Claribel Alegría has often spoken in interviews of the writer’s role as the voice of the voiceless, of poetry as a weapon against repression, oppression, exploitation, and injustice. She considers herself a feminist, which she defines as wanting equality for women and men, and she both writes about women and promotes the work of women writers. Her poetry reflects her experience of exile, loss, and absence, often with a sense of nostalgia, or of longing for a happier, more innocent past. Much of her work is at least partially autobiographical, and memory serves as a powerful means of preserving the past.
Flores del volcán/Flowers from the Volcano
The first translation of one of Alegría’s works into English was Flores del volcán/Flowers from the Volcano, a bilingual edition. It is through the efforts of the translator, prizewinning poet Carolyn Forché, that Alegría first came to the attention of readers in the United States. Many of the poems chosen for this collection come from the 1978 collection Sobrevivo. The title of the work is an indication of its contents: The volcano represents Central America as a region and El Salvador as a country, as part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, but the volcano also represents the eruption, violence, and death caused by the civil wars of the 1970’s and 1980’s in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador, while flowers suggest beauty, hope, and life.
In the title poem, “Flowers from the Volcano,” Alegría critiques the class structure in El Salvador, in which “the volcano’s children/ flow down like lava/ with their bouquets of flowers,” threatening the status quo of the well-to-do, “the owners of two-story houses/ protected from thieves by walls,” who “drown their fears in whiskey.” She remembers the dead in “Sorrow,” with its “rosary of names,” including Roque Dalton, the Salvadoran poet killed by government forces in 1975, and the Chilean folksinger Victor Jara, killed by security forces in the stadium of Santiago in 1973, along with many other Chileans.
Flowers from the Volcano contains some poems of nostalgic recollection of life in Santa Ana in simpler times, but the collection principally engages notions of class struggle and the brutal repression of liberty and life. As Forché notes in the volume’s preface, five years passed between the summer that she and Alegría worked on the book and its publication, and in those five years “more than 40,000 people . . . died in El Salvador at the hands of security forces.”
Luisa in Realityland
Sometimes called a novel, or a mixed-genre work, Luisa in Realityland combines brief autobiographical anecdotes and vignettes with poetry to tell the story of the childhood and adolescence of Luisa (who resembles Alegría) in a country much like El Salvador. (The poems from this volume also form one section of the collection Y este poema-río.)
For Luisa, like Alegría, the ceiba tree of her homeland(in “The Ceiba”) is nearly mystical with meaning, “. . . the sentinel/ of [her] childhood.” In this poem, as in most of the poems in this work, are the themes of exile and loss: “My absences/ have been lengthy/ innumerable,” she says; “They won’t let me return.” Alegría’s politics are clear in these poems. In “Personal Creed” she states:
I believe in my peoplewho have been exploitedfor five hundred years
(The entire section is 1476 words.)