Carolyn Forché (b. 1950)
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 lyrical poetry.
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, weak-verb sentences
There were daily papers . . .
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 with us.
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 New Orleans."
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 memorialize Viera.
"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 way.
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 American verse.
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
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 poem?
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 in Spanish?
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 parts?
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 he provide?
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 1986): 30-38.
Greer, Michael. "Politicizing the Modern: Carolyn Forché in El Salvador and America." The Centennial Review (Spring 1986): 160-80.
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 Cooperative, 1983.
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.