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The Colonel

What could go wrong at the dinner party of a totalitarian colonel as a civil war is brewing? Carolyn Forché's "The Colonel" (1981) answers that question and critiques how those in power have often violated human rights while the rest of the world does nothing. Set in El Salvador in 1978, the speaker and her companion are taken aback when the Salvadoran colonel cuts their dinner party short. He swears, yells, and dumps a bag of severed ears unto the table. Examining themes like casual violence, the Other, and apathy, the speaker keeps an observational tone as she recounts her gruesome experience.

Warning contains themes of violence

The Colonel, caution mark, StudySmarter

"The Colonel" At a Glance

Written By

Carolyn Forché

Publication Date

1981

Genre

Prose poem

Meter

Inconsistent

Rhyme Scheme

None

Poetic Devices

Juxtaposition

Imagery

Simile

Allusion

Metaphor

Frequently noted imagery

Tray of coffee and sugar

Daily papers and pet dogs

Pistol on the cushion

Broken bottles embedded in the walls

Scoop the kneecaps from a man's legs

Rack of lamb, good wine, a gold bell

Many human ears on the table like dried peach halves

ears on the floor pressed to the ground

Tone

Observational

Key themes

Casual violence and warfare

The threat of the Other

Apathy in the face of violence.

Meaning

"The Colonel" is an examination of the casual violence inflicted by El Salvador's totalitarian government and the way other people around the world are purposefully ignorant to the brutality.

Carolyn Forché and "The Colonel"

"The Colonel" was first published in Carolyn Forché's 1981 collection The Country Between Us. Forché wrote the poem during one of her seven extended trips to El Salvador from 1978-1980. Already an acclaimed poet, Forché was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, which allowed her to travel to Central America as a journalist and human rights advocate. Her mentor was the Salvadoran political activist Leonel Gomez Vides. He wanted a poet to share the experience of El Salvador with the American people in the hopes that the war could be prevented.

El Salvador was on the brink of civil war when Forché first arrived in the country. Completely new to the world of war journalism, Forché was unprepared for what she saw in El Salvador. She was raised in a safe, Catholic home in Detroit, Michigan. It was a far cry from El Salvator, where Forché saw how children, especially girls, were abused and sexually mutilated. She learned about torture victims who were starved, beaten, and physically abused. And she was appalled that the health facilities in the country never received the foreign aid they desperately needed.

The Colonel, Salvadoran flag and peace sign, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Forché spent two years in El Salvador, where she became interested in human rights.

When Forché returned to the United States, she first attempted to write about the war objectively through the lens of journalism. However, poetry was the only way she found to truly express the horrors she saw. The Country Between Us (1981) and Forché's 2019 memoir What You Have Heard Is True reflect on her time in El Salvador and the human rights issues she came face to face with.

It is unclear if "The Colonel" was a real encounter that Forché had in El Salvador or a fabricated event written more for effect than for accuracy. Regardless, the poem highlights the casual cruelty and disregard for human life in the country. It also speaks to America's willful ignorance to the atrocities.

"The Colonel" Poem

Below is Carolyn Forché's poem "The Colonel" in its entirety.

WHAT YOU HAVE HEARD is true. I was in his house. His wife carrieda 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 thecushion beside him. The moon swung bare on its black cord overthe house. On the television was a cop show. It was in English.Broken bottles were embedded in the walls around the house toscoop the kneecaps from a man's legs or cut his hands to lace. Onthe windows there were gratings like those in liquor stores. We haddinner, rack of lamb, good wine, a gold bell was on the table forcalling the maid. The maid brought green mangoes, salt, a type ofbread. I was asked how I enjoyed the country. There was a briefcommercial in Spanish. His wife took everything away. There wassome talk then of how difficult it had become to govern. The parrotsaid hello on the terrace. The colonel told it to shut up, and pushedhimself from the table. My friend said to me with his eyes: saynothing. The colonel returned with a sack used to bring grocerieshome. He spilled many human ears on the table. They were likedried peach halves. There is no other way to say this. He took oneof them in his hands, shook it in our faces, dropped it into a waterglass. It came alive there. I am tired of fooling around he said. Asfor 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 lastof his wine in the air. Something for your poetry, no? he said. Someof the ears on the floor caught this scrap of his voice. Some of theears on the floor were pressed to the ground.May 1978

