Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Carolyn Forché's 'Letter to a City Under Siege': Sarajevo Revisited

One of my favourite poets, Carolyn Forché, has just co-edited with Duncan Wu an anthology called Poetry of Witness: The Tradition in English, 1500-2001. Carolyn Forché has already edited a well-known "poetry of witness" anthology called Against Forgetting, which I've lately been reading - a lot of it focuses on non-English language poetry in English translation, so I would expect this new book to include mostly different selections. I look forward to reading it when I can.

In this video, Forché talks about the new anthology and "poetry of witness".

I've already written about her poem 'Travel Papers' here, and the beautifully (though also tragically) inclusive idea that poetry of witness is not about trying to enforce a political ideology, but about poetry as the trace (sometimes the only trace) of a meaningful, tragic or painful event. It's one of the things which keeps me coming back to her own poetry, particularly in a collection such as The Angel of History.

Further to my brief thoughts on Lawrence Durrell's poem 'Sarajevo', I thought of Forché's poem 'Letter to a City Under Siege' - also about Sarajevo, but about the city's experiences decades after the Durrell poem and its references to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. 'Letter to a City Under Siege' is about Sarajevo in the siege it endured during the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. Specifically, the poem was written to a friend who lived through the siege.

I think that the poems contrast quite neatly; the Durrell poem is very spacious, and seems to circle in closer and closer like a camera zooming in, or a bird of prey drawing down - but it still stays well away, airborne. Forché's poem eventually starts pulling away (in the reverse direction) to the "roofs filled with sky", but that's after it winds its way through a kind of tight, claustrophobic labyrinth - the pages (literal or metaphorical) where her friend has made notes, the tunnel where food was smuggled, the delicate and harsh details of the siege. It is completely personal where the Durrell poem remains more abstract and impersonal.

At the end of 'Letter to a City Under Siege', the oranges seem to light the way in the darkness of the tunnel. There is hope.


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