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Carolyn Forché’s poem “The Colonel” was first published in her 1981 collection The Country Between Us, the follow-up to her highly acclaimed debut collection, Gathering the Tribes. Much of The Country Between Us explores Forché’s experiences during a 1979 Amnesty International trip to El Salvador, which was in the midst of a violent civil war. In “The Colonel,” Forché details her encounter with a Salvadoran colonel and subtly speaks out against the brutality and human rights atrocities that the civil war has normalized.

Summary of the Poem

“The Colonel” is a single-stanza, free-verse prose poem, meaning that it does not follow a specific structure and eschews common poetic forms such as rhyme and meter. It opens with the phrase “What you have heard is true,” preparing readers for an account of real events.

  • The first half of the poem, lines 1–13, begins with a description of a seemingly normal dinner party. There is a wife with “a tray of coffee and sugar,” a daughter “fil[ing] her nails,” and “rack of lamb” with “good wine.” However, the bloody civil war that exists outside of the house intrudes upon the domestic scene. Interspersed throughout the poem are images of violence, such as the “pistol on the cushion,” the “broken bottles” embedded in the exterior walls (meant to “scoop the kneecaps from a man’s legs”), and the “gratings” on the windows.
  • The latter half of the poem, lines 14–25, describes the colonel’s actions. After dinner, the colonel gets up from the table and brings back an unassuming grocery bag. He then dumps out the bag’s contents: a collection of human ears. He denounces the speaker’s humanitarian efforts and carelessly sweeps the ears from the table onto the floor.

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