Thursday Poem: The Colonel by Carolyn Forché

This week’s entry is a famous poem, “The Colonel” by Carolyn Forché. I actually think I’ve read it before, a year or two ago perhaps, as one of the striking images toward the end had the resonance of familiarity, a kind of echo that said you know this already. 

Forché’s opening gambit addresses this idea of prior knowledge in the opening line:

WHAT YOU HAVE HEARD is true. I was in his house.

There is so very much to love about this sensational poem, this model of efficiency, but all of it comes back to this opening. The assumption that you already know the story sets the tone – one of confession and anticipation – then follows it with the physical scene, which immediately layers it with an ominous foreshadowing. Five little words: I was in his house. And you shudder, because we as a culture and a society know that spells worry, that spells violence – we know that story too well. In a sense, even though you likely come to the poem not actually knowing what the first line refers to, you find out as I did, that really you do, and this idea of what we’re conscious of hearing and what we choose not to remember plays out throughout the poem.

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.

Earlier, I used the word ‘confession’, but although that is implied by the first line, the more accurate term which is borne out by the style of the poem is reportage. This is a report, a statement, almost as if given in court, and this is very deliberate, coming from the poet who coined the term ‘poetry of witness.’ It helps that the story itself is a true one, this is non-fiction, but the journalistic element is only one of many skilfully employed here.

Note the short declarative lines, fleshing out innocuous domestic details to relieve the tension built in that first sentence, which then returns three lines later: ‘a pistol on the cushion beside him.’ It is a delicate dance, the weaving of tension, and Forché executes the steps perfectly. She never quite lets you forget it, though the reel of short precise details propels you so quickly along that it slides easily into the background. Then, of course, there is that gorgeous little line, and possibly my favourite of the lot: ‘the moon swung bare on its black cord over the house.’ The immediacy with which that brings to mind an image of a dinky black and white film, one we have all seen, is stunning. Just because she has adopted a plain reporting aesthetic does not mean she is incapable of peppering the scene with adroit descriptions, with beautiful imagery.

…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 colonel returned with a sack used to bring groceries
home. He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like
dried peach halves.

After several more excellent lines bringing the scene to life, we come to it here, the tension slowly ratcheting upward with as simple a moment as the colonel telling the parrot to shut up – it comes not just from the act itself as the revelation of his military status. Then, the grocery sack, another layer of domesticity and in it, the horror. It is the absence of horror, however, which is so striking in the scene, the ordinariness of the moment to him, and in the description. ‘They were like dried peach halves.’ That’s the line that rung bells in my head, that said you know this, and I did. There’s a lot to love, to admire about this exquisite poem but like all great poems, it is exemplified in the ending:

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.

Here, we come back to the idea of what we’ve heard prior to reading the poem, to what we know, consciously and subconsciously. To how we turn away, how we engage in a collective forgetting. Some of us, even disembodied and on the floor, still hear it, still witness it, and some of us have our ears pressed to the floor. Crucially, there is no judgment, just as there was no tangible horror, no emotive words, and it makes all the difference.

There is a lot of circuity in poetry, and it is a very popular belief that the ending should mirror the beginning, but I wouldn’t recommend it, personally — there is a risk of it being too neat, too contrived, and if you aim for it, that is often how it will turn out. I prefer a little ugliness, a rough cut, but then too there are times when it all comes together with a synergy as complete as this, and you just have to bow your head and say bravo (if the poem isn’t yours) and thank fuck, if it is.

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