Small Hours of the Night: Selected Poems by Roque Dalton
Perhaps nothing is more humanizing, more humbling than one revolutionary’s capacity to laugh at himself.
This is how I first encountered Roque Dalton, introduced by Nicaraguan poet and former Catholic priest, Ernesto Cardenal, in the first few pages of Small Hours of the Night: Selected Poems of Roque Dalton. And what a great folly it is, I thought, that I was just learning about Dalton, the Salvadoran poet and revolutionary, when all along I’ve been carrying the work of Latin American revolutionary artists and writers in my mind, as if there were no other: Pablo Neruda, Che Guevara, Diego Rivera, among many.
That the thread of Marxist theory and Communism runs deeper, farther, all the way to El Salvador, Dalton’s home country. As a young poet whose social and political conscience was burgeoning, he knew that his words needed to be coupled with action, with a kind of militancy speared by the tenderness of his words.
Marked by extreme socioeconomic inequality, Salvadorans took to the streets in the late 50s and were consequently met with military repression. After decades, this repression was solidified when General Carlos Humberto Romero was inaugurated President in 1977 amidst widespread election fraud, protest, and military force. While many agrarian communities were organizing in the countryside, Humberto Romero received military and financial support from the U.S. to repress any Communist revolution. It was during this time that Dalton joined the ranks of the Communist Party and its armed struggle, leading to his arrest many times. He was a poet, prisoner, exile with a death sentence, but also a revolutionary who laughed.
While his death has been the topic of controversy for decades—he was accused of being a spy for the CIA and Cuba—Dalton lives. It is his guerilla poetry that captures, time and time again.
Don’t say my name when you know I’m dead:
I would come out of the dark ground for your voice.
Don’t say my name, don’t say my name.
When you know I’m dead don’t say my name.
Not saying his name becomes impossible, as his poetry catches up to reality. Dalton’s poems swim in my head as I write this, after hearing the Trump administration’s reversal of protections for 200,000 Salvadorans living legally in the United States. People who survived natural disasters and have rebuilt their lives are now being ordered to leave and go back “home.” The government’s Temporary Protected Status program is in shambles, with Haitians and Nicaraguans losing their protections as well. This rhetoric has been consistent, one terrible thing after another. I turn to Dalton:
My tears, even my tears
I who believed in everything.
I who asked only for a little tenderness
which costs nothing
Written and published mostly while he was in exile in Cuba, Mexico, and Czechoslovakia, his poems portray the myriad scenes and stages of his life as he remembers it. Specific verses point to his childhood, a recurring theme across the book, while other memorable passages are fiery with political fervor. Regardless of subject, each page trembles with a kind of quiet, big love—as if he was chuckling in the background. There is magic in the way he translates the most mundane detail to a glaring political statement: “I hate giving up the bed covers as much as I hate any bourgeois.” When he writes that, “The bureaucrats swim in a stormy sea of boredom,” I can’t help but imagine a room full of men and their too-tight neckties, oblivious to the world beyond their set policies, drowning in their desks:
They have exquisite handwriting and buy themselves neckties
they suffer strokes when they find out that their daughters masturbate
they owe their tailor bill they’re barflies
they read the Reader’s Digest and Neruda’s love poems
they attend the Italian opera they bless themselves
they sign strong anti-Communist manifestos
adultery is their undoing they commit suicide without pride
they profess faith in sports and are ashamed
that their father was a carpenter.
This is where the beauty of his poetry lies, in unabashed truths told wryly, jokingly, that pull you in and take you where you need to be, tell you what you need to hear. His sentimentality is rooted in his and his people’s material conditions, as palpable as his convictions. He wrote of what it means to live within the confines of his own pain and struggle, mirroring the suffering of many of his readers and their universal longing for liberation. His ability to laugh and make fun of himself in spite of these horrid conditions, makes his poetry truly a testament.
Far from a grim-faced party member, Dalton’s legacy as a poet and a revolutionary remains. Maybe we’ll never know if his death was really ordered by one of his own. But what we do know is this: that Dalton laughed even through the hardest times, because he already felt victorious.
Ay it’s just that I’m a hack
in the smallest Communist Party in the world
one that will try to carry out its revolution without thousands killed
because the chances for the country’s agriculture would be ruined
by the graves.