Monday, March 20, 2006


Claribel Alegria

Claribel Alegria was born in Nicaragua in 1924, but her family went into political exile in El Salvador the following year. She herself left El Salvador in 1943 to attend college in the United States and lived variously in Mexico, Spain, and various South American countries. Much of her early work dealt with the harsh political realities of Central America and led, among other things, to her being exiled from El Salvador. Finally, in the early 1980's, after the Sandanista National Liberation Front with which she was politically associated overthrew the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua, she returned there to help in the rebuilding of her birth country and to record the history of the overthrow of Somoza's dictatorship; in this, she was assisted by her husband Darwin Flakoll, a U. S. citizen who had been a journalist and served in several diplomatic posts in South America. He also translated some of her fiction and poetry into English. Her 1999 volume Saudade (Sorrow) dealt with his death and the profound sense of loss she felt, themes that continue in her most recent volume Soltando Amarras (Casting Off) published in 2003; both are intensely personal works which in many ways contrast strongly with her earlier more political and social works.

One of the central themes of her political and social poetry is the belief that she has a responsibility to provide a voice for those who don't have a voice, who have lost or been denied a voice in the political struggles:

"Nocturnal Visits"

I think of our anonymous boys
of our burnt-out heroes
the amputated
the cripples
those who lost both legs
both eyes
the stammering teen-agers.
At night I listen to their phantoms
shouting in my ear
shaking me out of lethargy
issuing me commands
I think of their tattered lives
of their feverish hands
reaching out to seize ours.
It's not that they're begging
they're demanding
they've earned the right to order us
to break up our sleep
to come awake
to shake off once and for all
this lassitude.

(Translated by D. J. Flakoll)

Frequently, she reveals the political conflicts in context by showing us a broader, detailed portrait of everyday life; in "Documentary," for instance, she follows the coffee -- El Salvador's chief export -- from harvest to preparations for shipment:


Come, be my camera.
Let's photograph the ant heap
the queen ant
extruding sacks of coffee,
my country.
It's the harvest.
Focus on the sleeping family
cluttering the ditch.
Now, among trees:
dark-skinned fingers
stained with honey.
Shift to a long shot:
the file of ant men
trudging down the ravine
with sacks of coffee.
A contrast:
girls in colored skirts
laugh and chatter,
filling their baskets
with berries.
Focus down.
A close-up of the pregnant mother
dozing in the hammock.
Hard focus on the flies
spattering her face.
The terrace of polished mosaics
protected from the sun.
Maids in white aprons
nourish the ladies
who play canasta,
clelbrate invasions
and feel sorry for Cuba.
Izalco sleeps
beneath the volcano's eye.
A subterranean growl
makes the village tremble.
Trucks and ox-carts
laden with sacks
screech down the slopes.
Besides coffee
they plant angels
in my country.
A chorus of children
and women
with the small white coffin
move politely aside
as the harvest passes by.
The riverside women,
naked to the waist,
wash clothing.
The truck drivers
exchange jocular obscenities
for insults.
In Panchimalco,
waiting for the ox-cart to pass by,
a peasant
with hands bound behind him
by the thumbs
and his escort of soldiers
blinks at the airplane:
a huge bee
bulging with coffee growers
and tourists.
The truck stops in the market place.
A panorama of iguanas,
strips of meat,
wicker baskets,
piles of nances,
dogs, pupusas, jocotes,
acrid odors,
taffy candies,
urine puddles, tamarinds.
The virginal coffee
dances in the millhouse.
They strip her,
rape her,
lay her out on the patio
to doze in the sun.
The dark storage sheds
The golden coffee
sparkles with malaria,
A truck roars
out of the warehouse.
It bellows uphill
drowning out the lesson:
A for alcoholism,
B for battalions,
C for corruption,
D for dictatorship,
E for exploitation,
F for feudal power
of fourteen families
and etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
My etcetera country,
my wounded country,
my child,
my tears,
my obsession.

