The Country Between Us was Carolyn Forché's second book, following her Gathering the Tribes published in the Yale Younger Poets series in 1976. The earlier book is composed of personal, often sensual, lyrics, but the second marked a political direction in Forché's poetry that has characterized all of her work since. The book, which was awarded the Lamont Poetry Prize of the Academy of American Poets, is divided into three parts: "In Salvador, 197880," "Reunion," and "Ourselves or Nothing" - the third section consisting of a single poem. The book renewed some of the debates about political poetry, and about whether a poet's reporting such events as Forché's poetry describes depends too much upon the melodrama of the narratives themselves, using horrific events in merely voyeuristic ways. For Forché, however, all language is politically charged, and to argue otherwise is an evasion.
The poems in the first section, centering upon the poet's extended visits to El Salvador between January 1978 and March 1980, have received the most comment. Forché became particularly interested in the civil war in El Salvador through her friendship with Nicaraguan poet Claribel Alegría (whose poetry Forché translated in Flowers from the Volcano in 1982). The poems in this first section describe a number of Forché's experiences during her visits - which included undertaking work for Amnesty International. Her aim is to bring to the fore in these poems the violence and torture being committed in the country, and the consequences of the United States' role in the continuing turmoil. The section is dedicated to the "memory of Monsignor Oscar Romero," the archbishop who was murdered by a right-wing death squad while conducting mass at a hospital for the terminally ill on March 24, 1980. Forché's 1981 prose essay, "El Salvador: An Aide Memoire," explains a number of the references in the poems.
An early poem in the sequence, "The Island," is an account of a dialogue with Claribel Alegría, and makes clear the importance, but difficulty, of achieving the strength that community can bring. "Carolina," the voice of Alegría asks in the poem's two final lines, "do you know how long it takes / any one voice to reach another?" This need for community points up the ambiguity of the volume's title, that "between" can refer to that which separates as well as that which is shared. The short poem "The Visitor" captures the hope and despair of a man in one of El Salvador's notorious prisons. In "The Colonel" the highly placed officer who gives the poem its title lives in what amounts to a defended fortress. Broken glass is embedded in the walls, and the windows are grated "like those in liquor stores." Within the ordinariness of family life inside the house - the television on, the pet dogs, a daughter filing her nails - there is a reminder of violence, "a pistol on the / cushion" beside the dog. The poem builds up from further images of order - dinner, a gold bell for calling the maid, "good wine," and conversation on politics - to a moment when the colonel suddenly gets up from the meal to return with a bag, spilling "many human ears on the table." Both his action and the bravado of his accompanying vulgar comments are a challenge to the poet and those from the United States who would criticize the methods of those holding power. The hope of the poem is that listening readers will bring justice to the ears that the colonel sweeps from the table. Some of the severed ears are imagined as hearing the colonel's voice, while others have their ears to the ground as if listening for the first sounds of those coming to provide such justice.
"Return" is another poem built around a dialogue, this time with the poem's dedicatee, Josephine Crum, a long-time resident in Latin America. While the poet examines her own responses now upon returning to the US after what she has seen and experienced, and her sense of powerlessness against the forces dictating events, Crum comments on the relative superficiality of the poet's experience, an experience, she points out, seen from the perspective of a visitor and not of one who has lived with and seen the horrors for years. "You have not returned to your country," the friend accuses, "but to a life you never left."
The final poem in this first sequence is dedicated to José Rudolfo Viera, a government minister who was assassinated when he tried to expose the corrupt diversion of aid funds designated for agrarian reform. He was killed alongside two American consultants on agrarian reform, and the title, "Because One is Always Forgotten," refers to some of the news reports in the US mentioning only the consultants and not Viera. It is a central purpose of the poetry in this section, and Forché's subsequent work, not to allow such events or figures to be forgotten.
Displacement and disruption of lives, against a broader historical backdrop of pogroms, communist oppression in eastern Europe, and the American involvement in Vietnam form the subjects of the central section of the book. A figure who appears in a number of poems, and had appeared earlier in Gathering the Tribes (in "Burning the Tomato Worms") is Forche's paternal grandmother, Anna Bassar Sidlosky. She escaped from her Slovak village in the Second World War and came to the United States knowing little English. Her accounts of her earlier life, and comments upon her adopted country, offer a perspective upon Forche's own narrative voice and upon contemporary events in a number of poems.
Forche's first husband was a veteran of the Vietnam War, and two poems, "Joseph" (a line from which provides the volume's title) and "Selective Service," describe lives ruined by the experience of the war. A "bundle of army letters / . . . sent from Southeast Asia" are among the catalog of items that make up a "Photograph of My Room," along with - amongst other things - a quilt that once belonged to Anna, stitches now coming loose since her death. Soldiers going to the "Far East" are among the many passing lovers of Victoria in "As Children Together," a poem about a childhood friend of the poet's, and a reminder of her working-class background (Forche was the first of her family to attend college). This poem calls for an end to the separation between the former friends brought about by time and distance, asking "If you read this poem, write to me."
The final poem, "Ourselves or Nothing," is dedicated to Holocaust historian Terrence Des Pres. The poem's theme is "the mass graves of the century's dead," and the poem lists many of the names of places by which the horrors and exterminations have become part of the century's history. Included is the story of Russian poet Anna Akhmatova asserting "I can' when asked if she can describe Soviet prison conditions, as she then did in her "Requiem." Forche is also determined to find the necessary words for what she has witnessed, and the poem and book end with the recognition that Americans live with "a cyclone fence between / ourselves and the slaughter," hovering behind it in a "protected world." But this is a poetry that demands taking notice of what is beyond that fence, and of choosing, "ourselves or nothing" - where to choose "ourselves" is to become an engaged part of the country and countries beyond that protective fence.
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