"The Colonel" Summary

The speaker asserts that everything the reader has been told is true. She was invited to dinner at the colonel's house in El Salvador in May 1978. The family seemed normal: the colonel's wife brought the guests coffee, his daughter tended to her nails, and his son went out for the night. The colonel's house resembled a lot of American houses, with daily newspapers, pet dogs, and TV playing cop shows in English.

The only signs that the man is dangerous and cruel are the broken bottles in the walls, designed to slash the knees of anyone who betrays him, and the bars over the windows. The colonel commands the conversation, asking the speaker what she thinks of El Salvador. He makes a passing comment that the people are becoming increasingly harder to control.

When his parrot says hello from the terrace, the colonel yells at his bird, gets up from the table, and comes back with a grocery sack. The speaker's companion silently tells her to say nothing. The colonel tips the bag over, and human ears fall onto the table and the ground. He becomes hostile with his American guests and says, "tell your people they can go fuck them-/selves" (21-22). The colonel then mocks the speaker, telling her this is good source material for her poetry. Some of the ears stay pressed to the floor.

"The Colonel" Analysis

The main literary devices in the poem are juxtaposition, simile, allusion, and metaphor.

What other literary devices do you see present in the poem?

Juxtaposition and Imagery

The poem begins with ordinary, peaceful imagery that makes the colonel's house seem normal—at least from an American viewpoint. The speaker notices,

...His wife carrieda tray of coffee and sugar. His daughter filed her nails, his son went out for the night. There were daily papers, pet dogs" (1-3)

The Colonel, Coffee tray, StudySmarterFig. 2 - The everyday imagery of the coffee tray and newspapers is juxtaposed with the colonel's violence.

This everyday imagery is expertly juxtaposed with the horrors that lurk in the colonel's house. The speaker also notices a pistol right beside him and

Broken bottles were embedded in the walls around the house toscoop the kneecaps from a man's legs or cut his hands to lace. Onthe windows there were gratings like those in liquor stores." (6-8)

This new imagery is filled with casual violence and human pain. The speaker's tone stays neutral and observational throughout the poem, even as the ghastly imagery is introduced and the horror mounts.

The juxtaposition between the normal imagery of the house itself and the violent imagery of the colonel shows how two-faced those in power at the time could be. While the colonel's people were starved and physically abused, he and his family enjoyed a lavish, prosperous lifestyle. The colonel is also supposed to be leading and caring for his people, but he instead controls them through violence and fear.

This early juxtaposition sets the stage for the poem's major themes and reveals that the colonel might not be as easygoing as he seems.

Juxtaposition: when two things are placed close together that have contrasting effects/images

Imagery: descriptive language that appeals to one of the five senses

Allusion

The poem's historical context is never directly stated, but allusions situate the poem at the beginning of the Salvadoran Civil War. The Salvadoran Civil War didn't officially begin until 1979, but tensions were mounting for years. The colonel makes it clear that there is unrest in the country:

...There was

some talk then of how difficult it had become to govern." (12-13)

Human rights violations were most common in the country during the civil war and the years leading up to it. The United States attempted to get involved, but many Salvadorans thought they were doing more harm than good. The colonel also hints at the United States's interference:

...I am tired of fooling around he said. Asfor the rights of anyone, tell your people they can go fuck them-selves." (20-22)

These allusions, coupled with the date at the bottom of the poem, help to establish the poem's background.

