Category Archives: Carolyn Forche

Carolyn Forche – Poet of Witness

On the final day of April and National Poetry Month 2012, here is an acknowledgement of American poet, professor and activist, Carolyn Forche.  A friend of mine (thank you, Carla) introduced me to Ms. Forche’s poetry with her 1981 book of poems, The Country Between Us.  It was Ms. Forche’s second book of poems and features poetry where, during Forche’s travels to the country of El Salvator in the late 1970s, a civil war happened to be erupting there.  These poems about El Salvator reflect a third world experience that is both enlightening and horrifying.  The poem “The Colonel” is one of the best known poems from The Country Between Us.

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.

—May 1978


Ms. Forche has gone on to publish additional books of poetry, The Angel of History (1994) and Blue Hour (2003), along with a well received anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness.  Forche has said of this anthology and political poetry “we are accustomed to rather easy categories: we distinguish between “personal”  and “political” poems…The distinction…gives the political realm too much and too little scope; at the same time, it renders the personal too important and not important enough.  If we give up the dimension of the personal, we risk relinquishing one of the power sites of resistance.  The celebration of the personal, however, can indicate a myopia, an inability to see how larger structures of the economy and the state circumscribe, if not determine, the fragile realm of the individual.”

Normally I would shy away from exploring political poetry, however reading The Country Between Us was really an eye opener.   It’s also interesting for me that 30 years after this book of poems was published I, myself, am living in a U.S. city where many of the residents have immigrated in recent years from countries in Central America.