There is that old platitude about reading widely to expand your horizons, yet once in a while a book comes along that convinces the reader to retreat into a literary cocoon. Some reading is painful. I have a hunch this is why some people retreat into sentimental novels and saphappy poetry. This may be the case for some readers of Carolyn Forché’s, A Country Between Us. After reading it in the early 80’s I was unnerved by her personal bravery and riveted by her literary sophistication. Rereading more than three decades later, it still provokes and disturbs. More than this is directs our attention where it should always be, on the human cost of tyranny, injustice and war.
I like to think the best literature is timeless and wrestles beauty from an ugly world. A Country Between Us, Forché’s second book of poems, accomplished this feat with pluck and grace. Published in 1981, it made me aware of horrors I didn’t want to know my country’s government implicitly and sometimes directly supported. Through the lens of this women’s poignant lyric poetry, I was shown how tenacious hope lives amid those who would crush it. “As she walked through her village // the site of her opened its windows. // It was simple. She had come // to flesh out the memory of a poet // whose body was never found.” This was a poetry both biographic, historic and metapoetic. These poems re-sensitize us to the beauty of the human spirit in the pitch battle against cruelties inflicted on innocents in the name of democracy.
The book generated a barnstorm of critical literary reflection that continues to this day. It broke new literary ground by placing the political prominently into the personal poem. She was not the first or fortunately the last to do this but she did it with astonishing results. The Country Between Us spread across the American poetic landscape like a flash flood fertilizing sterile valleys. Her slim volume of poems won the Lamont Poetry Selection prize and even became a bestseller — an almost impossible feat in American poetry. Since then, Forché has become one of the most decorated of American poets, yet like all contemporary American poets, she is not a household name.
Poetically, The Country Between Us unveiled new possibilities for the poem. Up to this time, the poetry establishment (like the majority of Americans) ignored the messy, murky and arcane business of international politics. The support of dictators, despots and deadbeats (read Manuel Noriega, Papa Doc Duvalier, Myanmar Gaddafi) went under the radar of the general public and the mass media. With great skill she brought inside the poem horrific images, yet she did so without dulling our emotional responses with overwrought poetic effects or putting us off with didactic rants—never lecturing us on corrupt foreign policy. What she did do with unflinching aim was show us the enormous cruelties, both physical and emotional, inflicted on innocent people caught in the cross fire of civil war. “…people who rescue physicists, lawyers and poets // lie in their beds at night with reports // of mice introduced into women, of men // whose testicles are crushed like eggs.”
The book reads somewhat like a lyrical travelogue exploring the themes of admiration and alienation. It addresses the tender and painful emotional distance between people – thus the country between us. “I am the women whose photograph // you will not recognize, whose face // emptied your eyes, whose eyes // were brief, like the smallest // of cities we slipped through.” Another explores the world of strangers she returns too: “…a woman who has so rubbed her bright grey eyes // during grief that all she has seen can be seen in them //the century, of which twenty years are left, // several wars, a fire of black potatoes.” Yet another tells of a naïve young women being admonished by an older, savvy woman: “Your problem is not your life as it is // in America, not that your hands, as you // tell me, are tied 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.” In addition to this unifying theme, these poems are memoirs of witness of regional wars which leave lasting personal scars and haunting memories.
Like many writers, Forché had the curious luck as a young writer of traveling in a country torn by war. She traveled with an Amnesty International group as an activist when the El Salvadoran civil war of 1978 began. There she met activists and legendary figures of the leftist revolution, the beleaguered poor and a wealthy colonel who became the subject of what would become a well known prose poem (excerpted below). In her presence this unnamed colonel becomes unglued and issues a terrifying rant because he mistakenly believes Forché and her companion were U.S. government operatives. This moment among others changed her forever and helped to shape one of America’s outstanding contemporary poets.
As you read this excerpt from The Colonel, you find yourself in the room, not merely as a fly on the wall but as a potential victim. As the narrative progresses the tension rises and terror and fear overtakes the room. This is a rare picture of an evil man capable of civility and hospitality or cruelties and mass murder. This prose poem reminds me of those circles of hell described by Dante, but in this hell there is the uninterrupted terror of unchecked abuse of authority and no sense of social or divine justice. This is a portrait of a man blinded by his rationalizations from which he can justify any murderous cruelty in the name of civil order.
This poem, like the book it appeared in, is useful in understanding contemporary literary history and revolutionary history of democratic movements at large. It also gives us some perspective on contemporary democracy movements not only in Central and South America but those of the Arab world. There seem to be no end of men willing to shed innocent blood in the name of order, progress or patriotism. We should remember too that our history is littered with the blood of people who ran afoul of the cruel arm of governmental authority and out of this blood freedom was hard won in but a few places.
Warning: though this excerpt is no more distasteful then what most people see in action films or nightly television, its impact and greater since it represents historic crimes and atrocities against once living and breathing human beings — atrocities that continue around the globe in the name of law and order, leadership and governance.
…On 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
calling the maid. The maid brought green mangoes, salt, a type of
bread. I was asked how I enjoyed the country. There was a brief
commercial in Spanish. His wife took everything away….There was
some talk then of how difficult it had become to govern. The parrot
said hello on the terrace. The colonel told it to shut up, and pushed
himself from the table. My friend said to me with his eyes: say
nothing. The colonel returned with a sack used to bring groceries
home. He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like
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
glass. It came alive there…
You can read the entire poem and hear it read by the author here. The Country Between Us, by Carolyn Forché, Copper Canyon Press, 1981.