Something Escapes the Bo

Martín Espada
Poet, Essayist, Editor & Translator

Something Escapes the Bonfire

                        For Victor and Joan Jara

I. Because We Will Never Die: June 1969


Victor sang his peasant's prayer:

Levántate, y mírate las manos.

Stand up and look at your hands,

gloved in hard skin, the hands of Victor's father

petrified into fists steering the plow.

Estadio Chile cheered, delirious as a man

who knows he has plowed his last field

for someone else, who hears a song telling him

what he knows with the back of his neck.


Joan, the dancer, who twirled before crowds

at the same shantytowns where Victor  sang,

leaned forward in her seat to hear it:

First Prize at the New Song festival for Victor Jara.

These are the nights we do not sleep

because we will never die.

How then could he squint into the dark,

somewhere beyond the back row, raise his guitar,

and sing: We'll go together, united by blood,

now and in the hour of our death. Amen.


II. The Man With All the Guns: September 1973


The coup came, and soldiers whipped the enemies of the state,

hands on head and single file, through the stadium gates.

Condemned faces bled their light in the halls

of Estadio Chile. The light floats there still.

The killers had their light too, spectral cigarettes

glimmering  in every corridor, especially the Prince,

or so the prisoners called the blond officer

who smiled at his work as if churches sang in his head.


When Victor slipped into the hallway,

away from thousands gripping knees to chest

as they awaited the cigarette in the neck

or stared back at the staring machineguns,

he met the Prince, who must have heard singing in his head,

since he recognized the singer's face, strummed the air

and slashed a finger across his throat.

The Prince smiled like a man with all the guns.


Later, when the other prisoners realized

there were no wings on their shoulders

to fly them from the firing squad,

Victor sang Venceremos, we will win,

and the banned anthem lifted shoulders

as the Prince's face reddened in a scream.

If his own scream could not quiet the song

pulsing through the veins in his head,

reasoned the Prince, then the machineguns would.


III. If Only Victor: July 2004


Crack the face of every clock at Estadio Chile.

In this place, thirty-one years are measured

by Victor's last breath. A moment,

as in momento, the last word of the last  canto

he wrote before the bullets swarmed

into the honeycomb of his lungs.


Her eyes still burn. Her tongue still freezes.

Again for Joan the helicopters roar,

military music drums across the dial,

soldiers rifle-butt women in the bread line.

Again she finds her husband's body in the morgue

amid the corpses piled like laundry

and lifts his dangling fractured hands in hers

as if to begin a waltz.


Yes, now they have named the stadium where he was killed for him;

yes, his words flow in stone across the wall of the lobby;

yes, there are Chinese acrobats tumbling here tonight;

yet she would rip away the sign flourishing his name,

hammer down the wall of his words

and scatter the acrobats into the streets

if only Victor would walk into the room

to finish their argument about why

he moved so slowly in the morning

that he almost always made her late for class.


IV. Something Escapes the Bonfire: July 2004


South of Santiago, far from Estadio Victor Jara,

under a tent where the spikes of rain rattle off the canvas,

a boy and girl born years after the coup

lean across a chair onstage to fill their eyes with each other's faces.

The tape rumbles, and Victor's voice

spirals delicate as burnt paper to the ceiling,

singing of a lover’s silence to the dancers

who uncurl the tendrils of their bodies.


Something escapes the bonfire

where the generals warm their hands,

embers from burnt paper, buried tapes,

voices teeming in the silence

like the invisible creatures in a glass of water,

how a dancer spins to the music in her head,

alone but for the tingle of fingertips at her elbow.


from The Republic of Poetry


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