Saturday Poem

Author’s Note:

In January 1991, I was honored to have several poems published in Diario Latino, an opposition newspaper I El Salvador. In February 1991, Diario Latino was burned down, on the behalf and the behest of the same forces the newspaper had opposed: the government, the military, the death squads. The newspaper rebuilt itself, publishing only a few pages a day, till eventually Diario Latino was back in full strength. In February 1992, on the first anniversary of the fire, Diario Latino published the Spanish version of the following poem; . . . The poem was written in response to the fire and in tribute to the courage of the people who run this newspaper, though the poem applies as well to any people anywhere in the world whose voices rise above the flames. —Martín Espada

When Songs become Water
[Cuando Los Cantos Se Vuelven Agua]

Where dubbed  commercials
sell the tobacco and alcohol
of a far winter metropolis,
where the lungs of night
cough artillery shots
into the ears of sleep,
where strikers with howls
stiff on their faces
and warnings pinned to their shirts
are harvested from garbage heaps,
where olive uniforms keep watch
over the plaza
from a nest of rifle eyes and sandbags,
where the government party
campaigns chanting through loudspeakers
that this country
will be the common grave of the reds,
where the newsprint of mutiny
is as medicine
on the fingertips,
and the beat of the press printing mutiny
is like the pounding of tortilla in the hands.

When the beat of the press
is like the pounding of tortillas,
and the newsprint is medicine
on the fingertips
come the men with faces
wiped away by the hood,
who smother the mouth of witness night,
shaking the gasoline can across the floor,
then scattering in a dark orange eruption
of windows,
leaving the paper to wrinkle gray in the heat.

Where the faces wiped away by the hood
are known by the breath of gasoline
on their clothes,
and paper wrinkles gray as the skin
of incarcerated talkers,
another Army helicopter plunges from the sky
with blades burning
like the wings of a gargoyle,
the tortilla and medicine words
are smuggled in shawls,
the newspapers are hoarded
like bundles of letters from the missing,
the poems become songs
and the songs become water
streaming through the arteries
of the earth, where others at the well
will cool the sweat in their hair
and begin to think.

by Martín Espada
City of Coughing and Dead Radiators
W.W. Norton & Company, 1993