What you have heard is true: Carolyn Forché and the Poetry of Witness

What you have heard is true. I was in his house. His wife carried a tray of coffee and sugar. His daughter filed her nails, his son went out for the night. There were daily papers, pet dogs, a pistol on the cushion beside him. The moon swung bare on its back cord over the house. —Carolyn Forché, The Colonel 

I was twenty-one when I first read Carolyn Forché’s “The Colonel” in my first year at

Carolyn Forché, 1950—present

The University of Winnipeg. The poem unraveled before me a picture of an evening at a colonel’s house in El Salvador during the civil war. I devoted a whole paragraph in an essay to “the moon swung bare on its black cord over the house,” outlining how it revealed certain claustrophobia on behalf of the speaker, but it was the following line that stuck with me:

“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.”

Immediately, I remembered my “mission” trips to Nicaragua where I had seen walls like this in Corinto. I had asked our hosts about them because some of the broken bottles still wore Fanta and Pepsi logos. Forché’s image was so striking I called back many of the memories I had of a neighbouring country that also still bore the marks of the civil war that had impacted it only a few years before.

I would later learn that Forché is an American poet who was invited down to El Salvador by a revolutionary to witness and write about the human rights atrocities in the country. Her travels produced two of her books The Country Between Us and Gathering the Tribes. Released in 2019, her memoir, What You Have Heard is True, tells the story of her experiences there and those specific moments that influenced her poems. These experiences lead Forché to become an activist with Amnesty International.

She went on to coin the term “Poetry of Witness,” which while some describe it as poetry about war, oppression, slavery, and other acts of violence, Forché in Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness, says poetry becomes witness in the reading. As readers, we witness trauma through poetry. Writing like this can give us insight into the realities of war that the news does not. Poetry of the Witness allows us to understand what these acts of violence feel like and do in the minute details of life, and how some of it is done on behalf of Western interests.

The Colonel reignited what some may call a white saviour aspect of me, the need to help in some way or further the kingdom of God. What it actually did was send me back to the Bible camp where I had a brain injury two years previous, where I would then start down the path of what people now call deconstruction of my Evangelical faith into a deeper, more intellectually rigorous faith practice heavily invested in writing and art. I am also suspicious of voluntourism and think more critically about Western intervention and colonialism in the Global South. I find the root of that in Forché’s writing. Her violently stark poetry shows me what an image can do, how it can reveal trauma and remind me to question my experiences and privilege. She will always be one of my teachers and guides, not only on what makes good writing but on how writing can inspire us to act once we hold certain knowledge.

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