Carolyn Forche Poems
Symbolism in the “Ordinary”
Carolyn Forché frequently uses images of everyday life to draw the reader into her poetry. After establishing a connection with the familiar, she often reveals a darker side of humanity, integrating the two seamlessly. The transition between the two mirrors real life, where horrors coincide with the peaceful reality many are able to enjoy. Forché uses this method to compare the lives of the rich and poor as well as the powerful and the weak. In her poem, “Return,” published in The Country Between Us (1981), Forché discusses the surreal feeling of returning to America after spending several years in El Salvador. Forché sets a similar tone in “The Colonel” as she recalls spending time with the upper class in El Salvador. Through the comparison of the working class El Salvadorians, whose reality is constant strife and unceasing violence, and those who control the country, Forché is challenging the reader to consider what is ordinary. The years Carolyn Forché spent in El Salvador was during a turbulent time for the nation. Many of the El Salvadorian working class, which was the greater percentage of the population, were tired of the poverty that was their reality. When El Salvador was colonized the indigenous people were suppressed and they were ready for change. The ruling class, however, were in control of the military. Anyone who was in favor of reforming the nation to make it a better place was labeled as a Communist. With this justification, the government waged war on the civilians who were already suffering in their everyday life. Forché was a witness to these horrors and made it her mission to inform the public of these formerly unaddressed atrocities. In “Return” Forché sets the scene by describing things that were once normal to her. The description of “iced drinks and paper umbrellas” breaks down slowly as she recounts her experiences to a friend (17). Forché is clearly still shaken by her experiences. Normal things that she wouldn’t have thought twice about before frighten her. After describing how her personal perspective has changed she begins to expand on her time in El Salvador. Forché describes the violence in El Salvador as “the mix/ of machetes with whiskey” where “the slip of the tongue/ costs hundreds of deaths” (17). This description of the upper class is in direct contrast with the pervious setting in Los Angeles where Forché views the consumption of “iced drinks” with their “paper umbrellas” (17). The difference between the two is the conversation—the simple act of drinking after dinner can become a plot to kill in El Salvador. “The pits were men and women/ are kept the few days without/ food or water” are frequently a part of casual “cocktail/ conversation on which their release depends” (17). Forché also comments on how this behavior encourages “men and women of good will [to] read/ torture reports with fascination” (17). This is just one example of the horrors occurring around them becoming commonplace for El Salvadorians. In Forché’s next stanza she attacks the approach of America’s solution to the problem. These “water pumps/ and co-op farms are of little importance/ and take years/” (18). This passive attempt at fighting poverty in El Salvador does not counter the violence created by those in power. These ordinary things don’t help the situation Forché details in her poems. It does nothing to counter “the razor, the live wire,/ dry ice and concrete” used in the torture of the repressed Salvadorians (18). The aid typically offered to impoverished countries would do no good in El Salvador, where the revolution had already started and could not be undone. The peaceful steps the workers had taken for more rights for the lower class were already being met with violence. In this country where “a labor leader was cut to pieces and buried” the United States actions were effectively worthless (18).In the third stanza Forché returns to a place many would recognize: Safeway. Forché uses the everyday task of grocery shopping to parallel the lack of food, shelter, and safety in El Salvador. She “goes mad, for example,/ in the Safeway, at the many heads/ of lettuce, papayas and sugar, pineapples/ and coffee, especially the coffee” (18). Forché continues her critique of America and adds another comparison to the El Salvadorian rich sipping on their whiskey. These Americans with “their constant Scotch and fine white hands” have “an absence of recognition” of how something they do habitually can adversely affect people in other places in a separate situation (18). These are the same Americans who make trivial efforts to help the El Salvadorian poor. Forché describes the wife of one of the powerful rich American men who she encountered in El Salvador as only providing “drunken kindness” (19). She not only inebriated from the “four martinis” she is able to drink while passing through the area without harm, she is also drunk because she has nothing to fear. The poor suffer and are slaughtered “while Marines/ in white gloves [are] assigned to protect her” (19). It is these Americans who Forché cannot stand to talk to or be around. She is right in assuming that many in the United cannot fathom the situations El Salvadorians deal with daily. The last stanza of “Return” gives a very detailed analysis of her overall opinion on American and El Salvadorian relations. Forché reiterates the problems and violence once again paralleling them with Western complacency. Americans “are all erased/ by them, and no longer resemble decent/ men” (20). Forché also writes that “the problem is not . . . life as it is/ in America, not that [our] hands, as [they] tell me, are tied to do something. It is/ that [we] were born to an island of greed/ and grace where [we] have this sense/ of yourself as apart from others. It is/ not your right to feel powerless” (20). As she writes, Forché points out how selfish it is presume ourselves powerless to help when these people truly have no control over their lives. The truth she reveals is that instead is that the majority people are too concerned with themselves to help solve or even understand the situation. Forché blames this attitude on the privileged lives that many are able to live. In reality, unless everyone share the same experiences, it is impossible to truly comprehend the situations of another because the concept of ordinary is different for each person. It is for this reason that the lives of others, so different from “our” ordinary, are processed in our mind with a sense of warped reality. “Return” is a chronicle of Forché’s personal experience dealing with a situation many could not imagine. She uses both her familiarity with both worlds to highlight differences between the two. This in turn shows how what in some societies is perceived as normal become perverted and dangerous in a different situation. People outside direct contact are so consumed with idea of the normal situation that it is impossible for them to see the truth. Forché uses her poems to help expose these events for what they are and inform more people in an effort to create change and make progress. In Forché’s poem “The Colonel” she goes more in depth description of the powerful people in El Salvador and the bizarre lives they lead. It is a single stanza long and written as more of a narrative than a poem. In it Forché recalls spending time, specifically eating dinner with, with the El Salvadorian elite. This is another contrast to many of her other poems, in a particular, “Return,” where she describes the eating habits of Americans. In “The Colonel,” however, a more disturbing side of the upper class is shown. Despite this, in this poem we also see their vulnerable side which is shown by the lengths they go to protect themselves from the people they have already worked so hard to suppress. Once again, Forché starts her poem with a simple setting: a dinner with a high ranking El Salvadorian colonel and his family. She writes that “his wife carried/ a tray of coffee and sugar. His daughter filed her nails, his son went/ out for the night” (16). For many this is a typical after dinner situation: conversation and coffee. Though as Forché mentions in “Return” conversations in El Salvador can be deadly. The first hints of the danger of this situation are clear when Forché observes her surroundings. She notices that next to the colonel “there were daily papers, pet dogs, [and] a pistol on the/ cushion beside him” (16). Again Forché diverts hers, and the reader’s, attention to the ordinary. She notes that in the background “on the television [there] was a cop show . . . in English” (16). This is countered with description of the outside of the colonel’s family’s home, something that would be assumed to be fairly normal. However, this house has “broken bottles embedded in the walls around the house to/ scoop the kneecaps from a man’s legs or cut his hand to lace. On the windows there were gratings like those in liquor stores” (16). In El Salvador the lifestyle of the rich and powerful is only protected by the violence and war they are willing to wage against the poor. The elite did this with blatant disregard for the rest of their countrymen. Paired with their lack of respect for the other humans lives around them is fear. They are so consumed with the idea of comfort they are willing to put their lives and morals in jeopardy. Forché comments on this idea that they are enamored with by mentioning the show on the television show. The idea these rich El Salvadorians are pursuing is the American dream. They want nothing more than to live like those in the rich American society and are willing to use any means to get what they want. Forché shows this to challenge people to think how our culture affects others and the people we have hurt in order to live our comfortable lifestyle. In the next portion of her poem Forché returns to her description of dinner and the maid that serves them. This is when the difficult and dangerous conversation begins. The colonel begins to as her questions about his country and her opinion of it. She answers these questions carefully but the colonel is still put into a foul mood by her answers. He complains of how the nation has “become difficult to govern” (16). The colonel then storms out of the room and Forché knows instinctively “to say nothing” (16). Soon he returns “with a sack used to bring groceries/ home. [From it] he spilled many human ears on the table” (16). This is an extreme example of Forché pairing something ordinary with something disturbing. By doing so she reiterates her point of questioning what is normal. “The Colonel” has more shock value than “Return” but it also seems more genuine. While “Return” was written in reflection, “The Colonel” was a direct narrative of something that occurred to Forché. She is still able to weave her use of symbolism into this real life situation. Carolyn Forché shows the parallel worlds of the rich and poor in El Salvador. She combines this with a description of her ordinary life in America. By doing so she causes the reader to question how the United States fits into the puzzle. When Forché shows both sides of life she is using them as foils for each other. Placing these three ways of life, the American lifestyle and the daily lives of the Salvadorian rich and poor, together allows Forché to shock her audience into reconsidering what is ordinary.