Confidences, Liberties, Intimacies, Trusts:

Reading Juan Gelman

Juan Gelman, 2011, photo by Gianluca Battista

Thinking today about Argentinian poet Juan Gelman and crossing borders, following the small essay yesterday on his work in the Madrid newspaper El País. To quote a footnote (already also a border) in Wikipedia on Gelman—(I suggest reading the whole article!): “ ‘I am the only Argentinian in the family. My parents and my two siblings were Ukrainian. They immigrated in 1928.’  In the same brief autobiographical text, Gelman states that his mother was a student of medicine and the daughter of a rabbi from a small town. ‘[My parents] never shut us up in a ghetto, culturally or otherwise. [...] I received no religious education.’ Gelman would later write some poems in Ladino, i.e., Judeo-Spanish; he is also known for being sharply critical of Israel.”

The article quotes a Gelman poem in its entirety, Confianzas, a word that in Spanish has so many echoes: confidences, liberties, intimacies, trusts: “se sienta a la mesa y escribe / ‘con este poema no tomarás el poder’ dice / ‘con estos versos no harás la Revolución’ dice / ‘ni con miles de versos harás la Revolución’ dice // y más: esos versos no han de servirle para / que peones maestros hacheros vivan mejor / coman mejor o él mismo coma viva mejor / ni para enamorar a una le servirán // no ganará plata con ellos / no entrará al cine gratis con ellos / no le darán ropa por ellos / no conseguirá tabaco o vino por ellos // ni papagayos ni bufandas ni barcos / ni toros ni paraguas conseguirá por ellos / si por ellos fuera la lluvia lo mojará / no alcanzará perdón o gracia por ellos // ‘con este poema no tomarás el poder’ dice / ‘con estos versos no harás la Revolución’ dice / ‘ni con miles de versos harás la Revolución’ dice / se sienta a la mesa y escribe”.

This poem appears in the U Cal Press translation of Gelman by Joan Lindgren that you can read here, by clicking on page 10: 

That English version of the poem startled me; it wasn’t the poem I read in Spanish! It throws up borders of pronoun standardization according to the patriarchal norm. Perhaps it was written that way, or she imagines it as written that way, but we must instead, in my view, imagine our own reading of it and what the poem itself as text, as material, leaves open to us. Here I take advantage of the fact that Spanish doesn’t require us to precede verbs all the time with pronouns, so we can indeed, and I do, read the poem as more open:

Confidences, Juan Gelman, trans. through Erín Moure's neural architecture....

the poet sits down at the table and writes
“with this poem you won’t seize power,” she writes
“with these verses you won’t make the Revolution,” she writes
“not with thousands of verses will you make the Revolution,” she writes

and what’s more: these poems won’t give
workers teachers and sappers a better life
better food or let the poet live better
nor fall in love with another

she won’t earn money with them
won’t get into the movies for free with them
they aren’t exchangeable for clothing
or for cigarettes or wine

nor parrots nor scarves nor boats
nor bulls nor umbrellas can be obtained for them
if you go with poems into the rain you get wet
no one will forgive you or give you grace in exchange for them

“with this poem they won’t seize power” the page reads
“with this poem they won’t make the Revolution” it reads
“with a thousand verses they won’t make the Revolution” it says
so she sits down at the table and she writes

Gelman’s parents and his siblings emigrated from Ukraine one year before my mother’s family did the same in 1929. Here poetry and translation are a bond across time with Ukrainian lands. I think I’ll go out now and get wet in the rain....