POET CAROLYN FORCHÉ first visited El Salvador in 1978 when, in the words of her self-ascribed mentor Leonel Gómez Vides, its peace was “the silence of misery endured.” The country was on the precipice of a deadly civil war during which more than 65,000 people were killed or “disappeared” by a regime supported by the United States. Forché opens her recent memoir, What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance, which reflects on those visits (she traveled there repeatedly between 1978 and 1980), with a description of finding the dismembered body of a man: “The parts are not quite touching, there is soil between them, especially the head and the rest. […] Why doesn’t anyone do something? I think I asked.”
Forché was in El Salvador on a Guggenheim fellowship, to work with Amnesty International. The resulting eight poems, published in the collection The Country Between Us (1981), are brutal in their stark depictions of rape, mutilation, torture, and horror.
“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,” she writes in “Return,” in which she tries to explain to her friend Josephine something of what she learned in El Salvador. In “The Colonel,” a colonel empties a bag of human ears “like dried peach halves” onto the dinner table, then ironically tells her, “Something for your poetry, no?”
The colonel’s derision of both the work of human rights and the idea of making art out of it is a subject that Forché takes up herself: “It would be good if you could wind up / in prison and so write your prison poems,” she writes, sarcastically, in the poem “Expatriate,” directed at a young American man who seeks violence in Turkey in order to play out his own naïve fantasy of politics. The poem is also, seemingly, a self-warning not to try and make a “muse” of conflict. In 1981, she wrote an essay published in Granta called “El Salvador: An Aide-Mémoire,” in which she elucidated the problem of being a “poet of witness,” the dangers of reduction and oversimplification, of poeticizing horror, of starkly dividing the world into black and white, of speaking for others, before nevertheless concluding: “It is my feeling that the twentieth-century human condition demands a poetry of witness.”
Her memoir, written over 15 years, is the story of how she came to this position, what happened during her journey in El Salvador, which “bequeathed an education on how to see the world.”
Starting from the myopic gaze of her 27-year-old self to the sights and encounters that she (and the reader) doesn’t fully understand in El Salvador, she narrates a shift in her act of engagement:
I would pay attention, and try to see as much as I could, not the world as imagined in my continuous waking dream, but as it was, not only the obvious but the hidden, not only the water cántaros but their weight, not only their weight but why it was necessary to carry water such distances.
She is guided in this journey by Leonel Gómez Vides, a man who she later described as “seeming like he was playing twelve-dimensional chess against the world, against evil.” He invites her to learn about his country after arriving unannounced at her doorstep in California and proceeds to arrange a kaleidoscopic series of meetings with corrupt high-ranking military officers, impoverished farm workers, and persecuted clergy. Each encounter is seemingly “a puzzle piece to be locked into place so as to reveal a picture he imagined he was showing me.”
Gómez Vides is himself trying to piece together the rhythms of change and to detach the distorted illusions from the reality of what’s happening in his country — the new human rights policies of the new United States administration, the position of the guerrillas, the internal games of individuals within the military. He understands the importance of gathering information without necessarily trusting it. Their relationship is complicated. Both need the other in different ways, and he endangers her life on several occasions. But underlying it is the unquestioning trust that he places in her and in her work.
“You have to be able to see the world as it is, to see how it is put together, and you have to be able to say what you see. And get angry.”
After she fails to provide an exact description of a suspicious man at a mass performed by Archbishop Óscar Romero, he tells her: “[G]uard your credibility. This is something that cannot be recovered once lost.”
Her encounters with women taking independent paths — a doctor treating the poor, a woman who entertains assassins in order to gather information, an endangered nun — and the relationships they form show both clinical and tender dimensions of female solidarity. It is with them that she narrowly escapes death squads on two separate occasions.
In her introduction to Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness (1993), Forché situates “poetry of witness” in a social space, “the sphere in which claims against the political order are made in the name of justice.” That anthology included 145 works by Latin Americans, Russians, Eastern Europeans, and Arabs, as well as those writing about the Holocaust — poets who had “endured conditions of historical and social extremity during the twentieth century.”
