Fifteen years ago, while working as a human rights activist in El Salvador, I had the occasion to dine with a high-ranking officer in General Humberto Romero's military regime. The following aide-memoir was among the seven poems included in The Country Between Us that had to do with human rights in El Salvador.
[Forché quotes "The Colonel"]
In a book celebrated and maligned for extraliterary reasons, this was the most widely discussed and most controversial poem. North American audiences were curious to know whether the events narrated were "true." One critic theorized that I had stolen the central image from an Ernest Hemingway novel, in which bulls' ears were severed after a bullfight. The colonel's gross display of human bounty seemed unimaginably inappropriate in the context of a suburban dinner party, and yet I was credited with having invented this and other details out of whole cloth. An early essay which I wrote on the formation of the death squads in El Salvador piqued serious interest at the New York Review of Books, until its fact-checker learned from the U.S. Department of State that the death squads were a figment of this poet-fantast's unrestrained imagination. I had been beyond the borders of hegemonic reality long enough to have developed a serious delusional condition. In choosing to present truth in a literary form, I had transgressed literature and forfeited the credibility accorded to "objective" and institutionally constrained journalists.
In 1992, I returned to El Salvador for the first time in twelve years. "Those who wanted you dead are dead, I was told. The colonel, too, is dead." While in the capital city, I met Doug Farrah, now of the Washington Post. "You're the poet who wrote the ears poem," he said. "Did you ever see my article in the New York Times?" I confessed that I hadn't. "It's about the ears, and the officer mentioned in the article was so proud of having his name in the New York Times that he had the article laminated for his wallet." In the library after my trip, I found the clipping from May 20, 1986:
SALVADORAN SOLDIERS TELL OF CUTTING OFF EARS OF DEAD REBELS.
Cerro Guacamaya, El Salvador (UPI)
Some Salvadoran soldiers say they have been cutting off the ears of dead leftist rebels to prove casualty counts. "We need something to prove we killed the terrorists," one sergeant said.
The officers of these soldiers say they are trying to end the practice, which they blame on the excitement of the moment.
Reporters traveling with an army unit on a counter-insurgency sweep in the northeastern province of Morazan on May 11 saw a soldier hold up two ears to prove that a guerrilla had been killed during a firefight near Cerro Guacamaya.
Other soldiers said it was not uncommon to cut the ears off the corpses of rebels to verify enemy casualties to commanders. But officers said they frown on the practice.
"Sometimes in battle, my men get excited and cut the ears off the dead terrorists," the lieutenant commanding the army unit said. "It is not something we order, but sometimes the excitement of the moment overcomes them."
As I read, it occurred to me to preserve the clipping myself, as a tangible fragment of that broken world. Perhaps it would one day serve some evidentiary purpose. Later in the trip, I was approached by an emissary from the American embassy, who informed me that I should stick to my poetry. "After all," he assured himself aloud, "nobody reads poetry."