What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance By Carolyn Forché
Reviewed by Joann Gardner
Taken from the opening line of her poem “The Colonel,” What You Have Heard Is True is the title of Carolyn Forché’s recently published memoir. It concerns her involvement in events leading up to and including the civil war in El Salvador (1979–1992) and the relationship between that experience and her development as a Poet of Witness. Although Forché cites children of Salvadoran refugees (“who want to know more about their country”) and her own son Sean-Christophe (“so he will know this part of his parents’ past”) as her audience, this text has a much wider reach, including US citizens seeking to understand their country’s involvement in Central American politics, students of literature measuring the relationship between creative selfexpression and activism, and poets who must decide about their own place in an increasingly violent world. It also addresses women, singularly and as a group, for whom war has traditionally been considered a masculine undertaking. While this account offers no direct answers to the questions it raises, it does provide a number of details from which one may draw conclusions. What we know from the beginning is that it is factual, all the more gripping for the shock that it really happened—this way.
Forché’s account of her poetic re-education begins in El Salvador with a scene in which she and her guide, Leonel Gomez Vides, encounter a dismembered corpse in a cornfield. He has told her to wait, to stay behind, but the poet is not good at waiting, and her urge for immediacy takes her to a situation that is difficult to absorb. She notices flies and turkey buzzards humming about a corpse. A man’s crotch is covered with tar. His legs and one of his arms are gone, as is his head. Silently, hypnotically, the campesinos who accompany them collect the head, which is missing its eyes, lips, and tongue, and the severed limbs and reposition them around the mangled torso. They take off their straw hats and pray over the remains. “Why doesn’t anyone do something?” the poet thinks she asks.
This nightmarish event sets the stage for scenes teaching job in Southern California, to a country on the brink of collapse, where poverty, violence, and corruption are the norm. It depicts a flurry of encounters with figures who occupy the various sides of this conflict: from the military strongmen who live opulently off confiscated US aid, to public servants who make do with little to no resources, to the simple farmers who occupy the champas in the Salvadoran countryside and whose mutilated bodies are regularly displayed in public places as a warning against dissent. Such encounters are interspersed with memories from her own past in order to discern what she, a young American woman, could bring to bear on this suffering. It’s all part of a process, founded in a belief in words; a way of internalizing experience, so that it can be rendered with the immediacy and emotional accuracy that Witness requires. “Mira” (“Look, …”), Leonel would say at the beginning of each exchange, and there would follow explanations, clues that would lead her closer to understanding. Other senses were also engaged—hearing, smelling, tasting—and, after that, entries in her notebook, a shorthand of responses, written in pencil “so the words evanesce.” Here, one finds personalities, images, and encounters to help the poet remember. One also encounters silences: emotions and events for which there are no words, and in those cases, the page is left blank.
Identity is a recurring theme in this saga, pushed forward by the question as to why Forché would go to El Salvador in the first place. What was her goal? And who is this Leonel, really? The man who showed up at her door unannounced with papers and maps and convinced her to join him on this perilous journey? Who is she, a twentyseven- year-old woman, enjoying early poetic success, who sets aside concerns for her own safety for reasons that are not quite clear? To those closest to him, Leonel is a puzzle, a person not to be discussed. He seems to have no active employment, no fixed abode. He shows up and disappears unpredictably, sometimes in the company of another person, sometimes by himself. He takes her to meet peasants, dignitaries, soldiers, and men of the cloth; leaves her at various safe houses, apartments, flophouses, champas; depends on relatives and acquaintances to take him in. He uses pseudonyms, too, on one occasion, going by “Hermano” (Brother); on another, “Christos” from the movie Z. On yet another, he acknowledges that one faction of the guerillas calls him El Gordo because they think him fat. Even his aunt, Forché’s mentor Claribel Alegria, doesn’t know who he really is. “So who is Gomez?” Leonel says to Forché, “Nobody knows.”
