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.
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
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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