A language bent to its own unique use

A review of 'Between Words: Juan Gelman's Public Letter'

Between Words: Juan Gelman’s Public LetterBetween Words: Juan Gelman’s Public Letter

Between Words: Juan Gelman’s Public Letter

Juan Gelman

Coimbra Editions 2010, 126 pages, $19.95, ISBN 978-0-9826556-2-7

Juan Gelman is an Argentine poet, born in 1930. Although he began writing and publishing at an early age, he seems to have received major recognition only rather late in life. In 1997 he won the Argentine National Poetry Prize, followed by several other prestigious awards, culminating with what’s considered the highest Spanish language literary award, the Cervantes Prize, in 2007.

Considering this level of acclaim, English translations are still fairly sparse. Amazon has only two listings besides the volume at hand. One, “Unthinkable Tenderness,” is a 1997 University of California Press broad selection, edited and translated by the late Joan Lindgren. The other is “The Poems of Sidney West,” a 1969 sequence styled a “pseudo-translation” in which Gelman assumes the persona of a cowboyish United States poet he pretends to be translating. The English translation by Katherine Hedeen and Victor Rodriguez Nuñez was published in 2009 by Salt Publishing in the UK. Not listed is an earlier Coimbra Editions selection, “Commentaries and Citations, also translated by Lisa Bradford.

A Google search will reward the querier with a downloadable PDF version of Sidney West. And, also, translations of various individual poems by Hardie St. Martin, most notably at Michael Rothenberg’s e-zine Big Bridge.

Because it includes representative poems from various phases of his life along with a detailed timeline, “Unthinkable Tenderness” may be the most useful English introduction to Gelman. But it necessarily provides only selected nibbles from Gelman’s twenty-some books. It also lacks Spanish enface, and given the translation quandaries posed by Gelman’s innovative language, and discussed below, this is a real drawback to a more than casual reader.

“Between Words,” a bilingual edition, consists of a single short twenty-five-poem sequence, an extensive introduction by the translator, and a long afterword “conversation” between Gelman and Bradford. It stands well on its own, but the sequence gains additional weight when read in the context of Gelman’s life’s work as presented in Lindgren’s edition.

The legacy of the disappeared

On April 12, 1995, Juan Gelman used his column in the Buenos Aires newspaper Pagina /12 to write “An Open Letter to My Grandson or Granddaughter.” Some excerpts might, perhaps, provide a useful introduction to “Between Words”:

Within the next six months you will turn nineteen. You would have been born one day in October 1976 in an army concentration camp, El Pozo de Quilmes, almost certainly. A little before or a little after they assassinated your father with a shot in the head from less than a half meter’s distance. He was helpless and a military detail assassinated him, perhaps the same one that kidnapped him along with your mother in Buenos Aires that 24th of August …

Your father’s name was Marcelo; your mother’s, Claudia. Each was twenty years old at the time, and you were six months in your mother’s womb when this happened. They moved her — and you within her — to Quilmes when she was about to give birth. She must have given birth there under the eyes of some doctor/accomplice of the military dictatorship. They took you from her then, and you were placed — it usually happened like this — in the hands of some sterile couple, military or police force, or some judge or journalist friendly to police or military …

Thirteen years have passed since the military left the government, and nothing is known of your mother. On the other hand, in a sixty-gallon oil drum which the military filled with sand and concrete and threw into the San Fernando River your father’s remains were found thirteen years after the fact. He is buried now in La Tablada. At least in his case there is that much certainty.

It is very strange for me to be speaking of my children as your parents-who-never-were. I do not know if you are a boy or a girl. I know you were born. Father Fiorello Cavalli of the Secretariat of the Vatican State assured me of that fact in February 1978. What has been your destiny since, I ask myself. … I suppose that you have been lied to a lot …

I have wondered all these years what I would do if you were found — whether to drag you out of the home you knew; whether to speak with your adoptive parents and establish visiting rights, always on the basis of your knowing who you were and where you came from. The dilemma came up and circled around time and time again, whenever the possibility arose that the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo had found you. I would work it out differently each time, according to your age at the moment. It would worry me that you’d be too small or not small enough to understand what had happened, to understand why your parents, whom you believed to be your parents, were not, even though you might want them to be. I was worried you would suffer a double wound that way, one that would cause structural damage to your identity as it was forming …

