Roque Dalton | The Petite Bourgeoisie


Toward a Better Love

Sex is a political condition.” — Kate Millet

No one disputes that sex
is a condition in the world of the couple:
from there, tenderness and its wild branches.
No one disputes that sex
is a domestic condition:
from there, kids,
nights in common
and days divided
(he, looking for bread in the street,
in offices or factories;
she, in the rear-guard of domestic functions,
in the strategy and tactic of the kitchen
that allows survival in a common struggle
at least to the end of the month).
No one disputes that sex
is an economic condition:
it’s enough to mention prostitution,
the sections in the dailies that are only for her
or only for him.
Where the hassles begin
is when a woman says
sex is a political condition.
Because when a woman says
sex is a political condition
she can begin to stop being just a woman in herself
in order to become a woman for herself,
establishing the woman in woman
from the basis of her humanity
and not of her sex,
knowing that the magic deodorant with a hint of lemon
and soap that voluptuously caresses her skin
are made by the same manufacturer that makes napalm
knowing the labors of the homes themselves
are labors of a social class to which that home belongs,
that the difference between the sexes
burns much better in the loving depth of night
when all those secrets that kept us
masked and alien are revealed.

(from Clandestine Poems / Socialist Stories)



Poetic Art 1974

Forgive me for having helped you understand
you’re not made of words alone.

(from Clandestine Poems / Socialist Stories)



The Petite Bourgeoisie

(about one of its manifestations)

Those who
in the best of cases
want to make the revolution
for History for Logic
for Science and nature
for next year’s or future books
for discourse and even for
getting into the newspapers
and not simply
to eliminate the hunger
of those who are hungry
and the exploitation of the exploited.

So it’s natural
that in revolutionary practice
they give up their books and magazines
only in the face of the judgement of History,
morality, humanism, logic and science,
and refuse to give the last word
to the hungry and exploited
who have their own history of horror
their own implacable logic
and who will have their own books
their own science
and future

(from Clandestine Poems / Socialist Stories)



The Bourgeoisie

Those who produce liquor
and then say it’s not necessary to increase the salary
of the peasants
because they’re going to spend it all on booze.

Those who speak with their families
exclusively in English
amidst Dubuffet paintings and Bohemian crystal
life-size photographs
of mares brought back from Kentucky and Vienna
and charge us daily in sweat and blood
for their painful routine awakening
in this land of dirty Indians
so far from New York and Paris.

Those who’ve understood, that if one looks
deep enough, Christ
was really the Antichrist
(for all that stuff about loving one another,
without distinguishing between the penniless and the decent
and all this stuff about those primitive Christians conspiring
in the complicity of catacombs
and about the agitation against Imperial Rome
and the fish so like the hammer and sickle)
and that the true Christ was born in this century
and was named Adolf Hitler.

Those who vote in El Salvador
for the president-elect of the United States.

Those who propagate misery and malnutrition
producing tuberculosis and blindness
and then build
tuberculosis hospitals and rehabilitation centers for the blind
to be able to exploit them
in spite of tuberculosis and blindness.

Those who have neither homeland nor nation here
but only real estate
bounded in the northeast by Guatemala in the north by Honduras
in the southeast by the Gulf of Fonseca and Nicaragua
and in the south by the Pacific Ocean
to which real estate Americans have come
to build some factories
and in which little by little
cities, villages, villas and hamlets have grown
full of working brutes
and brutes armed to the teeth who don’t work
but keep the working brutes
in their place.

Those who tell doctors and lawyers and architects
agronomists economists and engineers
that if you hang around power it will rub off on you
and that every year there must be more drastic Penal Codes
and hotels and casinos like those in Miami
and five-year plans like those for Puerto Rico
and civilizing operations
consistent with eliminating the blue mark on the asses
of distinguished ladies and gentlemen
and irrigation canals to carry the little bit of water there is
exclusively to the land where that power resides
that’s so good to be around,
above all to those not professionally disposed
to take a stand in favor of so many stinking and barefoot ones.

Those who, to have freedom of the press
and constitutional rights,
bought newspapers radios and TV stations
including journalists broadcasters and camera people
and bought the political constitution
with the Legislative Assembly and the Supreme Court of Justice thrown in.

