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The Colonel by Carolyn Forche talks about how communist governments disregard people’s lives and how important it is for the United States to look into and question these authorities. In this poem, the speaker describes their encounter with the colonel to illustrate to the reader both, the extent of American influence in this faraway land and the Colonel’s ignorance of human rights.
About The Poet
Carolyn Forché, a poet, educator, and activist, was born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1950. She has observed, thought about, and expressed in poetry some of the most tragic events in twentieth-century world history. Forché joins the ranks of great poets because of her ability to marry the “political” and the “personal,” according to Joyce Carol Oates in the New York Times Book Review.
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, his son went out for the night. There were daily papers, pet dogs, a pistol on the cushion beside him. The moon swung bare on its black cord over the house. On the television was a cop show. It was in English
The speaker declares right away in the opening paragraph that any stories the reader may have heard about her meeting with the “colonel” are true. Along with his wife, daughter, and son, she was at his home. He has daily newspapers and pets, and his kids behave exactly like other kids do.
“Papers,” “pet,” and “pistol” are also a part of his household. She talks about how the “moon” glided across the landscape and how a cop show was playing inside. The poet described the cop show with the phrase “It was in English.”
Broken bottles were embedded in the walls around the house to scoop the kneecaps from a man's legs or cut his hands to lace. On the windows there were gratings like those in liquor stores. We had dinner, rack of lamb, good wine, a gold bell was on the table for calling the maid. The maid brought green mangoes, salt, a type of bread. I was asked how I enjoyed the country. There was a brief commercial in Spanish. His wife took everything away. There was some talk then of how difficult it had become to govern. The parrot said hello on the terrace. The colonel told it to shut up, and pushed himself from the table. My friend said to me with his eyes: say nothing.
The poem becomes violent in the following two lines. Anyone who dares to cross the colonel will be mutilated by bottles hidden in the walls. There were gratings on the windows that resembled those at liquor stores. A gold bell for calling the maid was on the table when they had dinner, which included lamb racks and fine wine. The maid brought some bread, salt, and green mangoes.
She describes how someone asked her how she liked the nation. There was a brief Spanish commercial. After that, everything was taken by his wife. The colonel becomes furious after hearing the parrot talking from the porch about how difficult running a country is. The poet and her friend understand when to keep silent.
The colonel returned with a sack used to bring groceries home. He spilled many human ears on 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 it into a water glass. It came alive there. I am tired of fooling around he said. As for the rights of anyone, tell your people they can go fu-ck them- selves. He swept the ears to the floor with his arm and held the last of his wine in the air. 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.
He gets up and returns with a grocery bag, and the two remain silent. He pours human ears onto the table from it. This is a startling turn in the poem that really captures the character of the man who was only moments earlier enjoying a nice meal while watching TV. Human ears are compared to “dry peach halves” by the speaker.
This contrast is unsettling. The colonel waves one of their ears in their faces and then drops it into a water glass out of pure rage. It “came alive” there. The speaker and her friend are yelled at by the colonel, who orders them and their “people” to “go fu-ck themselves.” Then, in a fit of rage, he hurls the ears to the ground.
She explains how some of the people’s ears were crushed to the ground, preventing them from hearing the colonel’s screams, while others were facing up and able to hear them. These sentences can be interpreted as a metaphor for those who “hear” the atrocities occurring in El Salvador and those who choose to remain silent.