In 1981 Carolyn Forché published a slim collection of verse, her second, titled The Country Between Us. The first section, “In Salvador: 1978-1980,” contained eight poems about El Salvador, including a prose poem that described the poet’s visit with a powerful colonel in the Salvadoran Army. The colonel served wine, lamb and green mangoes, and exchanged politenesses with his guests as an American cop show murmured on the TV; then he abruptly excused himself, returned and emptied a sack full of human ears onto the table. “Something for your poetry, no?” he said. “They were like dried peach halves,” Forché wrote. “There is no other way to say this.”
The Salvador poems made Carolyn Forché famous. The Country Between Us appeared just as America’s complicity in El Salvador’s civil war–during which the United States supported a regime that kidnapped or “disappeared” more than 65,000 people–seized the public imagination. As a groundswell of outrage at the Reagan Administration grew, the collection, with its vivid depictions of the ongoing torture, rape and imprisonment of civilians, sold some 70,000 copies–an astounding figure for a single book of poems by a relatively unknown poet. Inevitably, some critics saw Forché’s attempt to fuse poetry and politics as damaging to the integrity of both. Others took issue with her bald shock tactics: “Go try on/Americans your long, dull story of corruption, but better to give/them what they want: Lil Milagro Ramirez…who fucked her, how many times and when.” A few critics went so far as to suggest that Forché had fabricated her experiences in El Salvador.
But The Country Between Us is hardly a collection of agitprop. In a larger sense, the book is an account of a young poet’s hunger to be changed, to become adult (and her distrust of this same hunger). Indeed, fourteen of the poems have nothing to do with El Salvador; but they, too, chart the self’s compulsion to understand violence, and (in the case of erotic violence) to feel it. For every poem detailing “the slip of the tongue/that costs hundreds of deaths” there’s one scrutinizing “How my breasts feel, years/later, the tongues swishing/in my dress, some yours, some/left by other men”; for every depiction of brutal imprisonment there’s a poem about “how much tenderness we could/wedge between a stairwell/and a police lock.”
Some twenty years later, it’s hard to imagine that Forché’s book was attacked as it was. We are, of course, at a different place in the history of taste: After September 11 and fifteen years of reading Eastern European poets like Czeslaw Milosz and Adam Zagajewski, Americans are more comfortable with poets shifting between the personal and political in their work. And at this point, we know that Forché’s portrait of El Salvador was an accurate one. Even at her most pedantic, she sounds less like a left-wing groupie or a budding Adrienne Rich than any young person who has undergone an agonizing firsthand experience for which she was wholly unprepared. The poems are unflinching in their attention to the suffering of others, but equally forthright about the fact that such social weightiness can be trying if treated with a heavy hand (as it sometimes was); throughout, Forché questions her motives–her interest in witnessing–with a savage, self-questioning sarcasm: “It would be good if you could wind up/in prison and so write your prison poems.”
Soon after The Country Between Us came out, Forché published a piece in Granta citing the dangers inherent in bearing witness in verse to people’s suffering–the problem of reduction and over-simplification; of poeticizing horror; and the problem of the poet’s implied desire to see the world as a place of stark extremity–while at the same time eloquently defending the project. “What matters,” she contended, “is not whether a poem is political, but the quality of its engagement.” By engagement, she meant ethics; indeed, by the final poem of The Country Between Us, the poet had arrived at an ethical model: “There is a cyclone fence between ourselves and the slaughter and behind it we hover in a calm protected world like/netted fish…. It is either the beginning or the end of the world, and the choice is ourselves or nothing.” Needless to say, Forché’s model was: Tear down the cyclone fence. Ditch the fish. Choose “nothing” (i.e., the selfless path of the engagé) and in doing so become a “self.” And so she argued in Granta for a corrective to what she saw as an overly prettified strain of American poetry about the isolated self, writing, “I have been told that a poet should be of his or her time. It is my feeling that the twentieth-century human condition demands a poetry of witness.”