Those who, in order to sleep safely,
don’t pay the nightwatchman of the block
but directly pay the Joint Chiefs of Staff
of the Armed Forces.
Those who
in effect
have everything to lose.

(from Clandestine Poets / Socialist Stories)



I wanted

I wanted to talk about life in all the corners
filled with song I wanted to join a river of words
the dreams and the names what is not said
in the newspapers the agony of the lonely
caught in the folds of the rain
reclaim the bare parables of the lovers and leave them
at the feet of a child’s game
elaborating their sweet daily destruction
I wanted to pronounce the syllables of the people
the songs of their anguish
point out where the heart is lame
to say who alone deserves a shot
in the back to tell of my own country
lay down the exodus of the large
migrations that opened all the paths of the world
of love even dragged over there
by the ditches to talk to you about trains
and my friend who killed himself with another’s knife
of the history of all of the people torn
from the blindness of the myth of reefs
the century that will end with my three sons
of the tongues of the birds and the furious foam
of the great quadrupeds’ stampede
and I wanted to tell you about the Revolution
and about Cuba and the Soviet Union
and about the woman I love because of her eyes
of the smallest storms
and of your lives filled with sunrise
and asking people who saw it who said that
how could it be done I got here
ahead of you
and of all of the things of nature
and of the heart and its testimony
of the last fingerprint before annihilation
of the little animals and of tenderness
I wanted to say yes all that and tell
a lot of the stories I know and were told to me in my time
and all that I learned living in sorrow’s big room
the things that were said by the poets before me
and that it was good to know

And I could not give you more—closed door
of poetry—
than my own headless body in the sand of the ring.

(trans. by Anne Boyer)



El Salvador Will Be

El Salvador will be a beautiful
and without exception, a dignified country
when the working class and the people of the countryside
enrich it, bathe, powder and groom it,
when they cure the historical hangover
and add enough to it by a hundred fold
to reconstitute it
and start it moving along.

The problem is that today El Salvador
has a thousand incentives and a hundred thousand inequalities,
cancers, castoffs, dandruff, filth,
sores, fractures, weak knees and offensive breath.

A few machetes will be given it
also restored self esteem, turpentine, penicillin,
bathrooms with toilets and toilets with seats,
kisses and gunpowder.

(trans. by Zoë Anglesey)



No I Wasn’t so Ugly

The thing is I have a fractured nose
the tico Lizano gave me with a brick
because I said it was obviously a foul
and he said no, no, no
I’ll never again turn my back on a Guatemalan soccer player
Father Achaerandio nearly died of fright
since in the end there was more blood than on an Aztec altar
and then it was Quique Soler who hit me in the right eye
with the most perfectly thrown rock you can imagine
sure we were only trying to reenact the landing on Okinawa
but what I got was a ruptured retina
a month confined to bed (at eleven!)
a visit to Doctor Quevedo in Guatemala
and to Doctor Bidford who wore a red wig
that’s why I sometimes squint
and look like a dazed drug addict when I come out the movies
the other reason is the rum bottle blow
Maria Elena’s husband gave me
I really meant no harm
but then every husband is a world
and if we consider that he thought I was an Argentine diplomat
we have to say thank God
the next time was in Prague we never knew who did it
four thugs jumped me in a dark alley
two blocks from the Ministry of Defense
and four blocks from the offices of State Security
it was the night before the opening of the Party Congress
for which reason someone said it was an anti-Congress demonstration
(at the hospital I ran into two more delegates
who had come out of their respective assaults
with more bones than ever)
someone else thought it was the CIA trying to get even for my escape
from jail
still others that is was an example of anti-Latin American racism
and some of nothing more than the universal appetite for robbery
Comrade Sobolev came to ask me
if I hadn’t pinched the ass of some escorted woman
before protesting to the Ministry of the Interior
in the name of the Russian Party
there were finally no leads
and again we have to say thank God
that I continued as the offended party to the end
during an investigation carried out in Kafka’s homeland
in any case (and for what’s of interest to me here)
the results were
a double fracture of the lower maxillary
a severe cerebral concussion
a month and a half in the hospital
and two more months swallowing even beefsteaks as a liquid
and the last time
was when I was coming down a hillside in the rain
with an iron pipe in my arms
when suddenly a bull comes out of who knows where
I got my ankles tangled in the weeds and started to fall
the bull rushed by but since it was a huge prick
it wouldn’t turn around to finish me off
still it wasn’t necessary because
as I was saying I fell on the pipe
which didn’t know what else to do except spring back like a revolution
in Africa
and it broke my zygomatic arch (which is crucial
to the aesthetic quality of the cheekbones) into three pieces
That at least in part explains my problem

