Why Poetry Analysis Matters: Carolyn Forche's The Colonel

And Why We Should Pay Attention

I'm always impressed with the impact poetry can have on kids who are sure they won't like it, ever, and any particular poem you ask them to read in class least of all. I always enjoy seeing them dismiss their former reticence as irrelevant (which it is), and become so moved that they can't stop talking about the poem in question.

Here's one I always enjoyed discussing with freshman literature classes, because attention to detail is what it's all about, and some of it is lyrical, some of it much darker and -- perhaps not so surprisingly -- violent.

On the printed page the words are "housed" in the framework of a squarish block of text that is difficult to replicate here; online versions of the poem tend to present it as a longer series of shorter lines, that look more like the "poem" Forché did not want it to seem. It's prose poetry. And it's meant to look like an impenetrable block of words. It's supposed to be thick and square and heavy looking -- if that is how it was originally presented on the page, we should wonder why the poet chose that means of presentation, and attempt to adhere to it.

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 themselves. He swept the ears to the floor with his arm and held the last of the 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.

May 1978 by Carolyn Forché

Pay Attention

Forché visited El Salvador three times 1978-1980. This is one of the poems produced in reaction to what she found there, and it appears in her 1981 volume The Country Between Us.

The poem contrasts the mundane details of the Colonel's life -- his children, his wife -- with the pistol on the cushion beside him. The short, factual statements of an eye-witness account ("What you have heard is true. I was in his house.") give the piece an atmosphere of reportage that is then contrasted again -- this time with the lyrical rather than the literal: "The moon swung bare on its black cord over the house." The implications here are many -- since we have already been "primed" by the details of the previous statements by the mundane and the potentially lethal (that pistol on its cushion -- like a mace or a crown on a ceremonial pillow -- is conspicuous among the nail files, pet dogs, and sugar bowl); the moon here could be swinging on the black cord of a gallows -- or hanging gingerly by a thread over this particular house -- or indicative of the entire solar system's manipulation by whomever is pulling the strings in this man's universe. Students often don't know what to say about the line. They feel it fits the poem, but they don't know how to describe its function as a lyrical commentary, a voice outside of the "action" of the poem, or an inner monologue imbedded in the poem, representing what the poet herself observed, and her feelings about it. "The bare moon sounds stark." "It feels lonely and grieving." "The bare moon is this man's bare soul hanging by a thread" are some of the comments students have made about this line.

The fact that the cop show is in English implies that the rest of the shows were not. Again, attention to detail helps the students focus their ideas on the specificity of this finely detailed poem -- the gold bell, the green mangoes, "a type of bread" (what type of bread? the poet obviously is unfamiliar with it), a commercial in Spanish. Students (especially younger kids) tend to expect "literature" to tell them what's going on, not imply it, and encouraging them to consider every word lets them understand that a poem is a mosaic in which each stone is necessary.

The broken bottles embedded in the walls, combined with that friendly verb "to scoop" (friendly for many first-world children, who only know scoops of ice cream) and that pretty noun "lace," here applied to gouging kneecaps and shredding hands, are tough going for kids who are not versed in irony. It is ironic that those of them who live in gated communities -- a growing number here on the south-east coast of the United States -- would need to ponder the colonel's need to keep people out of his enclave.

The parrot said hello on the terrace.

There is an uncomfortable formality in the language being used by speakers in this poem.  First of all, we have the barrier of English/Spanish, but further than that we have the passive role being played by the seemingly silent poet: "I was asked how I enjoyed the country"; if there was an answer given it appears to have been either interrupted or followed by a commercial in Spanish on the TV, denoting that the poet's voice is of little real importance: there is an implication that mere form is being observed.  "There was some talk then of how difficult it had become to govern" -- notice how we are being distanced from the speakers?  "There was some talk then" -- not "The colonel spoke" or "we discussed" -- it does not appear to be a debate or discussion at all; rather, it would appear that the colonel is pontificating, and the others are his audience.  

Then the parrot chips in, and in English, too.  It's funny.  Almost as if the parrot is apologizing for the colonel's domination of the entire scene, that even has the moon hanging by a thread over his very words.  But the colonel tells it to shut up.

"Shut up" are important words in this poem, both literally and figuratively; applying to speech and to action here.  The colonel is shut up in this box of a house with his gun, broken glass on the walls like a jagged saw blade.  It's what he wants to do with government of the country, too: shut it up under his control, shut up the voices of dissent, shut the speakers up by imprisonment or death.  A parrot's voice can easily be silenced -- silencing human voices is a little more problematic. 

My friend said to me with his eyes: say nothing.

