[Seven Stories Press; 2023]
Tr. from the Spanish by Jack Hirschman and Barbara Paschke
Sometime in the early 1970s, Roque Dalton decided he had to become someone else. He left his ex-wife Aída Cañas in Havana and absconded to the Cuban countryside; forged letters that placed him in Hanoi; underwent military training and plastic surgery; acquired a fake passport; and in December 1973 flew back to his home country of El Salvador to join an incipient campaign of guerrilla warfare. The name on the passport read Julio Delfos Marín. Dalton, in his late thirties, was called Tío Julio by the nineteen- and twenty-year-old members of the guerrilla group, his new comrades.
The tragic end to this last act of Dalton’s life is well known. On May 10, 1975, after eighteen months “underground” (including one armed mission, the overtaking of a radio station), Dalton was murdered by leaders of the group. The reasons are thought to be both personal and political. In an essay on Dalton’s still-unsolved murder, the journalist Ben Ehrenreich relates the political divisions within the group that likely led to Dalton’s death. The leadership of the guerrilla group was more “militaristic ” in outlook, believing that a few well-timed actions could trigger a mass revolution in El Salvador; Dalton argued the group should look outward to other sectors of society, slowly building a mass movement.
Dalton’s view would be vindicated in the years after his death. El Salvador’s Civil War began four years later, in 1979, when a wave of massive popular resistance to a military coup broke into outright warfare. While the military experiences of the guerrillas, now coalesced into the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), would prove critical in the twelve-year-long war, the majority of the anti-government forces would be found in “mass organizations” of union members, students, teachers, socially conscious Christians, and peasants.
It is perhaps because he was killed, not during the Civil War, but during its arduous pre-history, that Dalton’s murder has been left off the timeline of Salvadoran horrors that are now known in the US: the assassination of Óscar Romero, and massacres at the Lempa River, Sumpul River, and El Mozote. These events were commemorated by a massive Solidarity movement that protested the Reagan Administration’s funding of the Salvadoran military. It was in the context of this Solidarity movement that Dalton’s poetry was first translated into English, by a group of Spanish-speaking gringos and Central American immigrants living in San Francisco who called themselves the Roque Dalton Cultural Brigade.
As of now, Dalton’s only collection that has been translated in its entirety into English is Stories and Poems of a Class Struggle, originally published in 1984 by the Roque Dalton Cultural Brigade but now re-published by Seven Stories Press. The edition is a sort of opening act for their new Dalton project, where they will commission translations of four of his major collections of poetry and his only novel over the next few years.
In an essay for n+1, writer Mark Engler notes that the big-tent Solidarity movement inevitably translated the specific politics of the Salvadoran Left into a “human rights” based appeal to stop US intervention in the country. I entered Stories and Poems of a Class Struggle with anxiety that the English translation of Dalton might similarly dilute his particular, studied brand of Marxism-Leninism. A persnickety anxiety, perhaps, but one not altogether unfounded. One might see this tendency at work in the fact that there is only one Dalton poem somewhat known in the US, “Like You,” and it’s the one that contains the line that “poetry, like bread, is for everyone.” Most recently I saw the line cited in a press release: “Academy of American Poets Names its First Latino Executive Director and President, in Historic Appointment.” The translation of Stories and Poems of Class Struggle is far from perfect, but it is more than enough to militate against this misreading of Dalton’s politics. One only needs to read a few poems into the collection to grasp that his political line was not so much about supporting poetry nonprofits as plotting a Pan-American Communist insurrection; that even if his poem “Like You” plays coy, he was under no illusions about what would be required to win a society where bread would be “de todos.”
“Like You” is one of several poems in Stories and Poems of a Class Struggle that explicitly tries to find a place for “poetry” within the revolutionary horizon, but it’s possible to read every poem in the collection as an exploration of what poetry and revolution owe each other. The first page is a “Declaration of Principles” that classifies poets as being either a “SERVANT, CLOWN, or ENEMY” for the bourgeoisie, before specifying that “the enemy poet cannot even think of accomplishing his task . . . without a lucid and invincible confidence in the working class and without direct participation in its struggle.”
The “Declaration of Principles” is signed by “THE AUTHORS,” introducing readers to the most significant formal feature of the collection: its poems are attributed to five different authors, each with short biographies that place them within different leftist currents in El Salvador. Stories and Poems is the only time Dalton used these heteronyms, although his mature work is characterized by similar experiments in multiplicity. The technique substantially complicates how we read Stories and Poems. We are drawn to the collection precisely because it was written during the epoch of Dalton’s most serious political commitment, yet if we enter the collection seeking poetry purified by Dalton’s “direct participation” in the revolution, instead we find Dalton receding from us.
