Review: The Clandestine Poems by Roque Dalton

It is the 10th of May 1975, in San Salvador. The People’s Revolutionary Army (ERP) executes Vilma Flores, Timothy Lúe, Jorge Cruz, Juan Zapata, and Luís Luna. Five deaths, but only one body. These five young people were, in reality, the five identities of Salvadoran poet Roque Dalton; they were the protagonists of his last and most memorable collection, Clandestine Poems.

The collection consists of five chapters, each containing the poems of one of his identities. Dalton conjures these personalities from the distilled ethos of ideal Marxist soldiers in the war against “oppressive capitalism.” The roots of this history run deep in each of his personas. Take, for instance, Flores—the law student turned textile worker turned freedom fighter. Channeling Dalton’s own experience as a Law student in Chile, Flores epitomizes Dalton’s struggle to relate the revolutionary movement to women (who were the least educated at the time). Hence, the poems of Flores are the most humanistic and least intellectual, with examples like, “The woman’s domestic functions/ create time for the man/ for socially necessary work,” and “no one disputes/ that sex is a domestic condition/ …where the hassles begin/ is when a woman says/ sex is a political condition.”

Zapata, another of Dalton’s identities, is a humanities student who finds a passion for writing. This identity ties into Dalton’s return to San Salvador in 1955, where he co-founded a literary society with the Guatemalan poet Otto Reńe Castillo. We can see this era of his life in Zapata’s poems, which are the most stereotypically poetic and metaphorical. In his ‘Moral On the Tool,’ he relates the revolution to stone masonry, and the rebels to stone that will blunt any political carving tool.

With political turmoil rising, banished leftist writers from the Americas welcomed Dalton to Cuba. He secretly returned to El Salvador a few years later, was captured and sentenced to death, and only escaped thanks to the miraculous collapse of his prison walls from an earthquake. His beliefs unshaken, Dalton fled once more to Cuba and became a journalist for The International Review. This event gives life to Luna, the journalist/essayist/poet identity. Luna’s poems range from simple to dense, with some of the most highly critical blending both cultural and historical reference with sarcasm and humor. However, it is the short poems that make his voice powerful, like in ‘El Salvador, Country with a Heart,’ where Luna cries, “Clearly a little beheaded./ And (according to the Molina government/ and the oligarchy)/ without a stomach.”

During a decade in exile, Dalton produced his most acclaimed works and then finally took up arms, following Guevara’s ideology that good people are not enough—revolutionaries must fight. His struggle to bear arms might have been a reflection of the religious conflict within Dalton, who skewered God yet he also worshipped him. This internal battle gave birth to the alias Jorge Cruz, a missionary protecting the religious conscience of the poor, who appears just as confused as Dalton. He writes, “Render unto God that which is God’s/ and to the fascist government of President Molina/ that which the fascist government of President Moline/ deserves”—calling at the same time for separation of church and state and the downfall of the government. Dalton trained in Cuba and eventually joined the ERP. His views, however, caused internal friction, and under the pretense of working for the United States as a spy for the CIA, he was executed by his own comrades.

The writing of Clandestine Poems under five different aliases was the only way for Dalton to publish his work freely. His poetry was sarcastic and biting, a thinly-veiled critique of all things political; for example, in his poem ‘OAS,’ Dalton relates how each president of every country in the Americas is more in charge of El Salvador than the president of El Salvador is. The poems were eviscerating in their honesty, revealing the hypocrisy and malice of the ruling government. He would often use religious metaphor and black humor to disassemble the propaganda machine of the Junta, like in ‘Credo of Ché,’ which sees Dalton recasting biblical passages: instead of Christ being crucified, it was Guevara. The poem becomes blackly comical and farcical, highlighting the foolishness of religion when taken in a new context. The Clandestine Poems, being his last collection, is the cumulative poetic violence of his conviction. His widespread popularity would mean that by silencing his voice, the ERP could never silence his legacy.

I find the collection suffers from this usage of multiple identities. All the poems read as if penned by the same poet. If you approach the volume expecting five different voices, then you will be disappointed. This facet of the collection was not wholly a creative choice, but a necessity of ensuring the work would be read. In the revolutionary times of the mid-70’s, poetry was a vessel for firing the furnaces of liberation, and anonymity protected the real author from being silenced. Once you put aside the five personalities, the collection then becomes one of the most powerful political commentaries of our times. Dalton verbally pirouettes from the streets to the church, to the palace—at each junction, his verse forcefully peeling away the thin veneer of normalcy the US had applied to El Salvadoran society. Exposing the people’s anger in his poem ‘On Biblical Business,’ Dalton jabs at the US, comparing their military lackeys to the antithesis of Christ. While acting in a decidedly un-Christ-like manner, they distributed Bibles en masse to the poor, the word of God delivered “in the hands of blond young men.” The middle chapters are less religious and more tongue-in-cheek, with one poem espousing epithets for the grave of Head Bishop Ramirez, such as, “Here lies one who, honoring the family tradition,/ found more than righteous life, found a rectal life….” But it is when Dalton drops the veils of his humor and biting criticisms that we find the poet who helped build a resistance. In ‘Cops and the Guards,’ Dalton paints the San Salvador streets with blood, passion, and vengeance. The most powerful of poems come near the end of the book—‘The Violence Here’—where Dalton shouts, “Violence will not only be the midwife/ of history in El Salvador./ It will also be the mother of a child-people”.

It would be easy to let Roque Dalton’s poetry slip into the shadows, but with the political turmoil of recent years in both the East and the West, it is more important than ever to highlight the power of poetry in baring hidden truths. What Dalton shows us is resistance, that it is never okay to be quiet and never okay to kowtow under the threat of retribution. The content is anti-US, but only those blind to history would not acknowledge the dirtier deeds of the world’s foremost superpower. Most importantly is the message that no veneer of benevolence can hide a rotten core, and this culminates in Clandestine Poems in ‘Advice That Is No Longer Necessary Anywhere in the World’ (ironic since it is needed now more than ever), with the lines: “Don’t ever forget,/ that the least fascist/ among fascists/ are also/ fascists.” With the ghosts of the US’s past interdictions coming to haunt them, this collection grows ever more important—not only as a continuing message of hope but also as a shining example that the historically powerful destabilizers can fall victim to the edges of their own blades. (POW!)


D. Mars Yuvarajan is a Tamil New Zealand poet.  He holds an MFA in Creative Writing and lives in New Hampshire, when not traveling the world.  He has published six poetry collections to date: Night Owl and Other Poems, Kintsugi, .M.oments (Volume One), Quiet Songs From Yesterday, We Live With the Departed, and In My Dreams I Walk Through Killing Fields.  He owns and runs the independent publishing house Works of Mars Press.