In honor of World Poetry Day, I’d like to share one of my favorite poems. This poem, “The Colonel” by Carolyn Forché, is one of the first contemporary poems I ever read for pleasure. That is to say, outside of a high school English class.
The poem is beautiful in its simple use of language and brutal in its portrayal of a woman coming face to face with the evil that dwells inside the hearts of men. At 16 years-old, I remember being shocked by the poem’s bluntness, by its refusal to shy away from or gloss over the gruesome details. This is a poem that has remained with me for years, burned into my mind, and whenever I am asked for poetry recommendations, Forché is a poet I will send the verse-hungry masses to again and again if they have yet to discover her work.
“The Colonel” can be found in her book, The Country Between Us, which explores in depth the poet’s three visits to El Salvador between 1978 and 1980. If you’re interested in reading a full analysis of the poem, you can find an excellent one here.
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 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 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.