Courtesy of Penguin Press

April 14, 2021

‘In the Lateness of the World’: Witness to a Denouement

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Released on March 10, 2020, it has been more than a year since renowned poet and memoirist Carolyn Forché’s In the Lateness of the World made its first impression on the world. Countless reviews of it have already been written by fellow authors and publications alike, each lending the weight of their literary credentials to the appraisal. 

Nevertheless, with Forché’s anticipated event at Cornell on April 29, 2021, I will be momentarily joining the ranks of other reviewers to take a look at In the Lateness of the World. This event — at which Forché will be reading from her work — will be held virtually, for the Spring 2021 Barbara & David Zalaznick Reading Series: Together

In the Lateness of the World is Forché’s most recent book, her first new collection of poetry in seventeen years. In it, she writes on subjects ranging from the global to the personal — from war-scarred history to a visitation to a lighthouse, from dawn over Paros to the death of a friend. 

When reading In the Lateness of the World, one quickly realizes the gravity of Forché’s words. Her language is visceral, deeply grounded in reality, yet displays a prosodic mastery as graceful as it is consistent. Each piece feels situated at a tangible time and place. Injustices of our time are sharply portrayed: the death of a refugee child, a water-crisis with double standards for the rich and poor, an island whose residents cannot escape the rising water like the tourists whose consumption drives its rise.

And yet, rather than pontificating from a distance, Forché captures the immediacy of these struggles for those caught in the middle. Emblematic of this is a line from “The Boatman,” invoking the impossible decisions often put to refugees: “Leave, yes, we’ll obey the leaflets, but go where? / To the sea to be eaten, to the shores of Europe to be caged?”

Other poems deal with loss and grief, the stroke of mortality and what it leaves behind. And yet, it seems that even in death, something transcendental can be found. In the poem “The Lost Suitcase,” dedicated to the memory of poet and translator Daniel Simko, Forché ends by exhorting him to “Be near now, and wake to tell me who you were.” 

Still other poems are dedicated to the living, reflecting on places of significance to them — as Odessa is to the poet Ilya Kaminsky, whose family sought asylum in America after facing anti-Semitism in Ukraine. “This is the city you lost,” Forché conjures on his behalf, “where two things were esteemed: literature and ships, poetry and the sea.”

Whether writing of family or friends, living or departed, Forché continues to situate her work in a world engraved with the horrors of wars, from a city on the Neva River, Russia to her own childhood home. She recalls “a city resembling Dresden or Hamburg after the war” outside their window, and relatives who “began their stories when the war ended. Never when the war began.” 

With prehistoric art discovered by pilots from the so-called Great War, the stark brutality of the Salvadoran Civil War and echoes of gunfire floating down Vietnam’s Perfume River, Forché’s work confronts the sheer scale of the wounds we inflict on each other, so inescapable that they reverberate through history and reach all the way into the present.

Scattered throughout her writing are rare but powerful reminders of one more thing that brings the world into its lateness: a change in its very climate. Perhaps most evident in “Report from an Island” and “Morning on the Island,” Forché’s subdued, matter-of-fact language leaves the reader with a sense of wistful resignation, as though mourning for something still in the process of being lost.

Before this collection, I confess that I had only ever read Forché’s most famous poem, “The Colonel.” Nearly two years ago, at a summer course in Maryland, I remember being struck by her ability to make a poem like this — frankly descriptive, almost prosaic — feel so vividly gut-churning. 

Now, I understand a little better. This is what she means by poetry of witness. Sometimes, all we can do is bear witness, and commit to words that witness. 

In the Lateness of the World examines the worth in observing a world at its end and arrives at a conclusion as bleak as it is numinous: it is only through remembrance that we can confront the future, when the only future in sight is a blank, a cliff’s edge, a possibility of nothingness.

And yet, even perched on this rim of history, when it feels as though all things beautiful and terrible have already passed us by, there is a sense of unfolding. Of alighting from great heights, come what may. 

I am reminded of the last lines of “The Lightkeeper.”

“…after death it would be as it was before we were born. Nothing / to be afraid. Nothing but happiness as unbearable as the dread / from which it comes. Go toward the light always, be without ships.”

Amy Wang is a Freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at saw289@cornell.edu.