Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
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.
- The details are beginning to accumulate, to create a pointed picture, especially with the broken bottles embedded in the walls. This colonel is under a state of siege, or thinks he is, anyway. In case you couldn't picture it, our speaker supplies the visceral image of a man's kneecaps scooped out and his hands in tatters. Eesh.
- With this, the poem broaches the physical, the gory. It may seem pretty, but lace here is used as a metaphor to describe how finely cut someone's hands would be if they tried to climb over the wall.
- In the balance of property and physical harm, you can guess which the colonel values more highly. We haven't even seen this man yet, but already we've begun to form an impression of who and what he is. Let's just say, if you're selling Girl Scout cookies, you might want to skip his house.
[…] 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.
- This sounds like it could be an evening's entry in a travel journal. Okay, maybe the windows have gratings like in liquor stores, but that's no different from a ground floor apartment in Manhattan, is it? Nothing yet screams weirdness. Dinner actually sounds sumptuous with the lamb, wine, and even a gold bell for the maid. It's true not many people have maids these days. That just shows you this colonel is a rich and important guy in an otherwise poor country.
- The language in this section is so flat, though, you can't help wondering what's going to jump out. It's almost like a bas relief. When everything lies low like this, even a slight ridge will stand out. The food that's described is merely listed. The mangoes with salt and "a type of bread" hints at a kind of foreignness, but it's bare of any adjectives.
- In fact, this whole section is just a series of short, to-the-point sentences. The events appear in a list, too, much like the food. As such, there's this feeling of disembodiment. Think of the line, "I was asked how I enjoyed the country." Was Forché absent from English class the day they told you that the passive tense should be avoided? The effect of a line like that keeps us from seeing the colonel. Surely he's the one who did the asking, but he's not mentioned.
- Instead, we learn that the speaker "was asked."
- The colonel's almost like the Wizard of Oz, behind a curtain of secrecy. Why does Forché wait so long for him to make his big entrance? Apart from building the suspense, maybe she wants us to think of how remote he is from the real dirty work of the war. Think about the warlords who direct death squads. With one word, the deed is done, just like that. But those in power never have to dirty their hands, or even leave their dinner tables.
- Now to contrast the cop show in English, we have a commercial in Spanish. What does that tell you about rank and social conditions? Only the short interruptions are broadcast in Spanish, while the main show is reserved for English.
- Also, what's up with the wife doing the clearing? They have a maid, but the wife still has to take everything, giving us an idea of the place women have in this society.