Claribel Alegría

Claribel Alegría has been a formidable champion for Central America, continuing the region’s tradition of revolutionary poetry. Born in Nicaragua to Salvadoran parents forced into exile during her infancy for their human rights work, and herself exiled from El Salvador for her powerful poetic dissent, Alegría has unflaggingly spoken for justice and liberty in each of 40 books of poetry, testimony, fiction, and nonfiction. In the poems, her talent, courage, and commitment to freedom emerge most strongly. “Alegría mixes ‘a panorama of iguanas,/ chickens,/ strips of meat’ with the horrors of rape and revolution,” writes The San Francisco Chronicle, “couching her story of ‘my etcetera country’ with the unsettling imagery and clarity only a poet could bring to the page.”

In 1978, Alegría was honored with the prestigious Casa de las Americas prize for her collection of poems Sobrevivo (“I survive”). Her work was featured in Bill Moyers’ PBS series, “The Language of Life,” and she has been translated into more than ten languages, into English most notably by the North American poet Carolyn Forché and by her late husband, U.S.-born Darwin Flakoll. Alegria’s most recent volume of poems, Saudade (“Sorrow”), is an exquisite record of her grief after Flakoll’s death.

Absence is, paradoxically, one of the strongest presences in Alegria’s work. Her poetry bears witness to the successive waves of loss experienced personally and nationally, to the absence of loved ones, of historical recognition, of cultural identity. Her willingness to plumb even the most unbearable of emotions – and her deep commitment and hard-won hope in the future – make recognitions of the failings of the present into manuals for recovery.

Poetry Center Reading:

Fall 2002 (with Ernesto Cardenal)


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 from the Spanish by D.J. Flakoll From FUGUES (Curbstone Press 1993)

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 guerrilleros 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 from the Spanish by Carolyn Forche From FLOWERS FROM THE VOLCANO (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1982)

Little Cambray Tamales

(makes 5,000,000 little tamales) – for Eduardo and Helena who asked me for a Salvadoran recipe

Two pounds of mestizo cornmeal
half a pound of loin of gachupin
cooked and finely chopped
a box of pious raisins
two tablespoons of Malinche milk
one cup of enraged water
a fry of conquistador helmets
three Jesuit onions
a small bag of multinational gold
two dragon’s teeth
one presidential carrot
two tablespoons of pimps
lard of Panchimalco Indians
two ministerial tomatoes
a half cup of television sugar
two drops of volcanic lava
seven leaves of pito
(don’t be dirty-minded, it’s a soporific)
put everything to boil
over a slow fire
for five hundred years
and you’ll see how tasty it is.

Translated from the Spanish by D.J. Flakoll From WOMAN OF THE RIVER (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1989)