Accurate deductions may not be made of Carolyn Forché’s enduring poem “The Colonel” without first seeking the context which encouraged its composition. It should be known that Forché wrote “The Colonel” and other laudable poems in her collection, The Country Between Us, lest the subject matter be forgotten. It may serve as prudent understanding that the physical and mental act of writing in an environment filled with the likelihood of violence, in the violence, after experiencing either — and likewise trauma, as Forché did — may also very well be therapeutic to the writer writing about these very matters. Understanding the humanistic layers, then, one may bear witness to an unfolding of a pithy poem that’s like a bashed up music box still playing yet disharmonious: when opened, the box emits a cruel historical sound from its rifts, but with perseverance and inspiration gripping each note — relentlessly rings in our ears again and again.
In the opening pages of The Country Between Us, Spanish Civil War poet Antonio Machado is quoted, “Wayfarer, there is no way. / Make your way by going farther.” This is the very precipice, when in 1978, Forché metaphorically cliff-dove into El Salvador: a divided country of people all experiencing different angles of civil war. The deep complexities of the Salvadoran Civil War fill volumes of narrative, but the objectives of this essay are simple. Foremost, I wish to provide a clear understanding of “The Colonel” as living documentation (how the poem significantly captured and preserves) and, by association, explicate Forché’s stylistic techniques, what captured her, and what she, needless to say, captured. Secondly (my objectives are twofold), I’ll argue that Forché, by no means, is a “revolutionary tourist” (as she has been pinned);” I contend that if one is to be giving Forché titles, hers is more fittingly — an entrenched journalistic poet, versus some fly-by-night adrenalin-junkie.
“The Colonel” relies heavily on sense of sound. From the start: “What you have heard is true” (1) — an opening line addressing someone, a group, a nation, you, me, us. “Something for your poetry, no?” (23), the colonel says, in the same vocalized manner I imagine General Maximiliano Martínez projecting 45 years prior to the writing of “The Colonel,” responsible for 25,000 dead and using the radio as his beacon of terror, sounding off in a belligerent, brusque and brutal voice: “‘In El Salvador, I am God’” (Lindo-Fuentes et al. 283).
During the Salvadoran Civil War that influenced Forché to compose “The Colonel”, the radio resurfaced as a highly important — sometimes only — method of communication for nationalist rebels, supporters, and sympathizers. In polarity to General Martínez’s rhetoric, radio was used by nationalists as a means to combat the oppressive forces of maniacal power. Most of us can imagine personally or through film or television the amplified voice of an authoritative, egocentric and ideological power monger. Hearing this voice as one may doubly imagine when reading “The Colonel” compels one to believe that it is true, “What you have heard…” (1). But Forché reminds us that hearing is also a double-edged sword; her overarching theme is not about hearing the colonel but the voices of the oppressed Salvadoran people —the voices not being heard: “Some of the ears… were [op]pressed to the ground” (24-25). These poetic messages written in the name of the unheard can also be found in Forché’s poem “The Memory of Elena” (also in the “In El Salvador” collection of The Country Between Us), where “bells [are] / waiting with their tongues cut out / for this particular silence” (5, 3-5).
In “The Colonel”, Forché paints a vivid and importantly valid picture of El Salvador’s commonplace sights — stunning to outside eyes: “The parrot / said hello on the terrace” (13-14). Without understanding El Salvador’s local bird population, one may mistake Forché’s use of a parrot as added colorful interest to the poem — a stand-in. But parrots are not rare sights in El Salvador.
As Forché writes in a nonfictional article published in The Nation on June 14 1980, “At 5 each morning and afternoon in San Salvador [the capital of El Salvador], precisely at 5, thousands of tiny green parrots [called los pericos] flock over the city, screaming and crying” (Forché 712). “[S]creaming and crying” is metaphoric, no less, and may be a remix of German poet Bertolt Brecht’s quote (mindfully borrowed as a printed motto for Forché’s later poetry of witness anthology: Against Forgetting — located on the page just prior to her introduction) —
In the dark times, will there also be singing?
Yes, there will be singing.
About the dark times.
In a manner of juxtaposing Forché and Bertolt’s heartfelt and empathetic metaphor, it can be realized that Bertolt uses singing as metaphor for people screaming and crying out, while Forché incorporates screaming and crying in the stead of parrots singing: a more accurate description for the sound of parrots — to be sure — as would human screaming and crying during the dark times in the case of Bertolt’s beautiful but wake up quote. Forché grazes the similar theme of screaming and crying in her poem “Message” saying, “I will live / and living cry out until my voice is gone…” (17-18). Forché, like Bertolt, is not shy to make her poetic mission known.
In “The Hermit’s Scream”, an excerpt of Adrienne Rich’s installation of artistic, political activism, Rich builds off the poem “Chemin de Fer” by Elizabeth Bishop. Rich then turns to the bluntness of Audre Lorde’s poetry (and to a lesser extent, Suzanne Gardinier). Bishop’s powerful line, “Love should be put into action!” dominates the rhetoric of Rich, and, overshadowing all: questions, no less — perhaps the most obvious being “how can love be put into action?” The pragmatic Forché, who might counter that love cannot be put into action, also holds that the opposite of it should not be forgotten.