You are almost as old now as your parents were when they killed them, and soon you will be older than they got to be, they who have stayed twenty forever. They had dreams for you and for a world more suitable and habitable. I would like to talk to you about them and to have you tell me about yourself; to be able to recognize in you my own son and to let you find in me what I have of your father — both of us are his orphans …

An earlier open letter

In the late 1970s, Gelman began writing a sequence of poems addressed to his lost son, Marcelo, that would be published in 1980 under the title Carta Abierta, a mi hijo. At the time, he was a de facto exile from Argentina, living in Europe. He had been sent to Rome as a public relations representative by the newly restored Peronist government, just before its factional descent into the civil “Dirty War.” Gelman’s loyalties were on the wrong side of the military junta that took control in 1976 and began kidnapping and eliminating “subversives,” many of whom were simply disaffected youths and students with perceived leftist sympathies. Gelman’s son and daughter-in-law were among the tens of thousands who subsequently “disappeared.”

While writing Carta Abierta, Gelman, who turned fifty in 1980, was suffering not only the loss of his son and son’s family, but the loss of his country. Although not officially proscribed, his left-revolutionary sympathies — expressed journalistically as well as poetically — were well known, and he would likely have been “eliminated” if he returned to Argentina. The lists of the “disappeared” were never public.

Given the immediacy of these wounds, Carta Abierta seems an almost superhumanly heroic undertaking. It’s not the “open letter” you might expect in the circumstances. There’s no polemic, no politics, no obvious rage. Simply a conversation between father and son and a tangible, whispering loss. Redeemed not by solidarity or cause or country, but by a certain sensed music reminiscent, say, of a stabat mater. Or, maybe more consciously, in Gelman’s case, a mourning tango strain in which Argentina bears implicit musical witness.

The sequence opens:

hablarte o desharblarte / dolor mio/
manera de tenerte/ destenerte ;
pasión que munda su castigo como
hijo que vuela por quietudes/ por

arrobamientos/ voces /sequedades /…

… paredes
donde tu rostro suave de pavor
estella de furor/ a dioses / alma

to tell you or untell you /my sorrow/
a way of having you/ unhaving you/
passion that worlds its punishment like
a son who soars through serenes/ through

reveries/ voices / aridities …

… walls
where your fear soft face
explodes in fury / ah dieux / soul

Wordplay and word work

The passage above gives an initial sense of a language bent to its own unique use. The “slashes,” a hallmark of Gelman’s poetry, are explained by Gelman in the afterword interview: “As you know, slashes in poetry mean that the words below are part of the previous line that is too long to fit … I began to introduce them in the middle of a line, sometimes various lines, and at the end … to mark rhythms, sever concepts in order to show more than one of their faces, give a work the possibility to not fly, to show its skeleton, to signal a deficiency. I don’t know. This is how I see it now. One shouldn’t place too much credit in a poet’s explanation of why he writes as he does.”

The explanation is clear enough, but I think Gelman’s qualification beginning with “I don’t know …” adds a salient element. Bradford’s translator’s Orientation discusses Gelman’s “manipulation” of language in Carta Abierta at length. She notes an “exacerbation … of diminutives, hyperboles, archaisms, and grammatical gender disagreement, which gives the sensation of feminine discourse, as if the poet were trying to speak to his dead son in a mothering tongue …” And “to read this collection of poems in Spanish is an act of faith: ambiguity hovers above all meaning and demands an active participation in the deciphering of uncanny images and ‘amphibian’ words that grow out of permutations of words in combination or unorthodox grammatical forms.”

Bradford’s acceptance of this challenge is no doubt a major reason her translation was awarded the 2011 National Translation Award by the American Literary Translators Association. She raises several parallels, among them the “opaque and aleatory verse” of Language poetry and the complex “multi-perspectivity” of Celan.

