Reading Juan Gelman Poems over the Phone

Gioconda Belli

Reading Juan Gelman Poems over the Phone

I first met Juan Gelman at the craziest and most fantastic gathering of poets ever.  It was in Rome in 1982.  Every night dozens of us poets got together to read to each other FROM the stage in the gardens of the Villa Borghese.  The Italian poets always read first on the program.  There were so many of them that the rest of us seldom read before midnight.  Among the group of Latin American poets, I remember Carlos Monsivais, Jorge Enrique Adoum, and Juan Gelman.  Juan was living in Rome at that time.  It was the era of concrete poetry and other unhappy experiments.  The spectacle of a public throwing orange rinds, whole oranges or whatever else they held in their hands at the stage while booing, in response to what they considered bad poetry seemed surreal to us, coming as we did from countries where poetry is respected.  When our turn came to read, around one in the morning, we mounted the stage as a group to support one another, just in case.  No one threw any fruit at us, a victory which we attributed to reading in Spanish.  Between these ups and downs, we enjoyed the beauty of the place, laughed a lot and became good friends.

A little later, during the most beautiful but difficult years of the Sandinista Revolution, Juan moved to Nicaragua to work as a journalist for the Agencia de Noticias Nueva Nicaragua.  I was surprised to find him there, doing things in his own quiet way, one of many, lost among the agency personnel.

I wanted to pull him out of this anonymity, to alert everyone who loved poetry to his presence among us.  So I interviewed him at length for the cultural supplement of El Nuevo Diario, only to discover at the end of it, that the recorder I used had barely

recorded his voice.  It was a shame, and embarrassing for me, but Juan took it philosophically as one more of those fiascos that fill our lives.  Once again, we were brought together by what did not work as it was supposed to.

The intensity of those times in Nicaragua was difficult and left us clinging to friends.  Juan and I shared a very lovely poetic friendship.  We telephoned each other to read poems and talk about our mutual feelings of loneliness, sorrow and hope.  He was always haunted by the memory of his son, and his lost granddaughter.  The melancholy of the world was in his eyes, but what always impressed me most was his sweetness, the gentle way in which he moved through the chaotic universe like a huge angel; this gentleness is in the poetry to which he has given voice, imprinted the Spanish language with his unique personal qualities. The poem that accompanies this was born during this time; it pays homage to the commitment and empathy I felt for the great humanity of this man, and a poet to his marrow.  It is a memory of the mysterious coincidences of destiny that allowed me to read him poems over the phone and share his magic for a short time.

tr. Paul Pines