Contributing Editor: Constance Coiner
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Because two of the five poems included in this anthology appear in the
section of The Country Between Us (TCBU) titled "In Salvador,
1978-80," students will need some introduction to the situation in
El Salvador at the time when Forché went there as a journalist/poet/human
rights investigator. My students have been curious about the U.S. role
in El Salvador's twelve-year civil war that ended with a United Nation
(U.N.)-brokered peace accord on January 1, 1992. In "A Lesson in Commitment"
(TriQuarterly [Winter 1986]: 30-38) Forché recounts the events
that led to her going to El Salvador--an interesting, even amusing story
that students will welcome. Forché's "El Salvador: An Aide
Mémoire" (The American Poetry Review [July/August 1981]:
3-7), which both prefaces and theoretically frames the "El Salvador"
poems, is essential to students' understanding "The Colonel"
and "Because One Is Always Forgotten."
Findings of the U.N.-sponsored "truth commission," which investigated
some of the worst human rights abuses of the twelve-year civil war, appear,
for example, in The New York Times -- "U.N. Report Urges Sweeping
Changes in Salvador Army" (March 16, 1993, A1 and A12) and "How
U.S. Actions Helped Hide Salvador Human Rights Abuses" (March 21,
1993, Section 1, pages 1 and 10). Consider also "The Military Web
of Corruption," The Nation (October 23, 1982, 391-93), by Forché
and Leonel Gomez. Students could also profit from renting on their own
or your showing clips from Romero, a 1989 film directed by John
Duigan and featuring Raul Julia as Monsignor Oscar Romero, the Archbishop
of San Salvador to whom Forché dedicated the eight "El Salvador
poems." (Romero was murdered by a death squad in 1980 while saying
mass at a hospital for the terminally ill.)
Students and teachers who want more background on El Salvador's history
and the country's political and economic conditions can consult the following:
El Salvador: Another Vietnam (1981), a fifty-minute documentary
produced and directed by Glenn Silber and Tete Vasconcellos; Robert Armstrong
and Janet Shenk's El Salvador: The Face of Revolution (Boston: South
End Press, 1982); A Decade of War: El Salvador Confronts the Future,
eds. Anjli Sundaram and George Gelber (New York: Monthly Review Press,
1991); and the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA), an independent
organization founded to analyze and report on Latin America and U.S. foreign
policy toward Latin America. NACLA (475 Riverside Drive, Room 454, New
York, NY 10115; 212-870-3146) publishes a journal and has a library open
to the public.
I strongly recommend addressing the controversy in the U.S. concerning
"political poetry," perhaps at the beginning and then at the
end of your discussion of Forché's poems. Forché herself
addresses this controversy briefly in "El Salvador: An Aide Mémoire."
Forché's poetry and her views point to differences between formalist
and "cultural studies" approaches to literature, differences
that can also be usefully discussed in relation to other writers assigned
in your course.
An audiocassette of Forché reading from TCBU is available
from Watershed Tapes, P. O. Box 50145, Washington, D.C. 20004. Students
respond favorably to hearing Forché read the poems. I also ask for
volunteers to read the poems aloud. They have done so effectively, especially
if given a few days to prepare.
Forché invented the term "documentary poem" for "The
Colonel." This alternative form works partly because she sparingly
employs traditional poetic forms as touchstones within it and partly because
its seeming "artlessness" elicits belief from her readers.
In the journalistic way that it sets the scene, "The Colonel"
takes little poetic license, inviting readers to trust that it has not
caricatured the truth. Its simple, declarative sentences do not resemble
poetic lines. Even visually, with its justified right-hand margin, the
piece resembles a newspaper report more than a poem. In the twentieth century,
the lyric has become by far the dominant poetic form, but because Forché
wants her readers to experience what she witnessed in El Salvador from
1978 to 1980, she consciously resists lyricizing the experience. Before
turning to Forché's poems, I define and provide examples of well-known
lyrical poems so students can better understand how she subverts traditional
Forché first draws us into "The Colonel" by conversing
with us about the rumors that have crept north of brutal Latin American
military dictatorships: "WHAT YOU HAVE HEARD is true." Forché
extends that sense of familiarity for her reader by creating in the first
lines a scene that, except for the pistol on the cushion, could occur in
any North American home: the wife serves coffee, the daughter files her
nails, the son goes out for the evening; there are daily papers, pet dogs,
a TV turned on even at meal time. The minutiae of ordinary domestic life
draw us into the scene, as if we're entering the room with Forché;
we feel as if we're having dinner with the colonel.
