Audio

Carolyn Forché reads “Mourning”

August 13, 2018

Curtis Fox: You’re listening to an archival episode of the Poetry Magazine Podcast from October 2016. This episode was hosted by associate editor Lindsay Garbutt and Poetry magazine’s editor Don Share.

Don Share: And the poem we are going to listen to and talk about now is by Carolyn Forché. Forché is a poet and activist who has put into her poetry many of the wars and other calamities of our time.

Lindsay Garbutt: This poem is called “Mourning.” Here is how she introduced it for us.

Carolyn Forché: For the last six summers I’ve lived on an island in Greece and many of the images of this poem come from that island. But the island is in the northern Aegean where many of the refugees from wars in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and other places have made the crossing; many of them have drowned. So there is reference to that as well.

Mourning

A peacock on an olive branch looks beyond
the grove to the road, beyond the road to the sea,
blank-lit, where a sailboat anchors to a cove.
As it is morning, below deck a man is pouring water into a cup,
listening to the radio-talk of the ships: barges dead
in the calms awaiting port call, pleasure boats whose lights
hours ago went out, fishermen setting their nets for mullet,
as summer tavernas hang octopus to dry on their lines,
whisper smoke into wood ovens, sweep the terraces
clear of night, putting the music out with morning
light, and for the breath of an hour it is possible
to consider the waters of this sea wine-dark, to remember
that there was no word for blue among the ancients,
but there was the whirring sound before the oars
of the great triremes sang out of the seam of world,
through pine-sieved winds silvered by salt flats until
they were light enough to pass for breath from the heavens,
troubled enough to fell ships and darken thought — 
then as now the clouds pass, roosters sleep in their huts,
the sea flattens under glass air, but there is nothing to hold us there:
not the quiet of marble nor the luff of sail, fields of thyme,
a vineyard at harvest, and the sea filled with the bones of those
in flight from wars east and south, our wars, their remains
scavenged on the seafloor and in its caves, belongings now
a flotsam washed to the rocks. Stand here and look
into the distant haze, there where the holy mountain
with its thousand monks wraps itself in shawls of rain,
then look to the west, where the rubber boats tipped
into the tough waves. Rest your eyes there, remembering the words
of Anacreon, himself a refugee of war, who appears
in the writings of Herodotus:
I love and do not love, I am mad and I am not mad.
Like you he thought himself not better,
nor worse than anyone else.

Lindsay Garbutt: There is so much amazing detail in this poem. In this poem, there is lots of movement happening around the speaker, but the speaker is so… capped at a standstill, they’re an observer of all this activity happening around them. And I think that ending is so powerful for me because it sets up this sort of limbo space. “I love and do not love, I am mad and I am not mad.” You’re stuck in this middle place where you are neither/nor, or both. And that is the place of refugees as well. They are caught in this middle stance and stuck in a standstill. And yet, caught in this maelstrom of activity.

Don Share: Well, you talk about the richness of detail, what is quite interesting to me is that the word metaphor, which is Greek, really means the movement from one place to another, which is what language does, but it is also connected with what human beings do, they move, then are moved and must be moved. And this poem has wonderful textured detail, but there is not really metaphor here, which is conspicuous, I would say ingenious. Because it’s very careful about what poems can and must do, what a poet can and must do. And so taking place in the Aegean, you have to confront the vast movements of history and literature as we know them.

Carolyn Forché:

and for the breath of an hour it is possible
to consider the waters of this sea wine-dark, to remember
that there was no word for blue among the ancients.

Don Share: That invocation of the sea being wine-dark, which comes famously from Homer, has to be redeemed and revivified here. It cannot be a trope or a cliché. But to ignore it is to, sort of, erase a kind of our own record of the past; so, for me, is deeply impressive, to be able to work that into the heart of the poem without messing it up with clichés or, sort of, riding on another poet’s coattails, Homer of all poets among the most famous, if not the most famous in the Western tradition. So “for the breadth of an hour it is possible / to consider waters of the sea wine-dark.” In other words, that consideration for a time is the job of the poet,very faithfully rendered here. “To remember,” she says, “that there was no word for blue among the ancients.”

Carolyn Forché:

But there was the whirring sound before the oars
of the great triremes sang out of the seam of world,
through pine-sieved winds silvered by salt flats until
they were light enough to pass for breath from the heavens.

Don Share: That remembering and bringing back to life is the poet’s job. And then at the end she brings up the father, so-called, the Father of History, Herodotus.
Carolyn Forché:

Rest your eyes there, remembering the words
of Anacreon, himself a refugee of war, who appears
in the writings of Herodotus:
I love and do not love, I am mad and I am not mad.

Don Share: And her commentary, which ends the poem...

Carolyn Forché:

Like you he thought himself not better,
nor worse than anyone else.

Don Share: … is kind of where we are with all this. It is the sort of ethical and moral struggle that we are obliged to, kind of, enact whenever we think about this. Or if you are there, where these things transpire.

Lindsay Garbutt: Mmhmm.

Don Share: I mean, the paradox is that these great movements of people, I believe the greatest movement of people in all history, are taking place now in these areas where there are things like tourism and… [CHUCKLE] … pleasure, and commerce. And these things are sort of simultaneous. Those become very tricky to think about, you know. So one of the things I admire about this poem very much is that its narration is not a touristic contemplation. Yet, at the same time, makes clear that the poet is not suffering in the midst of it. Is not egregiously saying “oh, you know, I feel your pain.”

Lindsay Garbutt: Mmhmm.

Don Share: I mean it does, but it’s not taking that position. It’s putting what is observable into perspective and into a long perspective, but without presuming to have answers. Maybe because it’s not moralizing. It’s got moral implications, but it’s not, sort of, sermonizing about them.

Lindsay Garbutt: Right, what she says is: “Stand here and look / into the distant haze,” and then later, “Rest your eyes there, remembering the words / of Anacreon.” So there is this directive to stand and look, and also to remember. So that you are not trying to forget history or forget what is happening right now. And that’s a directive not only for the poet to call attention to these things, but also for the reader and anyone to pay attention.

Don Share: Well, it’s reminding us of our two jobs. We have to look and we have to think.

Curtis Fox: That was an archival Poetry Magazine Podcast from October 2016. You can read “Mourning” by Carolyn Forché online at poetryfoundation.org. We’ll be back next week with another archival episode, with new episodes coming in September.

In this archival episode, the editors discuss Carolyn Forché's poem "Mourning" from the October 2016 issue of Poetry.

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