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The Colonel

The Colonel


by Carolyn Forché

Sentences 1-8 Summary

Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.

Sentences 1-5

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. 

  • Before we dive in, Shmoopers, some words about our choice of sections:
  • A quick glance at "The Colonel" will tell you that you're not dealing with an ordinary poem, where lines end usually long before they reach the right margin of the page. Nope. No siree. What we have our on hands, friends, is a prose poem.
  • Now, you can read all about prose poems in "Form and Meter," and you should. But for the purposes of our summary here, what that means is that we're divvying this bad boy up into sentences, not lines. Got it? Good. Now on with the show.
  • And what a way to begin. The speaker addresses her readers directly with the plainest of language, making the claim that the rumors about this place and time are true. What have readers heard? Whatever it is, this poem announces that it will be a kind of testimonial of events. Everything that follows is a confirmation. Yes, the speaker was in his house. Yes, his wife brought refreshments on a tray. It's as you heard.
  • There's a story beginning to unfold. It involves "you," the reader, the hearer of news. It involves "I," the speaker and visitor to the house, as well as "he," the colonel, and "his wife." 
  • It starts slowly, with an inventory of facts and details. You might think it's a tale about something neighborly. 
  • The details are described without adornment or emotional affect. That flatness adds to the feeling of suspense. You're more likely to try to read into the description. A boy going out or a girl filing her nails isn't unusual, except as images of indifference. Do they know what their father—so far an undefined "him"—is up to? Maybe, maybe not. Either way, they're here in the poem looking totally blasé. 
  • Except they have a pistol. Wait—they have a what?
  • So, this guy, the colonel, is not only packing, he's keeping his heat close and comfy. That his pistol's on a pillow right there lets us know that the colonel might need to exert his dominance at any moment, or at least he thinks he might. It also shows us how he treats his piece like royalty.

Sentences 6-8

[…] The moon swung bare on its black cord over the house. On the television was a cop show. It was in English.

  • Here, we get our first example of figurative, or poetic, language, one of very few in a mostly literal poem. You wouldn't think there would be any fresh ways of describing the moon, but there it is, hanging over everything—kind of like a bare light bulb in an interrogation room. "We have ways of making you talk," it seems to say. And this poem is one of them.
  • Just in case you missed the significance of the interrogation image (5-6), Forché mentions the cop show and that it's in English. Why in English? Is that just a random detail, or does it mean something? It might be to show that America is kind of a super-cop in this picture, the real dominator of Central American politics. (It may help to know that the military government of El Salvador, where the speaker is, was funded by the U.S.) 
  • Of course, it may be just part of the scene as it plays out. Still, you have to ask yourself why a higher level military man would have the television running in the background during a formal dinner. Weird—to say the least.

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