The subject of the nefarious Colonel did not come up right away. First, there was more digestible dinner conversation in the hour before Carolyn Forche’s recent reading at the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival. Though she is known especially for exposing human rights violations, Carolyn recounted a very different phenomenon –a new form of, well, ghost writing.
She spent a summer in Italy at a castle where she and other writers and artists were invited to create new work. All was well there — a spectacular setting, exquisite food and wine, etc. — except for the awful business of the haunting. Weird things happened in Carolyn’s bedroom — particularly the covers of the bed flying up on their own. And when she mentioned it to the housekeeper, the woman covered her face and admitted that the palace had been the site of strange doings for centuries. None of the other occupants of the castle slept in such rooms. But then, if you were going to guess beforehand who would end up at the heart of the trouble, your money would be on the woman who, throughout her career, has gone out of her way to discover difficulties.
The more conventional Carolyn Forche conversation soon came ot the fore. She told us about a recent trip to Libya — a group of poets invited after the fall of Col. Gaddafi. After the revolution, the country remained a mess, and traveling through it was treacherous. Check points were everywhere, and there was no guarantee that a truckload of poets would be safe. On the other hand, Carolyn has never shied from dangerous situations, and proved helpful to her fellow travelers, who had not been instructed back in poetry school about how to charm revolutionaries. “Smile. Give them the victory sign. Or thumbs up.”
She found that though she has written volumes of stuff since she wrote one of her most famous pieces, what she calls a documentary poem, “The Colonel” several decades ago, that it was a work that her Libyan audiences wanted to hear. It wasn’t written about Gaddafi, but about a powerful colonel in El Salvador in the late 1970s. But to Libyans it was essence of their own late dictator.
In 1995, the last time she appeared at the Sunken Garden, Carolyn read the poem, and I never forgot it. Over dinner, I asked her, “Will you read it again tonight for us?” She had not at that point considered the idea. Like most writers, she was more interested in presenting new work — work she could try out on the Sunken Garden crowd at Hill-Stead, which she later called “the best poetry audience in the country.”
As it turned out, she did read the The Colonel. Partly because she agreed with her dinner companions that though it is about a despot in El Salvador in 1978 it’s really about now and, alas, about twenty years from now.
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.
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 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 fuck 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.