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Her cursed prose poem, "The Colonel," stalks readers with dead, severed ears. "One evening," she relates in terrible witness, "I dined with a military officer who toasted America, private enterprise, Las Vegas, and the 'fatherland' until his wife excused herself and in a drape of cigar smoke the events of 'The Colonel' took place. Almost a poeme trouve, I had only to pare down the memory and render it whole, unlined and as precise as recollection would have it" (APR 1981). Such an unspeakable moment, selected from personal history, is a witnessing check poem. "Simply to keep watch over life," the political historian Terrence Des Pres wrote, as Forche records his search for the lost home in "Ourselves or Nothing."

The word "colonel," from the Latin for "little column," designates a midrank, upright officer (vertically at attention) in the field. It is suspiciously close, byway of the ear, to "colonial," which derives otherwise from the Latin for "farmer." Forche's little column of words, "The Colonel," carries the news as a kind of freelance prose poem from a Latin American colonial home—straight from the mouth of a military bureaucrat with a gun on the "cushion" beside him (the privilege of terrorism). Suburban order is the flag of the generic Colonel's family: "his wife" clearing the table, "his son" going out for the night, "his daughter" filing her nails. The "pet dogs" complete this domestic coven, all-in-the-family conventional, proper and expected, but for the gun on the pillow.

"WHAT YOU HAVE HEARD is true," the rectangular block of an alleged poem, among six other lineated texts about El Salvador, opens with hushed confirmation. Beginning with full capitals, the first four words could pass for a legal brief or diplomatic report manque (Forche was serving as cultural diplomat on a Guggenheim, The Country Between Us her report to the people). This report is different. It does not look like or sound like a poem, at first, more a newspaper column—flatly descriptive, factual, reportorial. All this changes. The whispers of unspeakable rumor, the conspiratorial fears of oppression, the underground gossip of the streets leak through her reportorial column like small gusts of breath. A factual, mid-level diction breaks with maximal stress the need to tell all, in plain style disbelief and passionately embedded inscription. Hers is an anti-art that is an art of timed witness and indirect revelation. In journalistic wraps of the daily news, justified between margins, the lines carry a tone of clinical horror, echoes of controlled terror: all in the name of decency and diplomatic taste, Pentecostal "rack of lamb, good wine," and hemispheric trade. "His wife carried a tray of coffee and sugar."

The Colonel's violence is institutionalized with broken bottles cemented into the walls (to "scoop" a man's "kneecaps," the voice edges toward bloodshed, or "cut his hands to lace," nervously questioning terrorist art). More colloquially, the Colonel's windows are grated "like those in liquor stores." Martial law rules this neighborhood. A "gold bell" calls "the maid," and "The maid" (in repetitious servility) brings green mangoes, salt, bread—all uniform, all in order, all "his" orders, a man-made, emotionless, down-home horror under middle-class cushion. A TV cop-show in English imports American greed and violence, the commercial in Spanish capitalizes the local margin. What will happen? the reader wonders. How will this piece work out?

Metric line breaks are embedded in the syntax, curiously disguised not to look like poetry. The lines internally break into hymnal or ballad measure (five, times in tetrameter, "His wife took everything away"), blank verse (sixteen times in pentameter, "The moon swung bare on its black cord over the house"), and Homeric meter (seven times in hexameter, '"There were daily papers, pet dogs, a pistol on the cushion beside him"), only three lines in strictly "free" verse, three to seven beats. Sibilant hissing rhymes interlace the metric sentence endings ("house, English, house, lace, stores, Spanish, terrace, this, faces, themselves, voice") .Within the closing lines, the monosyllables "sack, ears, halves, hands, glass, rights, ears, last, ears, scrap, ears" and "pressed" siphon their vowels into a cluster of atrocities carried home as "groceries." Forche is much more of a poet, or anti-poet, than she lets on here. Her hidden rhymes and rhythms (both words from Greek rhythmus, as mentioned, meaning "flow") conceal the art of conspiratorial witness, the designs of a hushed poetics. "Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—" Dickinson cautioned, "Success in Circuit lies" (no.1129) .The off-poetic disguise is essential. How can she be an aesthete in witness of the horror? How can Forche appear to be ordering her lines, to be measuring her steps, to be decorating her images, in the face of the Colonel's controlled madness, his butchering orders? This paterfamilias finds it difficult "to govern" these days, to order his household, to keep the margins justified, to muzzle the press, to silence the cries of the disappeared. "Hello," the parrot parrots on the terrace, and the Colonel tells it to "shut up." The poet's co-witness, "my friend" (separate from household pawns), says "with his eyes: say nothing." Timing is all here, the slowly detailed opening, the building of tension with the pistol, glass, and grating, then more swiftly, the pressure of breaking open consciousness through undercurrent and sustained release of detail—all in the steadily mounting expectation of a narrative worthy of Chekhov. The poet goes subversive. "She dealt her pretty words like Blades—" Dickinson wrote, "How glittering they shone— / And every One unbared a Nerve / Or wantoned with a Bone—" (no.479).

