In Nadezhda Mandelstam’s memoir of the brutality she and her husband the poet Osip Mandelstam endured in Stalin’s Russia, she writes: “How will the historians ever get at the truth if every minute grain of it is buried under huge layers of monstrous falsehoods?” Even as varying accounts of Osip’s death in a prison camp arrive without certainty, she offers her memory of those years as an antidote to historical silence and state-sanctioned lies. Similarly, the American poet Carolyn Forché regards writing a “poetry of witness” as a means to counteract the monstrous falsehoods of a different conflict, the Salvadoran Civil War, by testifying to the lived reality of those who suffered its terrible violence. The conflict between left-wing guerrilla groups and the military-led (and US-funded) government broke out in 1979 and killed more than 75,000 people over 12 years.
Forché’s second poetry collection, The Country Between Us, emerged from a period of months spent in El Salvador as a human rights advocate and poet wishing to document a country on the precipice of war. The book’s widely read, unforgettable prose poem “The Colonel” begins with the line, “What you have heard is true” – the title of Forché’s memoir about that pivotal moment nearly 40 years ago.
The poem has, since it was published in 1981, accrued an afterlife deserving of its chilling attention to detail. The tense scene depicts an unnamed colonel emptying a bag of human ears on to a dinner table, remarking: “As for the rights of anyone, tell your people they can go fuck themselves.” Sweeping the ears to the floor, he adds: “Something for your poetry, no?” One ear drops into a water glass and comes alive there. But some of these ears, we are told, are “pressed to the ground”. Forché’s memoir turns this enforced silence into an act of listening and, in doing so, draws readers into an account of Salvador’s dead, the desaparecidos – or disappeared – and the living.
In 1977, after a summer in Mallorca spent translating the Nicaraguan-Salvadoran poet Claribel Alegría’s work, a then 27-year-old Forché opens the door to Leonel Gómez Vides, the mysterious cousin of Alegria, involved somehow in his country’s political resistance. What You Have Heard is True is largely the story of their ensuing friendship, which begins with Vides’s proposition that Forché should bear witness to El Salvador’s coming war – to, in his words, a “Vietnam from the beginning”.
As an American, Forché was wholly unaware of her government’s covert involvement in countries forming the United States’ backyard. Her months in El Salvador are told in a series of realisations, mostly brought on by the poet’s witnessing of injustice, poverty and corruption. Forché visits villages of rural farmers, the campesinos, forced by capitalist greed into starvation. She faces heavily armed death squads, meets all manner of Salvadoran and foreign officials as well as activists and poets, and brushes with death and disappearance, rarely listening to her own fear. The monumental achievement of this book might be Forché’s ability to defer her authority and give voice to those whom history has in some cases forgotten.
Still, every time the poet enters the house of a military officer, one expects to meet that colonel and his sack of human ears. Forché knows this is the case and resists it throughout, offering us only resonances of the moment alluded to by her book’s title. For example, before she leaves her San Diego home to travel to Salvador, we see her filling water glasses with the crushed heads and bent stems of carnations that “seemed still alive”, not unlike the revivified ear. The reader’s appetite for not just any story but that story is intriguingly strong; when it is eventually referred to it is done so almost offhandedly. The ears are set within the grisly human history of war trophies: the Scythians drank from the skulls of their enemies; the Portuguese conquerors of Brazil took nearly 4,000 ears as war booty; American soldiers in Vietnam were known to “string ears of the dead on their dog-tag chains”. War, and its dehumanisation, is nothing new. Forché reminds us that every unspeakable horror is but one among many. The details do and do not matter.
At one point in the memoir, Vides explains why he chose a poet rather than a journalist to bear witness: “I promise you that it is going to be difficult to get Americans to believe what is happening here. For one thing, this is outside the realm of their imaginations. For another, it isn’t in their interests to believe you. For a third, it is possible that we are not human beings to them.”
Ultimately, Forché owes her rebirth from a naive and self-concerned young woman into a determined and unrelenting activist to poetry. In her poetry, and in her extraordinary memoir of the period that would shape it, she demands an ethics of engagement with the self, the state, language and its aesthetics. She searches for humanity in each little grain of truth with complete conviction and remarkable courage.
Sandeep Parmar’s poetry collections include “Eidolon” (Shearsman)
What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance
Penguin, 400pp, £25
This article appears in the 26 Jun 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Restraining order