Juan Gelman’s “Dark Times Filled with Light”

Reviewed by Heather Cleary

Image of Juan Gelman’s “Dark Times Filled with Light”

It is almost impossible to talk about Argentine poet Juan Gelman without invoking a series of apparently opposed, but ultimately complementary, pairings: art and activism, restraint and potency, pain and transcendence. History, for Gelman, is something both deeply personal and inherently communal, just as poetry can be both politically charged and aesthetically refined. His work denounces the abuse of power at the same time as it challenges the assumption that committed art is predominantly, if not exclusively, didactic. Eduardo Galeano, to whom the 1979 collection Notes is dedicated, once marveled that Gelman commits “the crime of marrying justice to beauty”—Dark Times Filled with Light, a sampling of the poet’s work from 1956 to 1992 selected and translated by the late Hardie St. Martin, surveys this vast and intricate terrain.

Because Gelman’s personal history figures so prominently in his writing, it bears glossing here. The poet, who in 2007 was awarded the Cervantes prize, arguably the highest literary honor in the Spanish language, was born in 1930 to a family recently settled in Buenos Aires from the Ukraine. His political activism began early, when he joined the Communist Party at age fifteen, and continued with his co-founding the “pan duro” movement in 1955. The group, dedicated to fostering politically committed art, published Gelman’s first collection of poems, Violín y otras cuestiones (Violin and Other Questions) the following year.

The poet continued his activism both on and off the page during the sixties and seventies. Eventually, he shifted his allegiance from communism to more radical organizations, and left Argentina in 1975 at the request of the leftist guerilla group known as the Montoneros to denounce human rights violations under the presidency of Perón’s widow, Isabel (1974-1976). As a result, he was absent at the time of the 1976 coup that installed a savagely repressive dictatorship and began one of the darkest periods in the country’s history. The violence of the time affected Gelman on a private, as well as a political, level: his son and pregnant daughter-in-law were kidnapped by the state as the ruling junta tightened its grip on the country. Unlike many who lost loved ones to the violence of the state, the poet was afforded some sense of resolution, though of the bitterest kind, when his son’s remains were discovered in 1990. He also learned that his grandchild had been born in a government detention facility, but had no idea which one, or whether it was a boy or a girl he was looking for. In 1998, Gelman published an open letter to the missing child in newspapers in Argentina and Uruguay. The missive, surprisingly, bore fruit: within two years, the poet finally came face to face with his granddaughter, who had been raised in Uruguay by a family sympathetic to the dictatorship. At twenty-three, she was already older than her parents had been when they were “disappeared.” 

Gelman is best known for his work from this period, during which he charts the violent splintering of homes and of a nation, and chronicles the Left’s struggle against the oppressive measures of the regime. (Earlier this month, he was honored by President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner as a champion of human rights.) The collection Open Letter (1980) is paradigmatic in this sense. Dedicated to his still-missing son, the poems seethe with the pain of not knowing his fate, of needing new words to grapple with a new life that required unlearning the old. The line “deshijándote mucho / deshijándome” from poem VII, in which the noun hijo, or child, is turned into a verb of undoing, of “unsonning,” and ”gelmanear,” the verbal form of the poet’s own surname, are poignant examples of this recourse to neologism.

In addition to this lexical alchemy (which, like all forms of alchemy, aspires to more than the sum of its parts), typographical slashes embedded within lines of poetry—a gesture prevalent in Gelman’s later work—begin to appear around this time. Tiny cuts to the body of the text, these fissures, sometimes several in a given line, never quite resolve into breaks. In this, they suggest constant, violent incursions into private worlds and the denial of closure that was a key part of the government’s strategy of control.

Dark Times Filled with Light does an impressive job of presenting the balancing act between the personal and the public, and between the political and the poetic, that characterizes Gelman’s work. The title of the volume is drawn from “Things They Don't Know,” from the collection Facts:

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 / our eighth

in one month / they know almost everything about us / except
this plaster ceiling we make love 
under / and they also know nothing about
the rundown pine furniture under the last ceiling / or

The light that penetrates the darkness of state violence and surveillance emanates, here and throughout the collection, from human connections, in their most intimate and mundane forms: “faces around us like the sun / spreading sunlight over the city.” This light is, in a later poem, the embodiment of comrades lost to “the insanity of the military command,” even after it has ceased to shield them from the “terror” of that night. It is memory as the foundation of a struggle still to be won, even as it serves as a reminder of what has been lost. Light, after all, does not only illuminate; it also throws darkness into relief. In this sense, the complement of light and darkness resembles the relation between the understatement of Gelman’s poetry and its affective power. The tragic is felt all the more acutely because the language in which it is expressed does not set itself apart as extraordinary. Rather, it presents a reality unthinkable to most in the language of the everyday.

But Gelman’s ouevre is not limited to those poems “steeped in the authority of his wound,” as Paul Pines puts it in his introduction to the collection. Unfortunately, Dark Times, like most discussions of the poet’s work, does not give as rich a sense of the other facets of Gelman’s production. For example, Gelman played extensively with adopted personae, often presenting his own poems as “found” texts or translations. This conceit appears time and again (as in the collections attributed to John Wendell, Yamanocuchi, and Sidney West, the latter of which bears the epigraph “Is translation betrayal? / Is poetry translation?”), and is indeed present in a number of the poems selected for this collection, though little mention is made of this ventriloquism in the essay that situates the work. The poet was also deeply influenced by the tango; his engagement of the form can be sensed in the inclination his work shows—like the lyrics and melancholy strains of tango’s most famous songs—toward the narrative and, occasionally, the nostalgic. As the writer and critic Miguel Correa Mujica observes, Gelman’s work establishes a connection between “the literary and the popular tradition of the tango, that is, between the historical and the sentimental.” In this sense, it’s too bad that the collection is presented in English alone: it’s hard to glean the lilt of the poems this way. Though including the originals might have meant reducing the scope of the selection, an en face edition would have offered even those with little Spanish a greater sense of the work’s minimalist musicality.

Nonetheless, there is no question that Dark Times Filled with Light is a significant, moving, and beautiful addition to poetry available in English. It is hard to believe how little of Gelman’s work is available in the language, given the accolades and recognition he has received the world over; until now, only two volumes were available: another English-only selected works (Unthinkable Tenderness, 1997) and a bilingual Poems of Sidney West (2009). Hopefully, the future will hold still deeper excavations of the ground this volume covers.