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Works of Radical Imagination

To celebrate the publication of Historias y poemas de una lucha de clases / Stories and Poems of Class Struggle by Roque Dalton, translated from Spanish by Jack Hirschman and Barbara Paschke, we are proud to share a poem from the next, as well as Jaime Barba's introduction to the collection. In his introduction, Barba places this text, as well as other texts by Roque Dalton, within the larger political climates of Central America during the late 1960s and 1970s. 

Tercer poema de amor

A quienes te digan que nuestro amor es extraordinario
porque ha nacido de circunstancias extraordinarias
diles que precisamente luchamos
para que un amor como el nuestro
(amor entre compañeros de combate)
llegue a ser en El Salvador
el amor más común y corriente,
casi el único. 

Third Poem of Love

Whoever tells you our love is extraordinary
because it was born of extraordinary circumstances
tell them we’re struggling precisely
so that a love like ours
(a love among comrades in combat)
becomes the most ordinary and common
almost the only love
in El Salvador.



Introduction to Historias y poemas de una lucha de clases / Stories and Poems of a Class Struggle

It is difficult to say whether Roque Dalton finished Stories and Poems of a Class Struggle in April 1975, since he was assassinated around May 10 of that year. It would be better to say that this collection of poems is truncated, like its author’s life.

Roque was already a well-known writer when he entered El Salvador clandestinely via the Ilopango International Airport of San Salvador, on December 24, 1973, under the name Julio Delfos Marín, to become a combatant in the People’s Revolutionary Army, one of the guerrilla organizations that began operations in the early 1970s.

The testimonial narrative Miguel Mármol: The events of 1932 in El Salvador [Miguel Mármol. Los sucesos de 1932 en El Salvador] had finally been published in Costa Rica at the end of 1972. This book was a milestone in the reconstruction of Salvadoran political history.

In January 1971, a preview of the book—chapters IV, VI, and VII—appeared in the journal Pensamiento Crítico in Havana and then in the magazine La Universidad in San Salvador (March–April 1972). Moreover, before his return to his native country, Dalton had submitted what is perhaps his most important literary achievement, The Forbidden Stories of Tom Thumb [Las historias prohibidas del Pulgarcito] (1974), to the publisher Siglo XXI Editores.

So, in 1973, Roque is neither an unknown person nor an unpublished author. But his avatar is tied to that of his country in a way that is now almost cabalistic. In November 1972, Miguel Mármol was published in Costa Rica and not in El Salvador, because on July 19, 1972, Salvadoran Army troops entered the National University and closed it down. The dean, secretary general, and attorney general, as well as various chairpersons and professors of the university were apprehended by the authorities and sent into exile. In fact, they were the last Salvadorans to be exiled; from then on, the punishment for dissent was machine-gunning, persecution, and murder.

In the 1970s, El Salvador entered a new political cycle, which in March 1972 was aggravated by a scandalous electoral fraud against the National Opposition Union, a coalition of progressive groups. The situation devolved a few days later, on March 25, when a coup d’état which sought to restore the democracy violated by fraud was suppressed.

The die was cast when the spaces for open debate were shut down. El Salvador was heading for war. Dalton deciphered those signs in Havana and set out on a hasty but premeditated return.

The man who must be recognized as the most daring and innovative Salvadoran writer and intellectual of the twentieth century gave it his all and threw himself into the flames. Immolation? No. Suicide? Not at all. Was he afraid? Surely, but to those who say this I quote Rubén Darío’s response to accusations of being a mere romantic: “We are romantic. Who that lives is not?”

Stories and Poems of a Class Struggle is an urgent book that can be understood as the willful action of a poet who cannot stop recording, even at the risk of suffocating, the tumult of decisive events of which he is a part. This is also a book of confirmations. Roque thus lends continuity, in the midst of the clandestine flow in which he forges his days, to a line of poetic creation that perhaps starts with Very Personal Texts and Poems [Textos y poemas muy personales] (written between 1963 and 1965) and culminates in the poem-collage that he left unpublished before his final goodbye, A Red Book for Lenin [Un libro rojo para Lenin] (completed in 1973). Some critics have described Stories and Poems as decadent and pamphleteering. They forget the context in which it was articulated, and the vein from which it flows.

It goes without saying that this collection of poems does not reveal a concrete reality (poetry, as Roque Dalton knows perfectly well, has another mission) or a precise polemic, but a vital attitude. Yes, here the author is having fun ranting, disqualifying, mocking. He is celebrating his return to El Salvador in the midst of a hailstorm of bullets. He is affirming himself. He is neither tragic nor pathetic; he prefers his corrosive good humor to the mournful singsong that the pitiful bard has already forgotten. Here Dalton affirms that the new word is risk.

Revisiting this book thirty-four years after it was written, one gets the feeling that Roque, in his determined political zeal, not only communicates his reasons but is also aware that every day may be his last. That is why these pages have a strange power: they evoke situations, announce collisions, propose boundaries.

