A MAN A PLAN A CANAL PANAMA

The world’s most famous palindrome… I’ve been thinking (and teaching) about the Panama canal this week, and I came across this poem by the Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, about the injustice done to this land for the sake of economic gain. I don’t think my students can quite handle it, so I will place it here.

Panama, your geography granted you

a gift that no other land was given:

two oceans pushed forward to meet you:

the cordillera tapered naturally:

instead of one ocean, it gave you the water

of the two sovereigns of the foam;

the Atlantic kisses you with lips

that habitually kiss the grapes

while the Pacific Ocean shakes

in your honor its cyclonic nature…


but men from other parts

brought to you their yoke

and spilled nothing but whiskey

since they mortgaged your waistline:

and everything follows as it was planned

by devils and their lies:

with their money they built the canal;

they dug the earth with your blood

and now dollars are sent to New York

leaving you the graves…


like Panamanian wind asks

like a child that has lost its mother

where is the flag of my country?

(“History of a Canal,” XXXIII)

A few things jump out…

1. The juxtaposition of beauty and tragedy:both make up the story…although we can tell the overwhelming tone is grief and mourning, Neruda paints a beautiful scene.

2. The gendered language of the land: (“They mortgaged your waistline“) I am fascinated by the strong connections between gender and empire. Conquest, domination, patriarchy.

3. It’s personified and personal: it isn’t political propaganda, it’s calling out the emotion and asking for a response

4. When nations involve themselves in other nations, it is impossible to separate political, economic, and social motives. For example, when the United States purchased the canal zone, they did so by encouraging Panamanians to rebel against Colombia and become its own nation.

THIS is why English and history should be taught together. I’m just saying.

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