TO WHAT WE HAVE COME, LATE
An essay-review on
In the Lateness of the World by Carolyn Forché
Penguin Random, 2020
98 pgs, $24 (hardcover)
review by Ray Marsocci
The opening poem in Carolyn Forché’s new collection, In the Lateness of the World, “Museum of Stones,” ends “with hope” that something good will emerge from the “assemblage of rubble” the piece catalogs. We might call that something a “shrine or a holy place,” she writes, which we will believe in as “immovable and sacred,” and from where we might awaken upon the “path of the sun,” warming where the “stone … marked” the “human dawn.” This “shrine,” with its exhibited “stone of the mind within us,” displays the “quarry” from everywhere we’ve collected these stones, be it “battlefield” or “basilica,” the “lava of a city’s entombment,” or “from the silvery grass near the scaffold,” places and sites from where we must maintain good faith, that the new day will illuminate all is well, and all as good.
Without hope, the poem images, we have no faith. Without faith, we find meaning in no creation. Without meaning, with no creation and where nothing becomes iconic, we can see no reason, and so cannot create, and will not until, in our ‘world’s lateness,’ we gather all our “stones” into such a “museum” as we can shape into a kind of faith from which we may grow.
Forché has made a literary career of shaping art from the hopeless. Since her first two books, Gathering of the Tribes and The Country Between Us, she has conceived of and perceived the human heart in all its bleeding passions. Her poetry spirits the political along with our nature’s rawest elements, the human condition become imbued with both the personal and the communal. Her poetry incites hope that, after our each individual world ends, humanity will dawn anew. In the Lateness of the World romances those endings, its each poem a “museum” piece from which we all may witness the “rubble” left in our dusking wake, which we might – which maybe we must – believe in as beauty, from which all of us our “tribe” can “country” great goodness between us.
We all need to see beauty, no matter its form.
Or maybe that’s a poetry thing. Maybe more of us prefer to touch beauty, possess it for ourselves, “museum” it as objects which thus are ours to own.
America’s relationship with poetry, and with all art, really, is always devolved from what in our world gets deemed beautiful. It’s a fickle thing, beauty, and at least in my lifetime, it is experienced, by those around me, with fear for its loss. Such art always seems to me to be rhyming with saccharine, with poetry itself sing-sung only when we feel least safe. I remember my first, unpaying literary job, as an assistant editor for a magazine that actually still exists: Challenger exploded with Sally Ride aboard, while we put together my fifth issue with them. I went on to work another 24 years in other unpaying literary venues, but nothing, not even the September 11 attacks, ever matched the outpouring of poetic despair that got shared that entire literary season, in response to that astronautic “tragedy.”
Interestingly, at least to me who really admired the man, the Classics professor at the college where that magazine was published lectured every semester I knew him that, by then, the Reagan era, the world, its history, and especially Americans, experienced nothing any longer as “tragic.” Aristotle, I learned through this man, defined tragedy as a play that inspired “pity and fear” from its audience. We had become, this professor preached, a nation of melodramatists, that we all were grown so cognizant in our actions, so premeditated about everything we did, our culture was grown soap-operatic. Nothing, he assured us, is pitiable in a soap opera.
The poems we received that reading period were often pitiful, sing-sung with myriad lines versed about ‘sky fires’ and ‘fallen angels.’ The lone line I remember and can still quote seems now a “gathering” of our country’s “tribes,” that together we might all “museum” hope “between” us: “At least they died,” the intrepid and long-forgotten poet wrote, “looking up.”
That’s what we all hope for, it seems, that we may die amid such hope. It is the hope enshrined in every museum, Ars Memoria, in this and every country around the world.
The poems in Carolyn Forché’s new collection keep coming to endings, in museums, in cemeteries, in the body’s “flecks of decomposition” (“Elegy for an Unknown Poet”), and in this place where the “earth becomes …/a grotto of skeletons” (“Travel Papers”). She works with
like wind plaiting willows—fields in bloom
from “Travel Papers,” while in “The Last Puppet,” she realizes
Souls have their own world. They are the descendants of clouds.
It is all of a language those among the living choose not to hear, but which, in America, where “The Last Puppet” is brought in its declension, she bids we “hold [its words] to the light,” please.
Still, and as these poems in this collection keep moving, keep going, unto “The Last Station,” to where we carry the “chronicle of” our “country’s final hours,” with our hope we might “become” the “notes” which make us more than “a noun on paper,” a “paper dark with nouns”; across “The Last Bridge,” where we are “speaking the language understood only” by our childhood ears; and into a “Letter to a City Under Siege,” where we, “warming,” may “sleep without water or light,” live on little, and finally “lie down in the cemetery where violets grew” through all that childhood. But as “The Boatman” says to these poems’ speaker, “our destination is the same,” and as he might “find” himself “now” as Charon, “driving a taxi at the end of the world,” he can assure us, in verse, he “will see” that “we,” his “friend,” will “arrive safely”; that he “will get” all of us “there.”
These endings are “What Comes,” the collection’s last poem, which is for us all the “body in whom” we live with the “not-yet of death darkening” that which
an unknown place as between languages
as a calm
in the surround rises … an ache of pine
you have yourself within you
yourself … and there is nothing
that cannot be seen
open then to the coming of what comes
We bring to “What Comes,” all of us, the yearning our voice will be heard, if not by a someone, then by a someone other; a something more.
Forché’s new collection arrives ‘late,’ and into a world rife with cemeteries and museums, shrines which temple our hearts’ collective yearnings, and where we are gifted with poets like her, albeit in a “lateness” when most adult humans won’t read, don’t read, and especially will not read poetry.
My old professor feels more right now than he did then, in Reagan’s America: ours is no longer a tragedy we live, yet too a place where we at best afford what to conserve, but that which we must let go, before it is for-real too ‘late.’
Even as 2020, this Year of Living Selfishly, conspires toward its calendar end, Ray Marsocci continues to verse sustenance from lyrical narratives, poetry the only safe place for his spirit to rest any more.