(trans. by Robert Marquez)



Poem of Love

They who widened the Panama Canal
(and were classified “silver roll” and “gold roll”),
they who repaired the Pacific fleet at California bases,
they who rotted in the jails of Guatemala,
Mexico, Honduras, Nicaragua *
for being thieves, smugglers, swindlers, for being hungry,
they always suspicious of everything
(“permit me to haul you in as a suspect
for hanging out on corners suspiciously, and furthermore
with the pretentious air of being Salvadorian”),
they who packed the bars and brothels of all the ports
and capitals of the region
(“The Blue Cave,” “Hot Pants,” “Happyland”),
the planters of corn deep in foreign jungles,
the kings of cheap porn,
they who no one knows where they come from,
the best artisans of the world,
they who were stitched by bullets crossing the border,
they who died of malaria
or by the sting of scorpions or yellow fever
in the hell of banana plantations,
the drunkards who cried for the national anthem
under a cyclone of the Pacific or northern snows,
the moochers, the beggars, the dope pushers,
guanaco sons of bitches,
they who hardly made it back,
they who had a little more luck,
the eternally undocumented,
the jack-of-all trades, the hustlers, the gluts,
the first the flash a knife,
the sad, the saddest of all,
my people, my brothers.

(trans. by Zoë Anglesey and Daniel Flores Ascencio)



Love Poem

The ones who widened the Panama Canal
(and were put on the silver roll and not on the gold roll),
the ones who repaired the Pacific fleet
at the military bases in California,
the ones who rotted in jail in Guatemala,
Mexico, Honduras, Nicaragua
for being thieves, smugglers, scammers,
for being hungry,
the ever-suspicious ones
(‘I bring forth this individual
arrested for being a suspicious bystander
with the aggravation of being Salvadorian’),
the ones who filled the bars and brothels
of all the ports and capitals in the region
(The blue cave, The panty, Happyland),
the ones who grew corn in foreign jungles,
the kings of the crime section,
the ones who no-one ever knows where they’re from,
the best craftsmen in the world,
the ones who were mowed down with bullets while crossing  the border,
the ones who died from malaria
or scorpion or snake bites
the ones who cried drunk for the national anthem
under cyclones in the Pacific or snow in the north,
the freeloaders, the beggars, the potheads,
Salvadorian sons of bitches,
the ones who barely made it back,
the ones who were a bit luckier,
the eternal illegals,
make-all, sell-all, eat-all,
the first to pull out a knife,
the saddest sad people in the world,
my countrymen,
my brothers.

(trans. by Luis Gonzalez Serrano)



The Certainty

After four hours of torture, the Apache and the other two
cops threw a bucket of water at the prisoner to wake him up
and said: “The Colonel has ordered us to tell you you’re to be
given a chance to save your skin. If you guess which of us has
a glass eye, you’ll be spared torture.” After passing his gaze
over the faces of his executioners, the prisoner pointed to
one of them: “His. His right eye is glass.”

And the astonished cops said, “You’re saved! But how did
you guess? All your buddies missed because the eye is
American, that is, perfect.” “Very simple,” said the prisoner,
feeling he was going to faint again, “it was the only eye that
looked at me without hatred.”

Of course they continued torturing him.

(by Luis Gonzalez Serrano)



The New Schools

In ancient Greece
Aristotle taught philosophy to his disciples
while they walked across a large courtyard.

Because of this his school was called “the peripatetic.”

