Yvette Siegert: “What You Have Not Heard: Reading and Writing with Carolyn Forché’s ‘The Colonel’”
This essay has been adapted from remarks presented at an AWP conference panel on March 25, 2022. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Chapultepec peace accords that ended the protracted civil war in El Salvador. I am grateful for the deep engagement and friendship that made this panel possible. There is joy and resilience in the act of gathering, whether virtually or in person, in order to inhabit a text and listen to one another.
I grew up in the United States, with a lot of my childhood spent in Mexico. I was born in 1981, the same year in which “The Colonel” was published in Carolyn Forché’s second poetry collection, The Country Between Us. Our family always seems to be on the move. My mother, born in El Salvador, studied in Honduras then migrated to the United States in 1968, while my father arrived from Colombia in 1956. Born in Los Angeles, I spoke Spanish first and learned English when I started school. Now I live in England, where I seem to confront my languages in a very different way. Crucial to the following close reading of the poem is the fact that Spanish is the language of my poetic expression, even though it hasn’t been the language of my publications. The set of tensions and complements between my two dominant languages is also a fundamental part of who I am as a reader and writer. The influence of Forché’s poem on my practice as a poet and translator is related to a central preoccupation of my life, which is to think about how we navigate between languages and trace their silences and power.
The signing of the peace accords, in 1992, was a landmark event and ceremony. I remember a sense of relief combined with exhaustion and skepticism. There is much to say about the political aftermath of that occasion, about impunity and questions that have never been answered; about those who are no longer with us but who haunt us still; and about the critical problems facing El Salvador under the authoritarian actions of its current president, Nayib Bukele (we are the same age, born two weeks apart). Instead of assessing the current situation directly, I hope that my reading of Forché’s poem will give insight into the ongoing need to think and write urgently about the pernicious consequences of not paying attention. Thirty years on, there is still much that needs to be grieved and much that needs to be remembered and written. To ignore the statements and dismiss the gestures of governments is something we do at our own peril.
I discovered “The Colonel,” and The Country Between Us, when I was about twenty-one, at the same time that I first read Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. This was during my undergraduate studies in New York City. It’s half a lifetime ago; I was beginning to write poems that I would then not be able to face for a long time, poems that will now appear in my debut collection next year. That spring, I wrote a poem to my deceased sister that ended, “Between us there is a footstool/And many countries.” The line was a nod to Forché’s book. The poem describes the quotidian objects of the house I grew up in, and how they carry the traces of a sister who never survived infancy. It was years before I could revisit that draft; I wasn’t ready for it. “The Colonel,” however, helped me access those memories, which, at the time, did not seem to have anything to do with la guerra. The collision of Forché and García Márquez was very important to my development as a bilingual American poet of Salvadoran and Colombian origin; now, as an immigrant becoming British and as a researcher writing about both García Márquez and El Salvador more deliberately, I find that the relation between the two texts has taken on new levels of meaning. Together this poem and this novel have helped me make sense of the paradoxes and unspoken traumas of my family history while giving me permission to write about this when I could no longer avoid the subject.
“The Colonel” gives an account of a domestic scene of horror in El Salvador from the viewpoint of a foreign guest. The first thing that occurs in the prose poem is that the speaker affirms the truth of what happened that evening, an indication of the widespread violence occurring in El Salvador at that time. It is an invocation, summoning the reader to an act of listening: what you have heard is true. The poem describes the objects in the house of a member of the military elite, the ‘villain’ of the poem, if you will. The speaker traces the papers, the fine food, a television, a parrot—all the ordinary trappings of a home in a vaguely tropical environment, a home whose inhabitants carry out familiar, mundane activities. There is no telltale detail that would identify the setting as El Salvador, however. The flora and fauna, the implicit translation between English and Spanish, and the references to the language of the cop show all suggest an unspecified Spanish American country with cultural ties to the United States. Yet without the rest of the collection, and without the poem’s afterlives, there is nothing that locates this scene within a specific geopolitical context. There are undertones of violence, of course. A pistol lies “on the cushion” next to the colonel, and while the domestic setting seems largely familiar on the inside, the house’s exterior is a weaponised space designed “to scoop the kneecaps from a man’s legs or cut his hands to lace.” Inspiring a combination of familiarity and fear, this is ultimately a house that is capable of deconstructing and destroying the human body. Within this setting, the poem then gives details of a tense dinner conversation, largely in indirect speech, and ends with the shock of the severed ears spilling out of “a sack used to bring groceries home.”
It’s the ears I always remember, and it’s the ears I will focus on here. Or rather, on the sense of hearing, which is central to the poem’s fascinating trajectory: We begin with hearing (what you have heard) and end with listening, or the lack thereof. Crucial to my experience of the poem is what does and does not get paid attention to in it.
I have approached “The Colonel” in many different ways. That is part of its provocation and power. Lately, however, I read “The Colonel” as both a reflection and a product of American imperialism. By this I mean several things. First, that it is written under the auspices of a humanitarian visit to El Salvador by an American who at the time lacked a formal background in the political situation on the ground. This is not unusual; it was the status quo, evident in such American-centric accounts as Joan Didion’s Salvador (1983), published only two years after The Country Between Us. Second, as an enunciation of authoritarian horror, the poem presents a speaker’s naïveté, their unsettled surprise at the banal familiarity of the colonel’s privileged domestic life. He and his family eat and do and watch similar things as the poem’s readers might. As if, just because he is a ‘villain’, it could be any different.
