What you have heard is true. I was in his house.
His wife carried a 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 the cushion beside him. The moon swung bare on
its black cord over the house. On the television
was a cop show. It was in English. Broken bottles
were embedded in the walls around the house to
scoop the kneecaps from a man’s legs or cut his
hands to lace. On the windows there were gratings
like those in liquor stores. We had dinner, rack of
lamb, good wine, a gold bell was on the table for
calling the maid. The maid brought green mangoes,
salt, a type of bread. I was asked how I enjoyed
the country. There was a brief commercial in
Spanish. His wife took everything away. There was
some talk of how difficult it had become to govern.
The parrot said hello on the terrace. The colonel
told it to shut up, and pushed himself from the
table. My friend said to me with his eyes: say
nothing. The colonel returned with a sack used to
bring groceries home. He spilled many human ears on
the table. They were like dried peach halves. There
is no other way to say this. He took one of them in
his hands, shook it in our faces, dropped it into a
water glass. It came alive there. I am tired of
fooling around he said. As for the rights of anyone,
tell your people they can go f— themselves. He
swept the ears to the floor with his arm and held
the last of his wine in the air. Something for your
poetry, no? he said. 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.

May 1978

Analysis, meaning and summary of Carolyn Forché's poem The Colonel


  1. sam cha says:

    the “fuck” was never in the poem to begin with–forche did the dashes herself. which is an interesting move, in and of itself.

  2. David Clark says:

    Thanks for posting Forch&eaccute;’s poem here–it’s good to see her poems passed around!

    Only one criticism I have, and that’s about the editing out of the word “fuck” in line 28 of the poem. It may seem small, but its censorship brings up two important issues regarding art and the dissemination of it.

    First, there is the issue of the preservation of the work of art itself. Even a small change such as your insertion of three dashes to replace three letters affects the reading of the poem: did the author intentionally censor the “obscenity” and leave in the more obscene description of the ears and all of its implications? What effect does that have on the poem? Or did she put in the full word, only to have it redacted by a later editor? Or…? You begin to see my point. Having never read the poem before, would I have thought to make sure the version you published on your site was the original? It was only a fortunate thought that brought it to mind on my part; others might not have the same good chance.

    Second is the issue of priority of values. Why is it more offensive/dangerous to publish the work “fuck” than to discuss the whole idea of governing by force, cutting off ears of dissenters, etc.? After all, “fuck” connotes a sexual act, an act of love, care, and pleasure between individuals. It’s act is also an act of reproduction, of furthering human life. There’s no violence in it, no forced sex (that is rape). Dictatorship, the violent rejoicing of power over weakness, and the implied and stated atrocities that are a large part of the subject of Forch&eaccute;’s poem are far more dispicable than a simple word meaning a natural act of love, pleasure, and reproduction. I realize that some people are offended by the use of words such as “fuck,” but it’s not the poet’s job to cater to the audience’s whims. By editing the poem thus, you inadvertently change the nature of the piece–you alter a precisely balanced piece of art, you censor a word, and you change the reading of it. You also effectively say that the violent subject of the work is acceptable but a mere word for sex isn’t.

  3. Gunnar Bengtsson says:

    Noted, and I have edited these poems to correctly show Carolyn Forché as the author. Thanks for letting me know, and making the site better!

  4. Cameron Willis says:

    Erm… I am reasonably certain that the poem “The Colonel” was not written by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, but was instead the work of Carolyn Forché. In fact, you have a number of her works wrongly credited under Mr. Ferlinghetti’s biography.

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