When exploring a vocation to the priesthood in my early twenties, the Society of Jesus was of great personal interest. Their promotional literature was hazy about the number of Jesuit priests active around the world: some were presumed dead, or incarcerated in places where proselytising was illegal. Others were working undercover. As I contemplated a life of celibacy and obedience, this, the sharpest end of the apostolic mission, was seductive. Aren’t we here for a purpose? Can serving the status quo in a quiet home town be acceptable? Ultimately, I joined my local diocese and started my formation in Rome’s English College but, given that the college’s protomartyr, Saint Ralph Sherwin, paved the way for a further 43 Reformation martyrdoms, there was no doubting the mettle of the humble parish priest. Indeed, El Salvador’s Saint Óscar Romero was (is) a personal hero. On an international stage, he found the courage to speak truth to power and paid the ultimate price for it.
The Bloodaxe reprint of Carolyn Forché’s 1981 collection, The Country Between Us, is timed to coincide with the publication of What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance, Forché’s memoir of her time in El Salvador as the coup and civil war bathed the country in blood. Forché’s poetry needs no explanation: The Country Between Us takes the humble metaphor to difficult places as we are reminded that, viewed out of context, body parts all too easily become abstract… horrifying. What You Have Heard Is True does not reduce the poems, it enriches them. Read together, poems and memoir remind us of our responsibility to witness to the truth but do not make light of the consequences.
Surprisingly, the structure, What You Have Heard Is True, reminds me of The Hobbit. The cosseted idyll of Hobbiton is re-cast as North America as, unannounced, the mysterious Leonel Gomez Vides, Forché’s Gandalf, knocks on the door with the offer of a mission to the Lonely Mountain:
He began covering the cleared table with white butcher paper cut from a roll he had brought, taping it down, and in the centre, he placed what few objects he could find in our cupboards: salt and pepper shakers, a shot glass of toothpicks, a paring knife, matchbooks, and to these he added things taken out of a second, smaller bag: a miniature metal replica of a World War II battleship, a Swiss Army knife, wooden matches and a pouch of Balkan tobacco. Then he set a pack of my cigarettes among these things.
“These cigarettes are now a military garrison. Sit down.” And then, “How much do you know about military dictatorship?”
No small talk, no How is Claribel? Just How much do you know? I didn’t know what to make of him.
Leaning over the paper, he began drawing a map of his country, almost without looking, moving the pen in a continuous bleed of ink, traveling in memory from the Guatemalan border south of the Bay of Fonesca, then east towards Honduras, suggesting the volcanic peaks and mountain ranges of El Salvador with a string of chevrons.
Carolyn Forché, What You Have Heard Is True, p 9
This idea gains contemporary resonance in the first poem in The Country Between Us, ‘San Onofre, California’. ‘We have come far south’, to the lazy warmth and comfort of a San Diego beach resort but:
If we go on, we might stop
in the street in the very place where someone disappeared
and the words Come with us! we might
hear them. If that happened, we would
lead our lives with our hands
tied together. That is why we feel
it is enough to listen
to the wind jostling lemons [.]
Forché’s poem hinges on the repeated conditional ‘if’ which suggests that thinking beyond the reassuring borders of home is difficult. It’s easier to think of the impoverished campesinos of El Salvador as belonging to a different planet, and not to the same landmass. However, in her memoir, Forché tells us that when Vides visited her in the States he always used his HiAce minivan – reminding us again of the interconnectedness of the Americas. Although Forché was writing in 1977, her poem feels freshly minted. She returns to this idea in the collection’s final poem, ‘Ourselves or Nothing’, dedicated to the Holocaust scholar, Terrence Des Pres. The poem steps back from El Salvador, and name checks several more of modern history’s notorious moments and places in a solemn litany. She concludes that ‘There is a cyclone fence between / ourselves and the slaughter and behind it / we hover in a calm protected world.’ Donald Trump’s campaign promise to build a wall on the Mexican border looms large, as does the UK’s eagerness to retreat into navel-gazing irrelevance. Bloodaxe’s reprinting of this collection is truly timely.
In ‘The Memory of Elena’, metaphor assumes the hallucinogenic quality of PTSD as:
We spend our morning
in the flower stalls counting
the dark tongues of bells
that hang from ropes waiting
for the silence of an hour.
Forché never unpacks this image, but its language is loaded. She knows that we know what is coming, and we supply our own flashbacks. And so we walk with the speaker and her friend as they struggle to live their lives in a world in which, unbidden, the imagination will insist on filling in the gaps and turning banal domesticity into the nightmare of the charnel house.
The paella comes, a bed of rice
and camarones, fingers and shells,
the lips of those whose lips
have been removed, mussels
the soft blue of a leg socket.
There’s a painterly objectivity to Forché’s ‘soft blue’. Reading the poems and memoir, Goya’s unflinching gaze was on my mind – and then she made explicit reference to Los Desastres de la Guerra:
El Playon “the beach” is a rock strewn with refuse and sea wrack a body a tin spoon bottle glass purple from the sun a paint can a skull with hair a shoelace trousers more bodies flocks of vultures fattening themselves on the ground a stripped spine a broken plate a palm open to the rain. El Playon is a body dump. “You lo vi,” Goya wrote beside his sketches. “I saw it, and this, and also this.”
What You Have Heard Is True, p 293
That Forché’s poems have not dated a day is a tragic indictment of humanity’s endless capacity to make the same mistakes and to commit the same crimes. However, they also demonstrate poetry’s power to bear witness and to play its part in speaking truth to power. Reading Forché’s memoir, it is clear that, like Romero, she took mortal risks to see what needed to be seen, and to write what needed to be written. Like the best priests, the greatest poets are living a vocation.