For the most part of history, the poet has spoken to a small circle of rulers who, on top of exerting economic, political, and military power over the toiling masses, also made themselves the ultimate arbiter of culture. In this context, poetry became, to borrow the words of Bertolt Brecht, “the heirlooms of a depraved and parasitic class.” The sophisticated culture of the ruling classes is the yardstick with which good taste is measured. Poetry that was valuable was those that glorified the ruling order.
The oeuvre of El Salvadoran revolutionary Roque Dalton stands out as a direct opposition to this conception of poetry and literature. Dalton was diametrically opposed to a poetry that sought to curry favors from the powerful or recite exaltation of beauty that obscure the reality of exploitation and social injustices. He not only sought to represent the world truthfully but also aspired to articulate the pent up anger of the wretched of the earth.
Small Hours of the Night: Selected Poems of Roque Dalton, edited by Hardie St. Martin and published by Curbstone Press, is a selection of poems from throughout Dalton’s poetic career. Included here are poems from 10 of Dalton’s books — a virtual chronicle of the maturing of Dalton’s poetic talents. Rightly so, the poems in here form a record of his development as a writer who has step by step combined political commitment as a revolutionary fighter and as a poet.
This is a process that culminated in poetry books such as The Banned Histories of Tom Thumb and his final and most admired work, Clandestine Poems. Dalton by then, in the words of Nicaraguan poet Claribel Alegria, “achieved a seamless union between those two callings. His personal ethics and aesthetics, forged in the incandescent reality of El Salvador, produced a human being whose personal life and poetry were of a single piece.”
A good number of the poems in Small Hours of the Night: Selected Poems of Roque Dalton are about life in prison. Dalton wrote “Minor Chorus in the Fifth Cell” in exile in Mexico after his first arrest and detention. He barely escaped death when he was released after a coup d’etat overthrew El Salvadoran Dictator Jose Maria Lemus a just a day before he was scheduled to be executed by firing squad on October 26, 1960. The poem is a testament to his indomitable spirit:
I on account of poverty eternal and complete,
I on account of being an idiot, a good man,
I because I had to teach the world a lesson,
I because I said it was so,
I because I spit my refusal in the dust,
I because I spit,
Dalton miraculously avoided another close brush with death a second time around when the 1965 earthquake allowed him to escape the shattered walls of his prison cell. These are poems written of a life truly lived dangerously, as the title poem “Small Hours of the Night” is ominously aware: “Don’t say my name when you know I’m dead: / I would come out of the dark ground for your voice.”
It is a truth now generally acknowledged by many (in the wake of the great mass movements and struggles of the 20th Century) that the personal— which can never be divorced from the questions shaping larger society— is political. And yet any endeavor to transform society will always fall short if not accompanied by the equally significant remolding of the self.
The political can also be deeply personal and nowhere are these interrelations more sharply expressed than in Dalton’s poetry.
In poems like “Terrible Thing,” we get a glimpse of the intensely personal and human costs of persevering in the revolutionary struggle: “My tears, even my tears / have hardened. / I who believed in everything. / In everyone.” Steeled by the suffering of friends, comrades, and the common people, he confesses: “It’s late now / and tenderness is no longer enough.”
Dalton poked fun at everything and this ironic disposition made its way to his poems. He was, as fellow Latin American poet Ernesto Cardenal would put it, “a laughing revolutionary.” In “The Bureaucrats,” Dalton ridicules the class enemy and exposes them as all too human beings:
They have exquisite handwriting and buy themselves neckties
they suffer strokes when they find out that their daughters masturbate
they owe their tailor bill they’re barflies
they read the Reader’s Digest and Neruda’s love poems
they attend the Italian opera they bless themselves
they sign strong anti-Communist manifestoes
adultery is their undoing they commit suicide without pride
they profess faith in sports and are ashamed
that their father was a carpenter
Sparing no Holy Cows, some of Dalton’s poems even join the polemics against the official Soviet line of peaceful coexistence with the imperialists and capitalists peddled by Khrushchev and dogmatically tailed by sycophants in the El Salvadoran Communist Party. Dalton’s sarcasm digs to the bones, as the poem “In Case of Doubt” demonstrates:
The Secretary General of the Central Committee
sticks his thumb up his nose.
Oh butterflies to strike one dumb!
Ah the offices of the Revolution!
As for me I’ll get me a gun.
As Alegria points out, “[Dalton’s] gift for self-mockery saved him from ever falling into the sanctimonious pose that frequently accompanies revolutionary fervor.”
Throughout Dalton’s works, one can feel a certain roughness or rawness of form. This is not surprising considering how, as St. Martin observes, “Dalton’s poetry was written in prison, in exile, in moments of loneliness and silent anger, in hiding or on the run from death.” And indeed, as Dalton himself would say, “I’ve been writing at quite a fast pace: for some years now I’ve always had to make myself write in haste, as if I knew they were going to kill me the next day.”
After dodging the bullets of the El Salvadoran dictatorship, death did catch up with him on May 10, 1975, four days short of his fortieth birthday. Executed by his comrades in the Ejercito Revolucionario del Pueblo on suspicions of being a government agent, Dalton died a martyr. As Cardenal said, “It was his destiny not only to sing it but also to give his life for the Revolution.”
Dalton answers the question of “for whom” squarely. — that is for struggling people and he did so to his very last breath. For there is no other concrete historical milieu that deserves to be written about in our time than the uprising of the downtrodden from centuries of degradation and joining together to collectively overthrow the rotten ruling order. Poetry, as Filipino literary critic and poet E. San Juan writes, “reaffirms its dignity by valorizing the historical process.”
Small Hours of the Night: Selected Poems of Roque Dalton illustrates how Dalton consciously sought to pay homage to the worldliness of the word. Forging the word as a tool for revolutionary agitation and propaganda, Dalton forcefully brings to the fore the inseparability of literature from larger society. His was a poetry that never failed to see how words are intrinsically enmeshed in the social world outside itself, as “Ars Poetica,” one of his last his poems reaffirm:
forgive me for helping you understand
That you’re not made of words alone
Note: Ten months ago, when I expressed a rekindled interest in poetry in this blog I also asked for recommendations for further readings on protest and revolutionary poets. William gave some leads and suggestions, which I promptly explored in the following weeks. He also offered to mail me a copy of Roque Dalton’s Small Hours of the Night. In December, three months after that exchange, I received a copy of the book. This slapdash write up is a bit late in coming, almost a year late in fact. Nevertheless it is one way to express my appreciation for the unexpected generosity.