Los Angeles Times Book Award for Poetry
The Angel of History bears witness to the moral disasters of our times: war, genocide, the Holocaust, the atomic bomb. The book is a meditation on memory – how memory survives the unimaginable. The poems are fragmented, discordant, reflecting the effects of such experience, but forming a haunting mosaic of grief, evoking the necessary accommodations we make to survive what is unsurvivable. It is divided into five sections dealing with the atrocities of war in France, Japan and Germany as well as Carolyn Forché's own experiences in Beirut and El Salvador. The title figure, the Angel of History – a figure imagined by Walter Benjamin – can record the miseries of humanity yet is unable either to prevent these miseries from happening or from suffering from the pain associated with them.
Kevin Walker, in the Detroit Free Press, called the book 'a meditation on destruction, survival and memory'. Don Bogen, in The Nation, saw this as a logical development, since Forché’s work with her poetry of witness anthology Against Forgetting was 'instrumental in moving her poetry beyond the politics of personal encounter. The Angel of History is rather an extended poetic mediation on the broader contexts – historical, aesthetic, philosophical – which include [the 20th]…century’s atrocities,' wrote Bogen. And Steven Ratiner, reviewing the work for the Christian Science Monitor, called it one that 'addresses the terror and inhumanity that have become standard elements in the twentieth-century political landscape – and yet affirms as well the even greater reservoir of the human spirit'.
'Carolyn Forché has never undertaken less than the responsibilities of conscience, and now in The Angel of History she has written a poem that is suddenly important, like the Morning News, as habitual and callous in its events, but with this luminous and permanent difference: with a natural light that puriﬁes and even exalts them by the iron fragilities of its compassion, a compassion that makes beauty political by its endurance. The book, with its refreshing leaves, mutters like a hill grove untouched by the devastations beneath it, restoring the craft of verse to its ancient sacral task of comfort. She reminds us, through piercing admonitions that more than just record the obscenities of civilisation, with an old faith in her craft that everything should be sung, and that the miracle in metre assembles limbs, ruins and fragments. The tone is that of a distant echo of a far train; the language, first searching, then gaspingly exact, has the distance of translation. This distance gives her poem the spiritual authenticity of a charred journal extracted from rubble, one written in secret by a poet whose name we do not know (that is, not only Carolyn Forché), but whose anonymity is certainly some woman’s. Tsvetayeva? Pauline Celan? Her mutterings are a voice that spoke, speaks, and will continues to haunt the future, after the camps, after the holocaust of Hiroshima, during Sarajevo and Somalia and Haiti, and during whatever fresh horror our century will repeat each morning, condemning them not with dialectic, but by the ironic serenity of beauty’ – Derek Walcott.
The poignant cri de cœur of this singular work must affect all who have an integrity still possible in this painfully despairing time. Carolyn Forché makes a complex voice for all the mute victims of our destructive world as the killing goes on and the patterns of our lives continue our committed self-destruction. Hers is the heroism which still cares' – Robert Creeley.