The atmosphere is getting decidedly more tense. Not only are the members of this audience silent in the face of the colonel's hostility, but the communication that does exist between them becomes ominously limited to pleading with the eyes: you know that look, you've seen it when someone is imploring you not to do whatever it is you were about to do -- and here it is silence that is the only response that is safe.

Next we have a different fruit being brought to the table, a different harvest than the mangoes that accompanied the meal. The fact that this new fruit is carried in a paper grocery sack leads us (both the readers of the poem and the colonel's silent audience) to expect something more like root vegetables. The human ears are shrivelled and dry, the manner of their introduction leads the poet to make a natural visual association: they look like dried peach halves.

Now, let's take three steps back from the text for a moment. "There is no other way to say this." In a poem about voices being silenced, every word become vitally important, and this is the first opinion that the poet has really voiced; it is a forced but contemplative statement of fact that she has not been able to alter.  There is no other way to say this.  The ears looked like peach halves.  They were treated as produce.  The shock of them spilling onto the table -- where the visitors had just eaten -- is deliberately and unavoidably both fully cognizant of the reality of the sight of the ears and distanced from it.  You know how you see an accident happen in slow motion?  You appear to be outside time, observing the inevitable.  Here, there is no other way to say it: it can't be said with empathy or outrage -- yet -- it is too sudden a sight. 

However, even in hindsight, with the time lapse between the moment of seeing the ears and relating the incident, the speaker of the poem cannot provide any other description than the one that first came to her mind.  The ears looked like dried peach halves.  And they were thrown on the table.  Carelessly.

I am tired of fooling around, he said.

The building of tension now is released in the colonel's anger. His prop for this nasty little "show and tell" session is something he knows the worth of and the reaction it will garner. The lack of respect he has been showing his foreign guests culminates in his handling of someone else's dead flesh -- shaking an ear in their faces, dropping it into a glass of water where it seems to come alive. "As for the rights of anyone, tell your people they can go fuck themselves." His contempt is supreme. Who do these North Americans think they are, anyway? coming into his country and spouting human rights! "Something for your poetry, no?"

What makes this poem so good (and why the students usually end up liking it so much) is the irony of the fact that the ears themselves are capable of contradicting the colonel, even after the imprisonment of their owners. One of the ears even comes alive in the glass of water, to speak against this outrage. Even after the ears are swept to the floor, they still continue their symbolic indictment: "Some of the ears on the floor caught this scrap of his voice." Yes: this is something for her poetry, and these ears represent living proof of torture and violent repression. It's almost as if the ears can hear or imagine some scrap of hope in the idea that an outsider might publicize their plight? "Something for your poetry, no?" Some of the ears on the floor might have come from prisoners who are still alive. However, more somberly, the poem ends "some of the ears on the floor were pressed to the ground."

The poet needs only to describe the scene as she saw it in order to condemn the colonel. No further comment is necessary in the poem, as it would only detract from the witness the ears bear; their testimony is louder than any shout.

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Teresa McGurk

Some of Carolyn Forche's Poetry

More by this Author

Comments 41 comments

tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 7 years ago from South Africa

Wow Teresa, thank you a thousand times! I had never heard of Carolyn Forché before (and I'm supposed to be interested in poetry and writing?) - so this is an exciting Hub for me. What a great prose-poem it is too. I shall treasure the poem and your analysis for a long time.

Love and peace


Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 7 years ago from Houston, Texas

Powerful poem! Your analysis makes it all the more interesting.

C. C. Riter 7 years ago

This is indeed heavy stuff and I think political as well. I see a Colonel living in fear of his people and the USA ready to pounce on him somewhere in Central America and the naked bare Moon hanging over him like the sword of Damceles ready to fall on him. Shades of Noriega?

Forche did a wonderful piece and you have done well explaining it as well as the importance to read between the lines. Bravo and thank you Teresa

I will have to google Forche

Teresa McGurk profile image

Teresa McGurk 7 years ago from The Other Bangor Author

Hey Tony, Peggy, C. C. -- thank you all for reading. Yes, she is a great poet, her stuff is awesome.

C. C. Riter 7 years ago

Teresa. congrats. homepage has you at 100

Teresa McGurk profile image

Teresa McGurk 7 years ago from The Other Bangor Author

ooh! Thanks, C. C. for noticing (yay!).

C. C. Riter 7 years ago

I thought you might like that and dint want ya ta miss it. I'm happy for ya. i was up to 99 once and almost missed it.

anjalichugh profile image

anjalichugh 7 years ago from New York

Great hub. The analysis you offered was superb. I'll look forward to reading more of your hubs.

