A Photograph of Juan Gelman Dressed to the Nines

Sergio Ramírez

A Photograph of Juan Gelman Dressed to the Nines

I have seen the figure of Juan Gelman in formal attire bowing gracefully over a power that can be nothing other than the sacred power of poetry.  Calm and barely smiling, he expresses a hint of the supreme disdain he has always had for titles, honors and other vanities in response to which, if provoked, he will burst out laughing.  I ask myself, what is he doing, a tango singer who has plucked the lyre of misfortune, so elegantly dressed, as if he were a Godfather at someone else’s wedding, a Spanish lord, for example, but a man with a face so scored by pain doesn’t dress so elegantly if it weren’t for his own wedding with language: he has lived all his life in carnal conversation with words — a life of domestic disturbances, papers strewn on a bed of ink stained sheets.

The photo was taken in the cloisters at the University of Alcala the day he received the Cervantes Prize from Spain’s King Juan Carlos.  It was the first time Juan bowed to anyone even if ever so slightly and with so much grace that it did not reduce him, he who has lived erect all of his life, and no one can boast about  making him bow, no one or nothing, neither terror, nor insidiousness, nor misfortune.  He has stayed upright before such sorrows — no guitar dares to play that milonga — his son thrown into the depths of a river by hit men who appear to be still at large, a river of dead bodies in cement blocks, an ocean of dead bodies thrown out of military aircraft, a vast and dark landscape of the disappeared, and his daughter-in-law kidnapped with a child in her womb, taken secretly to Uruguay, where they made her give birth then killed her.  Who is there to mark her grave and to find his disappeared granddaughter but Juan, thanks to his tenacity, without ever bowing to the cruel winds of misfortune that score his face.

Barely bowing in the photo, a slight smile suggesting irony, and the dignity of a poet dressed in a jacket to receive the award for his lifelong love affair with poetry, so passionate, fierce and carnal, making love all night long, eyes wide open.  So much has come from it leading to this moment that he says he never intended, but to which he bows today in this photo, his passion to bring to light the suffering of others, as well as his own, in words that can only be written in the blood that runs in the veins of tangos and boleros, and what I feel now contemplating this article in the Managua newspaper is a light tremor in my body and soul, before I also bow reverently to the figure bowing in the photo, he to poetry and I to the poet

tr. Robert Arnold