Notes on a Return to the Ever-Dying Lands

Arturo Desimone’s series on Latin American poetry for Drunken Boat

Santoro’s Factory of Heart-Sounds

Roberto Jorge Santoro, Argentinian poet, journalist and rebel factory worker who fought dictatorship.


take heed, sometimes, of my words:

remember the poet has a factory of sound

at the height of the heart

that is why he sings

*my translation of Roberto Santoro’s poem Warning is forthcoming in a “Big Hammer” anthology edited by Dave Roskos of Iniquity press, soon to appear (see for updates.)

Roberto Jorge Santoro was a poet who wrote of being a factory worker who would rather sing, and of hardened bread-loaves hidden behind the railings of balconies in San Telmo — a neighborhood in Buenos Aires preserving the old colonial-creole style of architecture, and where he was one of the street panhandlers haggling their goods at the fairs. He rhapsodized on dictatorship and demagogues (‘’and with the boyish brilliance of an ephebe/he shits in the country‘’) as well as their seeming opposite (“mama democracy’’)

Santoro was a major poet of the Argentinian working class. The itinerant laborer-poet also conducted an underground radio show, and was the founding editor of the magazine El Barrilete, first Argentinian literary journal to treat the poets and songwriters of the tango, such as Catulo Castillo sand Homero Manzi, as serious literature. (Tango is inherently the music of a culture of the Argentinian immigrant working class and the criminal underworld, and many tango songwriters were prominent in the anarchist movement, one of the most common political loyalties of the Italian and Spanish immigrant industrial laborers who filled the sprawling Argentinian and Uruguayan urban centers and ports, shortly before and after the Spanish civil war).

Listen to a recording of the poet reciting in Spanish here

A faun-like Santoro

Santoro’s optimism was always invigorated by revolutionary movements, as revealed in old radio recordings where he interviews his inebriated comrade, the Argentine poet Luis Luchi (the latter, a Jewish poet, confesses how at the age of 17 he went across the Andes mountainous border to Chile where he joined a revolutionary movement. In much later years — according to long-time friend and Argentine poet Alberto Szpunberg — Luchi turned to anarchism and to alcoholism, following his notice of expulsion from the Argentine communist party: Luchi is in precisely such a state, anarchic drunk and embittered, when speaking to Santoro in a historic interview.) Santoro joined the revolutionary communist movement embodied in the Revolutionary Worker’s Party, which had Guevaraist ideas. He and other poets from the Barillete gang compiled a book of poems, prose and drawings commemorating the dead of the Trelew-massacre of 1972, when 16 political prisoners, members of leftist factions were executed in a military base in one of the Southernmost provinces of Argentina, Chubut, near the arctic. They were brought to the base for execution after attempting escape from the Rawson maximum security prison, in an icy region that had often been used for exile and imprisonment by previous governments. La Sangre Derramada Nunca Será Negociada “Shed Blood Will Never be Negotiated” was title of the anthology, but the group also released a journalistic human-rights report.

cover for Santoro’s “Literature of the soccer-ball’’ volume 1

On the 1st of June, 1977, the police came to find him in a technical middle-school where he worked as a tutor with adolescents. He was dragged to a secret detention center.

Santoro is among those poets who became desaparecidos, “disappeared ones’’ such as Paco Urondo, Miguel Angel Bustos and young Alcira Fidalgo (and prose writers such as Haroldo Conti and Rodolfo Walsh) All these lights of their generation were subsumed into the nebulous ranks of “the disappeared”: in the words of none other than general Rafael Videla, a desaparecido “is a person who is neither dead nor living”. They were targeted by the state terror of the military Junta because they represented a threat to the disciplinarian, conformist, mediocrity-loving and technocratic society envisioned by the generals, a warrior-caste that first implemented the “neo-liberal” system in the Andean South with ample bloodshed (and with invaluable support from Washington DC in the form of logistics, intelligence, economic aid and armaments).

