Mayram Ivette Parhizkar: “In the Negative Space of Witness”
Carolyn Forché’s “The Colonel” is a work that, for me, filled some silence. It is a poem I can best describe as puncturing. Writing as poet, reporter, documentarian, witness, the author’s rupture of any expectations of elevated language with a plain, almost self-indicting statement: “What you have heard is true. I was in his house.” Proceeding with the details of a man’s banal home life intertwined with his boorish, matter-of-fact cruelty, no moment punctures more than its last ten lines, in which Forché describes the colonel scattering a sack of human ears before his guests at the dinner table. This is where elevated language fails before it is written: the colonel offering his violence as poetic subject matter, present at the table. “Something for your poetry, no?” If the description of the ears, imagined as having “caught the scrap of his voice,” conveys a poetic sense of presence, it is overshadowed by all that proceeds it. Not once have I read this poem not wondering who those ears belonged to, if their owners had survived, what their names were, what they had done for to receive this fate. Their troublingly anonymous truth.
In the introduction to her 1993 anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness, Forché describes “poetry of witness” as inhabiting a space between the “personal and political”—what she calls “the social.” She writes: “A poem that calls on us from the other side of a situation of extremity cannot be judged by simplistic notions of ‘accuracy’ or ‘truth to life.’ It will have to be judged, as Ludwig Wittgenstein said of confessions, “by its consequences, not by our ability to verify its truth.” End quote. The poem must be judged, then, by its consequences.
Without discounting the impact of those poetic consequences in the U.S., I cannot help but question my social relationship to “The Colonel.” If—as Forché later writes in Against Forgetting, in reference to Walter Benjamin—a poem can be both the trace of a traumatic event and a traumatic event unto itself, which a reader must enter willingly, I am left thinking about what to do with this inheritance as a U.S. reader, alongside my inheritance of Salvadoran diasporic silences.
Though most of my Salvadoran family members left the country during the war—most of them young women at the time—it was never mentioned explicitly during my childhood, and only existed in vague allusions to scenes and experiences of violence. For the longest time it was my private humiliation that came to understood it as a college student, when I read the literature of white women—Forché, Joan Didion—who bore witness to it in their writing. I imagine such experiences are common for many of U.S. children of Salvadorans who grew up in the first decades after the war: our knowledge of that history emerges not from our loved ones, but from others. As Salvadoran diaspora scholar Leisy Abrego has written, many of us learn to fill the silences among our loved ones to the best extent that we can, with whatever is available.
I have been to El Salvador three times in my life. Twice, very early in my childhood, and the last time, in adulthood, now nearly a decade ago. What I have found, in trying to put together those memories into poetry, is that it is impossible to document them in poems without the inflection of what I have learned about its war-era and postwar history without asking family members—and with a hesitance to ask, out of concern for opening difficult memories without their consent. I have come to conceptualize this in relation to the idea of negative space—the seemingly unfilled space between objects in a visual composition. How does the unspeakable, or difficult-to-speak, live inside the quotidian memories that seemed, as a child visitor, quieted? Tamped down? I do not entirely trust my memory, now so impressed upon by a history not first told by Salvadorans, but by U.S. Americans who bore witness to it. But perhaps more strongly, it is shaped by my mother’s photographs of that time—gestures among family members, the expression on their faces, the juxtaposition of pleasure and seriousness.
I will close by including a poem of my own. In 1993, a year after the signing of the Chapultepec Peace Accords, I visited San Miguel with my mother for the second time in my life, at six years old. It is the first visit we made after the war’s formal end. It was the last time I would see my grandmother alive. I have worked painstakingly to make sense of those childhood memories in their historical moment in time in what I can only describe—to invoke Forché’s term—as “documentary poems.” These poems live in the negative space of others’ witnessing—dwelling on familial intimacy, they attempt to honor both the traces of what I know and do not, cannot know at this point in time. How does one preserve tenderness in the aftermath of a traumatic event? How does one mark tenderness after a willful dwelling in historical wounding?
The poem is called “1993.”
That summer I watched her kill a chicken in San Rafael Oriente.
She’d held me to her chest that morning—our weight suspended in ropes blue & yellow
beside a modest adobe house earthen floors & amnesty dollars.
I stood by her in the lower register of our mutual quiet watched a shower of soft body down
fall from the animal in her grasp.
She’d held me as she held my book—a picture book called madeline. Not reading but speaking
beside them—twelve little girls in two straight lines—scanned beneath her finger.
In the matter of fact the bird yielded itself to hands above her basin.
Of its consumption I have no memory—only of smells in the folds of her skirt—flesh
salt & sharpness queso duro in a garden bed of mauve feathered roses.
In a picture we are her perimeter—children all drenched in kiddie pool leisure.
Girls adorned in tropical flowers. One of our hands is touching her hand.
A gunpowder gate surrounded us in the home of my mother’s mother that summer.
It took me years of her absence to learn: Maria. Isabel. No. Both at once.
The poem "1992" originally appeared in Issue 6 of the print journal Oversound.
William Archila: “Reflections on “The Colonel,” A Poem of Witness”
Alexandra Lytton Regalado: “There’s Room At The Table”
Claudia Castro Luna: “The Colonel: Thirty Years Later”
Yvette Siegert: “What You Have Not Heard: Reading and Writing with Carolyn Forché’s ‘The Colonel’”