One of the most memorable poems I’ve ever encountered is by Carolyn Forché, a prose poem called “The Colonel”. Regarding the pre-civil war period of 1970s El Salvador, it’s one of her most famous.
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 black cord over
the house. On the television was a cop show. It was in English.
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. 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. 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? he said. Some
of the ears on the floor caught this scrap of his voice. Some of the
ears on the floor were pressed to the ground.
But there are atrocities of the everyday as well. Dorianne Laux gives us “What My Father Told Me”, featured in The Practice of Poetry as the exemplar for writing a poem that scares you, the writer:
Always I have done what was asked.
Melmac dishes stacked on rag towels,
the slack of a vacuum cleaner cord
wound around my hand. Laundry
hung on a line.
There is always much to do and I do it.
The iron resting in its frame, hot
in the shallow pan of summer
as the basins of his hands push
aside the book I am reading.
I do as I am told, hold his penis
like the garden hose, in this bedroom,
in that bathroom, over the toilet
or my bare stomach.
I do the chores, pull weeds out back,
finger stink-bug husks, snail carcasses,
pile dead grass in black bags. At night
his feet are safe on their pads, light
on the wall-to-wall as he takes
the hallway to my room.
His voice, the hiss of lawn sprinklers,
the wet hush of sweat in his hollows,
the mucus still damp
in the corners of my eyes as I wake.
Summer ends. Schoolwork doesn’t suit me.
My fingers unaccustomed to the slimness
of a pen, the delicate touch it takes
to uncoil the mind.
History. A dateline pinned to the wall.
Beneath each president’s face, a quotation.
Pictures of buffalo and wheatfields,
a wagon train circled for the night,
my hand raised to ask the question,
Where did the children sleep?
In The Poet’s Companion (pp. 64-65), Laux and her co-author Kim Addonizio open their chapter “Witnessing” this way:
What kind of times are they, when
A talk about trees is almost a crime
Because it implies silence about so many horrors?
”To Those Born Later”
The German poet and playwright wrote those lines in the thirties, but what he called the “dark times” are far from over. It seems we have always lived in dark times; from the beginning of human history, war and turmoil—over possessions, land, religion, grievances great and trivial—have accompanied our so-called progress as a species. Today we are no more enlightened; this century [the 20th; TPC was written in 1997] has seen destruction on a greater scale than at any other time in history.
Writing a poem in such times may feel a little like fiddling while Rome burns. Yet we’re poets. Writing is what we do in the world—or part of it anyway—and as ephemeral as it might sometimes seem, the making of poems is a necessary act, one that allies itself with hope rather than despair.
Language is a power that is used in many ways. Advertising exploits language to convince us we are buying not only a product but a bit of class, or sexiness, or sophistication. Politicians hire speechwriters to play on our sense of patriotism, our fears, our compassion for others. Read George Orwell’s famous essay “Politics and the English Language,” or his classic novel, 1984. Political doublespeak is everywhere. In a war, a phrase like “collateral damage” may be used to refer to civilian casualties. But even the words “civilian casualties” create a screen beyond which it’s hard to see real human suffering. Poems, on the other hand, use language to tell the truth, to accurately portray someone’s experience or vision; that’s the source of their power, and of their effects on the world.
In a sense, all poems are poems of witness. They record what it’s like to be alive, set down what is passing and irrecoverable. They say this happened, or this is what it felt like, or this is who I am, who she was, what they stood for. And also, of course, this is what never happened, according to a person who will never exist; those poems bear witness to the imagination, to the endless human capacity for creative invention. But we want to talk about witness in a more particular way. A poem of witness is the opposite of Brecht’s “talk about trees”; it wants to look at the realities and name them to retrieve them from the silence. It tends to look, not inward at the self, but outward to the connections between self and world, twoard the social and historical.
Your prompt for today? I give you several from which to choose. These are all from The Poet’s Companion.
- What issues in the world concern you? Write a rant; be as rhetorical as you like, get up on your soapbox and scream. Once that’s out of your system, you’re ready to begin a poem. Explore a large issue—racism, sexism, violence, war, vanishing wildlife. Find out how and where that issue enters your life, intersects with it. Make it personal: the story in the newspaper on your kitchen table, next to the plate of eggs; the homeless person sitting next to the Coke machine outside the grocery store; a walk in the woods; a remembered incident from childhood.
- Take a newspaper account of an accident—a riot, an assassination, a bombing—and imagine that you are one of the participants. Rewrite the account as a first-person poem, using some of the details from the account.
- Imagine someone who lives in another part of the world under very different economic and political circumstances. Have that person talk about your life in America from his or her perspective. You can also do this exercise by imagining someone else in America, but of a different class, race, and so forth.
- Everyone of a certain age remembers where they were when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Think about where you were when some major event occurred; write a poem that draws a parallel between something in your life and the event.
Or, take the cue from The Practice of Poetry: Write a poem that scares you.
NaPoWriMo: April is National Poetry Writing Month!
➡ IN CASE YOU MISSED THEM: