William Archila: “Reflections on ‘The Colonel,’ A Poem of Witness”


“The Colonel” was one of the first poems of witness I ever read. It was definitely the first prose poem I ever encountered. It was in the 90s, in a UCLA writer’s workshop for beginners. I had just won a PEN Award for emerging voices and one of the perks of the program was to take a course at UCLA. I remember the Xerox copy with the name Carolyn Forché and I soon realized it was the same name of the translator of Claribel Alegría’s Flowers from the Volcano.

“The Colonel” is one of the most well-known contemporary poems about the civil war in El Salvador written by a non-Salvadoran. The poem is an example of an experience that happened to Forché in 1978 while she visited the country before the civil war exploded, before the death of Monseñor Romero. It has an objective tone; it’s very journalistic, straightforward. The poem works like a camera in a documentary, and it reminds me of the Alegría poem “Documentary” in which the poem invites the reader to become a camera in the hands of the poem’s narrator, who speaks as a documentary film director.

In “The Colonel,” the camera is not aimed inward but outward. The speaker does not talk about her own emotions. Instead, she focuses on the ears on the ground. It’s a documentary poem without any seam between the personal and the political.

Once during my MFA in Oregon, when I was under the illusion that I was doing academic work, reading The Witness of Poetry by Czeslaw Milosz, I came across the quote: “I think it was the German philosopher Theodor Adorno who said that, after the Holocaust, poetry is impossible,” which basically means to write poems in a time of atrocities is to participate in a culture capable of such atrocities. I don’t quite agree, but it does bring up the question: is poetry enough? Is it enough to counter the task of confronting the extreme conditions of the world? Is “The Colonel” enough? Are the poems Claribel Alegría wrote enough? Are the poems we are writing enough? I know “The Colonel” didn’t stop the war, but it does provide documentation of the war, of dissent, of outrage, of solidarity with Alegría’s desire to stop the war of her beloved country. I know Forché did her political work to stop the war with her readings and talks throughout the country trying to build an opposition to support the Salvadoran dictatorship. Regardless, the poem brings up questions about the role of the poet. Is it enough to be a poet during such atrocities or must one be also an activist?

“The Colonel” also proposes a possible inner conflict to the reader—: which actions are redeemable? The actions of the person who tortures or the actions of those who make celebrity out of reportage? The question is an unfair as it may be as obvious to ask. Many twentieth-century journalists, photographers, and reporters made their careers out of taking photographs during major wars, as in Vietnam or Warsaw, so the question is not at all out of proportion. This can also be applied to poets. It’s not a question of craft but a question of timing & intention. The interesting aspect of the poem is the poet’s ability to put herself on the line to display this dilemma. Is she responsible as well? Is she only trying to help stop the suffering of these people by informing others so that they might see this injustice, and hopefully affect the actions of her fellow U.S. citizens who can maybe influence their government to stop supporting the right-wing party in El Salvador? We know Forché did her activist work in the 1980s, but we also know this country’s regard for its poets.

The very opening of “The Colonel” says “[w]hat you have heard is true.” It attracts the reader’s attention to question what they have heard. It is a direct attempt to address the U.S. citizens who are witnessing the war through the newspapers or TV. The employment of the ears as means of communication is the reason why the opening is framed with ears: the “hearing” at the opening of the poem becomes associated with the ears that in the poem’s close are scattered on the floor, which  suggests the different outcomes for what happens to those who listen in El Salvador, and what happens to those who listen in the U.S. The difference is being alive. These ears of the tortured victims become poetry for the witness poet. After the colonel swept the ears to the floor, he says, “Something for your poetry, no?” As much as the colonel is wrong about his actions, unfortunately, his comment on the ears is right. The colonel understands the role of poetry in times of crisis. He himself has crushed the poets of his country. The ears on the floor probably belong to one of the poets. In his reality, poetry is a threat that can be stopped.

When I first got hold of the landmark anthology Against Forgetting I learned about the poetry of witness and poets like Paul Celan, Bertolt Brecht, Miguel Hernandez, Etheridge Knight, Yusef Komunyakaa and others. The anthology starts with the Armenian Genocide and proceeds through the twentieth century to the pro-democratic demonstrations in China. In its pages you begin to understand that poetry of witness is not political poetry as in ideological poetry with a message, such as kill the king, hang the president or Yankee go home. It’s not a political pamphlet, but the work of poets who have endured hard conditions and suffering in the 20th century; through exile, state censorship, political persecution, house arrest, torture, imprisonment, military occupation, warfare, and assassination. It is writing that is marked emotionally, psychologically, spiritually by these kinds of experiences and suffering. There’s a need in the aftermath to write about the endurance and to speak for others, to speak for the great dead. It’s work that is necessary and urgently needs to be written.

In the aftermath of the civil war in El Salvador I had a need to write, and “The Colonel” became a teacher in many ways. It taught me to break away from many of the rules I had learned in beginning writing workshops: avoid repetitive sentence structure, avoid declarative sentences, avoid simple sentences. There’s no metaphorical language, no poetic language, except for the “moon swung bare on its black cord over the house.” Also, the fact that the poem is objective and shows hardly any emotion taught me a lot about the role of the speaker in a poem. When dealing with graphic material, I learned to concentrate on detail and description. No emotion. Be cold. This is still a very hard task to accomplish.

“The Colonel” is a poem of witness because it focuses on the human rights violations in El Salvador, but most importantly because it has revealed the ways in which a tragic event such as a civil war can leave a mark upon the imagination. It also brought me consolation at a time when I felt hurt in the aftermath of the civil war, when I finally realized that here was an American voice coming from the same country that exploited my own and she was recognizing my countrymen’s plight. Today it reminds me of the complexities of my safety and comfort in living in this country. It also caught my attention because it’s a poem without being a poem and that’s a trick hard to pull off. It gave me the courage to tell my own story in English.

William Archila is the author of The Art of Exile (International Latino Book Award) and The Gravedigger’s Archaeology (Letras Latinas/Red Hen Poetry Prize). His poems have appeared in Poetry Magazine, AGNI, American Poetry Review, Conjunctions, The Missouri Review, and Prairie Schooner. His work is also forthcoming in Pleiades, Dialogist, and The Los Angeles Review. He lives in Los Angeles, on Tongva land.