Fighting poets
are peripateticker than those Aristotelian peripatetics
because we apprehend the philosophy and poetry of the people
while traveling
through the cities and mountains of our land.

(trans.  by Jack Hirschman)



Catholics and Communists in Latin America:
Some Aspects of the Problem

I was expelled from the Communist Party
a long time before I was excommunicated
from the Catholic Church.

That’s nothing:
I was excommunicated from the Catholic Church
after I was expelled from the Communist Party.

I was expelled from the Communist Party
because I was excommunicated from the Catholic Church.

(by Luis Gonzalez Serrano)



On our poetic moral

Don’t be mistaken, we’re poets who write
from the clandestinity in which we live.

So we’re not comfortable and unpunished anonymists:
we confront the enemy directly
and ride very close to him on the same track.

And we give the system and the men
we attack–with our poetry
with our lives–the opportunity to get back at us
day after day.

(trans. by Jack Hirschman)



The Warrior’s Resting Place

The dead are getting more restless each day.

They used to be easy
we’d put on stiff collars flowers
praised their names on long lists
shrines of the homeland
remarkable shadows
monstrous marble.

The corpses signed away for posterity
returned to formation
and marched to the beat of our old music.

But not anymore
the dead
have changed.

They get all ironic
they ask questions.

It seems to me they’ve started to realise
they’re becoming the majority!

(trans. by Luis Gonzalez Serrano)




Homeland you don’t exist
you’re just a bad outline of myself
words of the enemy I believed

Before I used to believe you were so small
you reached neither
north nor south
but now I know you don’t exist
and it doesn’t seem as though anybody needs you
I haven’t heard any mothers speak of you

That makes me happy
because it proves I made up a country
although I might end up in an institution for it

Then I am a little god at your coast

(I mean: if I am an expatriate
you are an ex-country)

(trans. by Luis Gonzalez Serrano)




The president of my country
these days is called Colonel Fidel Sanchez Hernandez
but General Somoza, the president of Nicaragua
is also president of my country.
And General Stroessner, the president of Paraguay,
is somewhat president of my country too, though not as much
as the president of Honduras,
General Lopez Arellano, but a bit more than the president of Haiti,
Monsieur Duvalier.
And the president of the United States is more president of my country
than the president of my country,
the one who, as I said, these days
is called Colonel Fidel Sanchez Hernandez.

(trans. by Luis Gonzalez Serrano)



Looking for Trouble

The night of my first political cell meeting it rained
my way of dripping was celebrated by four
or five characters straight out of a Goya painting
everyone in the room looked slightly bored
maybe of the persecution and even of the torture they dreamed of daily.

Founders of confederations and strikers had a certain huskiness and said that I had to choose a pseudonym that I had to pay five bucks a month that we agreed to meet every Wednesday and how was I going with my studies and that today we were going to ready a Lenin pamphlet and that we didn’t need to say comrade all the time. It had stopped raining when we finished mum told me off for getting home late.

(trans. by Luis Gonzalez Serrano)



I Stink

I smell like the colour of mourning on those days
when flowers wilt due to their price
like a poor man dying in a drought
with the certainty that it will soon rain.

I smell like the history of a small catastrophe
that has kept all the corpses
I smell like an old mess turned into faith
its great flame anointed with respect.

I smell like too far from the sea I don’t make excuses
I’ll die a little bit from this smell
I smell like meagre condolences
like pale shadow like dead house.

I smell like the sweat of iron like dust
land-sliding in the moonlight
like a bone left at the entrance to the labyrinth
in the dawn vapours.

I smell like an animal only known to me
faint over velvet
I smell like a child’s bad drawing
like eternity no-one would look for.

I smell like when it’s too late for anything.

(trans. by Luis Gonzalez Serrano)



On Headaches

It’s great being a communist
although it gives you many headaches.

Because communists’ headaches
are historical, that is
they won’t go away with painkillers
only with the realisation of Paradise on Earth.
That’s how it is.

Under capitalism our heads hurt
and our heads are ripped off.
In the struggle for Revolution the head is a delayed-action bomb.
In the construction of socialism
we plan for the headache
which doesn’t alleviate it – quite the contrary.

