Sunday, April 22, 2007

Roque Dalton, El Salvador's tragic revolutionary poet

“Poetry, like bread, is for everyone.”
— from the poem “Like You”
by Roque Dalton.

Throughout the 1960's and the first half of the 1970's, the muse of revolutionary movements in El Salvador was poet Roque Dalton. Using the pen, while also committed to armed struggle, Dalton captured the spirit of a generation of intellectuals committed to the overthrow of the oligarchy in El Salvador. Inspired by the Cuban revolution in 1959, Dalton was a pre-eminent literary voice of the movement.

Dalton's influence is described by Curbstone, the publisher of some of his poetry in English translation in this way:

Roque Dalton (1935-1975) was an enormously influential figure in the history of Latin America as a poet, essayist, intellectual and revolutionary. As a poet who brilliantly fused politics and art, his example could be said to have permanently changed the direction of Central American poetry. Author of eighteen volumes of poetry and prose, one of which (Taverna y otros poemas) received a Casa de las Américas prize in 1967, his work combines fierce satirical irony with a humane and exuberant tenderness. His legacy extends beyond his achievements as a poet to his political writings and his work in the establishment of the ERP.

Dalton's life was not the life of an author and poet confined to a desk. His actions and writings led to two death sentences from the rulers of El Salvador -- both of which he avoided at the last moment. From Dalton's biography on Poets.org:
Roque Dalton was born on May 14, 1935, in San Salvador, El Salvador. His father was one of the members of the outlaw Dalton brothers and his mother was a registered nurse whose salary supported the family. After a year at the University of Santiago, Chile, Roque Dalton attended the University of San Salvador in 1956, where he helped found the University Literary Circle just before the Salvadoran military set fire to the building. The following year he joined the Communist Party; he was arrested in 1959 and 1960 for inciting students and peasants to revolt against the landowners. Dalton was sentenced to be executed, but his life was saved the day before his sentence was to be carried out, when the dictatorship of Colonel José María Lemus was overthrown.

He spent 1961 in Mexican exile, writing many of the poems that were published in La Ventana en el rostro ("The Window in My Face," 1961) and El turno del ofendido ("The Injured Party's Turn," 1962). He dedicated the latter book to the Salvadoran police chief who had filed the charges against him.

From Mexico, Dalton naturally gravitated to Cuba, where he was well received by the Cuban and Latin American exiled writers who gathered in the Casa de las Américas. From that point on, starting with La Ventana en el rostro and El Mar ("The Sea") in 1962, almost all of his poetic work was published in Cuba. In the summer of 1965, he returned to El Salvador to continue his political work. Two months after his arrival, he was arrested, tortured, and again sentenced to execution. However, he managed to escape death once more when an earthquake shattered the outer wall of his cell, enabling him to dig his way out through the rubble.

This story of Dalton's escape in the earthquake found its way to his writing. An essay at the blog Venepoetics explains:
The final book of Pobrecito poeta que era yo... is based on his own escape from prison in El Salvador in 1964. Some of the novel’s most eerie, testimonial-like pages occur when a famous young poet is arrested in San Salvador and eventually interrogated by a CIA agent, who offers him opportunities and comfort if he agrees to abandon his militancy and instead focus on literature divorced from political engagement. The poet refuses this offer and manages to miraculously avoid death by escaping into the hills outside his prison, partly thanks to an earthquake. These events, narrated in the final book of the novel, are closely based on incidents in Dalton’s own tumultuous life, events that along with his brilliant poems and essays made him a legendary figure among Latin American and European intellectuals of his generation. The protagonist of the book, like Dalton, eventually flees San Salvador for Havana, from where he narrates his story.

Salvadoran writer Claribel Alegria in the Introduction to Small Hours of the Night describes Dalton's passion:
By the early 1970's the revolutionary spirit started gaining momentum in El Salvador, and Roque sought admission to the clandestine ranks of the Fuerzas Populares de Liberación (FPL). Its leader, Comandante Marcial, turned him down, saying that his place in the revolutionary ranks was as a Marxist poet and writer rather than as a foot soldier.

Anyone familiar with Roque's impassioned militancy and with his long-standing conviction that a revolutionary poet could not remain on the sidelines but had to take an active part in the struggle, could have guessed that he would not follow that advice. And he didn't. Instead, he made contact with another guerrilla organization, the Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo (ERP) which accepted his offer of enlistment....

As a person, Roque radiated an exuberant vitality that illuminated each of the manifold aspects of his life: his poetry, his pitiless sense of self-ridicule, his revolutionary will, his inextinguishable curiosity, his need to know and explain the complex, contradictory world in which he moved.

Ultimately Dalton's death came not at the hands of El Salvador's oligarchy, but at the hands of other militants. Joaquim Villalobos, a leader of the ERP, ordered the execution of Dalton on trumped-up charges of being an agent of both the CIA and Cuba on May 10, 1975. In reality, Dalton was Villalobos' chief political rival. The killing led to bitter internal fights and schisms in the movement. There has never been a legal proceeding to judge those responsible for Dalton's killing, despite a long running campaign by his son Juan Jose Dalton calling for justice.

Like you (Como tu)

I, like you,
love love, life, the sweet delight
of things, the blue
landscape of January days.

Also my blood bubbles over
laughing through my eyes
which have known the rush of tears.

I believe the world is beautiful,
that poetry is, like bread, for everyone.

And that my veins don’t end in me
but in the unanimous blood
of those who struggle for life,
love,
things,
countryside and bread,
poetry for everyone.

-Roque Dalton


Other Roque Dalton poems in English on the web:

Dalton's son, Juan Jose Dalton, has announced that the family has struck a deal with Australian publishing house Ocean Press to publish the complete corpus of Dalton's work in Spanish and English.

Additional information about Roque Dalton can be found in this Wikipedia article. Amazon.com has a listing of some titles by Roque Dalton in English and Spanish. Juan Jose Dalton's blog often has articles about his father's life and work.