Before we discuss Carolyn Forche’s prose poem “The Colonel,” I’d like to offer some background into how the poem was written and the controversy it created among some readers.
In the late 1970s, Forche was a young American poet who had one book published and who decided to “give back” to society by volunteering to work for Amnesty International, an organization devoted to standing up for the rights of oppressed people all over the world. The organization sent her to El Salvador, a place suffering from a dangerous dictatorship. During this time, any El Salvadorian whom the government deemed a threat would “disappear;” daughters, sons, mothers, and fathers would be taken away by military men, killed, and their bodies would never be seen again. Their “crimes against the state”? Often, they were simply overheard complaining about the government.
While there, Forche witnessed many atrocities. It was a violent, disturbing time. When she returned to America, Forche wrote a book of poems called The Country Between Us about her time in El Salvador. She wanted to use her art to report to American readers what was happening to innocent people. The book won several important awards, but it also caused controversy. Some readers found the entire book too violent; they accused Forche of exploiting the suffering of others just so she could write some startling poems. One critic actually called it “Minnie Mouse Goes to El Salvador” and professed that it was not the artist’s job to tackle anything political.
If you would, read “The Colonel” at least twice, and then use the questions after the poem to discuss with your peers. Here’s the poem:
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 fuck them-
selves. 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.
Pretty startling images, yes? Here are your discussion questions. Please address each one, and remember to respond to at least one peer’s posting.
1. Is the poem too violent? Should Forche have toned it down so it wouldn’t offend some readers? Should she have also not used the “F” word?
2. Should artists, if they feel inspired, address political and social issues, or should those issues be left up to law makers and news reporters?
3. The incident in the poem might have been reported in a news item in a daily paper, true, but is there a way art gets to the truth better than news? How so?
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