew

for Sean

The curfew was as long as anyone could remember
Certainty’s tent was pulled from its little stakes
It was better not to speak any language
There was a man cloaked in doves, there was chandelier music
The city, translucent, shattered but did not disappear
Between the no-longer and the still to come
The child asked if the bones in the wall
Belonged to the lights in the tunnel
Yes, I said, and the stars nailed shut his heaven

—from Blue Hour

In the Place Des Martyrs

That morning they lifted above their heads
what appeared to be a doll in a christening gown
and we stood in the blasted haze waiting for long white
plumes to stanch the fires quickening through
carpets and bedclothes, a tea service, a tender curtain,
and we did not turn away, nor did we photograph the child,
—except at the moment of its being raised—
but later we walked to the Place des Martyrs
where a stillness had been created entirely
by small arms-fire that had blistered walls, blackened shops
and taken from the movie-house all but its blank screen,
where once all manner of figures had shone,
wavering, composed of light through what was
now nothing: a country. Or such was the hope.

The Memory of Elena

We spend our morning
in the flower stalls counting
the dark tongues of bells
that hang from ropes waiting
for the silence of an hour.
We find a table, ask for paella,
cold soup and wine, where a calm
light trembles years behind us.

In Buenos Aires only three
years ago, it was the last time his hand
slipped into her dress, with pearls
cooling her throat and bells like
these, chipping at the night—

As she talks, the hollow
clopping of a horse, the sound
of bones touched together.
The paella comes, a bed of rice
and camarones, fingers and shells,
the lips of those whose lips
have been removed, mussels
the soft blue of a leg socket.

This is not paella, this is what
has become of those who remained
in Buenos Aires. This is the ring
of a rifle report on the stones,
her hand over her mouth,
her husband falling against her.

These are the flowers we bought
this morning, the dahlias tossed
on his grave and bells
waiting with their tongues cut out
for this particular silence.

Kalaloch

The bleached wood massed in bone piles,
we pulled it from dark beach and built
fire in a fenced clearing.
The posts’ blunt stubs sank down,
they circled and were roofed by milled
lumber dragged at one time to the coast.
We slept there.

Each morning the minus tide—
weeds flowed it like hair swimming.
The starfish gripped rock, pastel,
rough. Fish bones lay in sun.

Each noon the milk fog sank
from cloud cover, came in
our clothes and held them
tighter on us. Sea stacks
stood and disappeared.
They came back when the sun
scrubbed out the inlet.

We went down to piles to get
mussels, I made my shirt
a bowl of mussel stones, carted
them to our grate where they smoked apart.
I pulled the mussel lip bodies out,
chewed their squeak.
We went up the path for fresh water, berries.
Hardly speaking, thinking.

During low tide we crossed
to the island, climbed
its wet summit. The redfoots
and pelicans dropped for fish.
Oclets so silent fell
toward water with linked feet.

Jacynthe said little.
Long since we had spoken Nova Scotia,
Michigan, and knew beauty in saying nothing.
She told me about her mother
who would come at them with bread knives then
stop herself, her face emptied.

I told her about me,
never lied. At night
at times the moon floated.
We sat with arms tight
watching flames spit, snap.
On stone and sand picking up
wood shaped like a body, like a gull.

I ran barefoot not only
on beach but harsh gravels
up through the woods.
I shit easy, covered my dropping.
Some nights, no fires, we watched
sea pucker and get stabbed
by the beacon
circling on Tatoosh.

2

I stripped and spread
on the sea lip, stretched
to the slap of the foam
and the vast red dulce.
Jacynthe gripped the earth
in her fists, opened—
the boil of the tide
shuffled into her.

The beach revolved,
headlands behind us
put their pines in the sun.
Gulls turned a strong sky.
Their pained wings held,
they bit water quick, lifted.
Their looping eyes continually
measure the distance from us,
bare women who do not touch.

Rocks drowsed, holes
filled with suds from a distance.
A deep laugh bounced in my flesh
and sprayed her.

3

Flies crawled us,
Jacynthe crawled.
With her palms she
spread my calves, she
moved my heels from each other.
A woman’s mouth is
not different, sand moved
wild beneath me, her long
hair wiped my legs, with women
there is sucking, the water
slops our bodies. We come
clean, our clits beat like
twins to the loons rising up.

We are awake.
Snails sprinkle our gulps.
Fish die in our grips, there is
sand in the anus of dancing.
Tatoosh Island
hardens in the distance.
We see its empty stones
sticking out of the sea again.
Jacynthe holds tinder
under fire to cook the night’s wood.

If we had men I would make
milk in me simply. She is
quiet. I like that you
cover your teeth.

Skin Canoes

Swallows carve lake wind,
trailers lined up, fish tins.
The fires of a thousand small camps
spilled on a hillside.

I pull leeks, morels from the soil,
fry chubs from the lake in moonlight.
I hear someone, hear the splash, groan
of a waterpump, wipe my mouth.
Fish grease spits at darkness.

Once I nudged a canoe through that water,
letting its paddle lift, drip.
I was sucked down smaller than the sound
of the dropping, looked out
from where I had vanished.

Selective Service

We rise from the snow where we’ve
lain on our backs and flown like children,
from the imprint of perfect wings and cold gowns,
and we stagger together wine-breathed into town
where our people are building
their armies again, short years after
body bags, after burnings. There is a man
I’ve come to love after thirty, and we have
our rituals of coffee, of airports, regret.
After love we smoke and sleep
with magazines, two shot glasses
and the black and white collapse of hours.
In what time do we live that it is too late
to have children? In what place
that we consider the various ways to leave?
There is no list long enough
for a selective service card shriveling
under a match, the prison that comes of it,
a flag in the wind eaten from its pole
and boys sent back in trash bags.
We’ll tell you. You were at that time
learning fractions. We’ll tell you
about fractions. Half of us are dead or quiet
or lost. Let them speak for themselves.
We lie down in the fields and leave behind
the corpses of angels.

Reunion

       Just as he changes himself, in the end eternity changes him.
       —Mallarmé
On the phonograph, the voice
of a woman already dead for three
decades, singing of a man
who could make her do anything.
On the table, two fragile
glasses of black wine,
a bottle wrapped in its towel.
It is that room, the one
we took in every city, it is
as I remember: the bed, a block
of moonlight and pillows.
My fingernails, pecks of light
on your thighs.
The stink of the fire escape.
The wet butts of cigarettes
you crushed one after another.
How I watched the morning come
as you slept, more my son
than a man ten years older.
How my breasts feel, years
later, the tongues swishing
in my dress, some yours, some
left by other men.
Since then, I have always
wakened first, I have learned
to leave a bed without being
seen and have stood
at the washbasins, wiping oil
and salt from my skin,
staring at the cupped water
in my two hands.
I have kept everything
you whispered to me then.
I can remember it now as I see you
again, how much tenderness we could
wedge between a stairwell
and a police lock, or as it was,
as it still is, in the voice
of a woman singing of a man
who could make her do anything.

Taking Off My Clothes

I take off my shirt, I show you.
I shaved the hair out under my arms.
I roll up my pants, I scraped off the hair
on my legs with a knife, getting white.

My hair is the color of chopped maples.
My eyes dark as beans cooked in the south.
(Coal fields in the moon on torn-up hills)

Skin polished as a Ming bowl
showing its blood cracks, its age, I have hundreds
of names for the snow, for this, all of them quiet.

In the night I come to you and it seems a shame
to waste my deepest shudders on a wall of a man.

You recognize strangers,
think you lived through destruction.
You can’t explain this night, my face, your memory.

You want to know what I know?
Your own hands are lying.