Allusion: a figure of speech in which a person, event, or thing is indirectly referenced with the assumption that the reader will be at least somewhat familiar with the topic

Simile

The simile complements the juxtaposition presented at the beginning of the poem. The speaker compares the gruesome sight of severed ears to the sweet, summery imagery of a peach. She says,

...He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like

dried peach halves." (17-18)

This startling comparison purposefully positions the violent with the natural. The speaker wants readers to be disgusted and terrified at how the colonel and those in power like him manipulate nature. They wield their power like a weapon and inflict violence on anyone who opposes them. This shows how casual violence has become in the country and how disturbing it is that people are apathetic to others' pain.

Simile: the comparison of two unlike things using like, as, or than

The Colonel, Dried peaches, StudySmarterFig. 3 - The speaker compares the severed ears to dried peach halves.

Metaphor

Later in the poem, the speaker compares the physically severed ears to the way that Americans choose to ignore the suffering of the Salvadorans through a metaphor, saying:

...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." (23-25)

While the image of the severed ears on the ground is chilling enough, the metaphorical meaning is deeply disturbing. The ears that are "pressed to the ground" are the privileged people in first-world countries. They choose not to hear the suffering of the Central Americans who are abused and murdered. Instead, they would rather be willfully ignorant and not have to intervene in other countries.

The speaker hints that this is one of the biggest problems in human rights: that people who can offer their support purposefully choose not to. They allow themselves to become deaf and blind to the suffering of others, enabling human rights abuses to continue.

Metaphor: the comparison of two unlike things not using like/as

"The Colonel" Themes

The three central themes in the poem are casual violence and warfare, the threat of the Other, and apathy in the face of violence.

Casual Violence and Warfare

The colonel is the embodiment of casual violence. His house is luxurious and comfortable, but it is also interspersed with instruments of torture and guns. He keeps his pistol on the cushion next to him like it is a pet and has bottles embedded into the walls for everyone to see what he's capable of. The colonel is so comfortable with the violence he inflicts on others that it is a daily part of his life.

The Colonel, Pistol and bullets, StudySmarterFig. 4 - The colonel keeps his pistol on the cushion right next to him.

The threat of war contributes to the violence that he inflicts. He states that it is getting increasingly harder to govern his people, implying that he is losing control over them. He responds to the threat directly with violence, but he also threatens the Americans, who he feels are overstepping and pushing his country closer to war.

The Threat of the Other

The colonel turns hostile towards the speaker and her friend because he views them as the Other. And being different than him makes them a threat. The colonel draws a hard distinction between himself and "your people" (21). Given the historical and personal context of the poem, we can assume that the speaker's people are probably Americans and/or human rights activists. Either way, the speaker's people pose a threat to the colonel because they want to enact change in the country. Even though that change would likely benefit the lives of most people in El Salvador, it would change what the colonel's power looks like and he doesn't want that.

The colonel also mocks the speaker's work as a poet. He says,

Something for your poetry, no?" (23)

The colonel belittles the speaker's value in the country by contrasting poetry with the harsh reality of war. He is also devaluing the horror of the severed ears, diminishing their value as people as he implies the only thing they're worthy of is poetry. Again, he feels threatened by the speaker/poet because she represents all that is the Other. In his country, where power is exacted through violence alone, there is little room for poetry.

Apathy in the Face of Violence

The final theme is apathy in the face of violence. It is most evident with the introduction of the metaphorical ears. Even as the colonel yells, swears, and belittles the speaker, the ears stay firmly pressed against the floor. This is significant in that more powerful countries tend to turn a blind eye to the atrocities committed by dictators. As long as the dictators are not threatening America in some way, people don't care about human rights violations. The ears essentially show how most people choose not to listen to the horrors happening to innocent people in other countries. People don't want to intervene until they are the ones being affected.

Apathy: lack of concern or interest (especially for others)

Apathy in the face of violence isn't a new concept. People throughout history have ignored the pain of others if they themselves weren't being threatened. Oftentimes the only reason human rights infringements are punished is because a country threatens a powerful country's safety.

