Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
[…] 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.
- And here it is, the climax of the poem, exactly 2/3 of the way through the account, just like you learned when you studied the story arc. (And if you haven't studied the story arc, well, what are you waiting for?)
- The colonel is carrying a grocery sack. You might think he's got something everyday, something harmless, something edible. Peanut butter, maybe. Or maybe Oreos for desert.
- Sorry, gang. Instead, he spills out human ears onto the table. This is the shriek moment of the poem. Imagine the horror the speaker must feel. Still, why is she using such flat, dispassionate language? It's as if she doesn't trust the power of adjectives to intensify this. In fact, they might do the opposite. It's as if Forché believes that our ability to imagine outstrips any descriptive language, that we will have a more visceral response if we have to engage more actively in our reading. The plainness of the language is like a spotlight exposing the terrible truth.
- The only adjective we get is "many." How many? You know they're enough to pour and that is freakishly too many. This colonel has a veritable collection of severed ears. And for every ear, you can imagine there's a person who used to be very attached to that ear, who is now no more.
- These ears have been forever silenced by the orders of a brutal man. They are also real ears, parts of once-living people.
- Then the speaker shifts into rare poetic language to use a simile, but it's a plain, homely simile. These severed ears are said to be like dried peach halves. We can imagine that all too well, the description is so apt. And we may never eat dried peaches again.
- It's not coincidental, though, that you are asked to think of groceries, then shown these ears and asked to think of them as like something to eat. The difference between what is expected and what appears is part of the horror. One moment everyone was sitting eating at a table, making somewhat polite conversation, and the next they are confronted with vivid proof of this man's heinous acts. It's sickening.
- And then comes the line that's probably the most famous of the whole poem, "There is no other way to say this." What do you think? Is this the speaker claiming her limits as a witness and as a human being? She's just been assaulted by something nearly unspeakable. Is this an example of her attempt to record in as plain language as possible an incomprehensible scene? Or maybe she's trying to say that a fact is a fact, and language doesn't matter in the least—like the slacker's motto, "it is what it is." However you interpret these lines, what you do get is the sense of the speaker's helplessness, of the failure of language.
- But the colonel isn't done yet. Not by a long shot. In case this gesture wasn't grand or shocking enough, he picks up one of the ears. He's not squeamish.
- Why should he be? And he almost rubs their nose in it, shaking the severed in their faces, forcing them to be even closer to the evidence of his serious and murderous intent.
- Then, he does something maybe even more horrific. He drops the severed dried ear into a glass of water. Why? It's a bizarre move. It's as though he wants to make a specimen of it, to magnify it.
- Or, even sicker, to reconstitute it, the way you might soak dried fruit before baking. And that's what happens. The speaker says the water works to revive it: "It came alive there." How are we supposed to read that? How can an ear, taken from its body months ago, allowed to dry out, to become all leathery, come back to life in a glass of water? If much of this poem is written in plain, literal language, this line steps across the threshold into magic realism. This isn't the stuff of a newspaper article. It's pretty much out there. And you get the feeling that this isn't just metaphorical language. The ear has really come back to life, at least in the anything-is-possible world of poetry. The rest of the ear's body is dead, but the ear is back, and, it would seem, on a mission. What might that be? Let's read on to the finish…
- […] 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.
- Now the colonel speaks outright for the very first time in the poem. If this is him fooling around, we'd hate to see him in serious mode. And that seems to be exactly the chilling effect he's after.
- Now there is no mistaking what he means. He tells these two North American visitors, as if they had a direct line to the U.S. president or something, what they can tell their "people" to do. He knows that they are concerned with human rights. And in case there's any confusion, he uses fierce language, to show he is no longer smiling and serving coffee.
- At the end of his act, the colonel is assured that he has his guests' full attention. He ends his display with a flourish, sweeping the ears to the floor, and striking a pose with his wine.
- Here comes the second most famous line in the poem: "Something for your poetry, no?" It's said with a sneer about the whole paltry project of poetry. For it's clear to him that she is not a political dignitary or shaper of history. Our speaker is just a poet. You can hear the sarcasm drip from his words.
- What's in his sneer too is the insinuation about poet's first response to an experience like this: "Oh, I better run home and write this down." But there's something to that, too. Because this experience did find its way into a poem. And what does that say about the speaker? Is this a kind of exploitation of others' suffering for her own gain?
- The irony of the colonel's statement echoes in several different directions. He insinuates that the poet and her work are mere trifles. Little did he know, though, how he would be portrayed in this poem forever. Of course, a man who collects severed ears could care less.
- Of course, we're not the only ones to hear these words. The ears, in a turn of personification, hear the colonel, too. Of course, that's not literally the case. By extension, we're shown that the people exterminated have the last word as the true witnesses to the colonel's crimes.
- Notice that the colonel's voice, earlier booming his profanity, is now described as a scrap, something flimsy and degraded. The ears of the dead are hearing what he says. They are not without consciousness or conscience, even in death. They've been reanimated, at least metaphorically.
- And some of these ears are actively pressing themselves to the ground in a figure of speech that means being aware of who and what are around you, to be informed about something, especially uncertainties and rumors…
- …which brings us back at the beginning again. Jump back up to top of the poem: everything you have heard (or read about here) is true. And that's perhaps the most chilling thing of all about this poem.