William Logan on Carolyn Forché’s “The Colonel"
Carolyn Forché’s “The Colonel” immediately catches the eye as one flips through the average poetry anthology. In the middle of couplets, tercets, and oddly-lined stanzas appears a small, tight block of text, like a brick wall in the midst of a field. The poem was written in 1978 while Forché was working for Amnesty International in El Salvador, and recounts a brutal encounter with its title character. The Colonel is a hard man in a violent world, and he cares not for the rights of the people he governs nor the fact that he is exposing his evil nature to a poet: as he says, “Something for your poetry, no?” (21). The poem reinforces this effect through its stark irony and short poetic flourishes, its outer appearance, and the length and terseness of its sentences. The Colonel is about as subtle and friendly as a brick wall, and thus the poem about him looks like one. The intent of the “The Colonel” is to describe the nature of this brutal man, and the structure of the poem is likewise brutal on the eyes and ears.
“The Colonel” is narrated by Forché in the first person. “What you have heard is true. I was in his house” (1). The poem begins somewhat disarmingly by describing the Colonel’s seemingly normal family: he has a wife who serves Forché coffee and sugar, a daughter who files her nails, and a son who has gone out for the night. The scene is quite domestic, and one might never know that one is in El Salvador in the home of a butcher.
If the intent of the poem is to shock, it first soothes us with a feeling of homeiness: “There were daily papers, pet dogs, a pistol on the cushion beside him” (3). Pistol on the cushion? We weren’t expecting that one. The scene quickly gets darker as the shadow of the Colonel and his violent nature falls over the happy home. “The moon swung bare on its black cord over the house” (4). This is a clear foreshadowing of the man as a torturer and murder. A cop show in English is on the television, showing the Colonel as a man who can speak the international language and is presumably aware of what he is and that he will be seen for what he is. The poem goes on to stress that he doesn’t care, and is quite at home with violence: “Broken bottles were / embedded in the walls around the house to scoop the kneecaps from a / man’s legs or cut his cut his hands to lace” (5-7). What kind of designer places broken bottles into walls?
The irony of “The Colonel” is reinforced after things rapidly deteriorate after a brief return to normal. Forché is treated to a sumptuous dinner and interesting table conversation: they feast on rack of lamb, good wine, bread, and green mangoes. They discuss the country and the problems of its governance, and are served by a maid summoned by a golden bell. A parrot contributes its pleasantries to the scene, but suddenly the Colonel tells it to shut up and leaves the room. From here the poem becomes a direct and chilling horror show:
The colonel returned with a sack used to bring groceries home. He spilled
many human ears onto 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 into a water glass. It came alive there. (15-18 )
“The Colonel” contains few obvious poetic devices, purporting to be a plain, journalistic report of a true event. When one appears, it bears careful study: “They were like dried peach halves,” is the only simile in the poem, and Forché uses it to make the stark image come to life for us, as the ears do in water. The simile catches the poet struggling with expression, with the shock and horror of the scene. She literally can find no other way to say what she must, so she resorts to what might seem an inappropriate image in such a grim context. Yet the mention of peach halves echoes the use of mangoes earlier, and along with the parrot reinforces the beautiful tropical setting in which all these ugly events are playing out. Thus, Forché’s simile is another form of her use of ironic contrast to shock the reader with the Colonel’s brutality.
Another conspicuous poetic device in the midst of Forché’s hard, blank prose is the repetition of “some” in the last three lines. “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” (21-23). The repetition forces us to read the prose as poetry, and if these lines are scanned they are found to be almost perfectly anapestic. This compresses the rhythm just as the ears hit the ground, as they are shut off from sound in one last killing act by the Colonel. However, the two intonations of “Some of the ears” bring a song-like ending to this prose poem, creating a sudden hole at the bottom of the poem’s wall, through which a little life yet flows: some of the ears can still hear, someone, such as Forché, will always remain to bear witness to any atrocity. This poetic aspect points to poetry’s role as the recorder of deeds, shown by the sudden lapse of the poem’s flat diction into a flowing cadence.
In addition to the poem’s internal devices, “The Colonel” makes heavy use of its visual impact on the page to present the defiant visage of the Colonel and his violence. The poem is short, being only twenty-three lines long, if one chooses to count its blocky structure as lineated. It even seems unusual to count the lines in this poem, as they are arranged like neither a normal stanza nor a paragraph. This poem could be called journalistic prose, but it is not indented either. Its appearance in fact fits into no category, its only resemblance being to a square, a wall, a slab of stone, or a monolith. When read, this appearance recreates the unforgiving face that one imagines on the Colonel as he says “I am tired of / fooling around…As for the rights of anyone, tell your people they / can go fuck themselves” (18-20). The poem is itself the hard chunk of its subject’s heart, dropped uncaringly onto the page. If “The Colonel” had been broken into tercets of long lines, this effect would have been softened. Therefore the outer appearance of the poem is a crucial element of its thematic purpose.
If “The Colonel” is a brick wall, each of its sentences must be bricks. This is exactly the case, as we see from the short, choppy statements which dominate the poem from its first lines:
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, her son went out for the
night. There were daily papers, pet dogs, a pistol on the cushion beside
We have already seen that what these sentences say sets up the ironic twists of the poem, but they bear further examination for what their sound and image accomplish. They set the staccato rhythm that dominates, which sounds like a typewriter or a machine gun. This again brings in the associations with journalism and violence that the poem plays on. “On the television was a cop show. It was in English.” The speaker sounds as if she was on the verge of stuttering, or her teeth were chattering in fear. This highlights the tension that pervades the poem, even when what is being described is not harsh and almost mundane. The poem’s sound grates and rattles, setting us on edge and causing us to read quickly, almost inhaling the lines in our suspense. Within lines commas break the sound into even smaller bricks of sound. The longest lines are those which detail some uncomfortably violent image, as if to trip us into the broken bottles projecting from the walls and scoop out our kneecaps or lacerate our hands. The poem’s sound smoothes out slightly near the end, as the poem works into its unexpectedly fluent closing “couplet,” as if providing a little music to soothe both the severed ears and our own. On the whole though, “The Colonel” is a jarring blurt of short, fast sentences which scream out their horrific story.
The visual appearance of these sentences has a similar effect on our eyes. Looked at as a whole, the poem seems to be a black rock on the page that lets out little light. Seen up close it appears to be made of bricks of hard fact that sit dully within the poem’s hard façade. Each tiny detail: the tray of coffee and sugar, the daughter filing her nails, the papers, the pet dogs, the pistols, etc. has it own niche in the wall. Visually as well aurally, the poem breaks its discrete details into units which drag us in the immediacy of the scene quickly and don’t prepare us for the shock of what is about to happen. In every way, “The Colonel” tries to thrust us into its big, dramatic image. It wants to almost rub our faces in the image of the ears, and both its sound and appearance set up that gut-punching shock which reveals so unambiguously the nature of the Colonel. “The Colonel” is a visual and verbal mugging.
“The Colonel,” upon close examination, shows itself to be not only a poem but one that makes extensive use of a host of effects, internal and external, to produce the feeling of stunned horror that it leaves us with. By means of irony, the concise use of simile, repetition, and metrical effects, as well a driving rhythm and a stony appearance, the poem brings us face to face with its horrible villain and his callus disdain for the human lives he commands and the young American poet he wishes to use to deliver his stern message. To read “The Colonel” is to sit with Forché in the thick, fearful atmosphere of that house, to eat the lamb, drink the wine, taste the mangoes and see a sack of ears spill out onto a table.
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