‘The Colonel’ was written while Carolyn Forché spent time in El Salvador in 1978. The country was in disarray, in the middle of a civil war between the US-backed military and government and the Foarabundo Martí National Liberation Front. The poem describes an experience in which she sat alongside the “colonel,” and he shared terrible stories of the war and his misdeeds. It was unclear at the time, as it is now, if the experiences in this piece are a fabrication or a record of true events. No matter which is the truth, this piece sits in a new territory somewhere between poetry and journalism.
When speaking about this poem and her time in El Salvador, Forché reflected on the fact that she didn’t know what she was doing in El Salvador. She was “new” to the world of war journalism if that’s what one wants to label this piece as. This is reflected in the poem as the speaker and her friend feel very much at the mercy of the “colonel” throughout.
Explore The Colonel
Throughout this poem, the speaker details meeting and dinner she had, along with a friend, at the house of “the colonel.” There, life seems to progress normally, as it would in any other home. The colonel’s wife is there, along with his son and daughter. Together, they eat an expensive meal. One that seems unlikely to be gracing any other household in the country. There are also other mundane elements that make the colonel’s role in society all the more shocking. There’s a cop show on tv and a parrot speaking on the porch. The latter seems to send the colonel into a rage, and things take a turn for the worse. The colonel pulls out his bag of severed ears and dumps them on the table. This horrific turn of events reveals to the reader the truth of this man’s nature. It also alludes to the broader horrors occurring within the country. He screams at his guests, taking out his anger on them for any foreign interference with his plans for El Salvador.
You can read the full poem here.
In ‘The Colonel’ the poet engages with themes of war and responsibility. Through the text, her speaker, which may or may not be the poet herself, depicts the home life of “the colonel.” This brutally violent man is responsible for much of the death and destruction that’s occurred within El Salvador during the Civil War. While the war is not discussed directly, the colonel’s choice to pull out his bag of ears is a sign of how powerful and horrifying his control over the populous is. By the end, the speaker is asking the reader to choose a side. Are they going to listen to what’s going on in other countries around the world like this one? Or are they going to turn their ears to the floor and shed any responsibility for helping to make things better?
Structure and Form
‘The Colonel’ by Carolyn Forché is a prose poem written in the form of a “block” or a large paragraph. The poem does not make use of a metrical pattern or a rhyme scheme. It focuses more on the narrative than on poetic devices, although some are present. The prose poem, block format, is very appropriate for the subject matter of ‘The Colonel.’ It allows the poet to tell her story without getting weighed down by line numbers, rhyme schemes, or repetition. Some readers might even see the similarities between this block of text and a news article.
WHAT YOU HAVE HEARD is true. I was in his house. His wife carried
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
scoop the kneecaps from a man’s legs or cut his hands to lace. On
In the first lines of ‘The Colonel,’ The speaker begins by stating, very clearly, that any rumors the reader might’ve heard about the speaker’s meeting with the “colonel” are true. She was at his house, alongside his wife, daughter, and son. These first mundane features of his life contrast powerfully with what comes next. His children act just like children do, and there are pet dogs and daily papers around. There are light examples of alliteration in these lines with “papers,” “pet,” and “pistol,” then “bare,” and “black” in the following line. It’s with the introduction of the “pistol on the / cushion beside him” that a reader realizes that this isn’t going to be a normal home. But, before getting into any of the details of why this is the case, the poet inserts some more details.
She describes the way the “moon” moved through the landscape outside and the fact that a cop show was on the inside. This could be anyone’s home at this point, making the following lines and the terror that the colonel inflicts upon his people all the more shocking. It should be noted that the poet used the line “It was in English” to describe the cop show. This, to someone who speaks English, is surprising. It brings her closer to her normal world. It’s likely that she too watches cop shows in English.
In the next two lines, violence takes over the poem. There are bottles in the walls, ready to mutilate anyone who tries to cross the colonel.
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
commercial in Spanish. His wife took everything away. There was
some talk then of how difficult it had become to govern. The parrot
home. He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like
In the lines which follow, the speaker describes how the windows are barred as if they’re those of a liquor store. It’s interesting that this is the first thing that comes into her mind, while most people might go first to prison or jail cell. But, this distinction does confirm that they are to keep people out rather than in. The dinner was filling and luxurious, exactly what one would assume someone of the colonel’s ranking would choose. It’s obvious from the poet’s focus on the food items that these are unusual amongst the broader popular of El Salvador.
A series of moments follow as the poet directly describes what happens. The parrot talks from the porch, they discuss how hard it is to govern, and then the colonel gets angry. They know that it’s time to stay quiet. It’s also at this point that the speaker reveals that she wasn’t there alone with the colonel and his family. A friend accompanied her. They stay silent as he gets up and returns with a grocery bag. Out of it, he dumps human ears onto the table. This is a striking turn in the poem, one that truly demonstrates the nature of the man who had only moments ago been dining peacefully and watching TV.
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
of the ears on the floor caught this scrap of his voice. Some of the
ears on the floor were pressed to the ground.
In the final lines of the poem, the speaker uses figurative language to compare the human ears to “dried peach halves.” This is a disturbing comparison, one that she’s very aware will likely surprise and bother the reader. In anger, over nothing and everything, the colonel shakes one of the ears in their faces and then drops it in a water glass. There, it “came alive.” This suggests that it reanimated somewhat with the reintroduction of liquid.
Although there is a dialogue in the following lines, the poet chose not to use quotation marks. This means that the lines blend in with the rest. This is especially impactful when the colonel yells at the speaker and her friend, telling them and their “people” to “go fuck them- / selves.” Following this, he throws the ears onto the floor in a rage. The final images are far more poetic than those which proceeded them. She describes how some of the ears were pressed to the floor, unable to hear what the colonel was screaming while others were facing up, catching the sound of his voice. These lines can be taken as a broader metaphor for those who “hear” the horrors going on in El Salvador and those who turn away.
Despite the fact that ‘The Colonel’ is a prose poem, readers can find several interesting literary devices at work within the text. These include enjambment and her use of end-punctuation. These two features are quite prominent throughout the poem. Forché uses sentences that range in length and are often cut off before they reach their conclusion. By doing so, the poet gets the lines within the same block format while also varying the pace at which a reader moves through the text. This is especially effective in the last third of the piece when the colonel brings out his bag of ears.
One of the most important literary devices that the poet engages with is an allusion. Throughout this piece, she alludes to the Civil War in El Salvador without ever mentioning it by name. This is an effective technique, one that also allows the reader to place this speaker and the “colonel” anywhere throughout history. At the end, when the poet concludes with the ear imagery, readers are left without any knowledge of what happened to the “colonel.” One will be left wondering if anything changed, if the speaker’s poetry made a difference, or if, after reading this piece, normal everyday people took an interest in international conflicts that don’t directly impact them.
Readers who enjoyed ‘The Colonel’ should also consider reading some similar poems. For example, ‘Parsley’ by Rita Dove, ‘Song-Books of the War’ by Siegfried Sassoon, and ‘War Photographer’ by Carol Ann Duffy. The latter depicts the poet’s opinions toward society and the agonies of war, in addition to the lack of interest of humankind toward it. In ‘Parsley,’ a poem that’s quite similar to ‘The Colonel,’ Dove tells the story of a mass killing that occurred in 1937 in the Dominican Republic. It focuses on Rafael Trujillo, referred to only as “El General” in the piece. In ‘Song-Books of the War,’ the speaker details the truth of the war through the voice of a grandfather who speaks honestly and without any lingering idealism.