On Reading Juan Gelman’s Poetry

Dark_Times_cvr_large[1]Note: I have decided to take the following review verbatim from my personal journal, so pardon its rawness; also pardon  the misalignment of lines that should be indented in the excerpt from “Watching People Walk Along.” Since writing this I have researched a bit more about Gelman’s life, but rather than add information or clarifications I will leave you, gentle reader, with the impressions of the moment. For further review of his work I refer you to Lucina Schell’s excellent review at her Reading in Translation blog (www.readingintranslation.com).

Friday, December 6

Dark Times Filled With Light: The Selected Work of Juan Gelman. Translated by Hardie St. Martin. 2012. Rochester, NY: Open Letter. 187 pages.

Simply stated, some of the most significant and remarkable poetry that I have read in my life: and to think that, though I had heard his name, before now I scarcely knew he existed! Frequently mentioned as a candidate for a Nobel Prize in Literature, I can’t imagine anyone who more deserves it. He is Argentine, like Borges who was also frequently mentioned for it but passed over – perhaps for the unfortunate decision to accept an honor from the Chilean dictator Pinochet. Gelman is significantly further to the left, and after the “disappearance” in 1976 of his son and pregnant daughter-in-law – victims of Argentina’s triumvirate of military dictators – he became an exile himself and remained out of the country for many years. In 2000 he finally located his graddaughter who had been given to supporters of the regime in Uruguay. What a terrible thing to have to suffer! But as he said (quoted in Paul Pines’s introduction): “There are losses. The important thing is how returning to them transforms them into something new.”

Juan Gelman

Juan Gelman

In respect to the “equipment for living” metaphor, Gelman’s equipment is of the best. Burke would probably have considered him a good and eloquent Marxist, though I don’t know if he was ever a member of the Communist Party. But his poems are full of references to fallen “compañeros” and “comrades,” to images of struggle and defeat and hopes of future victory. As early as 1961, he uses the word “revolution”:

… we make our way back to the fire, the anger, the injustice

after making love.

[space]

In this city moaning like a madwoman

love quietly counts

the birds that died fighting the cold,

the jails, the kisses, the loneliness, the days

still left before the revolution. (“Winter,” p. 16)

This selection contains work from well over twenty collectons, with sometimes as few as one representative and as many as fourteen, written between 1956 and 1992. The single representative from the first, “Watching People Walk Along,” from Violin and Other Questions, is a stunning opening poem: I sat here and read it over and over, pronouncing each word aloud, savoring it, deeply moved. He speaks early on of “watching / people weep in the most hidden corners / of the soul and still be able / to laugh and walk with dignity.” At the end he gives us these wonderfully bracing and poignant lines:

I tell them,

it’s beautiful to walk along with you

I tell them, it’s beautiful, what a great mystery

to live treated like dirt

yet sing and laugh,

how strange! (p. 5)

The book’s beautiful title comes from the collection Facts (1974-78), the poem “Things They Don’t Know,” which begins thus:

dark times / filled with light / the sun

spreads sunlight over the city split

by sudden sirens / the police hunt goes on / night falls and we’ll

make love under this roof … (p. 70)

It appears to be in this collection that he began using the slashes within lines of verse (in the short excerpt above, from “Watching …,” I have inserted the slashes as per standard practice to indicate line breaks).

Among the book’s most moving sections (out of so many affecting poems in each excerpted collection!) are Open Letter, 1980, which is dedicated to his son:

Crestfallen my burning soul

dips a finger in your name / scrawls

your name on the night’s walls /

soul to soul it looks at you / becomes a child /

opens its breast to take you in /

protect you / reunite you / undie you / (“Crestfallen My Burning Soul,” p. 81)

and Com / Positions, which takes its inspiration from 10th and 11th-century Sephardic poets (he has Jewish ancestry). “i call the following poems com / positions,” he writes in the opening “Exergue,” “because i’ve com / posed them, in other words, put my own things in texts great poets wrote years ago…. their vision of exile shook me up and i added – or changed, went through, offered – the things i myself felt …” In the second stanza / paragraph he continues: “in any case i talked with them, as they did with me from the dust of their bones and the radiance of their words….” And in the third (of five): “such is the mystery of the human word. it has its origin, whatever the language, in the same flight between darkness and light and thus it consubstantiates them: its light is dark, its darkness bright….” (p. 153). I will cite the last four lines (of ten) in the poem called “The Moment,” whose subject I would say is evanescence (I think of The Tale of Genji):

in this world this hour alone is mine /

this now that i am /

shows its face and

like a cloud / passes on (p. 161).

He cites in attribution of source / inspiration poet Samuel Hanagid (993-1056, Córdoba-Granada-the battlefield). In the next poem, also inspired by the same poet, this closing statement about the lust for war, a theme I wish our nation of leaders and patriots would ponder:

my men laughed at life / at death /

each wound on their faces a crown /

oh young lions /

to die /

they believed / is to keep the faith /

and to live without faith / they thought / against the rules /

(“Moments During the Battle of Alfuente,” p. 162).

There is so much more that I could cite, but I am running out of pages in this journal and I imagine that what I have already cited and said will do enough for a sampling and a response. I have never read verses that have affected me more profoundly.

***

imagesSFFRY0NP12/9/13: I have myself never belonged to the Communist Party or any officially Marxist organization, but I did make the painful migration from my conservative Republican upbringing to the “radical” left wing of the Democratic Party – even voted twice for the “socialist” Barack Obama! And, yes, I sympathize with Marxist ideals, if not with the excesses of some of its proponents and practitioners.

Anyway, I have just finished reading the December 9, 2013 issue of The Nation and, in particular, Sophie Pinkham’s review of some works by and about Victor Serge (in particular Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary, which I think I want to read). “From a socialist perspective,” Pinkham writes, “Serge represents the path not taken, the democratic revolution that never was.”

I think that something like that was going on in Chile, with Salvador Allende’s democratic election, until Pinochet (with the aid and counsel of our CIA) murdered him and overthrew that government. I remember reading Allende’s niece Isabel Allende’s novel La casa de los espíritus (The House of Spirits), which included some horrifying description of a conservative anti-democratic revolution very closely modeled on Pinochet’s historical one. I have since read nonfictional accounts that closely mirror her fictional one. I was shocked at the time by the political sabotage that went on, before the coup, with the clear intention of destabilization of Allende’s government: the image from the novel that still stands out in my mind is of perfectly good food rotting in store windows because the interests of wealth refused to sell it at a price that the working class could afford.

I have often thought of that when I hear people say that “Socialism” has been discredited and that Capitalism represents the “best of all possible worlds.” And I have thought about it throughout Obama’s years in the White House as Republicans in Congress have openly sought the destruction of his agenda, with dishonest epithets with Marxist and Racist overtones.

And while in my dark moods I often despair of our ever overcoming the deep-seated American assumptions that keep us from a humane and rational blend of capitalistic and socialistic economic strategies (I have always been of a melancholic temperament), every now and then there is still a glimmer of hope: whether it is Bill de Blasio’s mayoral win in NYC, or Elizabeth Warren’s campaign to make Wall Street honest, or any number of little signs of populist / progressivist activity.

In the spirit of that hope I modestly say: ¡Viva la revolución democrática! May it be resounding, aggressive, and peaceful.  

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