In the end, Leonel Gómez Vides had been correct to choose a poet.
The El Salvadoran showed up at Carolyn Forché’s door outside San Diego to offer her, a poet a few years shy of 30, an irresistible mystery. He invited her to journey to El Salvador on the brink of a civil war, so that she might one day return and bend America’s eyes and ears and hands. What You Have Heard Is True is Forché’s recounting of her travels, an eyewitness account of a country losing humanity and compassion like blood.
To understand Forché, one must understand her time in El Salvador; the experience was highly formative and is found throughout the rest of her humanitarian career and her politically engaged work. And to better understand El Salvador, which suffered for so long under a war whose American-aided brutality is difficult to comprehend, it helps to have a poet for a historian.
As Forché notes, wars reported by historians list their victims in round numbers, a literal rounding off of the ragged edges, the remainders. But a people on the verge of violence do not amass in straight lines, do not prescribe to a neat narrative decline, do not die in round numbers. They rend the foundations of their societies before losing all humanity supposedly holds dear.
War is butchery.
When Forché and Leonel come across two bodies in the road, the memoir truly begins. Talk of murder and missing digits is replaced by a corporeal danger across a country—a place where dead bodies are found by school children and army officials keep human beings in literal coffin freezers to feed their hounds.
Leonel was right to choose a poet, because only a poet as empathetic and brave as Forché could stand a chance of conveying what should be indescribable. Only a poet could translate the human experience of unraveling.
As the country around her fractures, so, too, does Forché’s narrative; excerpts of her notes pepper the memoir, run-on sentences like belt-fed bullets, notes always taken in pencil, whose phantom trace is capable of being erased like a life. Poetry is necessary to describe a world in which bodies are mutilated by machetes and carrion birds, where broken teeth and genitals dam silenced mouths, where corpses are tied to TNT to be scattered along the shore. Poetry is necessary to walk through a village razed to the ground, the populace machine-gunned and hung as vicious fruit.
From the lips of a former member of an escuadrón de la muerte are the reasons for Forché’s memoir and her poetry of witness: because we must tell of the depths of evil we are capable of, must speak of it to relieve the burden of souls and avenge the people torn apart and scattered by ego’s hands.
A reckoning only undertaken in journalistic dispatches and historical records is choked by the narrow ropes of those round zeroes; one must also understand the amputated limbs and hollow eye sockets of those who survived, those who died, those who disappeared.
Leonel was right to choose a poet, because only a poet has the language to bear witness.
B. David Zarley is a freelance journalist, essayist and book/art critic based in Chicago. A former book critic for The Myrtle Beach Sun News, he is a contributing reporter to A Beautiful Perspective and has been seen in The Atlantic, Hazlitt, Jezebel, Chicago, Sports Illustrated, VICE Sports, Creators, Sports on Earth and New American Paintings, among numerous other publications. You can find him on Twitter or at his website.