Poetry of witness is not political, she says, because it is not partisan, it does not celebrate solidarity in the name of a class or a common enemy. It is not intended to be polemical; it is a testimony, a solemn attestation to the truth. She draws upon the work of philosophers Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno who argued, she says, that oblivion, a mark of modernity, “is willful and isolating: it drives wedges between the individual and the collective fate to which he or she is forced to submit.” To be a poet of witness is therefore to be in solidarity with “the party of humanity.” By combining the personal with the systemic, it serves to create a space for sharing.
In Forché’s own poems, the clinical precision of the language of witness derives its power from its photographic quality. It has similar shock tactics to the works described by Susan Sontag in Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), such as the Krieg dem Kriege! Guerre à la Guerre! War against War! Oorlog aan den Oorlog! photography book, published in 1924 by German conscientious objector Ernst Friedrich, whose images were so graphic they were deemed unpublishable. That publication was based on the belief, unfortunately inaccurate, that if people could only see the true insanity of war they would not let it happen again.
But the job of poetry is to disrupt the rhythms and logic upon which we normally depend. In Forché’s “The Memory of Elena,” she transforms the meal of paella into “shells, / the lips of those whose lips / have been removed, mussels / the soft blue of a leg socket.” Part of the horror of these lines comes in visualizing the permutations of trauma, how it seeps uncontrollably into the everyday, how it contorts and warps. The shock is not in the immediacy, but in the lingering invasion of the senses which follows, and the intimate entrance we are granted to the workings of Forché’s own mind. It is a multilayered engagement, with both herself, the witness, and the victims.
If part of the power of “poetry of witness” is the personability of the witness, it raises the necessary questions of who is doing the witnessing and what they are choosing to witness. Witnessing, in itself, is not necessarily a “progressive” act. Bearing witness to human rights atrocities, of which there are no shortages, animates many humanitarian endeavors today. How we create testimonies, how we remember, what we do with what we have witnessed, before what court of law, are all ongoing questions, each with their own dilemmas.
When bearing witness is communicated through language, the specific language used differs depending on the witness and their motivations (known or unknown). A humanitarian may portray a traumatized victim, while the media may present an aggressor/aggressed binary. The agenda of the witness and the language they use to frame or fulfill that agenda, in turn complicates how we witness.
“‘I am writing these words from a prison cell’ […] is a dangerous sentence that can be used to exploit people’s feelings,” jailed Turkish author Ahmet Altan wrote in 2017 before being tried and sentenced to life in prison for allegedly having ties to the outlawed Gülen movement. He is one of a number of imprisoned Turkish writers publishing work from behind bars, building on a rich tradition of Turkish and Kurdish prison literature. Their voices remind us not only of this ongoing injustice but connect us without pity to their humanity, in the equalizing space of the imagination and resistance.
His attempt not to “exploit” readers through sentimentality indicates that, as much as there are ways of seeing and ways of telling, there are also ways of receiving and remembering. Like the Miklós Radnóti poems which Forché also references in Against Forgetting, this is “not a cry for sympathy but a call for strength.” It is an attempt to move from the purely personal into the social space, in which Forché had suggested that claims could be made not along emotional lines, but in the name of justice.
“[T]he protest against violence will not be forgotten,” Carolyn Forché writes in her introduction to Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness, “and this insistent memory renders life possible in communal situations.” What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance documents how we see and engage with the world through one woman’s consciousness. Her experiences led her to the conclusion that only by bearing witness and remembering can we be fully participatory citizens. “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.”
“[W]hat good is the memory archive?” the academic Andreas Huyssen asks. “How can it deliver what history alone no longer seems to be able to offer?” The act of bearing witness alone is not enough, but tracing Forché’s journey in El Salvador allows us to reexamine how we interpret, process, and remember. She opens the book with a quote from Salvadoran writer Manlio Argueta: “Hope also nourishes us. Not the hope of fools. The other kind. Hope, when everything is clear. Awareness.” We still face questions of how this witnessing, and memory created through witness, can be channeled in a collective way, not only to denounce, account for, and resist, but also to reimagine something better.