Juan Gelman’s Exile

Ilan Stavans

Juan Gelman’s poetry bears witness to the bankruptcy of Argentine morality.  There’s a sense of urgency in it.  Rather than addressing abstract political questions, Gelman focuses on the small things: a handkerchief, a conversation on Carlos Gardel, the ways to remember a family moment.  He thrives on exploring the quotidian aspects of life under tyranny.  How do people go about their business?  Where do they find happiness?  On the surface he appears to be a pessimist but there’s a genuine feeling of hope that emerges from his verses.  “What a great mystery,” Gelman states in a poem of 1956 about the routine of looking at people being themselves, “to live treated like dirt / yet sing and laugh.”

He makes me think of Jewish immigrants from the socalled Pale of Settlement, where Catherine the Great allowed them to live (Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Bessarabia, and the Ukraine) who came to Argentina seeking the Promised Land and the astonishing speed with which they found disillusionment. Gelman wasn’t an immigrant but his parents and siblings were born in the Ukraine of martial stock.  His father fought in the 1905 Bolshevik Revolution.  Growing disappointment with the promise of a new life in the New World is Gelman’s theme.  It culminated in 1976, at the peak of the Dirty War, when his twentyyearold son and his pregnant wife were kidnapped by the police, never to be seen again.  Each became another name in the long list of desaparecidos.

The percentage of Jews in that list was high, perhaps as a result of the Socialist beliefs nurtured by the immigrant community. Gelman himself was forced into exile and lived in Mexico for more than a decade.  Years after the disappearance of their son and daughterinlaw, Gelman and his wife managed to find the whereabouts of their lost granddaughter.  Like hundreds of other children of the dictatorship’s victims, she was placed in the home of a welltodo conservative family.  While reuniting with his granddaughter didn’t cure Gelman’s wound, it offered a slice of redemption.   

Since I first encountered his oeuvre, in the mid nineties, the impression I get of Gelman’s poems is how much they resemble letter writing.  Indeed, one enters his universe with the conviction that the poet is writing only for himself.  Among my favorite books of his is Dibaxu (1994).  It is made of brief, snapshotlike verses originally written in Ladino, the language of Sephardic Jews, then translated by Gelman (who, by the way, is Ashkenazi) into Spanish and published in parallel pages.  (In Com/Positions, he rewrites the intellectual legacy of the Spanish Jewry, using figures like Joseph Tsarfati.)  I admire this volume because it captures Gelman’s central motif: the conviction that no matter who, where, and with whom he is, the poet this poet, in particular lives in permanent exile.  Exile not only in geographic terms: in a land that isn’t fully his; but in the temporal sense, living in the wrong time; and verbally, writing in a language that is his by sheer accident.

Gelman refuses to obfuscate the syntax of his verses.  He is often described as owing much to César Vallejo, the Catholic poet from Peru who died in 1938 in Spain, during the Civil War.  I find the empathy puzzling.  Vallejo’s language tends to be complex, say in Trilce, although he might also be accessible, as is the case of his poems in Spain, Take This Chalice from Me.  And his religiosity is deep, contradictory, and guiltridden.  Gelman isn’t only an anarchist, he is also a nonbeliever (a Jewish unbeliever, to boot). Intriguingly, he doesn’t appear to have inherited any guilt from his Jewish past.  Instead, in books like Gotán (1962), Cólera buey (1971), and Anunciaciones (1988), Gelman’s grammar refuses to play tricks on the reader.  The most he’ll do is use dashes (like prison walls) to break lines and use lowercase letters (to make language unintrusive in delivering the poem’s message).

He fits into the tradition of Latin American poetry by the relentless courage he displays to speak truth to power.  Where did the Argentine experiment go wrong?  How could it reach such levels of human depravity after it was generally seen as the most advanced, cosmopolitan country in the Southern Hemisphere? Time and again Gelman has pondered these questions, but he refuses to answer them.  The most a poet can do is describe what he sees.  In a 1980 poem about the prisoners’ loneliness, he described the protagonists as “dreaming they’re dreamed / quieted / they’ll never see other faces growing / leaning out / continued / in this sun / someday in the sun of justice.”  And in his remarkable piece, “The Art of Poetry,” dated 1961, he affirms: “I’ve never been the owner of my ashes, my poems, / obscure faces write them like firing bullets at death.”