Forché assumes various identities as well: Papu (adopted granddaughter of Grandpa Goodmorning), journalist, girl, nun, CIA operative, doctor, nurse ... poeta. This shape-shifting comes partially from her own lack of self-knowledge, partially from the various roles Leonel has her play. On one occasion, she poses as a doctor in a local hospital. On another, she is an emissary from the US government, trying to get information on an American citizen thought to have been “disappeared.” On yet another, she is a nun working with the resistance to locate the desaparecidos. Sometimes, she resents Leonel’s manipulations, sometimes she goes along with them, not fully understanding where it all will lead. She herself is a cipher, a collection of impulses that don’t quite add up. “Listen to me, Carolyn,” her friend Margarita tells her. “I’m going to try to explain you…” The poet seizes on this phrasing. ‘“Explain me,” I thought to myself, “good luck.”
In the course of several visits, the poet does learn from her experiences, not only about the political dynamics of El Salvador, but her relationship to the people who suffer under military rule. She moves from a condition of fear and disorientation to a determined focus, discovering in herself the courage not to look away. One stage in this process comes after a visit to a prison, where she is confronted with the stench of human waste and sees in a darkened room “wooden boxes the size of washing machines” in which men are kept in solitary confinement. Unsteadily, she returns to the van where Leonel is waiting, vomits, sobs, and says she has had enough. “Papu, listen,” he tells her. “You are always asking me why people don’t do something… Could you fight back at this moment?”
This lesson is followed immediately by another. She wants to cancel her meeting that evening with a group of local poets. She waits outside as Leonel goes in to deliver her regrets. One of the participants comes out and tells her that the meeting has been cancelled; the wife of one of the poets has just had a baby. She goes inside to see and discovers a woman lying on a blanket on the floor, her new baby next to her in a cardboard box. They have named her Alma, (meaning “spirit” or “soul”).
The spokesman presents her with a sheath of freshly mimeographed poems. “We were hoping that if you publish them in the United States,” he tells her, “you will be careful not to say who gave them to you.” This experience stays with her, guiding her responses to future challenges:
That night I knew that something had changed for me, and that I wasn’t going to get tired or need a shower or want to call something off … and I hoped that if I forgot this I would somehow remember Alma in the cardboard box in the barrio, and the mimeographed poems.
The final section of this memoir is devoted to returning. The poet has spent some time at the Catholic University, working on human rights. She has made the acquaintance of Monsen͂or Oscar Romero, the activist priest who shelters the poor and speaks out against the brutal practices of his government. She has survived several close calls with the death squads, including one in which she and an unidentified photographer prevent a massacre of refugees by threatening to record the event for the American press. Seemingly, she has earned a place in this world and a growing sense of her own worth, but even Leonel believes it is time for her to go home.
She returns to the United States a week before Monsen͂or Romero is assassinated and the civil war begins. She experiences what she describes as a period of great personal turmoil, in which she relocates to the East coast, teaches briefly at two universities, and publishes her new book of poems, containing her iconic prose poem about “The Colonel,” with his bag of human ears. The implicit question for this phase of her existence is: can a young American woman experience such atrocities and not be permanently marked by them? Can she put aside these images and live?
The answer comes in the form the American photojournalist whose path she crossed during a raid in El Salvador. Having been assigned to write the narrative for a book of photographs, she works with him to communicate the truth about events leading up to the Salvadoran civil war. They go on to marry and have a son, exchanging cartons of cigarettes and mugs of black coffee for juice boxes and Legos, strategies of evasion for scheduled play dates, and a fixed abode. But there is always a sense of disassociation for her between what Americans assume about El Salvador and what she has learned from her experiences there. A young defector from the Salvadoran army comes to stay with them while seeking asylum. He testifies before Congress as to the brutality and corruption of his government and is repaid for his efforts by being sent back to the Generals and to his death.
This is a compelling memoir, poetically written. It offers important contexts for Forché’s second book of poems, The Country Between Us, and it raises essential questions about the role of poetry: whether it can contribute to positive change; whether the cost to those writing it is worth the sacrifice. What is clear here is that it holds promise for those who believe, providing emblems by which they live and work. Even within a context of extremity, there is continuance: a baby in a cardboard box; words scrawled on a page.
Joann Gardner is associate professor of English at Florida State University, where she regularly teaches Contemporary Poetry, from both a critical and a creative point of view. She is the author of two prize-winning chapbooks, including, most recently, The Deaf Island.