Monday, March 25, 2019

Books: "What You Have Heard Is True" by Carolyn Forché

What You Have Heard Is True: a Memoir of Witness and Resistance
By Carolyn Forché
Penguin Press; hardcover, 400 pages; $28.00

Carolyn Forché is one of the most gifted poets of her generation. Her works, including Blue Hour, The Angel of History, The Country Between Us, and Gathering the Tribes; has been translated into over twenty languages. She has received the Windham-Campbell Prize and the Academy of American Poets Fellowship given for distinguished poetic achievement.  

What You Have Heard is True is Forché's long-awaited memoir, the full story of the harrowing experiences which inspired a life devoted to activism and the "poetry of witness" that has  lived inside her. This is the powerful story of a young poet who becomes an activist through a trial by fire, and her brave choice to engage with horror in order to help others. It is also a look at her radical act of empathy, and her fateful encounter with an intriguing man who changes the course of her life. 
Forché is twenty-seven when the mysterious stranger named Leonel appears on her doorstep. The relative of a friend, he is a charming polymath with a mind as seemingly disordered as it is brilliant. She’s heard rumors from her friend about who he might be: a lone wolf, a communist, a CIA operative, a sharpshooter, a revolutionary, a small coffee farmer, but according to her, no one seemed to know for certain. He has driven from El Salvador to invite Forché to visit and learn about his country.

Captivated for reasons she doesn’t fully understand, she accepts and becomes enmeshed in something beyond her comprehension.

Together, they meet with high-ranking military officers, impoverished farm workers, and clergy desperately trying to assist the poor and keep the peace. These encounters are a part of his plan to educate her, but also to learn for himself just how close the country is to war.

Forché said of why she went with the stranger, "This is a question I've thought about for years. Why did I accept Leonel's invitation? If I could say something to the young woman I was then, I would thank her, not because she knew what she was doing and did it anyway, but because she didn't know and wanted, nevertheless, to walk through the door that Leonel was holding open. It was already dangerous, and he knew it, but he was determined to try to stop the repression of the military government and possibly prevent the coming war, whatever that took. Toward that end, he would enlist anyone he thought might help, even a naive poet from the United States, because he believed in the power of poetry to touch the human heart. That is a very Latin American view. He was surprised when I told him that poets were not all that visible in the culture of the United States, and therefore not considered important. He wanted me to change that. He thought it could be changed. More than wondering why I said yes, I wonder what would have happened to me if I hadn't, who would I have become without the severity of that education? He showed me what life is for most people in the world, and more than that, he showed me how powerful ordinary people can be, and how powerful poetry actually is."

As priests and farm-workers are murdered and protest marches attacked, he is determined to save his country, and Forché is swept up in his work and in the lives of his friends. Pursued by death squads and sheltering in safe houses, the two forge a rich friendship, as she attempts to make sense of what she’s experiencing and establish a moral foothold amidst profound suffering.

Forché said of what El Salvador was like that that time, "What I saw most immediately was the country of Claribel Alegria's poems: fourteen volumes, cloud forests, black sand beaches, a country jeweled with crater lakes, and bright with tropical flowers, where there grew coconuts and mangoes, papayas and some of the finest coffee in the world. But it was also a country of profound poverty - where most people lived without running water, electricity, medical care, education or a sanitary place to relieve themselves; a country of rampant but curable childhood disease, high infant mortality and low life expectancy, a country where most people worked from dawn to well past dark; a country of magnificent estates and gardens, where the few were able to live regally at the expense of everyone else. It was a country 'at peace,' which was the silence of misery endured, but in that moment, military and civilian death squads were terrorizing the cities and the countryside. Priests, teachers, students, labor leaders, nuns, social and health workers and the legions of poor campesinos were all targeted for persecution and death. There was palpable fear everywhere, but from the air and through the lens of a telescope trained on the distance, it was beautiful."

What You Have Heard Is True is the powerful and beautifully written story of a poet’s experience in a country on the verge of war, a brilliant but complex man who believes that we can and must make a difference, and a journey toward social conscience in a perilous time.

The Colonel 
By Carolyn Forché from her book The Country Between Us (1981)

WHAT YOU HAVE HEARD is true. I was in the 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 then 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 fuck 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

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