Forché understands that the “narrative [and poetry] of trauma is itself traumatized, and bears witness to extremity by its inability to articulate directly or completely” (Forché Against Forgetting 43). Sometimes trauma leads to flashes of images — in “The Colonel”: “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….. On the television was a cop show. It was in English” (1-2,4). Forché’s images — although on the surface, random — are contrarily significant status symbols among the homes, shelters, in El Salvador during the civil war, “when there were only three commercial televisions that only broadcasted from 8-15 hours daily” (Darling 135) and most of it, when it was on, was dominated by tyrannical propaganda.
The colonel’s wife carrying “a tray of coffee and sugar” easily reflects the reality of the absurd drop in Salvadoran coffee prices during that time, something that grieved a whole slew of farmers to the point of protest, leaving their crops to “rot in the fields” (135).
If this essay is beginning to read as a news report it is purposeful in that one may recognize the parallels drawn by both the symbolical meaning(s) of Forché’s poetry with the meaning(s) of true journalism (true journalism is not a philosophical musing, I am simply a believer that a true journalist goes beyond the sanctity of shelter, doesn’t submit, finds the red tape, and, like a true poet — tells it like it is without worrying about saving face no matter what one looks like).
In a book review of The Country Between Us, Eliot Weinberger says that the photograph of Forché’s face on the cover of her book looks like “Hugh Hefner’s latest girlfriend… a misty, Extreme Close Up, with head tilted up, eyes looking dreamily toward the light, full lips parted…” (Too much time alone with the cover of the book, eh Eliot?) He continues, “…I don’t see Forché as a political poet at all, for the poems neither illuminate a political situation, are an exhortation to arms, nor artifacts themselves of a political reality. They belong, rather to the genre of revolutionary tourism” (Weinberger 160, 164). To play English linguist, I must remind Weinberger that the etymology of the word politics was Aristotle’s in his Treatises, and can be defined as “[t]he political state, life, or condition of a country or government; the polity” (politic adj. and n.). Regarding illumination of the “condition of a country or government,” in “The Colonel”, one will be hard pressed to dim the lights of “illumination.”
Journalism is a field of duty that makes waves — at least it ought to. If it is true it will. Forché makes waves of memories in her poetry so that they cannot be escaped by time. In an article called “Poetry and Power”, John F. Kennedy said, of Robert Frost:
In pursuing his perceptions of reality,
[Frost] sailed against the currents of time.
Is this not what Forché has done with her poetry as well? Has she not delivered us with the reality of “[b]roken bottles… in the walls around the house to / scoop the kneecaps from a man’s legs or cut his hands to lace?” (6,7).
Forché was a poetic re-creationalist and an artist of history (and in Forché’s case, a history not many knew the reality of). I call her a journalist poet, and perhaps Archibald MacLeish explains it best; while delivering a lecture at Northrup Memorial Auditorium in Minneapolis in 1958, he asked:
Does your poem seem to you, as you contemplate it in your imagination, to be “created” in the sense in which we use that word of the events described in the book of Genesis? Is there not rather a selection and ordering in the art of history and in the practice of journalism? (MacLeish 7)
MacLeish answered his own question, pronouncing:
Both are re-creations, different in degree but not different in kind, for the material in each case is our human experience of the world and of ourselves; and not fundamentally different in method or even in purpose since the method of poetry like the method of journalism is selection from the chaotic formlessness of experience, and the purpose of both is the reordering of the fragments selected in a sequence that makes sense. (7-8)
To put it plainly, re-creation — inherent to poetry and journalism — is true as one will ever get at art. And “The Colonel” got there.
Darling, Juanita. “The 3R’s of El Salvador’s Civil War: Revolution, Religion and Radio.” Journal of Media and Religion. 7.3 (2008): 132-49.
Forché, Carolyn, ed. Against Forgetting: 20th Century Poetry of Witness. New York: W.W. Norton, 1993. Print.
Forché, Carolyn. The Country Between Us. New York: Harper & Row, 1981. Print.
Forche, Carolyn. “The Road to Reaction in El Salvador.” Vol. 230. The Nation. The Nation Company L.P, 1980. Print.
Gable, Mona. “The Education of Carolyn Forché Writer Recalls Harrowing Experiences in Third World.” Los Angeles Times: 22. Jun 19 1987. ProQuest. Web. 3 June 2015.
Kennedy, John F. Vare, Robert, ed. “Poetry and Power.” The American Idea: The Best of the Atlantic Monthly: 150 Years of Writers and Thinkers Who Shaped Our History. New York: Doubleday, 2007. Print.
Lindo-Fuentes, Héctor, Erik Kristofer Ching, and Rafael Lara Martínez. Remembering a Massacre in El Salvador: The Insurrection of 1932, Roque Dalton, and the Politics of Historical Memory. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2007. Print.
MacLeish, Archibald. “Poetry and Journalism.” University of Minnesota Press, 1958. Print
“politic, adj. and n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2015. Web. 10 June 2015.
Rich, Adrienne. “The Hermit’s Scream.” PMLA 108.5 (1993): 1157-64. Print.
Weinberger, Eliot. “The Country between Us.” Sulfur.6 (1983): 158. ProQuest. Web. 3 June 2015.