"The moon swung bare on its black cord over the house" is
one of two figures foregrounded in the poem, and Forché deliberately
draws attention to its artfulness. Although the image is ominous, suggestive
generally of the gothic and particularly of a swinging interrogation lamp
or of someone hanging naked from a rope, it is too decorative for its place
between a pistol and a cop show, thus announcing itself as art.
The following lines portray the colonel's house as a fortress: "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." The outside of this fortress, constructed
to mutilate anyone who tries to get inside, stands in stark contrast to
the several images of "civilization" and affluence inside, such
as "dinner, rack of lamb, good wine, a gold bell [that] was on the
table for calling the maid."
Until the parrot says hello from the terrace, triggering the colonel's
anger and the action of the poem--that is, his spilling human ears on the
table--the poem is a string of the verbs "to be." As passive
as her verbs, the poet can only catalog nouns, unable to exercise control
or take action. In fact, her friend warns her with his eyes: "say
nothing." And so, many readers identify with the poet rather than
feel manipulated by her; like us, she is frightened, wary. (Students may
be surprised to learn that Forché did not invent the Colonel's displaying
severed ears as a startling, violent metaphor. The incident actually occurred,
she has reported.)
Note the contrast between the single stylized line, "the moon swung
bare on its black cord over the house," and the numerous declarative,
There were daily papers . . .
On the television was a cop show. It was in English.
Broken bottles were embedded in the walls . . .
On the windows there were gratings like those in liquor stores.
This contrast between the stylized line and the weak-verb sentences
suggests the range of possible responses to situations such as dinner with
the colonel as well as the range of possible responses to reading
about dinner with the colonel: Will the poet run away from this experience
by lyricizing it? Will the poet remain impotent, unable to invent strong
verbs--in other words, be unable to take action? Do more appropriate responses
exist? Forché thus puts her readers in her place, in that room with
the colonel, in a state of nascent political and moral awareness. The form
itself suggests that we must make choices and take positions, not only
as we read "The Colonel" but also as we respond to military dictatorships
and to our government's support of them.
With the poem's second foregrounded figure, a simile describing the
ears as "dried peach halves," the poet at once manipulates the
mundane and is confined by it. She knows we have all seen dried fruit and
so she could not more vividly describe those severed ears, but she apologizes
for the limits of her inherited poetic and for the limits of language itself,
acknowledging simply: "There is no other way to say this." However,
she also defends poetic language here. Because "there is no other
way to say this," she must rely on a poetic device, a simile, to communicate
The colonel shakes one of the ears in the faces of his guests. A human
ear is an unusual--an even extraordinary--metonymy, as Forché well
knows. It stands for the Salvadoran people, for those who have been mutilated
and murdered as well as for those who continue to resist the military dictatorship.
It might be helpful to students to think of the colonel's actions as a
perverse magic show. He is able to make a severed ear come "alive"
by dropping it into a glass of water, just as the death squads are able
to make Salvadorans disappear. The sweeping gesture ("He swept the
ears to the floor with his arm and held the last of his wine in the air")
is theatrical and sends the ears down to the floor while the colonel elevates
his glass of wine. The glass of wine carries us back to the "good
wine" at dinner and the other markers of the affluent life maintained
within the colonel's fortress at the expense of the extreme poverty outside.
The glass of wine, then, is a metonymy for all the trappings of "civilization"
we have seen in the colonel's fortress and for the power of the military
over ordinary Salvadorans. And as the ears of ordinary Salvadorans go down
to the floor, that wine glass, that metonymy for the affluence of the few,
is hoisted triumphantly above them.
With this theatrical action come the colonel's climactic words: "Something
for your poetry, no?" Most immediately, "Something" refers
to the grand theatrical show the colonel has put on for his guests' "entertainment."
