Martín Espada reads Pablo Neruda’s “General Franco in Hell”

¡Feliz cumpleaño, Pablo Neruda!

I can’t think of any better way to celebrate el maestro’s birthday than by sharing this video of Martín Espada reading “General Franco in Hell” at the CantoMundo retreat.

Before we get to the poem, let’s think a second about recitation and craft. As Martín reminded us before reading the poem: Neruda’s poem of damnation and public scorn walks a thin tightrope between personal anger, Neruda’s grief over the assassination of his dear friend, Federico García Lorca; human outrage, being witness to not only war, but a civil war—seeing brother attack brother; and the toughest battle of all, converting this horror into poetic art.

Espada’s recitation of this poem is proof of Neruda’s genius. His ability to simultaneously denounce Franco’s acts with proper vitrioil and elevate the human spirit who challenges and survives these atrocities with a language that serenades the reader in both Spanish and English.

No smoke and mirrors here. Neruda names the harm, making sure all of Franco’s barbarity is documented, and sets his darkest poetic imagination free, reviling Franco’s legacy to the enduring eye of commoner judgment.

Likewise, Espada doesn’t hold back in his reading and sets the sonic quality of this curse poem free without resorting to yelling or arm waving. What for? The power is in the words and in the form. It’s a poem operating on all cylinders thanks to the poet’s eye for detail, ear for language, and faith in the power of verse to elevate the downtrodden and overthrow dictators.

Sadly, as Espada noted before reading the poem, Neruda would not live to see his poem come to pass. Franco outlived him as he did so many others. But Franco did not leave a poem behind for the ages and so Neruda gets to laugh from the heavens while Franco continually burns in literary effigy.

We join this poem in media res, the first part is below in Neruda’s Spanish. Espada continues from there reading the first section in Spanish and the majority of the poem in English. Again, a wonderful read and reminder that a poet’s legacy can be as eternal as the simple desire to call injustice by its proper name.

El general Franco en los infiernos

Desventurado, ni el fuego ni el vinagre caliente
en un nido de brujas volcánicas, ni el hielo devorante,
ni la tortuga pútrida que ladrando y llorando con voz
de mujer muerta te escarbe la barriga
buscando una sortija nupcial y un juguete de niño
serán para ti nada sino una puerta oscura

En efecto:
De infierno a infierno, que hay? En el aullido
de tus legiones, en la santa leche
de las madres de España, en la leche y los senos
por los caminos, hay una aldea más, un silencio más,
una puerta rota

Aquí estás…

Pablo Neruda

Anticipating: breaking poems by Suheir Hammad

It’s been a great month of poetry books and reading events for me with different voices and styles all coming together to help me try to make more sense out of my own poetics. Surprisingly, two roads that have been intersecting quite a bit is the path between hip-hop lit and political poetry.

For starters, I think all hip-hop is political. It’s born of a desire to prove that a culture can emerge from near-nothingness and leave behind a standing testament to celebrate that survival. And, since I can never find an authoritative dictionary meaning for the term poetry, I will say that is one of my personal definitions for poetry as well. I’ll also add that all the poems I am attracted to are political.

In logic terms, if hip-hop is to political what political is to poetry, then hip-hop is poetry. At least it is for me.

The only problem is that a logic equation doesn’t always hold water in the real world; sometimes it only works out in theory, which isn’t good enough. For art to succeed, for poems to be effective, they have to work in practice as well as concept.

This brings me back to the VONA Faculty Reading this past July and my first introduction to Suheir Hammad’s breaking poems. From the get go, these poems resonated with familiar pull and push of the classic hip-hop break, the spot in the song the DJ knows will get the crowd even more amped and up for the party. Suheir started off with “break is this” and images of myrrh and smoke, the intermingling of the holy spice with the clearing of rubble, a slow prayer that reminds the listener of a past horror (the pull) and the hope for more as her speaker’s people enacts the “we” and “still looking for our.”

Since I’m going by my notes from the night, I’m not sure if the speaker is looking for what is “ours” or for more “hours” but that quick wordplay, the cutting and scratching of language, was repeated deftly throughout Suheir’s reading.

The hip-hop break was present again in another poem where “someone is drumming//to accompany the dead” as the rhythms and beats we know from the dance club and blaring car speakers are transformed into measured intonation and consistent meter in Suheir’s breaking poems set.

Then again, these poems don’t all take place in the familiar Bronx of my youth, or Downtown Oakland of my present, they are happening in the present of the speaker’s Palestine. Where the break is not just a musical/poetic concept but the daily real. Suheir’s last poem brought that alive in “break (clustered)” where the shape of the spoken poem took the form of a slow ticking bomb, as it started with an introspective deliverance, as the speaker contemplates on where the break will happen next. “Whose son will it be?” “We mourn women complicated.” This reflective mood is shattered as the language becomes more pointed, the lines more jagged, and the tension builds out to a point even past the poem (“Language can’t math me”) and then settles with the internal image (“One woman//One woman//One woman gives birth”) that is ready to set the break off again and “harvest witness.”

Barb has already started reading breaking poems and is citing some of the bombardment and brokenness I was feeling from the live reading. She is also seeing another layer of code-switching that I didn’t pick up from Suheir’s set. And that’s all good. A reading shouldn’t be the whole book, it can never be since it is only the aural aspect of the poem, but a reading should be about possibility, excitement, and daring. Can the text match the sound? Can a fantastic reader deliver a fantastic book? Can the two aspects of poetry, the orature and the literature, fight to maintain their own space in the speaker’s message?

Anticipating that the answer to all those questions will be a resounding Yes I can’t wait to get a read at Suheir Hammad’s new book and to try to follow along as her book release party is webcast live from the Bowery Poetry Club tomorrow.

More breaking poems:
• Video: Suheir reads “break word”


Federico García Lorca: From a mural on a barn in his birthplace, Fuente Vaqueros, Andalucía, Spain

Golijov’s ‘Ainadamar’ brings Spanish poet to life

The Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s was one of the few times that liberal intellectuals took up arms and stormed the battlefield. Artists like Ernest Hemingway, Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson and even Dorothy Parker joined the futile struggle to keep Francisco Franco from taking power and beginning what turned into decades of dictatorship.

One of the great tragedies of the conflict was the 1936 execution of the Spanish poet and playwright Federico García Lorca by the Falangists (one of the many factions involved in the war). Brookline-based composer Osvaldo Golijov has captured Garcia Lorca’s story in his opera “Ainadamar,” which had its premiere at Tanglewood in 2005.

Opera Boston, conducted by Gil Rose, will present a markedly revised version at the Cutler Majestic Theatre Friday, Sunday and Tuesday. Anticipation for the production, which stars Golijov’s frequent collaborator, soprano Dawn Upshaw, and is directed by Peter Sellars,is so high that all three performances are sold out.

(More here: