Saturday, July 20, 2024

The Poetry Corner

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By Norah Christiansen

The Colonel

By Carolyn Forché

WHAT YOU HAVE HEARD is true. I was in his house. His wife carried a tray of coffee and sugar. His daughter filed her nails, his son went out for the night. There were daily papers, pet dogs, a pistol on the cushion beside him. The moon swung bare on its black cord over the house. On the television was a cop show. It was in English. Broken bottles were embedded in the walls around the house to scoop the kneecaps from a man’s legs or cut his hands to lace. On the windows there were gratings like those in liquor stores. We had dinner, rack of lamb, good wine, a gold bell was on the table for calling the maid. The maid brought green mangoes, salt, a type of bread. I was asked how I enjoyed the country. There was a brief commercial in Spanish. His wife took everything away. There was some talk then of how difficult it had become to govern. The parrot said hello on the terrace. The colonel told it to shut up, and pushed himself from the table. My friend said to me with his eyes: say nothing. The colonel returned with a sack used to bring groceries home. He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like dried peach halves. There is no other way to say this. He took one of them in his hands, shook it in our faces, dropped it into a water glass. It came alive there. I am tired of fooling around he said. As for the rights of anyone, tell your people they can go f____ themselves. He swept the ears to the floor with his arm and held the last of his wine in the air. Something for your poetry, no? he said. Some of the ears on the floor caught this scrap of his voice. Some of the ears on the floor were pressed to the ground.          

The Colonel” is a prose poem, which is to say it is a poem without line breaks or meter, though it has some of the qualities of a poem—like emotion and imagery. Carolyn Forché traveled to El Salvador on several extended trips between 1978 and 1980 as part of Amnesty International. There she saw a country in the middle of a civil war between the US-backed military government and the Foarabundo Martí National Liberation Front.

An essay she wrote at the time about the death squads in El Salvador was declared to be false by the U.S. Department of State. When she published “The Colonel”, one literary critic maintained that she stole the image of the ears from Hemingway (who wrote about bull’s ears being cut off after a bullfight), and that the ears part of the poem was made up. In other words, both the literary critics (who believe that poetry should have “proper” subjects) and governments (who did not want the truth known) did not like her. But she continued to write what she called the “poetry of witness.”

In fact, Forché actually did dine with a high-ranking officer in General Humberto Romero’s military regime in 1978. And, in fact, the officer did pour a bag of human ears onto the table. And though it was denied at the time that Salvadoran soldiers cut the ears off dead rebels, in 1986, Doug Farrah (of The Washington Post ) wrote an article for the New York Times about Salvadoran soldiers he interviewed who told him they did practice cutting off ears in order to verify enemy casualties to their commanders. 

The Colonel” is like a tiny documentary. Forché writes so flatly, so unemotionally, it is the facts that stun us, not the language. She elaborates on nothing. (There are only two “poetic” lines in the poem—the line “The moon swung bare on its black cord over the house,” which makes you think of a hanged man and introduces a sense of foreboding, and the simile of the ears looking like dried peach halves. You feel, while reading the poem, as if You Are There, like those of us felt who watched Walter Cronkite’s CBS program of that name (which reenacted historical events using the format of a news report). 

In the poem, Forché draws us immediately into the scene with “WHAT YOU HAVE HEARD IS TRUE”—all caps for emphasis. Terse, clipped sentences follow. The scene is very civilized. Everything is ordinary. The dogs. Lamb. Bread. Wine. The t.v.  But there’s also the pistol on the cushion. The grates on the windows. Ominous, but so casually mentioned. 

Weirdly, it is not the gun, but somehow, for me, it is when the colonel tells the parrot to shut up that my antennae begin communicating “Danger, danger.” When the colonel pours the human ears (symbols of the Salvadoran people who resisted the military dictatorship) on the table, Forché does not speak of any reaction on the part of her friend or herself. They dare not. Wise to stay silent. Then the colonel says what he says, what all dictators say, “As for the rights of anyone, tell your people they can go f___ themselves.” He sweeps the ears to the floor and says a strange thing: “Something for your poetry, no?” He means this facetiously, yet Forché did just that, even though shriveled ears are not poetry matter.

But why not? The whole world should be matter for poetry. We want to be comforted with pretty flowers and love and romantic moons. It’s natural. We need this. But we also need the picture Forché gives us, the way war correspondents and war’s photojournalists give us pictures. (They are artists, too.) Forché is bearing witness, as they are. I’m reminded of the saying, “I’m from Missouri, I have to be shown.” (I don’t know where that saying came from originally. And I’ve searched.) We have to be shown. And we are shown. Yet too often people are like the ears in the poem that are pressed to the ground. Forché is asking, are we listening to the world’s news and taking responsibility toward ameliorating bad situations, or are we blocking it out? Are we taking positions and responding to military dictatorships, our government’s support of them, and our government’s disregard of war crimes, or are we playing deaf?

In 1992, Forché returned to El Salvador for the first time in twelve years. While in the capital city, she met Doug Farrah there who told her, “Those who wanted you dead are dead. The colonel, too, is dead.”

Carolyn Forché was born in Detroit in 1950. She is a poet, a translator, and an editor.  Forché is currently a Professor at Georgetown University where she directs the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice.

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