But the colonel's ironic sneer also mocks Forché's position as a
North American poet, drawing attention to the belief held by many North
Americans that poetry has certain "proper" subjects, and that
mutilation--and by extension politics--are not among them. Since the eighteenth
century, mainstream North America has lost touch with the sense of literature
as political catalyst. Nineteenth-century romanticism and some twentieth-century
poetry promoted by New Criticism has been especially individualized, introspective,
and self-referential. In "A Lesson in Commitment," Forché
recalls how Leonel Gomez Vides tried to persuade her to come to El Salvador,
asking her, "do you want to write poetry about yourself for the rest
of your life?" Forché, who came to understand Gomez Vides's
point, believes that the "twentieth century human condition demands
a poetry of witness" ("El Salvador: An Aide Mémoire").
Now look at the poem's final lines: "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." Some of the ears seem to be alive, even though the
colonel didn't believe for a minute during his mock magic show that he
was actually bringing a dead ear back to life. Some of the ears seem to
be listening and feeling for vibrations, for sounds and motion of resistance
to the colonel's fortress. This poem, especially these concluding lines,
implicitly questions the reader: Is your ear pressed to the ground?
Are you listening? Have you "HEARD" (to return
to the poem's opening words, written for emphasis in uppercase)? Are you
responding to and involving yourself in resistance to the brutality of
this colonel and others like him?
"Because One Is Always Forgotten"
This poem makes an excellent pedagogical companion piece to "The
Colonel." As in her documentary poem, Forché writes in calculated
relation to bourgeois forms, calling attention to the limits of inherited
poetic forms and at the same time insisting that poetry can be used for
political as well as aesthetic purposes. The obverse of "The Colonel,"
which appears artless, this elegy is the most highly structured piece in
TCBU. Before turning to "Because One Is Always Forgotten,"
I define the elegy and provide examples of well-known elegies.
Forché wrote "Because One Is Always Forgotten" in memory
of José Rudolfo Viera, who was Salvador's Deputy of Agrarian Reform
under President Napoleon Duarte. (If teachers have read aloud excerpts
from "A Lesson in Commitment" or made copies available, students
will recall that Leonel Gomez Vides visited Forché in San Diego,
urging her to come to El Salvador; Gomez Vides was Viera's assistant Deputy
for Agrarian Reform.) Viera discovered that money that had been designated
for agrarian reform (that is, an attempt to divide some of the largest
landholdings so that most of the country's wealth would no longer reside
in the hands of a few families) was being pocketed by members of Duarte's
administration and men high up in the military. Some of that money was
coming from the Carter administration in the U.S., from U.S. taxpayers,
and going not toward agrarian reform but to support the expensive tastes
of a few. Think for a moment of words from "The Colonel"--rack
of lamb, good wine, a gold bell for calling the maid. Think for a moment,
too, of Forché's words in "El Salvador: An Aide Mémoire":
"I was taken to the homes of landowners, with their pools set like
aquamarines in the clipped grass, to the afternoon games of canasta over
quaint local pupusas and tea, where parrots hung by their feet among the
bougainvillea and nearly everything was imported, if only from Miami or
Viera, who reported the corruption on news televised in San Salvador,
was murdered by "the White Glove," a right wing death squad.
Viera was shot along with two North Americans, Michael Hammer and Mark
Pearlman, who were in El Salvador as consultants for agrarian reform. At
the time of the murders, the three men were having a meal in the Sheraton
Hotel dining room in San Salvador. No one was arrested, much less brought
to trial, for the murder of the three men. Some North American newspapers
reported the deaths of Michael Hammer and Mark Pearlman, but because Viera's
death was not included in those reports, Forché felt the need to
"Because One Is Always Forgotten" tightly compresses rhythm
and images, suggesting that traditional forms necessarily strain or snap
under the weight of political imprisonment, murder, mutilation. After the
second line, the lines start "losing" beats, as if atrocities
in Salvador defy even one more word or beat. Forché undercuts the
stylization that would comfort us, that would provide the consolation and
closure that elegies have traditionally provided.
She also uses "heart," a word common in poetry, in a way that
is the opposite of what we expect.
I could take my heart, he said, and give it
to a campesino
and he would cut it up and give it back:
you can't eat heart in those four dark
chambers where a man can be kept years.
