Carolyn Forché’s “The Colonel”

Protest Against U.S. Involvement in the Salvadoran Civil War, Chicago, 1989
Protest Against U.S. Involvement in the Salvadoran Civil War, Chicago, 1989

Carolyn Forché was born in Detroit, Michigan and is the author of five collections of poetry, including her first book, Gathering the Tribes, which won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition in 1976. Her second book, The Country Between Us, was also the Lamont Poetry Selection by the Academy of American Poets. In 1993, Forché went on to publish the highly influential anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness. Her work has always been marked by a strong interest in politics and human rights issues throughout the world and is particularly focused on how our actions in the world affect our language.

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.

Forché’s “The Colonel” is a very famous political poem and has been widely anthologized and talked about over the years since its publication. As it is in the form of a prose poem, the rhythm and pacing of the poem are much different than other poems we have encountered in this blog. Literary devices are at a minimum, if used at all. Instead, we have the speaker’s direct language and matter of fact descriptions of a, presumably, very real and horrific event. Forché, in fact, lived in El Salvador and wrote many poems and essays about her experiences in that country during the Salvadorean Civil War.

The Colonel


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.

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