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Carolyn Forche: Lest We Forget

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On October 30th at 4 pm, HoCoPoLitSo hosts Carolyn Forche for the Annual Lucille Clifton Reading. 

Here is a reflection by Sama Bellomo who is a rehabilitation technologist who writes accessible curricula to help individuals with disabilities gain employable skills on their way into the workforce. Sama has previously contributed to this blog with a letter to HoCoPoLitSo after attending the 2014 Lucille Clifton Reading event with Michael Glaser.

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When it is not possible to stop the suffering of others the decent thing to do is listen and bear witness. When we validate someone by hearing and retelling their story we help them carry the heaviest bricks of the human condition to a new space where their suffering can be built into something meaningful.

By devoting years of her life to the protection of human dignity in war-torn places Carolyn Forché gives people’s pain a way to connect, to rest. First she collects the writings of devastated people. She listens, empathizes, and surely cries.  Next, she connects the works with those of others who endure similar horrors, breaking their isolation by organizing and cataloguing their grief. Perhaps she reunites neighbours, lovers, or siblings among the pages. Maybe the loneliest are finally in good company.  Wars ruin lives – but poets like Forche give that tremendous sense of loss a new purpose, a community, a voice.

I’ve been revisiting my studies of Carolyn Forché, whose book, “Against Forgetting,” has a permanent spot in my living room.  I keep it in plain sight so that it’s a ready tool when I need to share an example of ordinary people who do extraordinary things on the worst and last days of their lives.  The book is so thick and yet it was pared down from thousands of poems for whose inclusion Forché fought individually.  Forché wrote an introduction to every single author, giving their poetry context, finding what the poem needed to say and clearing space for it in the reader’s mind.  I flip through it to remind myself to keep ownership of my responsibility to improve the human condition where I can.  I use the dog-eared pages to empower budding self-advocates.  I harvest the hope and earnestness that Forché writes into each author’s leading biography to play my part in suicide prevention, which I spend a great deal of time doing, with no regrets, and with great thanks to http://www.IMAlive.org for training me to do without fear.

I gratefully tip my hat to Professor Jean Sonntag at Howard Community College who had a profound impact on the way I view myself and the world around me, through the lens of others’ written voices.  She supported my investigation into the Japanese Internment further by giving me an Incomplete grade at the end of the semester which gave me time to catch up on the coursework I’d set aside.  She was teaching me that I could and should make time to grow as a decent human being when there was something I really needed to understand.  Because she taught me that making time was possible I got my first good look at how delicate we are, at how quickly we will treat each other poorly if we are not careful.  The work I did to assimilate E.O. 9066 into my prior knowledge of “Great Man History” changed my sense of what it means to be proud of American History.  But even then, the most gruesome inhumanities had yet to hit me because there are so few first-hand accounts and even fewer images from the Japanese Internment Camps.  First-hand accounts have a unique way of haunting a reader’s conscience about what cruel acts people can commit against each other in deeply evil times, when just yesterday they had been neighbours.

Also at Howard Community College, Professor Lee Hartman first introduced me to Carolyn Forché. In a Creative Writing class Professor Hartman played a video where Forché spoke with HoCoPoLitSo. Forché told me in that recording what it was going to take for me to become a force to ease human suffering: I would have to listen, and it was going to hurt.

Of course I’d known what the Holocaust was, and of course I was sorry about it – for as sorry as a then-twenty-something could be about what public high school had said about it.  Forché told me through her talk that I knew too little and could not be sorry if I did not truly know how the Holocaust had undone an entire people.

Fanni Radnoti published “The Borscht Notebook,” a posthumous final volume of her late husband, the Hungarian poet and writer Miklos Radnoti.  To get the book she had sifted through a mass grave, through more than twenty bodies’ worth of human remains.  Hoping and dreading that one of those bodies belonged to her beloved, whom she had not seen in more than two years since they had been separated by the Nazis, she found him.  The book was in his pocket.  Forché dutifully told these details to my Creative Writing class through her video recording session with HoCoPoLitSo and I was no longer just sorry.  Sorry was no longer enough, and it never will be again.

My two neighbours at the time had been Holocaust survivors from Poland, who had been devoting their lives to recovering artifacts and human remains for proper burial, remains that had been turned into decorations such as tattooed skin lampshades and shrunken, sand-packed heads.  After I saw Forché speak in that video I knocked on my neighbours’ door and asked them humbly about their experiences.  They spent the next six hours showing me what they had recovered, articles and letters they had written, denials they had gotten from museums and private collections for items that had no hallowed ground.

It puts a strain on their marriage.  They lose sleep.  Their basement is a fully devoted workshop of recovery.  They write home.  They live modestly.  They carry themselves happily despite the torture that continues in their histories, in their daily life.  I was able to provide some technical support, a modest kindness to help their heroic efforts.  We have lost touch but not a day passes that they are not in my heart, a part of who I am now, determined to help with activism, closure, and rehabilitation, using any skills I have.

As a member of the LGBTQ. community I am still trying to assimilate the confusing and overwhelming truth that I myself would not have survived the Holocaust, nor would much of my community, had I lived in Eastern Europe, where part of my family is from the former Yugoslavia.  Forché’s works brought up the question in me: what do I have yet to learn about LGBTQ history, what should I be against forgetting?  I have grown to raise awareness of genocide and to resist cultural eliminativism, be the acts overt or covert.

Knowing better leaves no excuse for not doing better, and then-twenty-something me was learning that in my college years.  Somewhere in the world starvation, murder, and torture have happened today.  They happened yesterday.  They have happened since time immemorial.  They have never happened to me, and they likely never will.  That means I am in a position to do something about it.   Knowing better leaves no excuse for not doing better: what can I do for my part to move the world forward?

Forché is featured in “Voices in Wartime,” another anthology volume that portrays exactly what one would imagine it does.  A video documentary bearing the same title accompanies the book on my shelf and bears witness to the fact that Forché is not alone in her work.  There are others concerned with trying to put words on the unspeakable, to educate, an appeal for peace, a chorus of humanitarian voices.

Regretfully, I’ve read comparatively little of Forché’s own poetry.  Am I worried about what else she is going to teach me?  Am I afraid my own conscience will become too heavy a boulder, that I won’t have the strength or won’t summon the will, to push it up the mountain?  Am I afraid she will have a lighter side, and I’ll then have to find my own ways to lighten up?

Forché is so big a force in my life that it is not possible to count all the places in which her efforts have propped me up when I have stood up for myself or others, and my legs wobbled.  Lest we forget, Carolyn Forché chronicles what we need to know about human suffering if we truly wish to end it.

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To reserve your ticket for the Lucille Clifton Reading to hear Carolyn Forche and her Poetry of Witness at Monteabaro Hall at Howard Community College, please visit: http://brownpapertickets.com/event/2568971 

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