"You can't eat heart" is a spondee--all unaccented syllables
have been removed. A spondee represents language at its most compressed,
its most structured, because English is more naturally a combination of
accented and unaccented syllables. "You can't eat heart" also
announces the limitations of poetic language. You can't eat it.
It cannot, literally, sustain human life. In other words, an elegy, however
necessary, is not a sufficient response to events such as those in El Salvador.
Students may volunteer that "those four dark chambers" refer
to the left and right ventricles and the left and right auricles of the
heart. But unless they have read "The Visitor," one of Forché's
"El Salvador" poems not included in The Heath Anthology,
they won't know that "dark chambers" also refers to "la
oscura" (the dark place), a prison within a prison that inspired "The
Visitor." Forché describes "la oscura"--where men
were kept in boxes, one meter by one meter, with barred openings the size
of a book-- in her introduction to "The Visitor" on the Watershed
audiocassette; she also describes "la oscura" in "El Salvador:
An Aide Mémoire."
Now look at the following lines from the fourth stanza:
A boy soldier in the bone-hot sun works his knife
to peel the face from a dead man
The second line of this stanza stops abruptly; again, it is as if the
atrocities in Salvador defy even one more word or beat. "To peel the
face from a dead man" is no more an invented metaphor than "The
"Colonel" 's severed ears; in Salvador Forché actually
saw human faces hanging from tree branches. Too often we have been taught
to expect hearts and flowers from poetry, sometimes used sentimentally,
but such sentimentality is turned on its head here. "Flowering with
such faces" uses conventional poetic language in an extraordinary
Ask students what they make of the last, paradoxical stanza: "The
heart is the toughest part of the body / Tenderness is in the hands."
This stanza asks readers to examine something we have long accepted, the
cliché of the tender heart, implying that we should probe some of
our other assumptions as well.
Hands can do something; they can take action. TCBU includes
many other references to hands, suggesting a wide range of possibilities
for their use. Hands can "peel the face from a dead man / and hang
it from the branch of a tree." The colonel uses his hands to spill
human ears on the table and to shake one of the ears mockingly at his guests.
Hands can be the White Glove (the name for a notorious Salvadoran death
squad). But hands can also be tender; hands can connect people (the poet
and Victoria in "As Children Together" hold "each other's
coat sleeves"); hands can communicate (Forché tells Victoria
to write to her). Rather than provide consolation and closure, as would
a traditional elegy, "Because One Is Always Forgotten," like
"The Colonel" and other poems in TCBU, asks readers to
consider choices about their hands, their actions, their lives.
"As Children Together"
This poem is included in the section of TCBU titled "Reunion."
Addressed to Forché's girlhood friend, Victoria, this poem gives
us a sense of the poet's working-class roots. Although Forché continues
to identify strongly with the class of her origin and with other oppressed
groups, even as a youngster she "always believed . . . that there
might be a way to get out" of Detroit. Victoria, ashamed of the "tins
of surplus flour," the "relief checks," and other trappings
of poverty, was also eager to escape: "I am going to have it,"
Victoria asserted, while believing that granting sexual favors to men was
her only conduit.
The first stanza represents the girls' lives and futures as boxed in,
closed off: the snow is "pinned"; the lights are "cubed";
they wait for Victoria's father to "whittle his soap cakes away, finish
the whiskey," and for Victoria's mother to turn off the lights. Confined
by "tight black dresses"--which, in this context, arguably represent
a class marker-- they nevertheless attempt to move away from the limitations
of class, "holding each other's coat sleeves" for support. They
slide "down the roads . . . past / crystal swamps and the death
/ face of each dark house, / over the golden ice / of tobacco spit"
(my emphasis). They try to move away from their diminished options--the
" quiet of ponds," "the blind white hills,"
"a scant snow" (my emphasis). But, sliding on ice, their movement
is literally as well as metaphorically precarious.
Like "The Colonel" and "Because One Is Always Forgotten,"
this is a documentary poem, if less apparently so. The poet reports to
Victoria and to us the poet's memory of their life together as children,
the little she has heard about Victoria since their childhood, and one
major event in the poet's life since their childhood ("I have been
to Paris / since we parted"). In this stanza we hear the voice of
the reporter, as we do in the other two poems. Although the poet doesn't
know Victoria's current state, she reports what "They say."