I think Celan — who famously struggled with the inexpressibility of his mother’s murder in her murderers’ mother tongue — provides a closer frame of reference to Carta Abierta than Language poetry. Gelman’s “amphibian words” (his own term) are certainly not random-aleatory, here. An example, above, might be “a dioses” (ah gods), or Gelman’s slight variance on “adioses” (goodbyes) — which Bradford nicely renders as “ah dieux.” And unlike Language poetry, the work isn’t driven by an academic experimentation. Gelman’s comment on “not placing too much credit in a poet’s explanation” seems to imply a poetics driven by sub-articulate need. I can’t picture a serious Language poet so casually dismissing theory. As he also does elsewhere in the interview, on the subject of “amphibian” words: “As I’ve often said, in my case there are no philosophies; there are only necessities.”

But despite obvious emotional similarities with Celan, the “slashes” and neologisms (at least as translated here) seem communicative rather than hermetic innovations, enabling rather than confounding the reader. Bradford references Pierre Joris’s translation of Celan as a sometimes model, but I remember Joris, at an ALTA panel talk, expounding something along the lines of “If what you’ve translated makes sense, then you haven’t translated Celan properly.” Conversely, Bradford’s Gelman seems to speak in a language clarified by its eccentricity.

The translator’s conversation

Every successful poetry translation entails an active conversation between translator and source; and requires the interpreter to take on, as ably as possible, a personal attempt at poetry. If poetry is anything, it’s flight, and the chasm between prosaic reiteration and poetry in the target language can’t be methodically bridged by engineering. In this case, Gelman is already conversing with his lost son. If that elusive conversation between living and dead is to be maintained as the heart of the poems, adding a translator’s voice — even as a whisper — is tricky.

Bradford seems uniquely suited for the task. She’s an Ohio-born American who’s made her home in Argentina for years, where she not only teaches comparative literature at the university level, but also raises horses and cattle. Her sense of Argentine culture and idiom is probably as deep as any immigrant’s can be. She also had the advantage of direct contact with Gelman, so her “conversation” isn’t just with the text.

The first sense of her gently interjected voice comes with the title (which she mentioned she vacillated over throughout the project). The direct translation of Carta Abierta is simply “open letter.” “Public letter” is a much less often used variant in English. Her explanation for the final choice is straightforward: “What made me decide was … the political implication of his having become such a public figure, and since he so often works with paradoxes and opposites, it even seemed more poignant that [the poem] should become public, when it hasn’t been for years.”

For me, there are even more shades of appropriateness. An “open” letter is most often a complaint, directed to an institutional or personal offender. Carta Abierta is, on surface, apolitical, deeply personal, almost “private.” It’s written, not to the offenders, but to their victim. Its political implications are present only in the delicate probing of a wound caused by the oppressors’ bullet. It’s an “open” letter in the way that, say, the first Corinthian epistle is an open letter. St. Paul’s audience was gathered in the context of the crucifixion, and Gelman’s context is a national as well as a personal atrocity; an official, if secret, execution. But Gelman’s sequence, as with St. Paul’s “tongues of men and angels,” speaks to profundities beyond the crime. Beyond even the ironies that Bradford cites, “public” rather than “open” seems a more neutral, quizzical entree to the sequence, leaving the reader with less preconception.

A father’s mothering voice

As with any parent absorbing the death of a grown child, Gelman heartbreakingly revisits his son’s infancy, speaking at times in the pre-grammatical voice parents will use with toddlers and mixing genders, referring at one point to his son as “nina” and himself as “la padre.” As Bradford puts it: “we find the repeated use of diminutives and superlatives, typical of a woman’s speech when talking to a child, but sounding uncomfortably sentimental in English.” Perhaps, or maybe not. But Gelman’s word-bending requires “active” translation and Bradford’s perception of sentimentality coaxed her to add her own “motherly tone,” consistent, maybe, with the way a hip, educated contemporary mother might phrase things. For “hijito” (little son), she says “kindertot,” a usage that finds itself up to Gelman’s several coined word variations.

In poem III:

… ¿como reamarte/ amor callado en

lo que compraste con tu sangre nina?/ …

… how to retender you/ tenderness silenced in

what you bought with your kinderblood?/ …


… ¿almita que volas fuera de mi?/
¿tan me desfuiste que ya no veré
crepuscularte suave como hijo
companandome a pulso? /¿delantales

que la manana manano de sol?/

¿bacas que te pacieron la dulzura? /

little soul that flies beyond me? /
you untraveled so far that I’ll never see
your twilighting tender as a son
comradding me by hand? / kindersmocks

that the morning morrowed with sunshine?/

kows that grazed on your sweetness? / …

Bradford’s misspelling of “cows” follows Gelman’s toddlertalk, “bacas” for “vacas.”