Another way in which the poem reveals its imperialist origins goes back to the question of geography. Even as the poem gives account of a scene of violence taking place in El Salvador, the location is still presented as an undifferentiated space. The poem is written largely for a white English-speaking audience with little knowledge of Latin America. The presumably American cop show blaring in the background, in English, is introduced to appeal to this audience. There is no wrestling with the explicit and implicit presence of American military and cultural exports, of American political responsibility, in the conflict of which the colonel becomes the barbaric representative. American forces and American money of course funded the Salvadoran military’s operations during the civil war. But the cop show is left as a curious detail. In other words, we can mentally rehearse the cop show, we can hear the TV dialogue and sirens without really listening to what their presence implies. The novelty of its familiarity—the presence of English in that room, echoing the English spoken (in translation?) by the colonel—haunts me. The fact that the program in question is a cop show, a form of entertainment that presents crime and punishment at a safe distance or remove, is also important. What you have not heard is important, too. For the casual viewer who keeps the TV on while preparing dinner, an account of a war crime, like a police car chase, appears within the same safe confines of a television screen. Like the commercials, it is something that blares in the background; it is something that can be ignored.
I do not question Forché’s speaker’s right to give account as they saw it, but I do long for accompaniments to this account, to a documentary poetics with less-mediated voices giving testimony. I long for poems with a greater self-critical gaze. With a speaker unable to confront their own implication in the devastation described, “The Colonel” has a kind of moral ambiguity at its core. This is evident in the final imagery, too. We do not really know what the ears at the end are doing—if they’re listening to the ground, to its portents, or turning away from the scene. It frustrates me that this is the poetic perspective that still defines the extent of many English-language readers’ experience of the Salvadoran civil war—not just in the U.S., but also here in the U.K. I do not expect (or want) poems to be newspaper stories, but I do want poems about the conflict that push beyond humanitarian tourism in order to recognise their own limits and complicity. And in saying this I recognise my own frustrated and frustrating outsider status as a diasporic Salvadoran writer who can claim scholarly knowledge of Morazán, my mother’s region, but no direct experience of it. In 2011, I myself visited the country for the first time, as a journalist for a magazine, for a story on a commercial topic. The experience of being there, of hearing what the poet Amada Libertad calls “la dicción de mi tierra” (“the speech of my people”) was so overwhelming that I could not do my job properly, only perform tasks in a state of blurry stupor. My ears rang; I felt mute.
There is a part of me that really wants the speaker of “The Colonel” to say Look at what we’re complicit in. Look at what we don’t understand. Look at it and really listen. This horror is happening, and we are a part of it. Listen, even though I know many of us can’t, or won’t. But the poem does not do that. Maybe it does not have to. I long to turn the page from this collection to read other poems of this conflict and its difficult afterlives—and I want them to contain the voices of Salvadorans, in all the languages of our experience.
Because if the speaker-poet is complicit, then, by extension, so too is the listener-reader who reads—or reads aloud—the lyric I. If the speaker and reader are products of American imperialism, then I am, too, and I see it as part of my work as a poet and translator to interrogate and wrestle with this. Here I am taking my cue from poets like the Colombian writer Piedad Bonnett, whose work I translate, and whose poems sustain their documentation of political violence with a deep, searching intellectual rigour and humility about a writer’s or reader’s implication in that violence. And here again I think of Amada Libertad, whom I also translate. Amada, who was killed in combat in El Salvador, in 1991, a year before the peace accords, at the age of twenty-one. Amada, who left us poems that offer first-hand accounts of the war: “Padezco de pueblo,” she writes, “y aún así, vuelo a cafetales / para construirte desde el silencio /una Biblia, Pueblo.” [“I’m sick with my people,/but even so I fly to the coffee farms/to forge from the silence/a scripture for you, my people.”]
I often think of the colonel’s weaponized house. And it’s always linked for me with One Hundred Years of Solitude, which was initially a manuscript titled La Casa, or The House. Reading them together again has led me to start writing house-shaped and house-centred poems in response. In my poem “Late Antiquity,” for example., I couldn’t stop thinking about the accumulation of generations of objects in a house on the brink of devastation. The poem is a grieving inventory of my grandparents’ house in Morazán, which was bombed and destroyed in the war. It is a house whose ruins are still there, a house that I’ve not seen but that occupies my thoughts on a daily basis.
Here is the truth: preparing these notes, away from family, and without the scholarly materials I usually turn to, is unexpectedly emotional. My relationship to “The Colonel” has layers whose contradictions and intensity I sustain, and am intent on examining, as a writer. The poem gave me access to El Salvador. That was a gift. But I also get deeply angry by its political ambiguity and complex naiveté. And I am profoundly and irrevocably envious of the speaker. Not because I would question what the speaker declares to be true, but rather because the circumstances of that testimony give the speaker access to a country I am always in the process of losing. It is therefore a poem that stands in for incredible loss and the inarticulate gaps of exile and trauma and diaspora. I selfishly grieve the poem for its intrusion in a place where I could not be. And yet…it makes me mindful of the slippery nuances of complicity and gratitude and empire.
In analyzing styles of book reviewing, Sita Bailani and Jay Bernard question a critical lens that challenges a text to be something that it is clearly not meant to be. They call this the Why is this fish not a duck? school of criticism. We later agreed on an occasion when this criticism might, in fact, be useful. I rephrase the question as a statement: This fish points to a need for the presence of ducks in the ecosystem. For as much as “The Colonel” dissatisfies me, it also points to the need for other poems that give account of the civil war and its afterlives. All this is why I continue to write alongside it, against it, in conversation with other poets, out of a longing to draw closer to what Claribel Alegría and Alexandra Lytton Regalado call la matria—and even though, or because, I sometimes wish “The Colonel” were a different poem altogether.
Maryam Ivette Parhizkar: “In the Negative Space of Witness”
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”