THE MURMURING CROWD at Politics and Prose, a fabled DC bookstore, was first hushed, then applauded when poet Carolyn Forché walked to the makeshift stage alongside NPR book critic Maureen Corrigan, who would be interviewing her that night. Forché is elegant in a way that might at first seem at odds with a ferocious intellect like hers. To read her poetry and then see her in person is like imagining Grace Kelly in fatigues. The light of her eyes hasn’t dimmed: the same incisive gaze you see in the youthful photo on the cover of her memoir, What You Have Heard Is True, meets you on this night, and you realize the strength of soul needed for those eyes to have seen the horrors they have and still shine.
Corrigan and Forché are discussing the new memoir, which recounts the formative years of the young poet’s life after a stranger, Leonel, showed up at her door in the late 1970s and invited her to El Salvador, a country seething with injustice, oppression, and death in the lead-up to a civil war. The book’s title comes from the first line of her most famous poem, “The Colonel,” a study in what Hannah Arendt described as the “banality of evil.” We meet the military official at home, serving good wine and rack of lamb. We see his son go out for the night, his wife hosting the soirée, a cop show playing on TV. None of this is preparation for the chilling revelation after dinner (“There is no other way to say this”) when the Colonel returns with a shopping bag full of human ears and spills them on the table. “They were like / dried peach halves.” Relics of execution and torture, mementoes of brutality. He sweeps them to the floor in a menacing tantrum. “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.
“How did you come back from this?” Corrigan asks.
“I don’t think I came back,” Forché answers bluntly. “Someone else did.”
That someone else is who we’re hearing from. That someone else is the poet we know as Carolyn Forché—the poet who spoke for those listening ears, who gave voice to those terrorized and disappeared. She turned those ears into the gift of tongues. (This vocation of the artist is about as old as humanity, since Cain’s blood called out from the ground.)
In the Q&A afterwards, an earnest young poet asked Forché for advice about writing “political poetry.” She wasn’t exactly discouraging, but her reply was pointed: “You cannot sit down and decide you’re going to write a political poem,” she cautioned. “You can’t write out of intentional consciousness. If you want to write political poetry, become political.”
Then, unbidden, Forché remarked that the same is true for religious poetry or love poetry. Such art is not defined by its theme but by the cultivation of an unconscious suffused by relevant experience. There’s not a formula for creating such art, just the long slog of funding the imagination, like regularly dropping coins into the bank, not sure when you’ll draw on the capital. If you want to write political poetry, become political. If you want to write love poems that stand the test of time, risk love. And if you want to write religious poetry, it might be less a matter of selecting a religious subject and more a matter of devoting yourself, apprenticing yourself to the divine.
Forché’s work is now synonymous with the poetry of witness. This is at once a poetry of defiance and solidarity. In solidarity with poor and oppressed, sometimes artists will show us the invisible, give voice to the silenced, force us to see the disappeared. In that vein, the poetry of witness aims to “bring sin to the eye,” as Leonel puts it: “to make many acts of denunciation, large and small, to get word to the world and to arouse conscience.” The poet’s witness is a refusal of the torturer’s dream of complete control. The poet testifies to the image of God in all by rehearsing the horrors of those who would dehumanize them. And not only poets are witnesses: Picasso’s Guernica and Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” are in the same prophetic tradition of artists protesting, “Let my people go.”
Sometimes this means the poet looks straight at the death squads and says, We see you, and we’re going to show the world. Forché recounts her friend Margarita once hurriedly asking her to come to the Catholic seminary in San Salvador. “Bring your camera,” she said, “and your notebooks.” Be there and look like a journalist was the point. Hundreds of campesinos fleeing the death squads were seeking sanctuary in the seminary. Forché and an American photojournalist were called there “to prevent an attack if this could be done by our mere presence.” When the pickup trucks filled with soldiers arrived, the camera began to whir and click, while Forché started scribbling in her notebook. We see you, they were saying, and we are going to tell the world.
Forché has been telling the world ever since. Her work seems especially poignant when so much poetry would pretend to be political, because her poetry of witness is not a simplistic activism. There is a kind of activist art that devolves to propaganda because it allows a “message” to override the aesthetic (there is a “religious” art that does the same), and because it serves more as a signal to a few than a witness offered to the world. Like bad late-night comedy, such art only speaks in-house, to a clique of the already convinced. Such art evinces a position “we” agree with; so we settle for caricatures and clichés so long as they confirm our biases. Beware of poetry that you’re supposed to like for reasons that are non-poetic.