To slash or not?

Reading the excerpts above, the question occurs: Are Gelman’s “slashes” more obtrusive in English than Spanish? Is their purpose equally served in both languages? If not, should a translator look for a more productive equivalent?

The conventional use Gelman describes for the Spanish slash — an indicator that a poem’s long line had to be broken to fit page space — is usually addressed in English simply by indenting the continued line or with a bracket. Would, something as simple as replacing the slash with a space read more naturally in English? Then, the lines above would read something like:

little soul that flies beyond me?
   you untraveled so far that I’ll never see
your twilighting tender as a son
comradding me by hand?   kindersmocks

that the morning morrowed with sunshine?
   kows that grazed on your sweetness?

Comparing the two, I think not. The slashes are, after all, probably as odd in Spanish as in English. And to my maybe overly imaginative ear, Gelman’s slashes are reminiscent of the breaths a tango squeezebox sucks in between notes. Or the wheeze of an old pedaled pipe organ; an earthbound counterpoint to fugue.

A sacramental saudade

There is no indication that Gelman, who is of Jewish heritage, is observant or has any particular religious affiliation. But Bradford’s observation that the sequence is akin to an “act of faith” is apt. In the afterword interview, Gelman references his reading of various mystic poets:

I became attracted to … Jewish medieval poets because of their expression of exile, particularly the early ones, and the mystic poetry of Saint John, Saint Teresa, the Beguines of Antwerp and other troubadours of God, Master Eckhart, etc. All of them manifested what I like to refer to as the absent presence of the beloved, and they kept me company. For them, God was absent. For me, it was my country, my friends and relatives who’d “disappeared” … And I would listen to the tango poets on a tape recorder — not only then and not out of mere nostalgia. I enjoy tango a great deal.

Gelman’s touchstone is tango, but his “absent presence” is probably as close a definition as possible of the supposedly inexpressible essence of tango’s Brazilian-Portuguese cousin saudade as expressed in fado.

As the sequence builds, the word alma (soul) appears more and more, not as the traditional solace of immortality, but as an ongoing organ of human pain and wandering loss. As in IV:

con la cabeza gacha ardiendo mi alma
moja un dedo en tu nombre /escribe las
paredes de la noche con tu nombre/
sirve de nada / sangra seriamente/

alma a alma te mira …

with head hung low my burning soul
dips a finger in your name/ scrawls
your name on the walls of night/
amounting to nothing/ solemnly bleeding/

soul to soul she watches you … 

Though secular in context, the tone here doesn’t seem all that incompatible with, say, Saint John of the Cross and the experience of spirituality as wound. But as the sequence progresses, Gelman’s conversation with the dead seems to conjure echoes of Rilke — especially some of the Sonnets to Orpheus and the passage in the first of the Duino Elegies that speaks about the “thwarted destinies” of dead youths, the strangeness: “For someone once held in endlessly apprehensive hands — to no longer exist, even your very own name tossed aside like a broken toy.” And in death: “Strange to see everything coherent fluttering loose around the room this way.”

In Rilke’s elegy, “Angels … often don’t know whether they’re traveling among the living or the dead.” And Gelman, in mourning, lives in that coexistent country. As in XIII:

… ¿puedo yo
desasirme de mi para ya asirte

por arrabales/ plazas donde busco?/
¿quedo pensando porque no te halle?/
¿ gano tu pérdida para perderme?/
¿desalmåndome llegue a tu almitar?

… son of mine/
are you flying around these sorrowings? / can i
unaffix me from myself to finally fix you

in the outskirts/ the parks where i search for you?/
do i win your loss to lose myself?/
unsouling myself to reach your shut eyed soul?

Or, in XXIV:

te destrabajo de la muerte como
puedo / pobre de vos le alma carmina
dentro de sî / y ojalå resplandezcan
piedras que pulo con tu respirar/

i unwork you out of death as best
i can /deprived of you the soul goes walking
within herself / and hopefully these stones

shine as i buff them with your breath/ …. 