Communism will be, among other things,
an aspirin the size of the sun.

(trans. by Luis Gonzalez Serrano)



I’m Telling You

Homeland identical to yourself
the years go by and you don’t rejuvenate
there should be an endurance award for being Salvadorian
Beethoven was deaf and had syphilis
but the world has the Ninth Symphony
however your blindness is caused by fire
and your muteness from screaming.

I will return I will return
not to bring peace but the lynx’s eyesight
the hound’s sense of smell
ravenous love with national anthem
you’ve already eaten the body of Francisco Morazán from Honduras
and now you want to eat Honduras
you need to be slapped
given electric shocks
to return to your true self
you’re not Don Rafael Meza Ayau or Colonel Medrano
we’ll have to put you in bed
on a diet of dynamite bread and water
Molotov cocktail washes every fifteen minutes
and then we’ll have a real war
all together
to see if you sleep like you snore
as Pedro Infante used to say
furious bride
terrified mother.

(trans. by Luis Gonzalo Serrano)


As far as tragic poets’ stories go, Roque Dalton’s (El Salvador, 1935-1975) is perhaps the most tragic in Central America. In the 1950s as a Law student, he was the brightest of a literary movement which is now referred to as the Committed Generation, a group of militant leftist writers who saw art as a revolutionary act. ‘Commitment’ meant joining the cause of a communist revolution. Since any kind of dissent had been outlawed by military dictatorships in El Salvador since the 1930s, signing up to such an endeavour led to prison, exile or death.
Dalton embodied the movement’s spirit of radical, experimental and bohemian writing – he is equally known for weaving uncompromising leftist politics into avant-garde free verse as he is for a life of drink and escapades in various soviet-aligned countries. He called some of his collections ‘literary collages’, by which he meant a combination of found poems (historical documents, news, old poems, etc) and his own poetry around a theme, whether it was Communism in Latin America, the history of El Salvador or life in exile.
With a conversational style that reneged of the overly poetic (Dalton claimed to have ‘nothing to do with the Neruda family’) he borrowed from Salvadorian slang and celebrated a devious way of life with a brash sense of humour. His poems, though sometimes dated for the references to communism and revolution, still resonate with a common Latin American experience: a history of corrupt governments kept in power by a small group of wealthy families or the U.S. with the complacency of subservient middle classes and ineffective bureaucrats. Names of presidents and generals he mentions only need to be changed to current ones.
In Roque Dalton’s world reality in El Salvador was so mad that your options were to laugh or join the revolution. Or both. Dalton joined the People’s Revolutionary Army (Ejercito Revolucionario del Pueblo or ERP), one of five clandestine groups that eventually formed the FMLN guerrilla in the 1980s, now the political party in government. The ERP was regarded as the most extreme faction of El Salvador’s left wing movement.
The tragedy of Dalton came abruptly in 1975, when, after returning to El Salvador after years of exile or jail, he was murdered by his own comrades who accused him of being a CIA agent. The circumstances of his killing are sketchy due to the secretive internal workings of the ERP and the fact that his alleged killers, (the ERP leaders) have never stood trial.
Though widely available in Latin America, Dalton’s poetry was unknown to a large number of Salvadorians as it was banned until 1992, when El Salvador’s civil war ended. The ideological hangover that followed made his work too controversial to be taught in schools, effectively dooming the most innovative writer to have lived in El Salvador to oblivion unless readers were politically inclined to seek him out. In my opinion, this has contributed to a general misunderstanding of his work: conservatives dismiss it as propaganda, and the left, hell-bent on protecting Dalton’s killers have made its politics overpower the poetic.
To add insult to injury, the leaders of the ERP sold out after the war, making a deal with a right-wing government to introduce a series of neo-liberal policies. The group’s main leader now lives in England, where he made the startling transformation from Maoist guerrilla to conservative commentator. Twenty five years after Dalton’s death, the president of El Salvador made an official acknowledgement of the importance of the poet’s work to the country’s literature. Dalton’s family dismissed the president’s announcement given that another of the accused killers is a minister in his government.

Cordite Poetry Review






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