If what "they say" is true, and if Victoria reads this poem,
the poet has two simple messages for her childhood friend: "write
to me" and "I have been to Paris / since we parted." On
first reading, many students may think that the poet is bragging about
the contrast between her own adult life and what she believes that of Victoria
to be (the poet has been to Paris, while Victoria did not even get as far
as Montreal, the city of her childhood dreams). However, by taking the
last line in the context of the entire poem, we see the implications, not
of going to Paris, but how the poet got there: not by relying on
the men of this poem as her vehicle. "Write to me" suggests that
the poet wants to share with Victoria her experiences of-- and perhaps
her strategies for--getting out.
Victoria has not escaped the cycle of poverty and battered men. In the
second-to-last stanza the poet reports a rumor that Victoria lives in a
trailer near Detroit with her children and with her husband, who "returned
from the Far East broken / cursing holy blood at the table" and whose
whittling of soap cakes associates him with Victoria's whiskey-drinking
father, who appears in the first stanza.
At first glance, "As Children Together" seems far removed
from Salvador's civil war. In the context of TCBU, however, "As
Children Together" links "the Far East" (Vietnam) to El
Salvador. Young men from Forché's working-class neighborhood were
drafted by or enlisted in the military when many of the more privileged
of their generation managed student deferments or, after the draft lottery
was established, other alternatives to military service. In "A Lesson
in Commitment," Forché reports that her interest in Vietnam
was fueled partly by her first husband's fighting in Vietnam and his suffering
"from what they now call Post-Vietnam Syndrome." The Vietnam
War, as well as her opposition to it, schooled Forché for "another
Vietnam" in El Salvador.
"As Children Together" provides a good opportunity to discuss
the range of meanings for the deliberately ambiguous title of The Country
Between Us. "Between" can mean something that separates and
distances people, but "between" can also mean that which we share,
that which connects us. The "country" is El Salvador, but it
is also the United States. "Us" can be people on opposing sides
of a civil war, people polarized by their opinions about political issues,
or people sharing a common opposition to oppression. "Us" can
be people inhabiting two nations (Salvador and the U.S.). "Us"
can also refer to two individuals, such as the poet and Victoria, who may
be at once separated by geography and recent experience but connected by
common roots and class origin. The poet's saying to Victoria "write
to me" suggests a desire for "between" as separation to
become the "between" of reunion and connection.
From "The Recording Angel" and "Elegy"
(Note: Constance Coiner, who wrote this perceptive and sensitive
entry on teaching Forché's poetry, died tragically before being
able to update this entry for the third edition of the instructor's guide.
The following suggestions for teaching the newly added poems by Forché
are by the editor of the instructor's guide, and while they can not match
the fullness and expertise of Constance's work, I hope they share in its
spirit.) Both the excerpt from "The Recording Angel" and
"Elegy" are from Forché's most recent collection
of poems, The Angel of History. As the title of the collection suggests,
the work is not so much based on personal experience in the way of poems
of witness and remembrance such as "Because One if Always Forgotten," and
"As Children Together," but is instead a meditation on history;
specifically, the nightmare history of the twentieth-century, from the
Holocaust and Hiroshima to tragedy of El Salvador. In her Notes at the
end of The Angel of History, Forché says that "these
utterances issue from my own encounter with the events of this century
but do not represent 'it.' The first-person, free-verse, lyric-narrative
of my earlier years has given way to a work which has desired its own bodying
forth: polyphonic, broken, haunted, and in ruins, with no possibility
of restoration." These comments speak to the potential difficulty
of these later poems to students, but by explaining some of the rationale
behind the composition of these poems, they also can help students make
their own sense of Forché's style. Writing in response to the horror
of the Second World War in these two poems, Forché resists the aesthetic
impulse to make whole that which has been shattered by war and genocide.
Instead, the class can take Forché's description of this history
as "polyphonic, broken" and "haunted" as a way of reading
Forché's poems not as attempts to obscure history, but as parts
of her commitment to honesty and even realism. Rather than "explaining"
the war or the Holocaust, and thereby running the risk of substituting
her voice for the voice of the victims and those who resisted, or even
of explaining away the past, Forché instead remains true to the
ethic of witnessing by presenting us with shards from a past "in ruins,"
both in terms of descriptions of physical places and quotations from various
sources. (The "Notes" at the end of The Angel of History
provide some helpful references for these quotations.) As a result, we
retain as readers the moral responsibility to confront the horror of twentieth
century history and craft our own response, without the safety net of received
opinion nor the comfort of conventional aesthetic unity.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
1. U.S. imperialism.
2. The difference between poetry that calls attention chiefly to form,
and poetry like Forché's that is formally interesting as well as
socially and politically engaged.