So the Colonel brings out his grocery sack of ears, as casually as any collector might produce his stamps or chloroformed butterflies. "He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like / dried peach halves. There is no other way to say this." This cannot be said right, the subversive poet knows, no way except by way of a horribly failed speech, a terribly wrong image—"like dried peach halves"—the unspeakably excoriated simile. Language cannot bear this violence. The word "ear" disappears uncannily in the word "disappear." The disappeared bodies go earless, this wretched simile our evidence that they heard, but did not heed the Colonel's orders. Poetry is hopeless. Metaphor strains, words fail, the imagination shuns the truth, "—An Omen in the Bone / Of Death's tremendous nearness" (Dickinson, no.532).

Yet one ear "came alive" in the Colonel's water glass. It's his awful party trick, his bad parody—little titular column of a military god-man with life-and-death whims. He orders desaparecidos, proved by souvenir ears. "Some thing for your poetry, no? he said." That little Latin-Anglo hinge, "no?" is the dialectal trip wire of the whole poem. Such a small word to reverse field on the expectations of poetry, to trigger an obverse order. The negating disclaimer turns back in moaning o's, "Something for your poetry, no?" This is not so much poetry as anticolonial protest, not so much aesthetics as conspiratorial witness, or art beyond art. The failure of language goes deeper into human failures. Such is a poetry that breaks poetic illusion with the need to speak of the unspeakable, at whatever cost. "As for the rights of anyone, / tell your people they can go fuck themselves."

Foul words fit here. The Colonel comes clean in infamy, the truth no longer slant, but out in bad talk, self-condemned. A fallen, postmodernist diction, lower than any poet has gone before, is orally apt. The unspeakable is disgustingly cursed by his own words. Forche writes in postlyric, questionable witness of "the horror" with us, Conrad's Marlow in the New World, female, south of the border, bringing the news back home. "You, I, his, her, my friend, your people, they"—the disparate host of personal pronouns in "The Colonel" points to a complicity of crimes at our door. The poet's careful detailing of this petty CEO thug with a gun leads to our implicative connection, "the horror" at home today, not far south. "Blessed / are those who listen," Linda Hogan says, "when no one is left to speak."

Some of the ears on the floor still beg mercy from a "scrap" of the Colonel's voice. This news comes from the bottom of the text, the prone axis that intercepts the Colonel's upright column and justified margins. Horizontal to his vertical order then, some of the ears lie "pressed to the ground"—trampled, still listening underground in resistance, keen to hear, to know, to witness, and to rise up against the Colonel's orders. Latin America is an Hispanicized Native America, fusional Old and New Worlds, "children and exiles of the Americas," Forche writes of Whiteman's Oneida Star Quilt. The nativized ghosts of atrocity speak through intense silence, the quiet of the desaparecidos, the horror weighing the poem's shadows. "There is no other way to say this," the poet says, but this much must be said.

"In every war someone puts a cigarette in the corpse's mouth," the poet makes note, as hard truth haunts her. "I dug maggots from a child's open wound with a teaspoon" (APR 1981). What is too horrible to say reduces her to simile, sacked ears "like dried peach halves," a device that admits its own failure to name things directly. In so failing, the simile breaks a frustrated silence beyond itself. Forche remembers horror with stunned clarity, a poet's post-traumatic stress: "The bodies of friends have turned up disemboweled and decapitated, their teeth punched into broken points, their faces sliced off with machetes. On the final trip to the airport we swerved to avoid a corpse, a man spread-eagled, his stomach hacked open, his entrails stretched from one side of the road to the other. We drove over them like a garden hose." A writer's trope tilts away in pain. "The imagination is not enough," Forche writes of an African Anna, mothering sixteen adopted children, the "smallest one tied to her back by a rag" (The Angel of History). Witnesses must see beyond the darkness. The failures of metaphor to rise above the real, the knots of talk, the breaks in syntax, the slippages in language . . . teach something about the need to go beyond what we think we can say, know, or do, our hands not tied by art, but freed ill responsibility.

The disappeared spirits listen mutely in Salvador today, and Forche urges us to heed their brutalized cries. "There is nothing one man will not do to another," she reports of one-meter human cages, La Oscura, in "The Visitor." This is a truth some know, others fear to imagine, most want not to hear in our land of opulent opportunity (as privilege goes) above the poverty line. "To write out of such extremity is to incise, with language, that same wound, to open it again, and, with utterance, to inscribe the consciousness. This inscription restructures the consciousness of the poet" (APR 1988).