An atlas with Utopia in it


A brief but fitting tribute to the great Argentine poet Juan Gelman has been compiled by Paul Pines in a special edition of The Café Review


Dark Times/Filled with Light:
A Tribute to Juan Gelman

The Café Review, Vol. 20, Summer 2009
Edited by Paul Pines
64 pages

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

TO REMEMBER the past, says the Argentine poet Juan Gelman, is a political act.

While the politics of Gelman do not drown his poetic voice in ideological sound, and have been influenced strongly by his personal experiences at the hands of Argentina’s vainglorious state, they are shaped by memory and remain deeply subversive, fitting into the rich, largely untapped history of the political poet in Latin America.

That is because Gelman is still an exile in so many ways, conveyed brilliantly in this special tribute edition of The Café Review edited by Paul Pines. Indeed, there is nothing about Gelman that is not about exile: the son of Ukrainian immigrants; exiled by Argentina’s bloodthirsty military regime, and today resident in Mexico; exiled purposefully as a non-believer from his own Jewish history, having been reared by the daughter of a rabbi; and a man with a sense of direction that contradicts the confused moral compass of his country, whose needle continues to flicker.

Nonetheless, this poet recognized in the Spanish-speaking world through accolades such as the Cervantes Prize, remains adrift universally in an ocean whose confused literary currents have yet to deliver him on the recognizable shore that he deserves to reach in his lifetime. Where, indeed, are the great collections of his translated work?

Unreconstructed anarchist

‘Dark Times / Filled with Light’ is a brief but fitting tribute to this great, unreconstructed anarchist. It is also a showcase for the late Hardie St. Martin – that greatest of translators of Latin American poetry – and for other contributors to this splendid volume, including Asa Zatz, Jorge Boccanera, Ernesto Cardinal and Gioconda Belli.

Perhaps the most attractive aspect of Gelman’s poetry is its simple idealism – the belief in a better future – and that is not intended to be a criticism inspired by the harsh materialism of his celebrated peer, Che Guevara. (Gelman’s own role in the Guevara story, passing on a message to him from the journalist Jorge Ricardo Masetti in the days when the creation of an Argentine guerrilla remained a cherished and realistic ambition, is rarely recalled).

For example, Gelman recalls in an interview with Jorge Boccanera towards the end of the review that Wilde said an atlas that does not contain the land of Utopia is not worth consulting. His early poetry is suffused with hope, the dream of a kinder, fairer world – but expressed through tender references to the ordinary people for whom this world is intended. He writes:

‘Watching people walk along, put on a suit,
a hat, an expression and a smile,
watching them bent over their plates eating patiently,
work hard, run, suffer, cringe in pain,
all just for a little pace and happiness,
watching people, I say it’s hardly fair
to punish their bones and their hopes
or distort their songs or darken their day…’
[Watching People Walk Along, p. 4]

As Pines reveals, Gelman is exercised by the mysticism of the past, the suffering of the soul, and this originates in, or at least is reinforced by, his understanding of loss. In 1976, both his son and (pregnant) daughter-in-law were ‘disappeared’ – hence, executed – by Argentina’s despicable regime. Like other children of the desaparecidos, Gelman’s infant grand-daughter was handed to a pro-regime family, and he was only able to locate her in Uruguay in 2000.

Yet beneath such tragic loss there is hope which, even in this limited selection we can discern as it forces its way like an eternal Spring through the obscurity that has so often descended upon Argentina.

‘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 …’
[Things They Don’t Know, p. 14]

Gelman’s Argentine European eye wanders from Paris to Prague to Rome in a continent where he lived until 1988 and where, at times, one feels the poet is – unostentatiously – more comfortable than the complex land he happened to find himself in. He captures a strong sense of detachment in his poetry, while articulating the isolation that the cosmopolitan Argentine people feel so grievously.

My father came to America with one hand behind and the other in front to hold his trousers up. I came to Europe with one soul behind and the other in front to hold my trousers up. And yet there are differences: he went to stay, I came here meaning to return.
But are there, in fact, differences? Between the two of us we went, returned, and nobody knows yet where we’re going to end up.

[Under Foreign Rain, XII, p. 22]

But probably the greatest inspiration of Gelman’s work is that it is motivated by neither money nor lust, but by the silent indignation of a sensitive, unpretentious man. In this collection there are telling references to Cervantes, a visionary dreamer for whom life was a troubled inversion of the imagination; to García Lorca, the calf whose sacrifice to fascism Gelman himself felt so keenly with the ‘disappearance’ of his son by a demonic reich; and to Rodolfo Walsh, whose pen was a mighty Irish longsword that made the military cowards perspire with fear.

Reading ‘Dark Times / Filled with Light’ reminds us of what poetry is meant to be: elevating, ideal, a celebration of life, deeply human and, hence, in a world ruled by the inhumane, profoundly revolutionary.

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books

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