3. The difference between poetry that is individualized and self-referential
and poetry like Forché's that addresses social and political issues
and engenders human empathy.
4. TCBU has renewed the controversy about the relation of art
to politics, about "suitable" subjects for poetry. This peculiarly
American debate assumes that only certain poems are political, stigmatizing
"political" poems and failing to acknowledge the ideological
constitution of all literary texts. The opposition to "political"
poetry, as Forché herself has observed, extends beyond explicitly
polemical work to any "impassioned voices of witness," to any
who leave the "safety of self-contemplation to imagine and address
the larger world" ("A Lesson in Commitment").
5. Forché's poetry resonates with a sense of international kinship.
"For us to comprehend El Salvador," Forché has written,
"for there to be moral revulsion, we must be convinced that Salvadorans--and
indeed the whole population of Latin America--are people like ourselves,
contemporary with ourselves, and occupying the same reality" ("Grasping
the Gruesome," Esquire, September 1983). Forché's poetry
moves us with a forceful sense of "the other" rare in contemporary
6. The merging of personal and political.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
In the twentieth century, the lyric has become the preponderant poetic
form, but in TCBU Forché is a story-teller, her poetry predominantly
narrative. Because she wants her readers to experience what she witnessed
in El Salvador from 1978 to 1980, she consciously resists lyricizing experiences.
Forché has said that "the twentieth-century human condition
demands a poetry of witness" ("El Salvador: An Aide Mémoire").
To show how Forché departs from the lyric, teachers should define
the lyric and provide well-known examples. To show how Forché departs
from the elegy in "Because One Is Always Forgotten," teachers
should define the elegy and provide well-known examples. For "The
Colonel" teachers should define and provide other examples of "metonymy."
The particular audience for Forché's poetry is the American people.
Monsignor Romero (again, the Archbishop of San Salvador who was assassinated
by a right wing death squad while praying at mass) urged Forché
to return to the U.S. and "tell the American people what is happening"
("El Salvador: An Aide Mémoire"). Poets do not often so
purposefully address such a wide audience.
Students should discuss whether--and, if so, in what ways-- Forché's
poems effectively address the wide popular audience she seeks, one that
would include more people than the "already converted." Do the
three poems under consideration avoid or fall into off-putting didacticism?
Students, of course, will have their own responses, but I would argue that
Forché has consciously adopted strategies throughout TCBU that
invite the reader into the poems. One of those strategies is to acknowledge
her own ignorance rather than point to the reader's; another is to place
herself or someone else in the poem as an object of ridicule or admonition
rather than the reader. For example, the colonel sneers at the poet; the
poet does not upbraid her reader. And in "Because One Is Always Forgotten,"
a hungry campesino would reject Viera's heart, admonishing: "you
can't eat heart."
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Muriel Rukeyser, Adrienne
Rich, Pablo Neruda--these are anti-imperialist, politically engaged
writers whose lives and literary texts promote a global as well as a private
The private anguish of Sylvia
Plath's, Anne Sexton's
and Robert Lowell's
confessional poetry provides a provocative contrast to the public issues
of human rights violations, U.S. foreign policy, war and class oppression
addressed in "The Colonel," "Because One Is Always Forgotten,"
and "As Children Together."
Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing
1. How does the capitalization of the first four words function in the
2. Can anyone identify the traditional poetic forms that Forché
sparingly employs as "aesthetic centerpieces" in this "artless,"
"journalistic," documentary poem? (I'm thinking here of "the
moon swung bare on its black cord over the house" and the simile describing
the ears as "dried peach halves").
3. Why is the television "cop show" in English, the commercial
4. Why the proliferation of to-be verbs (is, was, were)?
5. What are the women in this poem doing?
6. What might the colonel have in mind when he says, "Something
for your poetry, no?"
