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The Colonel

April 15, 2013

After reading my post with the poem “Oxford” and the excerpt from the end of Animal Dreams, Freshhell commented (on Facebook) that “there’s something about poetry, visually, that makes me unable to read it. I think it’s the lines, the short sentences. But that block of prose, no problem. If poetry was visually more like prose, I’d probably read a lot more of it. I can’t say why this is.” I asked if she’d like a prose poem, and she said she would read it.

This is the first one I thought of, written in El Salvador in the 1970’s, when people were disappearing and you might never know what had happened to your child, your spouse, your friend, the lady down the street, the man who used to ring up your order at the store. I thought of it because it’s one of the most evocative prose poems I’ve ever read. The way the lines run into each other so matter-of-factly makes it especially scary. The image of the ears pressed to the ground–in addition to being macabre–is also an image of a tracker, trying to hear distant rumors of where someone might be through vibrations. And the way the poem begins and ends with hearing is so powerful; it’s from Carolyn Forche’s 1981 volume The Country Between Us, a volume compiled while she was working as a journalist for Amnesty International in El Salvador.

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 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.

What do you think? Are the lines of prose poetry easier for you to read, even if the topic of this particular prose poem is not easy for anyone to read about?

16 Comments leave one →
  1. April 15, 2013 8:44 am

    Yes! Easier and wonderful in its gruesomeness. Thank you.

    • April 18, 2013 7:21 am

      Interesting. I think it must be habit, kind of like the way I don’t like to read anything with pictures.

  2. April 15, 2013 12:00 pm

    Nope. Break it up into lines–heck, just break it up into multiple paragraphs! 🙂

    The first time I tried to read Kerouac’s On the Road, I just couldn’t do it. It might have been because I was three weeks into my own cross-country road trip and more than a little fried, mentally, but I think a lot of it had to do with the complete lack of paragraph breaks. Years later, I listened to an audiobook of it and absolutely loved it–and realized that it was more like a really long poem than like prose–it just had that rhythm and flow and diction that said “poetry.”

    • April 18, 2013 7:31 am

      I looked at a copy of On The Road I had right here next to my chair because Eleanor just read it, and saw that it does have a lot of big, long paragraphs. Now I’m more interested in reading it, myself. (She read it, as she also read Paradise Lost, with half an amused eye on the fact that the writers of the TV show Supernatural drew from it to tell their own story.)

  3. April 15, 2013 2:03 pm

    I prefer my poetry broken up into lines. A solid block of prose like that is more difficult to read I think. Great poem though.

    • April 18, 2013 7:32 am

      I usually prefer poetry broken up into lines, too. As I said, though, I find this prose poem particularly evocative, and partly because of its form.

  4. April 16, 2013 8:56 am

    It’s funny: I love prose poems in French. They are my favourite kind (hello Yves Bonnfoy, hello Baudelaire, hello Rimbaud!). But I found this really hard to read in English. I don’t know why exactly, perhaps it is the blockiness. Interesting experiment, though.

    • April 18, 2013 7:35 am

      I don’t read much French but I can see glimpses of what you’re getting at when I think about translations of the authors you mention, especially Baudelaire. I went through an adolescent love affair with Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil.

  5. April 16, 2013 9:25 am

    That’s really interesting, because in a way it’s very much like literary fiction. Though if it was regular prose, it would be long winded, whereas of course for poetry it makes sense to have the details, and if it were fiction then the jumps in subject would be very experimental. What Freshhell said is what I’ve thought in the past, even if overall I think I’d prefer it in lines. There’s this sort of slowness to poetry, because you have to read the lines, that of course is part of the reason it works, but to someone who doesn’t like poetry it’s off-putting.

    • April 18, 2013 7:36 am

      Oh, that makes sense; the slowness is what I like. With prose, I read through quickly, once. With poetry, I read it in a circle until I feel I understand something.

  6. April 16, 2013 1:49 pm

    Yes. This I can read and digest. Also appreciate (I would say like except the topic makes that impossible).

    • April 18, 2013 7:38 am

      Again, interesting. I guess you feel like you can’t always digest poems with shorter (perhaps denser) lines.

      • April 18, 2013 5:01 pm

        I’ve been thinking about this since I posted my comment (and since my blog post about poetry and how the words seem to interfere). And I’m beginning to think in addition to the words often intruding, it’s also the artificiality of the broken up lines that I find distracting and noisy.

        • April 18, 2013 5:52 pm

          Do you read poems out loud? That’s the best way for most people to get a sense of why the line breaks where it does.

          • April 20, 2013 4:19 pm

            I have, and I find it annoying as all get out. IMO literature of any kind should be able to be read to oneself and still be sensible/enjoyable etc.

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