Monday, November 4, 2019

Witness is What You Must Bear

Many moons ago (1981) I had the good fortune to hear Margaret Atwood read from her work in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and the continued good fortune that same evening to attend the after - party at the home of poet Carolyn Forché.

The focus of Atwood's reading was her collection True Stories. During that intense hour, the segments that she read aloud were seared into my memory, ranging from the five wry "True ~ Romances" to the harrowing six - part poem dedicated to Carolyn Forché's resistance work in El Salvador (1978 - 1980) and her subsequent book of poems The Country Between Us.

A couple of misguided articles have recently interpreted Atwood's poem as a commentary on life in 21st Century Canada; but, no, this eye - opening and heart - breaking sequence honors Forché's work as a journalist during the Salvadoran Civil War:
Notes Towards a Poem that Can Never Be Written
For Carolyn Forché

This is the place
you would rather not know about,
this is the place that will inhabit you,
this is the place you cannot imagine,
this is the place that will finally defeat you

where the word why shrivels and empties
itself. This is famine.

There is no poem you can write
about it, the sandpits
where so many were buried
& unearthed, the unendurable
pain still traced on their skins.

This did not happen last year
or forty years ago but last week.
This has been happening,
this happens.

We make wreaths of adjectives for them,
we count them like beads,
we turn them into statistics & litanies
and into poems like this one.

Nothing works.
They remain what they are.

The woman lies on the wet cement floor
under the unending light,
needle marks on her arms put there
to kill the brain
and wonders why she is dying.

She is dying because she said.
She is dying for the sake of the word.
It is her body, silent
and fingerless, writing this poem.

It resembles an operation
but it is not one

nor despite the spread legs, grunts
& blood, is it a birth.

Partly it’s a job
partly it’s a display of skill
like a concerto.

It can be done badly
or well, they tell themselves.
Partly it’s an art.

The facts of this world seen clearly
are seen through tears;
why tell me then
there is something wrong with my eyes?

To see clearly and without flinching,
without turning away,
this is agony, the eyes taped open
two inches from the sun.

What is it you see then?
Is it a bad dream, a hallucination?
Is it a vision?
What is it you hear?

The razor across the eyeball
is a detail from an old film.
It is also a truth.
Witness is what you must bear.

In this country you can say what you like
because no one will listen to you anyway,
it’s safe enough, in this country you can try to write
the poem that can never be written,
the poem that invents
nothing and excuses nothing,
because you invent and excuse yourself each day.

Elsewhere, this poem is not invention.
Elsewhere, this poem takes courage.
Elsewhere, this poem must be written
because the poets are already dead.

Elsewhere, this poem must be written
as if you are already dead,
as if nothing more can be done
or said to save you.

Elsewhere you must write this poem
because there is nothing more to do.

Margaret Atwood (b 1939)
Canadian essayist, novelist, poet
More from True Stories
To learn more about Carolyn Forche's work in El Salvador,
please read her poems from 1982: The Country Between Us;
and her memoir (2019): What You Have Heard is True.

As one amazon reviewer of Forche's El Salvador poetry says: "Like Cassandra, Forché has been relegated to the realm of the unheard prophet who could have prevented the current (2018) tragic spectacle of the U.S. running concentration camps for migrant children."

My heroic friend Kathleen O'Gorman has spent the past year traveling from Illinois to Texas, talking to migrant children in government custody, documenting and bearing witness; she responds: "Interestingly, I have found, as I anticipate talks with different groups about my experiences at the border, I often think of the opening line of Forché’s “The Colonel”: 'What you have heard is true.' How horrifying that her frame of reference, El Salvador in 1978, resonates in any way with our present-day realities."

The Colonel
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 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 them-
selves. 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

Carolyn Forché (b 1950)
American human rights advocate, poet, professor
Carolyn reading aloud

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