But Stories and Poems is also a literary artifact that must be understood in relation to the era in Central American history that it was enmeshed in.

In the political arena, in Nicaragua and Guatemala, as in El Salvador, an energy had been unleashed that created new horizons of structural transformation. By 1973, in Nicaragua, the perspective of change had regained its strategic spirit and was redirected toward more tangible objectives. In January 1972, a “new guerilla” contingent entered Guatemala through Ixcán and, a few years later, became the Guerilla Army of the Poor.

In Cuba, from 1968 to 1971, Roque Dalton actively participated, alongside Nicaraguans (led by Carlos Fonseca Amador, “Agatón”) and Guatemalans (led by Ricardo Ramírez de León, “Orlando Fernández,” and “Rolando Morán”), in discussions that sought to reconfigure guerilla warfare.

In fact, Dalton was linked to the People’s Revolutionary Army as early as 1971 and had a specific assignment in Cuba. Thus, he was already a subject of discussion upon his return to El Salvador. 

Roque Dalton was not a spectator in Havana. He forged ideas, informed himself, debated, promoted initiatives. He wrote like a man possessed, and not only poetry as some maliciously pontificated. He traveled here and there, sniffed out paths, explored vistas, all without having a perfectly delineated map, as only true adventurers do. All of which is recorded in this collection of poems.

In Tavern and Other Places [Taberna y otros lugares] (1969), he found a truthful point of view for his poetry; in The Forbidden Stories of Tom Thumb, he demystified and inaugurated poetic discourses; in A Red Book for Lenin, he theorized about poetry. In Stories and Poems, Dalton accelerated the pace and began to sing in chorus a dissonant song.

Following the path of Bertolt Brecht, an author dear to Roque, and playing with heteronyms (as Fernando Pessoa did in his time, in another context of course), Dalton in Stories and Poems faces the mellifluous Parnassus and the mediocre political-body-that-requires-blood-sweat-and-tears. The book demands and exposes.

To read this book as a list of pains and sorrows would be to miss the point that modern poetry, composed here by an author who is pushing up to the existential limits, has as its main objective to continue the tradition of rupture.

When considering Roque Dalton’s poetic output, one is always at risk of wanting to restrict it to such and such characteristics. Because when considering this book alone, one might think that all roads are closed for Dalton’s poetics. It is true, that not all the poems in this volume have the same level of formal elaboration. Had the author survived, he probably would have left out certain texts, added others, and even rewritten a good part of them. That was his practice as a responsible writer.

Now as I write, in 2023, perhaps some poems or, for some persnickety people, the whole of Stories and Poems may be considered out of focus, because of the insolent and merciless way Dalton deals with themes and problems, even characters. But is it not similar to what he did in The Forbidden Stories of Tom Thumb?

By 1974, the year in which most of the poems in Stories and Poems seem to have been forged (his explicit references suggest so), Roque is neither a dilettante writer nor a novice political activist. He is living a spectacular moment in his life, a circumstance longed for and desperately sought since at least 1971, when he realized that another political moment had opened up in his country. He did not come to pay a debt but to adopt the position he believed to be appropriate in that difficult period for El Salvador. He could have declined or used various imaginary pretexts to postpone his return until the political climate was mild. He preferred to take the thorny path.

This book is not a testament but a poetic testimony. Here the poet does not stop being a poet—rather, he raises the flag of poetry to tell us what his skin / his mind / his guts are experiencing in that political circumstance.

Salvadoran poetry and Central American poetry have come a long way since 1975, and it cannot be said that they have only addressed the literary problems raised by Dalton. However, it is undeniable that Roque’s poetics introduced substantive novelties that have exerted and will surely continue to exert an outsized influence on the region’s literary creation, for his courage and also for his irreverence.

Stories and Poems of a Class Struggle in no sense constitutes a failed literary endeavor on the part of Roque Dalton. It must be read as a bold yet cautious act unfolding in a context where words count but deeds are decisive. These poems are about that. This book, it must be stated without ambiguity, contains the essence of Roque Dalton’s literary program, that of an author who, at the age of forty, does not hesitate to start from scratch.

When one considers Dalton’s literary trajectory, of which his extensive bibliography provides ample testimony, it is evident that the author is constantly concerned with themes that hold the possibility of a shipwreck. Only a creator whose intellectual disposition demands that he take huge risks could dare to jump over the obstacles without wincing in pain. The material in this book comes out of this frame of mind.

Time has passed. The literary production of Roque Dalton circulates freely. His writing style and ethos point to complexity and, in certain parts, to obscurity. But his word, the ever-living poetry of which he was a devoted practitioner, is alive.

Stories and Poems of a Class Struggle, signaled by certain critics and pundits as a book of little account, should be seen as an ugly duckling. It keeps turning up, revealing a pulsing world, and giving an account of the saga of an audacious and energetic creator.

Jaime Barba
San Salvador, Central America
March 2023

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