by Carolyn Forché
The Colonel Theme of Warfare
From the pistol on the pillow to the knee-gouging broken glass surrounding the place, you know this isn't your usual dinner party. The United States' role in El Salvador's civil war—a conflict that claimed thousands of lives between 1978 and 1992—makes the meeting between these Americans and their warlord host all the more tense. In "The Colonel," violence is just under the surface of the cordiality. You don't normally think of a dinner table as a theater of operations, but make no mistake: there's a battle being waged. The gruesome practice of collecting war trophies has a history longer than you probably want to know. Here it shows the kind of sicko in command of this country's wholesale slaughter.
Questions About Warfare
- Do you need to know about Salvadoran history to recognize this as a poem about the violence of war? Why do you think so?
- Where in the poem does the speaker identify the colonel as a villain from the beginning, without saying so outright?
- Why do you think the speaker accepted the invitation to eat with the colonel in the first place?
- If you could ask him directly, how do you think the colonel would defend his actions? What parts of the poem give you that idea?
Chew on This
Poetry can be a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down. Here, the figurative language of the poem makes terrible things like violence and amputation easier to bear.
Sure, "The Colonel" may do a good job getting its point across, but poetry is not the place for politics. It turns an art form into an opinion column.