Universally acclaimed poet Carolyn Forché is famous for “poetry of witness,” a term she first coined in her groundbreaking anthology, Against Forgetting. Her honors include a Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Edita and Ira Morris Hiroshima Foundation Award for crafting her poetry as a “means to attain understanding, reconciliation, and peace within communities and between communities.” Forché is a professor at Georgetown University, where she directs the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice. Here is a poem from her much anticipated fifth book of poetry, In the Lateness of the World, published March 10, 2020.
LETTER TO A CITY UNDER SIEGE
Turning the pages of the book you have lent me of your wounded city,
reading the Braille on its walls, walking beneath ghost chestnuts
past fires that turn the bullet-shattered windows bronze,
flaring an instant without warming the fallen houses
where you sleep without water or light, a biscuit tin between you,
or later in the café ruins, you discuss all night the burnt literature
borrowed from a library where all books met with despair.
I wanted to give your notes back to you, to be
printed in another language, not yours or mine but a tongue
understood by children who make bulletproof vests out of cardboard.
We will then lie down in the cemetery where violets grew in your childhood
before snipers fired on the city using gravestones for cover.
Friend, absent one, I can tell you that your tunnel is still there,
mud-walled and hallowed of earth, dug for smuggling
oranges into the city—oranges!—bright as winter moons by the barrow-load.
So let’s walk further up the street, to the hill where one is able to see
the city woven in fog, roofs filled with sky, uprooted bridges
and a shop window where a shard of glass hangs over the spine of a book.
The library burns on page sixty, as it burns in all the newspapers of the world,
and the clopping of horses’ hooves isn’t the sound of clopping horses.
From here a dog finds his way through snow with a human bone.
And what else, what more? Even the clocks have run out of time.
But, my good friend, the tunnel! There is still a tunnel for oranges.
This poem by Carolyn Forché is the twelfth installment in The Spectator’s ongoing series featuring leading American poets who address issues of racism, human rights, and exile, among other social themes, in their work. The project is curated by Cyrus Cassells, whose most recent book is Still Life With Children: Selected Poems of Francesc Parcerisas (Stephen F. Austin University Press). Used by permission of Carolyn Forché.