(July 2005) Continuing my earlier riff about the disappeared and those shiny happy people who present themselves as so freakin’ wholesome while doing so much harm.
Carolyn Forché identifies herself as a poet of witness. She says “I have been told that a poet should be of his or her own time. It is my feeling that the twentieth-century human condition demands a poetry of witness. This is not accomplished without certain difficulties. If I did not wish to make poetry of what I had seen, what is it I thought poetry was?”
Gathering The Tribes (1976), her first collection, won the prestigious Yale Series of Younger Poets Award. The Country between Us (1982), a volume that focused on the civil war in El Salvador during the 1970s, won the Lamont Poetry Prize of the Academy of American Poets. This prize, which Minnie Bruce Pratt also won for Crimes against Nature, recognizes the best second book of poetry published in the US. Forché’s other books include the prescient landmark anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness, which she edited, and The Angel of History (1994).
She read this poem years ago at my writing program and I can still hear her voice as she described the travesty of a grocery bag full of human ears that a general poured onto a table in front of her.
by Carolyn Forché
from The Country between Us
—for Josephine Crum
Upon my return to America, Josephine
the iced drinks and paper umbrellas, clean
toilets and Los Angeles palm trees moving
like lean women. I was afraid more than
I had been, even of motels so much so
that for nine months every tire blow-out
was final, every strange car near the house
kept watch and I strained even to remember
things impossible to forget. You took
my stories apart for hours, sitting
on your sofa with your legs under you
and fifty years in your face.
So you know
now, you said, what kind of money
is involved and that campesinos knife
one another and you know you should
not trust anyone and so you find a few
people you will trust. You know the mix
of machetes with whiskey, the slip of the tongue
that costs hundreds of deaths.
You’ve seen the pits where men and women
are kept the few days it takes without
food and water. You’ve heard the cocktail
conversation on which their release depends.
So you’ve come to understand why
men and women of good will read
torture reports with fascination.
Such things as water pumps
and co-op farms are of little importance
and take years.
It is not Ché Guevara, this struggle.
Camillo Torres is dead. Victor Jara
was rounded up with the others, and José
Martí is a landing strip for planes
from Miami to Cuba. Go try on
Americans your long, dull story
of corruption, but better to give
them what they want: Li’l Milagro Ramirez,
who after years of confinement did not
know what year it was, how she walked
with help and was forced to shit in public.
Tell them about the razor, the live wire,
Dry ice and concrete, grey rats and above all
Who fucked her, how many times and when.
Tell them about retaliation: José lying
on the flat bed truck, waving his stumps
in your face, his hands cut off by his
captors and thrown to the many acres
of cotton, lost, still, and holding
the last few lumps of leeched earth.
Tell them of José in his last few hours
and later how, many months earlier,
a labor leader was cut to pieced and buried.
Tell them how his friends found
the soldiers and made them dig him up
and ask forgiveness of the corpse, once
it was assembled again on the ground
like a man. As for the cars, of course
they watch you and for this don’t flatter
yourself. We are all watched. We are
Josephine, I tell you
I have not rested, not since I drove
those streets with a gun in my lap,
not since all manner of speaking has
failed and the remnant of my life
continues onward. I go mad, for example,
in the Safeway, at the many heads
of lettuce, papayas and sugar, pineapples
and coffee, especially the coffee.
And when I speak with American men,
there is some absence of recognition:
their constant Scotch and fine white
hands, many hours of business, penises
hardened by motor inns and a faint
resemblance to their wives. I cannot
keep going. I remember the American
attaché in that country: his tanks
of fish, his clicking pen, his rapt
devotion to reports. His wife wrote
his reports. She said as much as she
gathered him each day from the embassy
compound, that she was tired of covering
up, sick of drinking and the loss
of his last promotion. She was a woman
who flew her own plane, stalling out
after four martinis to taxi on an empty
field in the campo and to those men
and women announce she was there to help.
She flew where she pleased in that country
With her drunken kindness, while Marines
In white gloves were assigned to protect
Her husband. It was difficult work, what
With the suspicion on the rise in smaller
countries that gringos die like other men.
I cannot, Josephine, talk to them,
And so, you say, you’ve learned a little
about starvation: a child like a supper scrap
filling with worms, many children strung
together, as if they were cut from paper
and all in a delicate chain. And that people
who rescue physicians, lawyers and poets
lie in their beds at night with reports
of mice introduced into women, of men
whose testicles are crushed like eggs.
Then they cup their own parts
with their bed sheets and move themselves
slowly, imagining bracelets affixing
their wrists to a wall where the naked
are pinned, where the naked are tied open
and left to the hands of those who erase
what they touch. We are all erased
by them, and no longer resemble decent
men. We no longer heave the hearts,
the strength, the lives of women.
Your problem is not your life as it is
in America, not that your hands, as you
tell me, are trying to do something. It is
that you were born to an island of greed
and grace where you have this sense
of yourself as apart from others. It is
not your right to feel powerless.
You have not returned to your country,
but to a life you never left.
So take a moment and ask yourself what Audre Lorde admonishes US women to ask: “How am I using my power?”