7. What are the implied and explicit cultural and political relationships
between Salvador and the U.S.?
"Because One Is Always Forgotten":
1. In the first line, what does "it" refer to?
2. What are the relationships between "heart" and other body
3. Who is "you" in the third stanza?
4. Identify similarities/differences (including formal ones) between
this poem and "The Colonel."
5. This poem concludes the section of TCBU titled "In Salvador,
1978-80." Why might have Forché chosen "hands" as
the last word of this section?
"As Children Together":
1. What are some of the similarities/differences between Victoria and
the poet as children? What might be some similarities/differences between
them as adults?
2. What is the significance of "Paris" in the last line?
3. What are some of the difficulties of remaining in touch with one's
community, cultural group, or class of origin after being separated from
them by emigration, formal education, or class mobility?
4. What's the difference between the poet's saying, "I always believed
this, / Victoria, that there might / be a way to get out" and Victoria's
asserting, "I am going to have it"?
5. Identify similarities/differences (including formal ones) between
this poem and "The Colonel" and "Because One Is Always Forgotten."
"The Recording Angel":
1. How does Forché's description of these poems as "polyphonic,
broken, haunted, and in ruins, with no possibility of restoration"
affect our understanding of their structure?
2. What is the effect of the juxtaposition of images of both peace and
terror, such as the wings of doves with "a comic wedding in which
corpses exchange vows"? What other such contrasts can be found,
and what is their effect?
3. In Section I, the city seems deserted in the aftermath of some great
calamity. Which images do you seize on to make sense of what has happened?
4. As we move into Sections II and III, we encounter a child (referred
to only as "it") and a woman in a photograph. What clues (such
as the ominous image of "the fresh claw of a swastika on Rue Boulard") does
the poem provide as to who these people are (or even if they are the same
person) and what happened to them?
1. The quoted material in the poem is from descriptions of concentration
camps in Claude Lanzmann's film about the Holocaust, Shoah. What
is the effect of such prosaic, almost matter-of-fact descriptions of the
brutality of the Holocaust?
2. "And so we revolt against silence with a bit of speaking"
can suggest the difficulty, almost impossibility, of finding adequate expression
for the horror of the Holocaust. How would you describe the strategy that
"Elegy" uses and its effectiveness?
3. Who is the ghost figure in the poem? What kind of witness does
4. Notice the simultaneously beautiful and ominous image of the "tattoo
of stars," both suggesting the delicacy of the night sky but also
reminding us of the ID numbers tattooed on the arms of concentration
camp inmates. How does such imagery work as part of the "bit of speaking"
against the silence of the aftermath of the Holocaust? What other
examples of such imagery can you find?
Approaches to Writing
Students in my undergraduate courses write one-page (double-spaced,
typed) "response" essays to each assigned text, which they turn
in before I have said anything about the writer or text(s). In these essays,
students reflect on why they have responded to the text(s) as they have,
including some identification of their own subject position (gender, race,
national origin, class origin, political views, and so on), but they must
also refer specifically to the text. In the case of these three poems,
students could choose to focus the response essay on just one poem or they
could write about a recurring theme, image, and strategy, briefly citing
all three poems.
A few students have elected to write creative responses, trying their
hand at imitating the form of one of the assigned poems.
Forché, Carolyn. "El Salvador: An Aide Mémoire."
American Poetry Review (July/August 1981): 3-7.
--. "A Lesson in Commitment." TriQuarterly (Winter
Greer, Michael. "Politicizing the Modern: Carolyn Forché
in El Salvador and America." The Centennial Review (Spring
Kufeld, Adam. El Salvador: Photographs by Adam Kufeld . "Introduction"
by Arnoldo Ramos and poetry by Manlio Argueta.
Mann, John. "Carolyn Forché: Poetry and Survival."
American Poetry 3.3 (Spring 1986): 51-69.
Mattison, Harry et. al., eds. El Salvador: Work of Thirty Photographers
. Text by Carolyn Forché. New York: Writers and Readers Publishing
Useful interviews include David Montenegro's in American Poetry Review
17.6 (November/December 1988): 35-40; Constance Coiner's in The
Jacaranda Review (Winter 1988): 47-68; and Kim Addonizio and John High's
in Five Fingers Review 3 (1985): 116-31.