Two Juans: A Knowing Beyond Knowledge

Paul Pines

Two Juans: A Knowing Beyond Knowledge

“. . . i recognize your face\ like memory in every face . . .” Argentine poet Juan Gelman reaches out to San Juan de la Cruz in Commentary XXVIII, a poem addressed to the 16th Century Spanish mystic whose vision detailed the transformation of the soul through suffering.  San Juan defined what the psalmist, David, called the Valley of the Shadow, which must be crossed on the way to a unitary experience beyond earthly knowledge.  Both Juans, the grandchildren of conversos, are psalm-singers in this tradition.  San Juan called this journey “the Dark Night of the Soul,” because it stripped the soul of all familiars, landmarks and attachments to leave it engulfed by a pain that can’t be explained or addressed by reason.  As Juan de la Cruz tells it in Dark Night of the Soul: “One dark night, / fired with love’s urgent longings / . . . I went out of my house / unseen . . .”

No one details the transformation of the soul through suffering like Juan Gelman, with the possible exception of San Juan de la Cruz.  No poet speaks of the failure of knowledge to comprehend this transformation like San Juan, with the possible exception of Juan Gelman.  The Argentine poet finds himself mirrored in the Spanish mystic “like a look in your eyes / where i see myself remembered.”  What they share is the soul San Juan describes as “conscious of this complete undoing of itself in its very substance.”  And so, dark night speaks to Dark Night as inevitability, each returning to the fire that burns off assumptions, leaves even the most profound connections to the known world in ashes.

San Juan stripped down his Carmelite order to create a “calcinated,” barefoot one.  Juan Gelman speaks of a “calcinated language,” one so stripped down it refers to a point behind the language, a finger pointing at a landscape without a vanishing point.  Imprisoned in 1577 for his reforms, San Juan suffered weekly public lashings, and severe isolation.  He wrote his Spiritual Canticle in a cell just large enough for his body before escaping after nine months.  Political forces that swept down on him in the Argentine coup of 1976 imprisoned Juan Gelman in loss — the loss of his son, Marcelo, his daughter-in-law, Maria Claudia (both 20) and the child she bore in captivity before being murdered, Andreíta; the loss of country (twelve years in exile) and, finally, the loss of the world as it had been before he was overtaken.  “I was never the owner of my own ashes, dark faces write my verses . . .”  (Arte Poética).

“There are losses,” says Gelman.  “The important thing is how returning to them transforms them into something new.”  The crucible of an Argentina that nurtured the tango and then disappeared its people produced Juan Gelman (the lapis exiles ), whose poems move through a “cloud of unknowing” to embrace what the mind can’t bear.  Some dark nights, San Juan points out, can last for years.  Gelman’s canticle, composed over decades in the jail of absolute loss, strikes a chord in the hearts of those who hear it, a bell whose resonance remains for a lifetime, that nothing can un-ring.

What links the two Juans, and draws me to them, is their ability to suspend certainty, to arrive at the attitude of “knowing through not knowing,” and thereby transform the pain that reason can’t address into the healing breadth of the open heart.  Here, (hear!) the mystic and poet give voice to the voiceless, “like feet crushing / sadnesses on the edge of what it is about to sing . . .”