Teresa McGurk profile image

Teresa McGurk 7 years ago from The Other Bangor Author

Thanks for the read, anjalic.

Cris A profile image

Cris A 7 years ago from Manila, Philippines

Well now, I should thank you for introducing the poetry of Ms Forche to me. It's a beautiful piece and I hope she has many more I can luxuriate in. Reading your analysis, i find myself saying, uh-huh, yeah, right, or just nodding my head in agreement! Thanks for this wonderful read, Literature class has never been this fun and easy! :D

Teresa McGurk profile image

Teresa McGurk 7 years ago from The Other Bangor Author

Hey Cris -- glad you came by for a read! Hope you find lots more of her stuff to enjoy.

rongould profile image

rongould 7 years ago

I felt several times through school that the instructor had less interest in the subject than I did. To many instructors, it is simply a job. They have lost their passion and interest and it shows.

This is a really interesting prose poem. I had not encountered it before. Thanks so much for the hub, the poem and introducing us to the poet. You have broadened my awareness and piqued my interest.

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 7 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

Also a new one for me. I like your analysis very much though I have reservations regarding prose poetry, mostly along the lines of: when someone can write prose as well as say Stevenson or Mark Twain and not call it poetry, why does someone else choose to call their prose poetry? It's a good piece of course; no denying that. But of what?

Iphigenia 7 years ago

Here's somebody else to whom you have introduced Carolyn Forché - thanks Teresa - poetry is my favourite genre to read and I tend to revisit the old classics - as I've come to realise, you're certainly a hubber who will widen my world view.

Teresa McGurk profile image

Teresa McGurk 7 years ago from The Other Bangor Author

Ron -- hope you get the chance to read more of her work. She is a very interestng woman; I heard her speak about her work some years ago, and it just made me even more intrigued.

Paraglider: I know what you mean. Apart from being an oxymoron, anyway, it just isn't a good term, and there's so much wonderful lyrical prose out there. I hate the term concrete poetry even more.

Iphigenia -- you are so welcome. When poetry is good, it blows me away -- glad you liked it, too.

Pam Roberson profile image

Pam Roberson 7 years ago from Virginia

All I can say is what everyone else has already said...wonderfully powerful poem, and your analysis is very enjoyable to read.

If you are no longer teaching, then you're surely missed. Oh to have a teacher give me a poem about chopped off ears! I may have even wanted to read more poetry. :)

After reading the very first paragraph, I was reminded of a movie...Dangerous Minds...where the teacher uses Bob Dylan songs to get the students interested in reading, understanding and appreciating poetry.

Teresa McGurk profile image

Teresa McGurk 7 years ago from The Other Bangor Author

Hey, Pam. You are so right. Teaching is often a case of finding common ground, and then exploring it together. I haven't seen the movie, but will look for it. If the teacher isn't interested, then the students certainly aren't going to be. I think it's often a case that the teachers get waylaid by discipline matters, or accountability, that can take away their enthusiasm for the subject.

Pam Roberson profile image

Pam Roberson 7 years ago from Virginia

You really hit the target with this one for your freshman students. Teenagers can be difficult to teach and most of them feel some kind of angst inside, so presenting them with something they can identify with is the mark of a wonderful teacher. Do watch Dangerous Minds if you get the chance. It's a perfect example of this (as you are yourself).

I agree with the latter part of your comment. I think teachers now are burdened by accountability and their teaching methods often come under tight scrutiny. I have a friend who is a teacher, and she was recently informed that she must change her teaching methods. What's with that? As long as teachers help students learn what they need to learn, then leave them alone.

Teresa McGurk profile image

Teresa McGurk 7 years ago from The Other Bangor Author

I get angry when I hear that some board of education somewhere is imposing new methods/materials/accountability. The asinine assumption that schools will get better test scores from kids if funding is threatened also makes my blood boil. I'm so glad I'm retired!

maven101 profile image

maven101 7 years ago from Northern Arizona

Thanks, Teresa, for another great Hub...as always you write with knowledge and clarity...I found the prose engrossing and fluid...wonderful genre...would you call it " narrative prose "....?

Teresa McGurk profile image

Teresa McGurk 7 years ago from The Other Bangor Author

It's difficult to pin it down, isn't it? Lyrical prose? Prosaic lyricism?

Sally's Trove profile image

Sally's Trove 7 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

Your Hub is exactly about why poetry matters.  Poetry's a window.  It's a frame.  If you can write it or read it, you can engage with truth.  But you need a good teacher to learn how.  Perhaps that teacher is your inner self.  Perhaps it is you, Teresa.  I wish I had even one English teacher like you.  All of mine told me to see what they saw, and never asked me to speak my vision.

