When Carolyn Forché was in El Salvador in 1978, the military wondered if she was an intelligence operative for the U.S. government. She wasn't, but what she was doing with her intelligence was maybe even more dangerous. She was gathering material for her poems, like "The Colonel." This prose poem (a poem written in block form) tells it like it is.
Forché admits she was naïve, a noob. Traveling to a war-torn country, she never imagined she'd end up sitting at the same table with a veritable monster. El Salvador was in the midst of a civil war waged between the country's US-backed military-led government and the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN).
Though Forché doesn't say so outright, we think you can assume that the colonel of the title isn't frying up chicken, that his rank is a mark of a fouler distinction. (Sorry for the pun; we can't help ourselves.) This colonel welcomes the visiting poet with good food and wine, but ends the meal on a distinctly sour note, pouring out gruesome mementos of the Salvadoran Civil War onto the table before her. A stunt like that would kill anyone's appetite. He also unwittingly gives Forché ammunition against himself with one of the most haunting images to appear in a poem.
When it hit the scene in 1981 alongside other poems of witness in Forché's book The Country Between Us, "The Colonel" caused a flash-fire of acclaim and controversy in both poetry and political circles. Everybody wanted to know, was it true? Did this really happen? And if it did, what did that say about this as a poem? Could a poem take such a journalistic position to its subject and still be art? Even Forché felt uncomfortable with all the attention this poem brought her; maybe the poem wasn't so much a creation as a record. What's the difference?
That this poem continues to be anthologized pretty much everywhere more than 30 years after its publication says something about qualities beyond its timeliness or its political message. It not only thrusts the poet to the frontlines in the war for human rights, it captures something essential and deeply disturbing about the human experience.
No it's not pretty. And yes, it's true. You may not want to think about it, but there are people "disappeared" in many parts of this world to this very day. Just look at what's happening in Mexico. More than 25,000 people have gone missing in the last six years. Poems like Carolyn Forché's "The Colonel" exist to spread the word, to generate feelings of identification and compassion. You can read about the Salvadoran Civil War in history books and you'll get the historical background, timelines, portraits of significant leaders, and all that. When you read this poem, you get a quick kick to the solar plexus, the blow of reality made all the more forceful by the art of its poetry.
Different from the dry material of a history book, this poem brings you into the scene, so that you're right there at the table with the green mangoes and bread, overhearing the cop show in English playing in the background. Those touches of realism make sure that you share the horror the speaker experiences, forced to witness the colonel's hostile gesture, forced to imagine all that it means.
And if you think that Forché is trying to inflict this shock and revulsion purely to be sensational, think again. Poetry has the remarkable power to transport the reader, to redeem even the most terrible deeds, to commemorate the nameless. We don't always know specifically who was injured, but when we read poems like this, we will never forget them.