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Melissa Batchelor Warnke

There Is No Other Way To Say This

Tony Comiti / Getty, Illustration by Homestead

Melissa Batchelor Warnke | Longreads | May 2019 | 14 minutes (3,668 words)


“What you have heard is true. I was in his house.” So begins one of the most famous poems of the late twentieth century, Carolyn Forché’s “The Colonel,” which was part of an early body of work that seemed to contemporary admirers as if it had “reinvent[ed] the political lyric at a moment of profound depoliticization.” The poem describes a meeting Forché had with a Salvadoran military leader in his home in 1978, a year before the coup that sparked that country’s extraordinarily brutal civil war, which lasted for more than twelve years. The poem’s power lies in the quick juxtaposition of quotidian details — the colonel’s daughter filing her nails, a cop show playing on TV, mangoes being served — with his sudden sadistic flourish:

…………..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. I am tired of fooling around he said. As
for the rights of anyone, tell your people they can go fuck them-
selves. He swept the ears to the floor with his arm and held the last
of his wine in the air………..

“Something for your poetry, no?” the colonel says next. The implication is clear; the young human rights advocate’s writing is pointless, the colonel’s position will forever afford him impunity. Read more…