IN MEMORL4M, JOSE R UDOLFO VIERA
1939-1981: EL SALVADOR
When Viera was Buried we knew it had come to an end,
his coffin rocking into the ground like a boat or a cradle.
I could take my heart, he said, and give it to a campesino
And he would cut it up and give it back:
You can't eat heart in those four dark
chambers where a man can be kept years.
A boy soldier in the bone-hot sun works his knife
to peel the face from a dead man
and hang it from the branch of a tree
flowering with such faces.
The heart is the toughest part of the body.
Tenderness is in the hands.
"Because One Is Always Forgotten "
"Because One Is Always Forgotten " appears in The Country Between Us, in the section titled "In Salvador, 1979-80. " A joumalist/poet/human rights investigator to Salvador during these years, Carolyn Forché recounts the events that led to her going to El Salvador in "A Lesson in Commitrnenf'(TriQuarterly [Winter 1986]: 30-38).
For other background materials, read the findings of the U.N.-sponsored "truth commission," which investigated some of the worst human rights abuses of the 12-year civil war. ( The New York Times, "U.N. Report Urges Sweeping Changes in Salvador Army (March 16, 1993, AI and A12) and "How U.S. Actions Helped Hide Salvador Human Rights Abuses" (March 21, 1993, Section 1, pages I and 10).
I strongly recommend addressing the controversy in the U.S. concerning "political poetry," perhaps at the beginning and then at the end of the discussion of Forche's poem and other poetry in this area. Forche's poetry and her views point to differences between formalist and "cultural studies" approaches to literature, differences that can also be usefully discussed in relation to other literary primary sources in assigned in the course and the discussion of values.
"Because One Is Always Forgotten"
This poem calls attention to the limits of inherited poetic forms and at the same time insists that poetry can be used for political as well as aesthetic purposes. "Because One Is Always Forgotten" is a very structured elegy. Forche wrote the poem in memory of Jose Rudolfo Viera, Salvador's Deputy of Agrarian Reform under President Napoleon Duarte.
Viera discovered that money that had been designated for agrarian reform was being pocketed by members of Duarte's administration and men high in the military. Some of that money was coming from the Carter administration, from U.S. taxpayers. Viera, who reported the corruption on news televised in San Salvador, was murdered by the "White Glove," a right wing death squad. He was shot along with two Americans, Michael Hammer and Mark Pearlman who were in El Salvador as consultants for agrarian reform. At the time of the murders, the three men were having a meal in the Sheraton Hotel dining room in San Salvador. No one was arrested, much less brought to trial. Some North American newspapers reported the deaths of the two Americans, but because Viera's death was not included in those reports, Forche felt the need to memorialize Viera.
The poem tightly compresses rhythm and images, suggesting that traditional forms necessarily strain or snap under the weight of political imprisonment, murder, mutilation. After the second line, the lines start "losing beats," as if atrocities in Salvador defy even one more word or beat. Forche undercuts the stylization that would comfort us, that would provide the consolation and closure that elegies have traditionally provided.
She also uses heart in a way that is the opposite of what we expect:
I could take my heart, he said, and give it to a campesino and he would cut it up and give it back:"You can't eat heart" is a spondee--all unaccented syllables have been removed--language at its most compressed, its most structured. "YOU CAN'T EAT HEART" also announces the limitations of poetic language. It (the heart), literally, cannot sustain human life. In other words, an elegy, however necessary, is not a sufficient response to events such as those in El Salvador.
You can't eat heart in those four dark chambers where a man can be kept years,
Although an obvious image of the four chambers of the heart, "Four dark chambers" refers to "la oscura " (the dark place), a prison within a prison where men were kept in boxes, one meter by one meter, with barred openings the size of a book.
A boy soldier in the bone-hot sun works his knife to peel the face from a dead manThe second line stops abruptly; again, it is as it the atrocities in Salvador defy even one more word. In Salvador, Forche actually saw human faces hanging from tree branches. The phrase 'Flowering with such faces" uses conventional poetic language in an extraordinary way.
The paradoxical last stanza asks readers to examine something we have long accepted, the cliche of the "tender heart," implying that we should probe some of our other assumptions as well
The heart is the toughest part of the body,Hands can do something (and herein is the VALUE). They can take action! Hands can "peel the face from a dead man/ and hang it from the branch of a tree." Hands can be the White Glove. But hands can also be tender; hands can connect people; hands can communicate.
Tenderness is in the hands.
Rather than provide consolation and closure, as would a traditional elegy, "Because One is Always Forgotten" asks readers to consider choices about their hands, their actions, their lives:
IN OTHER WORDS, THEIR VALUES!
Margaret Meador, humanities faculty