The poet Carolyn Forché has devoted much of her career to writing what she calls the poetry of witness. She coined the term in her introduction to Against Forgetting, a 1993 anthology in which she collected works by 145 “poets who endured conditions of historical and social extremity during the twentieth century.” Forché herself had not endured such conditions, but she had seen them. From 1978 to 1980, she traveled repeatedly to El Salvador, where she bore witness to the violent repression of Salvadoran citizens by that country’s military dictatorship.
Forché later called her time in El Salvador a “moral and political education—what at times would seem an unbearable immersion, what eventually would become a focused obsession.” In The Country Between Us (1981), she offered a set of poems reflecting that immersion and obsession. Her Salvadoran poems rang with clarity, and with horror. In “The Memory of Elena,” a meal transforms into “the lips of those whose lips / have been removed, mussels / the soft blue of a leg socket.” In “The Colonel,” a colonel empties a bag of ears “like dried peach halves” on his dinner table as he derides the notion of human rights.
In her new memoir, What You Have Heard Is True, Forché explains how she arrived in El Salvador, and how she came to write The Country Between Us. The story begins with a summer Forché spent in Spain, translating the exiled Salvadoran poet Claribel Alegría. Alegría’s activist cousin, Leonel Gómez Vides, having read Forché’s debut poetry collection, invited her to visit El Salvador. Forché accepted his invitation in large part because she had struggled to understand Alegría’s poetry. Though she spoke Spanish well enough to translate, with assistance, Alegría’s work, she failed to grasp the poems’ “political and historical context, or, as [Alegría] would say, ‘the conditions from which the poems arose.’” In her memoir, Forché frames her decision to go to El Salvador with Gómez as a commitment to learning those conditions.