(Translated by D. J. Flakoll)

She also presents detailed portraits of the life of the common people:

"Flowers from the Volcano"

Fourteen volcanos rise
in my remembered country
in my mythical country.
Fourteen volcanos of foliage and stone
where strange clouds hold back
the screech of a homeless bird.
Who said that my country was green?
It is more red, more gray, more violent:
Izalco roars,
taking more lives.
Eternal Chacmol collects blood,
the gray orphans
the volcano spitting bright lava
and the dead guerrillero
and the thousand betrayed faces,
the children who are watching
so they can tell of it.
Not one kingdom was left us.
One by one they fell
through all the Americas.
Steel rang in palaces,
in the streets,
in the forests
and the centaurs sacked the temple.
Gold disappeared and continues
to disappear on yanqui ships,
the golden coffee mixed with blood.
The priest flees screaming
in the middle of the night
he calls his followers
and they open the guerrillero's chest
so as to offer the Chac
his smoking heart.
No one believes in Izalco
that Tlaloc is dead
despite television,
The cycle is closing,
strange the volcano's silence
since it last drew breath.
Central America trembled,
Managua collapsed.
In Guatemala the earth sank
Hurricane Fifi flattened Honduras.
They say the yanquis turned it away,
that it was moving towards Florida
and they forced it back.
The golden coffee is unloaded
in New York where
they roast it, grind it
can it and give it a price.
Siete de Junio
noche fatal

bailando el tango
la capital
From the shadowed terraces
San Salvador's volcano rises.
Two-story mansions
protected by walls
four meters high
march up its flanks
each with railings and gardens,
roses from England
and dwarf araucarias,
Uruguayan pines.
Farther up, in the crater
within the crater's walls
live peasant families
who cultivate flowers
their children can sell.
The cycle is closing,
Cuscatlecan flowers
thrive in volcanic ash,
they grow strong, tall, brilliant.
The volcano's children
flow down like lava
with their bouquets of flowers,
like roots they meander
like rivers the cycle is closing.
The owners of two-story houses
protected from thieves by walls
peer from their balconies
and they see the red waves descending
and they drown their fears in whiskey.
They are only children in rags
with flowers from the volcano,
with Jacintos and Pascuas and Mulatas
but the wave is swelling,
today's Chacmol still wants blood,
the cycle is closing,
Tlaloc is not dead.

(Translated by Carolyn Forche)

Not all of her work is political and social, however. She is fascinated particularly with Greek mythology oand over the years has written a large number of poems -- many of them dramatic monologues -- bringing to life such figures as Medea:


Those are not tears
streaming from my eyes
only the dry sobs
that haunt my night.
I murdered my own sons
they whom I most loved --
or do I love you more, Jason?
Jason's sons
his happiness
his pride
I was the avenging arm
I buried our dreams
dreams that danced
like joyful embers
shedding warmth on my face.
Jason abandoned me
because of him, I killed them
I shout your name
I howl
I clutch my dead sons
to my bosom
I rock them I sing to them
I have nothing left
only the serpents are left
the wingerd serpents
that pull the chariot
carrying me to my exile
exile more cruel than death.
I murdered my sons
I see their shadows
frowing before my eyes
my sons' bodies
their luminous bodies
defying oblivion.
I am left without their voices
without their games
without their loving play
I shall moan and weep forever
and wandering
in the desert
my song is of death
and of triumph
I did it for you
I did it for your love
the love you gave me
transforming me into a goddess
until suddenly one day
you tore me out by the roots.

(Translated by Margaret Sayers Peden)

The whole idea of memory is important in her work; here in one of her intensely personal lyrics, she reviews the "electrical instants" of her life:


In the sixty-eight years
I have lived
there are a few electrical instants:
the happiness of my feet
skipping puddles
six hours in Macchu Pichu
the ten minutes necessary
to lose my virginity
the buzzing of the telephone
while awaiting the death of my mother
the hoarse voice
announcing the death
of Monsignor Romero
fifteen minutes in Delft
the first wail of my daughter
I don't know how many years
dreaming of my people's liberation
certain immortal deaths
the eyes of that starving child
your eyes bathing me with love
one forget-me-not afternoon
and in this sultry hour
the urge to mould myself
into a verse
a shout a fleck
of foam.

(Translated by D.J. Flakoll)

Love is a subject she also deals with, often through striking metaphors:

"Two Wings in Flight"

We were a careless
two wings in flight
that folded into one
in repose.

(Translated by Carolyn Forché)

She also deals with the ambiguities of old age:

"It's Time Now to Give Up"

It's time now
to give up,
my exhausting,
and exhausted body,
give me the right to escape.
There was a time I loved you
you were fresh
Ifeel sorry for you
you are bent and stooped
and you creak with every step
you're stiff
and you've grown a belly
but despite your ills
and your quiet moans
you still want to live.
That love for life
that inflames you
does not let you
leave me.

(Translated by Margaret Sayers Peden)

Finally, she reveals the loss of a love one:

"The Ache of Absence"

Oh how my fingertips ache
when I hold out my hand
and don't find you.

(Translated by Margaret Sayers Peden)

This is a very pleasant discovery for me.
Glad you liked her work.
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