Yesterday, just before the first full moon of the year, Argentine poet-in-exile Juan Gelman died; and last night, my head was full of extraordinary images of Juan. First, I remembered 1975, when Eduardo Galeano gave me a copy of Juan’s Obra poética “to see how it would work in English.” It didn’t. It would take years for me to comprehend and translate the depth, the tenderness, the musicality, the playfulness—in short, the life of these poems. In 2008 I began afresh with Carta abierta (Between Words: Juan Gelman’s Public Letter), which, with its mixture of beauty and sadness, of silences and screams, constituted the height of his expression. The next year I was fortunate enough to interview him in Buenos Aires, where we talked as much about horses as literature, jesting about “caballa, potranco” (steed marie? colty?) with their changed genders, nonwords underscoring his love of words.
One could represent the beauty and sadness of Juan’s heart, in fact, with the horse of his poems, Kessel: “Beautiful that beloved horse, his legs of cantering off. Kessel watched the twilights with eyes deeper than his wound.” (Hoy, “LXIII”). As a member of the cavalry, he took care of this horse, which was employed on a horse mill for stamping clay to make bricks. When he broke a leg, he was put down and buried, but the next day the corpse was gone: “There was a shantytown nearby…” according to Juan’s story.
“A horse galloping on my chest” was one of the analogies he used when speaking of his visitations from the muses, and as we continued to write each other, he’d ask first about my horses, then my poems, the South Atlantic, and every so often about the translations I was doing.
He was delighted with the works I’d chosen next: Com/positions, Commentaries and Citations, Oxen Rage, and, after he began sending the first drafts in 2011, his final publication, Hoy (Today). Consistently forthcoming and flattering—having been a translator himself, he found great amazement and beauty in the task—he once wrote regarding my versions of Public Letter: “Your text would be a great feat if it weren’t a miracle.” Regarding his collaboration, when I would ask about a detail, he would always provide the best answers he could, but often said my books explained his work to him. And I remember my reply to one of his explanations, “I just wanted to be sure,” was met with, “To be sure is a sickness of our times.”
As a translator of his work, I confess a love affair with his words, and, therefore, an intense delight in rendering them in English. By the same token, his philosophy regarding language has made this endeavor as arduous as it is pleasurable. Discussing the invention of words by Cervantes and Garcilaso, Gelman stated in his Cervantes Prize acceptance speech:
The tongue expands a language in order to better converse with itself. These inventions beat in the bowels of the tongue and generate the babbles and breezes of infancy, like some memory of words that comes from beyond, touching the infant in the cradle and opening a wound that never heals. These new words, are they not a victory against the limits of language? Does the air not continue to speak to us? And the sea, the rain, don’t they have a myriad of voices? How many words yet unknown are keeping their silence? There are millions of nameless places, and poetry works to name what is still unnamed.
Juan named many of these words “amphibian,” double-stated words forever in transition. I’ve likened these “between words” to pupas: forms that hide and promise future beauty. He amassed these creatures in Public Letter, perhaps as a way to speak (to) the world of the dead, for it is an elegiac book of poems that reaches out to the poet’s son Marcelo, “disappeared” in 1976 during the brutal military dictatorship of Jorge Rafael Videla. As I have written before, though elegies tend to walk on the edges of an abyss—of both despondency and sentimentality—this book is grippingly heroic, “rising up against death” because, in his exploration of words, Gelman invents expressions that topple and reconstruct images in the reader’s mind, offering glimpses of sorrow, frustration, and recollection in his characteristically compelling rhythmic mode of writing.
His love of words, in the midst of the foreign languages of exile, drove him further and further back in tongue-time, constantly revisiting mystic, Provencal, and Hebrew verse, creatively citing, commenting, and revising—or, as he said, com/posing—and even writing a book in Ladino, all of which made my job as his translator one of constant research, but also of exciting discovery.
There was always this fascination for words and sounds in his verse—he grew up listening to Ukrainian, Russian, and Spanish—but beginning with Oxen Rage in 1968, questions became a driving rhetorical device in his poetry:
that one there who harbors a dream
that beautiful scoundrel asks
why beneath the glory of this sun
do i sorrow like an ox?
