The Colonel- a writing assignment

forcheWhat 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 about 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

Carolyn Forche

I received a text this week that immediately tickled me. It read:

A favor: can you give me a writing assignment? Nonfiction-memoir-essay. Word limit. Some kind of topic/question? I need some direction. Thank you. 🙂

I was so flattered to receive this text from a seriously smart friend who is a writer that I actually asked my husband if he received the text too- since he’s also a writer. No, he hadn’t. Nice.

I wanted to give it some real thought. What would be a challenging, meaningful assignment for this particular person that she would dive into?

Right away what came to mind was a favorite assignment of mine from a Craft of Fiction class at Sarah Lawrence College. We were told to write a poem, a sonnet, copying a well-known sonnet’s syntax exactly. The number of words (and syllables) had to be the same, the syntax (parts of speech) and punctuation identical, but the actual words written would be your own. The sonnet would be your creation. I loved this assignment and wrote the one-and-only gothic horror poem I’d ever written. And I wasn’t copying a gothic horror sonnet. The assignment made me realize how there are phrasings and sentence structures that I NEVER go to, never create. Structures that bend my ear or pen and thus I don’t go that way. But what an amazing exercise to try. Nowadays, my second drafts always include some sentence structure variation. And my first draft sentence structures are often stunningly similar throughout whole paragraphs.

So I told my friend that Part 2 of her assignment would be to pick her favorite poet and do this exercise. I did away with the sonnet thing, since were not MFA grad students. I mentioned that my favorite poet is Carolyn Forche.

Her response was immediate. “Carolyn Forche!!” She told me that Forche’s collection of poems about El Salvador was the one book she took off her father’s bookshelf.

This poem, The Colonel, is my favorite. It would not at all be a good poem for the copying syntax assignment. For one thing, there are no line breaks, it’s a prose poem. There’s no punctuation beyond periods an occasional comma and one perfectly placed colon. As I typed Forche’s poem today, I was intrigued to find how many of the sentences in this poem have the most simple structure available: subject, verb, noun. I tend to capture my thoughts this way too, but I don’t think that’s what Forche was doing.

The subject, story and images of this poem are so brutal and dramatic that I think she was avoiding over-statement. She was letting the terrible facts speak for themselves. Letting the murderous colonel speak for himself. She didn’t embellish or decorate the poem. I feel her fear when he says- something for your poetry, no? She did and didn’t make poetry of the experience. She told it.

My friend’s father passed away when she was very young. And her telling me about his copy of Forche’s The Country Between Us, which is now hers, gave me the perfect assignment for her. Write an essay, 1000-2000 words about an object or objects of someone who is no longer with you. I can’t wait to see what she’ll do.

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One comment

  1. So powerful is the poem’s force that while reading your telling of the assignment I found my thoughts drifting back to the poetry over and over driven out on waves of revolting imagery and back to bay in sheer awe of the writing.

    As for the task you devised for your friend, I enjoyed following the trail of your thoughts as you laid forth the process of how you chose the assignment.
    I can’t help but wonder what you would write in answer to
    to the challenge proffered .

    Liked by 1 person

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