In contrast, both Forché’s poetry and the poetic prose of her memoir bring to life characters who are complex, conflicted, impure—which is to say, she tells the truth. (“You want to know what is revolutionary?” the larger-than-life Leonel asks her. “To tell the truth.”) Like her work, she exhibits a hard-won empathy. (It’s telling that Forché and her husband would later provide hospitality to a former death squad member.)
Art that settles for propaganda is Manichean in its simplicity: good vs. evil, us vs. them. But there is no such thing as pure evil, Augustine told us, and there are no simplistic monsters in Forché’s art. “Purity” is the pose of propagandists, not artists. Art’s power is its allusivity. But such allusivity—like the Incarnation—comes with risks. The oblique testimony that appeals to the imagination is the same testimony that can be ignored. At one point Forché quotes the Argentinian poet Antonio Porchia: “I know what I have given you. I do not know what you have received.” The gap between the two is the risk of art. He came to his own and they did not receive him.
If Forché’s name is synonymous with the poetry of witness, in reading her memoir you realize that this vocation arose from time spent with martyrs. “Martyr,” we should remember, is an English word bequeathed to us from the Greek martureo, to bear witness.
The constant presence in this story is Leonel, a character in every sense of the word, and one any writer would consider a gift. But another figure looms by a tangible absence: Archbishop (now Saint) Óscar Romero. He makes only a few cameo appearances, and yet he seems to organize the entire drama. His presence is luminary; to Forché’s young eyes, he emits light.
He, too, is a witness, a “voice for the people.” Forché shares one of her own snapshots of Monseñor Romero presiding at mass, an altar boy holding a telephone-like microphone before him so his voice can be heard by the throngs outside the cathedral and via radio in the mountains where the poor toil. That voice will not only speak to the people, but speak their names in a long litany of the dead and disappeared at the end of each mass, where coffins are lined up around the altar, “windows cut into the coffin lids,” too many of them resembling “photographs of children asleep.”
Forché was present for Archbishop Romero’s final interview. But more poignant is a scene after the official interviewer leaves, when the Carmelite Sisters of Divine Providence usher the weary monseñor into the kitchen to enjoy “platters of frijoles, plátanos, cheese, and fruit.” In her conversation with him, despite her protest that she is “only a poet,” Romero commissions her to bear witness: “he assured me that the time would come for me to speak, and that I must prepare myself and I could do that best though prayer.”
If you want to write political poetry, Forché told the young poet in the DC bookstore, become political. If you’re going to write religious poetry, practice the faith. If Forché was formed as a poet of witness by her experience in El Salvador, how much was her experience in El Salvador made possible by her childhood apprenticeship to the divine?
She recalls her early formation: “The girl I once was, who had been a Catholic, woke for the bells of the Angelus at six in the morning. Angelus Domini, I sang to myself as I walked to morning Mass under a canopy of maples, through a wetland of swamp cabbage and red-winged blackbirds, the quiet, low Mass where it was possible to pray in peace, with the Latin liturgy a murmur in the air.” Film critic Richard Blake talks about what he calls the “afterimage” of such Catholic formation—the way such rhythms burn their way into the mind, leaving an indelible mark. It is not an image we see but one we see with, a glass through which imagination is filtered.
When Forché brings us close to Archbishop Romero and the poor seeking sanctuary in the cathedral, she often adds an adjective: they are inside “the unfinished cathedral,” as if the building itself is looking for a different country.
It’s a reminder, too, about the nature of creation, especially in the saeculum, this present age between cross and parousia, when we still pray “Thy kingdom come” because it’s so painfully obvious that the kingdom hasn’t fully arrived. Creation is the unfinished cosmic temple in which artists, like the priest, bear witness to the world to come, or bring us face to face with the horrors of what we’ve done to it (and one another) in the meantime.
This brings to mind a poem by the late Rod Jellema, “We Used to Grade God’s Sunsets.” The poem recalls sunsets on west Michigan beaches, when vacationers would drag their lawn chairs to the crests of the dunes and watch “the fire dying down before us / into Lake Michigan’s cold waves” while children waited to catch the mythical flash that was said to follow. On those unspectacular nights when clouds robbed them, these creatures had the audacity to give the creator some notes on how to improve his effort, as if God was workshopping each sunset. But then Jellema pivots and sees in this something of the artist’s vocation. God, he suggests, “really is a hawker / of clichés, a sentimental hack as a painter.”
He means to be. He leaves it to us
to catch and revise, to find the forms
of how and who in this world we really are
and would be, to see how much promise there is
on a hurtling planet, swung from a thread
of light saved by nothing but grace.
The God who risked appearing in the flesh is the same God who leaves it to artists to bear witness.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.