The poet with a factory of sound at the height of his heart was abducted in 1977 in one of the typical razzia’s of the Argentine junta police, detained in a secret prison until his execution. Santoro died before reaching the age of 40, his remains have not been found. His children live in Buenos Aires today. Santoro’s short lyrics, at times innocent and obscene, might unintentionally echo the more debauched Charles Bukowski’s comment on how writing poems ‘’gives you the freedom to scream a little.’’

My translations of Santoro form part of my project to translate the literature of poets who are relevant to the memory of the dictatorship’s crimes in Argentina.

“and with the boyish brilliance of an ephebe

he shits in the country

with all his soul”

(from Poesía en General II,)
A cut-out from the newspaper Página 12, which has a section that runs pictures and in memoriam texts of the disappeared persons with the maxim Neither Forgetting Nor Forgiveness.

The poem in my English translation is

Source of Sanctuary

With that bit about the atom-bomb

and the other about the clown of Peace that can make one to die from laughter

they taped up the air-conditioner

Flock ye to my neighborhood

Where chimney-sweeps toil

inside the stacks of


Prudence gets drunk in the canteens

and Hope cannot get her retirement paid

I do not ask for return

But after so many patches sewn into my short pants, this many

the flying-kite died of a heart attack

and love —

from a gun-shot to the head —

(from the collection Defiance, 1972. the caption from the memory-foundation and newspaper editors reads Roberto Jorge Santoro: Poet, Writer, Journalist. Detained and Disappeared 1–6–1977 ‘’Your family, friends and comrades who await you say “Never Forgive Never Forget”)

“In Few Words…”


he is as a neighborhood beauty queen

lauded with ribbons and canes

and with his lapdogs

who lick at the rottenness

seated at the right side

of mama democracy

he dialogues long

with the mouth of a murderer.