This poem of lyrical prose, prosaic lyricism, narrative prose, or whatever one wants to call it (isn't that decision about what to call it also poetic?), I never knew.  Reading it here, I brought my own experiences to it with freedom (who's going to tell me I'm wrong?).

I can see how young people would engage with this work.  So does this older person.  Thank you.

Teresa McGurk profile image

Teresa McGurk 7 years ago from The Other Bangor Author

Thanks, Sally. I've always benefited from and enjoyed listening to students' differing interpretations of literature, as they always notice something I didn't see, or had forgotten. I can perhaps understand why some high school teachers feel they should reinforce one interpretation that is generally accepted to be correct (they may even be enouraged to do so, who knows?); but it always feels stifling. At least, it always felt stifling to me. If you can back up any assertion you make with a quotation from the text that illustrates it, then no one can argue with the interpretation.

Poetry is a window, as you say; a frame, a lens, a prism in some cases. It's great what can be seen by looking into one. Thank you for reading.

tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 7 years ago from South Africa

Ha! I wrote a piece called "Frames" some years ago and maybe its appropriate here so I share it with you:

Vision made visible

Freedom made safe

Opening the past

so the future can come in

with the light.

Teresa McGurk profile image

Teresa McGurk 7 years ago from The Other Bangor Author

There ya go! I like the conclusion -- so the future can come in/ with the light. Neat.

Alice's Land profile image

Alice's Land 7 years ago from London

Hi Teresa,

Loved your hub, I also love and write poetry (very basic poetry really). Hope you can present us with some more hubs on poetry, please!Poetry is generally hated by students as it is a bit difficult to understand, I believe one needs to be very close to our inner self, to our feelings to be able to see between what it’s written. I really loved your analysis.

Thanks for introducing me to Carolyn Forché.

All the best

Teresa McGurk profile image

Teresa McGurk 7 years ago from The Other Bangor Author

Thank you very much indeed, Alice's -- glad you saw something in Forche that you can respond to.

Shalini Kagal profile image

Shalini Kagal 7 years ago from India

You really do make people open out the windows of their mind, don't you? Your students were very fortunate. I echo Pam's and Sally's comments. Even more that the prose poetry, I think it's the catalyst you are that makes it so wonderful. Thank you Teresa :)

Lgali profile image

Lgali 7 years ago

very nice poem

Teresa McGurk profile image

Teresa McGurk 7 years ago from The Other Bangor Author

Thank you, Shalini, for the kind comment.

Lgali -- thanks for dropping by!

Chris Friend 7 years ago

Love that Kitty-Cat picture.

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 7 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

Hi Teresa - just came back to revisit the Carolyn Forche piece because someone at work was talking about her.

(The formatting of the capsule seems to have broken. Might be worth changing the font to H4)

SwiftlyClean profile image

SwiftlyClean 7 years ago from Texas

That was good Thanks!!!

philip carey 61 7 years ago

There's a book I like called "Triggering Town" by poet Richard Hugo. It's a good source, for me, when it comes to thinking about poetry--as was this. Thank you.

theirishobserver. profile image

theirishobserver. 6 years ago from Ireland

Excellent - Hub - I write some poetry - have put some of it on CD - need to take it off the CD now and put it on a hub - I have taken one off it 'An Island' but it takes time to listen to them write them down - but will do it soon you have inspired me.....Irish

Michael 6 years ago

is this a true story?????

Genna East profile image

Genna East 5 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

Excellent hub, Teresa. I am always learning about poetry -- a lost art? -- and loved this hub!

chef-de-jour profile image

chef-de-jour 3 years ago from Wakefield, West Yorkshire,UK

Yes, a powerful poem from a poet not afraid to visit the darker corners of human life. Read her poems Return and Ourselves or Nothing. You've given a great analysis and elated it to your students. I enjoyed it.

Rita Dove's Parsley is another poem that throws light on dark subject matter.

Votes and a share.

KrisL profile image

KrisL 3 years ago from S. Florida

Thanks for this. I just tweeted it, and shared w/HP followers.

Teresa McGurk profile image

Teresa McGurk 3 years ago from The Other Bangor Author

Chef-de-jour: thanks for recommending Parsley--I'll look for it!

KrisL: why, thank you so much for tweeting. I really appreciate that.


Robert Levine profile image

Robert Levine 2 years ago from Brookline, Massachusetts

I still remember the impact "The Colonel" made on me when we read in my poetry workshop in college.

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