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While reading Carolyn Forche's poetry in her book The Country Between Us, I often wondered what this woman has gone through while spending her time in El Salvador. She lived in El Salvador during an ugly state: a time when this country was in the middle of a civil war and bloodshed. All those acts of cruelty that she faced and so clearly wrote about must have been troublesome on her heart. And now thanks to her we can understand a piece of history and the cruelty of mankind through her poems. These poems that strike interest in our minds, would seem as if they would still strike fear in hers. That is, to overcome those terrible memories would take a lifetime, if that were even conceivable. But in her final poem of this book she suggests that these unforgettable details can possibly be put aside. This poem she dedicates to Terrence Des Pres, someone who also has gone through similar tragedies and titles it "Ourselves Or Nothing." The experiences they had and endured, Terrence Des Pres and Carolyn Forche, in turn, allowed Forche the stamina and fortitude which she encouraged within Des Pres, and thus dedicated her writing to him.
Terrence Des Pres was a friend of Carolyn Forche's. He too was an author that wrote great contemporary poetry, the most significantly a poetic work called The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps. He had written this literary novel upon witnessing the tragedies occurring during the Holocaust of World War II, an event that we understand to be one of the most inhumane and gruesome events of human recollection. The Holocaust intrigued him and captured his mind and soul. Besides completion of his novel he taught at Colgate University a literature course on the Holocaust. And from his experiences, as summarized of Des Pres in the Triquarterly Fall 1996, he taught students of what he repeatedly called the "dark times" of 20th-century political life. But all these experiences he faced, and the constant reminder of them carried a great price. He drank a lot, especially as his work on the Holocaust grew more harrowing. It is noted, once while writing his book he thought he was having a heart attack, but he was medically fine; instead his memories of the Holocaust had been squeezing at his chest causing psychosomatic symptoms.
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The poem "Ourselves Or Nothing," that Carolyn Forche wrote to Terrence Des Pres, is a poem of realization that both authors must take upon themselves. "Ourselves Or Nothing," simply suggests that although both had endured horror and experienced war, they must not put too much of their attention towards this. Forche recommended that they rather focus on themselves, otherwise, if they do not focus on themselves and let the terrible details of the past eat at them, and then essentially they have "nothing" to live for. I believe this is why Carolyn wrote the following poem to Des Pres where the passages from the poem describe their trials and her reasons for overcoming them.
" I was not yet in your life when you turned
the bullet toward the empty hole in yourself
and whispered: finish this or die.
But you lived and what you wrote became
The Survivor, that act of contrition for despair:
They turned to face the worst
Straight-on, without sentiment or hope,
Simply to keep watch over life."
By this passage we can see that Des Pres had a difficult time overcoming the war's memories. So difficult that Forche mentions "finish this or die," making it seem that Des Pres was suicidal after the war. But maybe there is a different way to interpret this. Maybe the "hole in yourself," suggests the hole that the war had left in his soul, the feeling of emptiness and lost hope for overcoming the wars memories. If that were the case he would do anything to overcome the strong hold of these memories, or to patch that hole in himself, to go as far as to patch it with a "bullet." Apparently he had patched that hole in himself, he had overcame his past, and was able to write his novel The Survivor, an act of grieving rather than giving up hope. As he also wrote about the survivors of the Holocaust, he also "turned to face the worst, straight-on, without sentiment or hope," simply to accept life as it is and deal with it. Just as Des Pres had a difficult time overcoming the war, so did Forche as she implies in the next passage.
"I have come from our cacophonous
ordinary lives where I stood at the sink
last summer scrubbing mud from potatoes
and listening to the supper fish
in the skillet, my eyes on the narrowed
streets of rain through the window
as I thought of the long war."
This passage suggests that the memories of war will always be on the back of her mind. Even though she was doing something as ordinary as cooking dinner, her thoughts were replaced with those she had from El Salvador and the war. This could suggest that cooking does promote enhanced thinking, which I would agree, but I would suggest that she can't overcome the war's memories, that they are too difficult to block out of her mind. This can give us an insight of how unforgettable an event, like war, can be on someone. That even though years have passed since the war, that it never will be forgotten, it will always be on their minds. It is clear that Carolyn Forche and Terrence Des Pres endured hard times after the war. Although it may be difficult, Des Pres suggests in the next passage that overcoming these hard times is possible.
"you wrote: all things human take time,
time which the damned never have, time for life
to repair at least the worst of its wounds;
it took time to wake, time for horror
to incite revolt, time for recovery
of lucidity and will."
It seems that Carolyn is taking this as advice for herself as Des Pres suggests; that everything works itself out in time. In summary, all humans have is time, and though it may be short we do find enough to "repair at least the worst of its wounds." But first he needed to "wake" or accept the fact that he did have problems, and this brought back all the "horrors" he encountered in the past; only giving him more reason to put these things behind him. Then finally a recovery from what had been tearing at him could be possible.
"There is a cyclone fence between
ourselves and the slaughter and behind it
we hover in a calm protected world like
netted fish, exactly like netted fish.
It is either the beginning or the end
of the world, and the choice is ourselves
What Carolyn Forche is trying to say is that even though they were at war witnessing a horrible fight between oppositions, isolation kept them protected. Something as unnoticeable as a "cyclone fence," so transparent that they were part of it's true nature. This could be compared to "netted fish." That even though the fish is netted they still have only two drastically different outcomes, life or death, "the beginning or the end of the world." And it all comes down to choices, either let ourselves get caught up in the net of life, choose a new beginning in ourselves, or loss of our life.
Carolyn Forche had this poem along with the rest of the great poems contained in this book published in 1981. After this publication she has become world famous and people look forward to her future works. As for Terrence Des Pres, he had passed away in November of 1987, from an accidental death. Besides leaving behind lives that he permanently altered, he left behind his great works for people to enjoy and gather information about our world's history.
Forche, Carolyn. The Country Between Us. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1981
Dekoven, Marianne. "Heroic Resistance." The New York Times 2 Oct. 1988: 7
Busch, Frederick. "Terrence Des Pres." Triquarterly Fall 1996. 97