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Nothing could have prepared the winner of the Yale Series or Younger Poets prize (awarded for her first book, Gathering the Tribes, in 1976) for what she found when she journeyed to El Salvador in 1978. She describes herself in a recent interview in Rolling Stone as a midwesterner with working-class roots teaching and writing in San Diego when, in 1977, Leonel Gomez Vides appeared at her door. A translator of Claribel Alegria's poems, and a worker for Amnesty International, Forche was perhaps ready to accept Gomez's invitation to visit and learn about his small country (on maps, the size of a chestnut); but her recollection of agreeing to go now strikes her as absurdly naive: "I thought I would be the lady in white working in the orphanage for one year who pats the little bottoms! I pictured myself that way, rather heroically." Instead, what she found in several journeys to El Salvador between 1978 and 1980 was twentieth-century reality. The eight poems in Part l of The Country Between Us bear the title "In Salvador, 1978-1980." They represent an immersion (really a kind of baptism) for the poet—what quickly would become a political education, but more importantly a moral education as well. As she recalled later, "A young writer, politically unaffiliated, ideologically vague, I was to be blessed with the rarity of a moral and political education—what at times would seem an unbearable immersion, what eventually would become a focussed obsession. It would change my life and work, propel me toward engagement, test my endurance and find it wanting, and prevent me from ever viewing myself or my country again through precisely the same fog of unwitting connivance." This immersion ultimately issued in an outcry and a transformation.

Having heard the testimony of Latin American survivors, we plunge with the poet into the horror of El Salvador in 1978, 1979, and 1980. Traveling with her guides and mentors, perfecting her education, growing into a witness, she retrieved three of these experiments in completed wholes as poems. "The Visitor," "The Colonel," and "Because One Is Always Forgotten" provide a distillation, pared down with powerful discipline, of what Forche saw. Each involves dismemberment, spiritual or physical; each generates the anguish of individual ruin; yet each engages twentieth-century collective experience.


In the prose poem "The Colonel" torture and literal dismemberment spill out ito the open with a sackful of dried human ears dumped on a dinner table. Like the poet straining to hear the voices crying out in this book, these dismembered ears too can listen: "some of the ears on the floor caught the scrap of his voice." Even the dismembered body parts of the tortured victims become witnesses, ironically revealing Hannah Arendt’s comment that there are no "holes of oblivion" large enough to bury all the victims of torture and mass murder: one man will remain alive to tell the story. These ears are dead; they do not talk; yet they seem to come alive to listen with the poet.

This single poem, widely noticed, has done more than any other to tell Forché’s story of El Salvador. The spectacle of a ruling Colonel spilling a bag of severed human ears onto a table focuses Forché’s perceptions in the eight poems of [the section from her 1981 book The Country Between Us entitled] "In Salvador: 1978-1980" on one of her primary themes: the violation of the human body. This man so outrages our sensibilities that we tend to miss the significance of his question to the poet, "Something for your poetry, no?" The Colonel is another of Forché’s teachers, forcing her to listen and see. Unbearably menacing in their evocation of linked violence and wealth, the details of this poem constellate quickly to suggest a festering sickness.