The Holocaust is one horrific example. The full extent of the genocide wasn't revealed until Allied troops witnessed the concentration camps with their own eyes. But refugees did tell others about the human rights abuses at the hands of the Nazis. In fact, the U.S. government turned away thousands of Jewish refugees who escaped the country because the State Department worried they were foreign spies threatening national security.

Apathy in the face of violence is also a prevalent theme in literature. Have you read "The Lottery" (1948) by Shirley Jackson? The people in the story are apathetic to the way their neighbors are killed until they themselves are the person being targeted.

Can you think of other examples of this theme in real life or literature?

"The Colonel" Meaning

When the poem begins, the colonel and his home seem very ordinary. He has a doting wife and typical teenagers. The colonel also has dogs, a television, and newspapers. The sun sets over his house as it does everywhere else and the moon rises. But underneath his comfortable, upper-class lifestyle is a strong current of danger. The colonel maintains his image because he wants the status and luxury of modern American life, even while the rest of his country is starved and abused. "The Colonel" examines the casual violence inflicted by El Salvador's totalitarian government. Abuse has become a way of life, entangled with the everyday luxuries of 20th century America.

The poem also examines how people in positions of privilege respond to such violence. This is somewhat apparent in the poem's tone, as the speaker remains neutral even during the height of the colonel's violence. She observes human pain in the same way she observes his comfortable lifestyle in the poem's first half. The speaker doesn't insert many of her own reflections but remains observational and unbiased throughout.

The ears are the only indication that the speaker is disturbed by other people's apathy. They are her subtle call to action to the American people. With metaphorical ears, the speaker argues that people around the world cannot be purposefully ignorant of the brutality of dictators. If they do so, they are no better off than the severed ears on the floor of the colonel's mansion.

The Colonel, crisis banner, StudySmarter

The Colonel - Key takeaways

  • "The Colonel" was written by Carolyn Forché and published in 1981.
  • Carolyn Forché traveled to El Salvador, where she became very involved in human rights activism.
  • "The Colonel" is a prose poem. It reads more like a short story than typical poetry.
  • The themes are casual violence and warfare, the threat of the Other, and apathy in the face of violence.
  • "The Colonel" is an examination of the casual violence inflicted by El Salvador's totalitarian government and how other people around the world were purposefully ignorant to the brutality.

Frequently Asked Questions about The Colonel

"The Colonel"  is an examination of the casual violence inflicted by El Salvador's totalitarian government and the way other people around the world are purposefully ignorant to the brutality.

"The Colonel" is a prose poem. 

The tone is observational. 

"The Colonel" is structured as one big block of text. It is written as a long paragraph instead of with the stanza breaks and lines typical of most poetry. 

The themes are casual violence and warfare, the Other, and apathy in the face of violence. 

Final The Colonel Quiz

Question

Who wrote "The Colonel"? 

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Answer

"The Colonel" was written by Carolyn Forché. 

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Question

When as "The Colonel" published? 

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Answer

It was published in 1981. 

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Question

What is the setting of "The Colonel"? 

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Answer

El Salvador

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Question

What is interesting about the imagery in the first half of the poem? 

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Answer

The imagery is mostly normal, everyday objects. The colonel has a TV, teenage children, dogs, and newspapers. 

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Question

What violent objects does the colonel have in his house? 

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Answer

He has broken bottles embedded into the walls to slash his opponents. He also has barred windows and a pistol next to him. 

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Question

What are the allusions in the poem? 

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Answer

The beginning of the civil war in El Salvador

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Question

What does the colonel have in the grocery bag? 

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Answer

Severed human ears

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Question

What are the themes in the poem? 

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Answer

The themes are casual violence and warfare, the threat of the Other, and apathy in the face of violence. 

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Question

What genre of poetry is "The Colonel"? 

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Answer

It is a prose poem. 

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Question

What are the ears a metaphor for? 

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Answer

The way that people in positions of privilege choose not to hear the suffering of the Central Americans who are abused and murdered.

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