he raises his hand in that sustained and easy style

wiggles his fat ass

and with the boyish brilliance of an ephebe

he shits in the country

with all his soul

  • *An after-thought on my translation of the poem Poesía en General (ii), (which is forthcoming in the Big Hammer anthology edited by Dave Roskos of Iniquity Press, here in preview-mode): “Trompada” noun of the verb “trompearse’’ is one of the many words for a ‘’beating’’ or ‘’fist fight’’ in Lunfardo, the Argentinian slang spoken by much of the older generation that inhabited Buenos Aires’ workers neighborhoods. In recordings of radio interviews conducted by Santoro, it seems he was found of the word — which today has a different connotation in the aftermath of the US presidential elections of 2016. Poetry in General (ii) perhaps describes such an entity as the universal (hopefully not timeless) capitalist despot.
Photograph of an iconic portrait of Santoro in the house of an Argentine musician. (courtesy of Victor Damián Cuello 2016)
  • An after-thought, Part II: A common misconception, often proliferated by young academics, claims literary writing itself, and access to writing, to be the logical consequence of the access to education granted by an elite, petit bourgeois, middle or upper class existence/privilege. Erudition is not, however, endemic to one or the other social class, and can be wholly absent from people of any class. Those who are burdened by having their intellect developed in the misshapen directions of auto-didacticism might be the first to reject such logic of membership in the well-bred and schooled bourgeoisie being a precondition to literature. Perhaps loneliness, and a tendency of skulking in shadows and mumbling to oneself or to walled-in seraphs as a child, constitute the more inherent preconditions. The denial of a musical education to a born musician (e.g. one who “has a factory of sound/at the height of his heart/that is why he sings’’) might be another cause occurring in the sub-stratum-classes of society. Roberto Santoro is one among many other, international examples such as
  • Reinaldo Arenas (aguas claras 1943–1990) Cuban surrealist novelist from a rural peasant family repressed by the Battista regime. At the age of 14, Arenas fought in the island’s revolution, only to be exiled in adulthood.
  • Mario Castells, a Paraguayan-Argentinian poet, author of Poems of Fierce Soul, writes in Spanish and in Guaraní, hails from the laboring classes and was the subject of the very first installment of Notes on a Return to the Ever Dying Lands
  • Mohammed Choukri( born 1935, in Nador Morocco, died 2003, in Rabat) born into a slum dwelling in Tangier, Morocco. Choukri went on to write his first novel The Naked Bread, a manuscript he showed to his prostitution-client Paul Bowles in Tangiers. He recounts his childhood, and seeing his father break the neck of his newborn brother so that the infant would not undergo hunger.
  • Jean Genet (Paris, 1910–1986) began to write at an early age in youth penitentiaries and from within the French prison system, seeking to map ‘the cosmogony of evil’, he wrote of his nomadic life-style as a thief and his love-affairs with innumerable criminals.
  • Throughout his collected articles that were printed in Combat, Action and Gauche, magazines and reader’s digests of the French underground resistance during Nazi occupation, Albert Camus often entered into polemical debates with opinionated readers, and went about disarming arguments that lacked critical depth. As Camus honed his version of liberal humanism, he rejected liberal imperialism, and also rejected Marxism and the Soviet ideology popular amongst the resistance (itself a recipient of Soviet support). One of his critics, writing in Action newspaper got into a verbose, comradely quarrel with the North-African-born fighter Camus, daring to accuse Camus of having a bourgeois background. The Marxist who sent Camus the accusing letter received the following response (from Second Answer, La Gauche underground magazine 1948) “I owe you certain clarifications. 1) I see myself now as forced to point out that I was born to a family of laborers. This in itself is not an argument (I never resorted to it until today). This is a rectification. At many instances, in the screed you have sent in response to me, as well as in the responses of those who side with you (at Action magazine) have you presented the lie that I am a child of bourgeois parentage: for this reason I have to remind you, for this one time at least, that not one of you communist intellectuals have first-hand experience of the proletarian condition; you are not in the adequate position to treat us as if we were dreamers and ignorant of reality. This is not about me. Rather, it concerns an argument, a polemical ploy you have used, that I must set straight now once and for all’’ the young North African-born fighter erupted in calm, not wishing to use his class origin as ideological weapon. (Desimone’s translation from the Spanish translation “Moral y Política”)
“The tombstones of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir — despite their bohemian airs — occupy elegant, expensive lots in Paris’s Montparnasse Cemetery. Both writers’ monuments are marked and easy to find, contrasting sharply with the final resting place of their chief rival, Albert Camus, whose bare stone slab in Provence is set upon a tangle of desert plants sprouting from the limestone gravel.” — image and caption courtesy of Rusted Radishes Beirut facebook page.
  • Sixto Rodriguez (birth of date unknown) a North American singer-songwriter from Detroit, to whom this immensely charming documentary is dedicated
  • To the host of writers who came from classes ranking far below those who typically access university, it is possible to add the Argentine factory-worker, poet and militant Roberto Santoro.


acuérdense alguna vez de mis palabras:

el poeta tiene una fábrica de sonido

a la altura del corazón

por eso canta


él está como una miss de barrio

orlado de cintas y bastones

y sus perros falderos

que lamen podredumbres

sentado a la diestra

de mamá democracia

dialoga largamente

con boca de asesino

alza su mano sostenida y fácil

baja su culo gordinflón

y a manera de efebo reluciente

se caga en el país con toda el alma


About the translator/blogger behind “Notes on a Return to the Ever-Dying Lands” for Drunken Boat:

Arturo Desimone, Arubian-Argentinian writer and visual artist, was born in 1984 on the island Aruba which he inhabited until the age of 22, when he emigrated to the Netherlands. He is currently based in Argentina (a country two of his ancestors left during the 1970s) while working on a long fiction project about childhoods, diasporas, islands and religion. Desimone’s articles, poetry and short fiction pieces have previously appeared in CounterPunch, Círculo de Poesía (Spanish) Acentos Review, New Orleans Review, DemocraciaAbierta, BIM Magazine, Knot-Lit. A play he wrote won a prize for young immigrant authors in Amsterdam in 2011, and published in the world-lit journal of University of Istanbul. His translations of poetry have appeared in the Blue Lyra Review and Adirondack Review.