The inquiries never ceased. His final publication, Today, is the culmination of seventy years of writing: musical, paradoxical, unsettling meditations full of love and fury. Each text in this collection forms a different layer of the poet’s thoughts after learning that those responsible for his son’s death had been sentenced. These poems paint the ceaseless pain of losing a son, the ambivalence of justice, the world’s perversity, and the saving graces of passion and beauty. The book closes with one more string of questions:
if poetry were a forgotten memory of the dog that mauled your blood / a false delight / a fugue in me major / an invention of what can never be said? And if it were the denial of the street / horse manure / the suicide of two keen eyes? And if it were just some anywhere that never sends word? And if it were?
Always wondering about the place of poetry. “Poetry doesn’t know how to leisurely hover above the chasm and no one can detach it from what it is but isn’t. Lying below, natural sciences, yearning, death’s numbers, the horrendous drought that ensued” (“CIV”). As I recently wrote for a feature on Gelman in Plume, Adorno stated, in order to amend his dictum regarding poetry after the Holocaust, “[p]erennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream”; yet how does the survivor find a voice to bear witness to torture and murder? To give voice to memory? To express the barbaric? Certainly not through conventional language; but the question lingers: can verse invent “what can never be said”? Gelman never flinched: “Neither bird nor song nor summer leaf can separate one’s head from cleaning the pasterns of the horse that gallops best.” (Hoy, “CII”)
Rereading our correspondence this morning cheered me greatly, even made me laugh out loud at times. Juan was one of the most generous poets I’ve ever met, encouraging young writers all over the world; including me. One of our last conversations took place in an apartment in Buenos Aires before last year’s book launch—“Juan Gelman: A Renovation of Ethics and Aesthetics”— in the auditorium of the Biblioteca Nacional amid an overflowing mass of loving admirers. He’d been asking for a manuscript of my verse for years, so I finally handed over a selection to him while explaining the problems I was having finding a publisher for the book, Oxen Rage. Visibly ill and yet elated to receive my “gift,” he stopped me midsentence and said, “Lisa, stop worrying about publishing the translations; you have to publish your own work.”
He didn’t write me during the holidays, and I was already missing his playful word games, like when he first saw my email prefix as a verb—”lisarosear”: to make an unmottled rose of things! Imagining him prostrate, perhaps hospitalized, I tried to cheer him up by sending a song I’d created around one of his poems. When he responded, thanking me, probably through his granddaughter who had become his secretary, I shot off a message saying, “Oh, what joy it is to have a letter from you!” The day before his passing, he answered: “You sent the letter and the joy. A million thanks for your beauty.” Such a gentle man.
The Argentine government has declared three days of national mourning; I foresee years and years of celebration of his works and think it fitting to end with one of my favorite poems of his.
celebrating its engine
the dogged heart enloves
as if it weren’t battered on the bias
wingforth and back in its defiance
forwarding wings to flight
endeavoring nothing more
troubled by stones
underfoot like feet of a sort
lolloping along on foot rather than wing or how
the world the ox the enloined would be
if we weren’t devouring one another
if we were enloving more lavishly
if we were or might be
like human faces
beginning two at a time
complete in all the rest
January 15, 2014, Mar del Plata, Argentina
Argentine poet-in-exile Juan Gelman (1930–2014) was born of Jewish Ukrainian parents in Buenos Aires and grew up amid a myriad of languages, acquiring a fascination for words early on in life. He published more than twenty books of poetry between 1956 and 2009, and his more recent awards include the National Poetry Prize (Argentina, 1997); the Juan Rulfo Prize in Latin American and Caribbean Literature (Mexico, 2000); the Pablo Neruda Prize (Chile, 2005); the Queen Sofia Prize in Ibero-American Poetry (Spain, 2005); the most prestigious Spanish-language literary award, the Cervantes Prize, in 2007; and the Premio Leteo in 2012. He worked as a journalist and a translator in Argentina, Spain, France, and Italy. Juan Gelman succumbed to myelodysplastic syndrome in Mexico City on January 14, 2014.