Rather than Dalton, we get the feminist labor organizer Vilma Flores, the law student Timoteo Lue, the Christian revolutionary Jorge Cruz, and fervid student activists Juan Zapata and Luis Luna. The poems do not reveal the daily lives of these insurgents; rather each poem feels lifted from the notebook of its respective militant, who, after a long day of rousing the working class, retires to their study to write.
The collection’s first section, where Dalton assumes the persona of Vilma Flores, might be the most intriguing, in its attempt to think through Marxist feminism in verse. The poem “On the Profit Margin or the Boss Robs Every Worker Twice Over” loops women’s labor into a familiar rehearsal of the Marxist concept of surplus value, beginning and ending by naming “the woman’s domestic functions” as that which allows “the man” to have time “for socially necessary work” that benefits the capitalist. Unfortunately, the poem is translated poorly, in that it substitutes everyday terms for Dalton’s explicitly Marxist terminology: the word “plusvalía,” for instance, is mistranslated as “profit margin,” where it should be “surplus value.” The mistranslation is symptomatic of the distance between Dalton’s work and mainstream American poetry, which, even when it is political, rejects language which could be considered dogmatic. (With a few important exceptions: the reserved, sly Vilma Flores poems, both schematic and scheming, reminded me of Wendy Trevino’s understated, ingenious poetry).
The second section of the book, in which the oft-quoted “Like You” appears, is in many ways the most appealing and mysterious. These poems are some of the only ones to invoke an “I,” although the only biography we are given is that he is a twenty-something law student. Enigmatically, the “author” Timoteo Lue shares a name with an Indigenous rebel killed in La Matanza, the 1932 massacre where the Salvadoran government killed tens of thousands of Indigenous peasants (the real-life Lue is referenced in a later poem about Salvadoran history, “Ultraleftists”). Despite this historic tie, these poems are the most unmoored from the specifics of El Salvador, offering instead meditations on the relationship between poetry and revolution. One poem, an extended address “To Poetry,” thanks poetry for helping the speaker “serve in / this long and difficult struggle of our people.” Another ars poetica reads:
Forgive me for having helped you understand
you’re not made of words alone.
It’s tempting to read these first sections of the book as analogous to Dalton’s advocacy that the guerrillas reach out to other branches of civil society. But if one wants to read the first half of the book as Dalton’s polemic against the narrow focus of his fellow guerrillas, one must contend with how the second half of the book embraces their perspective. The last two sections are affirmations of the dirty work of revolution; one poem memorably proclaims that “everywhere the revolution needs people / not only willing to die / but also willing to kill for it.” Most poems in these sections are one or two pages and drive towards a single point: a punch line, an analysis, a comparison, or a declaration of a political line. One cautions readers, “Don’t ever forget / that the least fascist / among fascists / also are / fascists,” while another predicts that, under socialism, people will confess to having been capitalists in the same way that someone today would say: “I had syphilis.” The poems are irreverent and petty, grounded in local details of early 1970s El Salvador yet unfailingly arranging those materials into a moral on class struggle. They also endorse intra-leftist conflict, defending the authors against charges of being an ultra-leftist, revisionist, adventurer, and/or petite bourgeois intellectual—all terms undoubtedly ascribed to Dalton in his time—and using those same categories to interrogate their hypothetical critics. I imagine this tendency will be the most challenging for contemporary readers, keeping in mind the internecine circumstances of Dalton’s death.
But if the latter poems of the book are of less literary merit, one cannot shake the feeling that this swerve into the “sketchy and sectarian” (to quote the penultimate poem) is intentional and meaningful. The result is a collection that does not just anticipate the critiques of its readers, but mounts critiques of itself. I could not close the book without imagining Vilma Flores indicting Luis Luna for his masculinist imagery, nor Juan Zapata accusing Timoteo Lue of writing revolutionary poetry that ignores the practical question of “what is to be done.”
This internal dissonance is one unlikely way that the collection shrinks the distance between poetry and revolution. Poetry is not “made of words alone,” but, surprisingly, revolution is no less of an intellectual endeavor, one which involves similar questions of interpretation and address. Even when we believe we’ve come up with the correct political line, we are faced with the problem of deciding what to do with other people with their own political line, their own history, their own style. If Stories and Poems of a Class Struggle is few critics’ favorite Dalton work, my suspicion is that this is less because of its poetic deficiencies, and more because its achievement is to confront the reader with the difficulty of Dalton’s revolutionary task. He knew it would not be simple, winning a revolution in El Salvador. Still he went.
Elliot Frank is a writer based in Central New Jersey. He was written for Rampant Magazine, South Side Weekly, the Chicago Review of Books, and other outlets.
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