At some invisible point leading up XXIV, the sequence has already begun to move from mourning to something akin to sacrament and consecration. As they near the end of the sequence, the poems seem to take on the role of a priest holding up the host at Mass. Gelman’s lost son seems to join “the ones” (in Rilke’s sonnet no. 14:1) “who sleep in the roots and grant us … this hybrid of speechless strength and kisses.” And Gelman the wounded exile seems to be finally able to bring himself to address his wounded homeland in the ending to XXIV:

… compañero
de los creidos/ de los afligidos/

por tu pobrear se alzan los soles que
illuminaban rostros/ sufrideras /
para que nadie se humillara / fuera
ternura que estuvieras / vivo / sos

… companion
to the staunch/ to the downtrodden/

because of you deprivings suns rise up /
illumine faces / sufferingblocks /
so no one need face humiliation / it would be
tenderness that you were / alive / you are

And in the ending to the final poem, XXV:

¿almas? / ¿bellisimo? / te descånsaspec
del desamor? / ¿amås? /¿alma que tierra/
¿abierta al sol de la justicia? / ¿hijas? /
¿incansable de puro desufrir?

do you soul? / bellisimo? / are you resting
from the unlove? / do you love? / soul that earths /
open to the sun of justice? / are you sonning? /
unwearied from pure unsuffering?

The public aspect

The sequence ends with a brief postscript dedication: the 24th of August, 1976, my son marcelo ariel and his wife claudia, pregnant, were kidnapped in buenos aires by a military commando squad. the son of both was born in a concentration camp. just as dozens of thousands of similar cases, the military dictatorship never officially recognized the “disappeared.” it spoke of “those forever absent.” until I see their bodies, or their murderers, I will never give them up for dead.

Although Carta Abierta can be read as a private meditation, it’s implicit in the title and the end dedication that it achieves its full strength as a public document. Gelman presents himself primarily as a mourning father, but he mourns as one of many Argentinians who were either directly or indirectly faced with what must have been the major cultural crisis of their generation. Argentina, of course, had a history of coups and military “praetorianism.” Yet the systemized process of violence that began in 1976 was unprecedented in both breadth and cruel efficiency.

The callousness seems particularly shocking in the extra-legal, but still official, process suffered by Gelman’s daughter-in-law: Abducted in the final trimester of pregnancy, presumably subjected to interrogation, and sentenced to death at parturition.

Whether openly condemned or not, how could she not have suspected? There’s something almost medieval, Inquisitorial, about such a killing. And what danger could a twenty-year-old present to the state that could justify such summary death sentences? As far as can be determined, Claudia was only one of several hundred pregnant young women, similarly “processed.”

Gelman’s body of work is large and diverse, he draws inspiration as much from history and poetic ancestors as from current events. Elsewhere, he filters his own exile and alienation through his “com /positions,” “commentaries” and “citations,” more or less collaborative translations, interjecting himself into poems by Saint Teresa and Jewish mystics.

The lively, wide ranging interview that ends “Between Words” makes clear that while Gelman’s poetry has always been involved with politics, he’s gone well beyond partisanship and isms. He may be left-sympathetic, but talks of departing “the CP” before being expelled. Talking about his own tastes in literature, he notes the independence of the muse from faction, refusing to criticize Borges for being insufficiently political; admits to enjoying both Pound and Celine despite their fascism and anti-Semitism: “You can read so many supposedly leftist poets, who are perfectly awful; frankly I’d much rather read Ezra Pound.” He evokes Mandelstam and Tsvetaeva as examples of poets responding to political oppression — a historic and human phenomenon plaguing right and left indifferently, and certainly not unique to Argentina.

Even so, browsing Joan Lindgren’s selections you become aware that the Carta Abierta sequence, while arguably the heart of the matter, is only a small part of Gelman’s response to the shock of the Junta years. In “Sheets,” a poem that appears to precede Carta Abierta, he begins: “sleep my son between sheets of grappa / I will protect you if it takes the whole bottle / while death surrounds this house …”

In another poem of the period, “Noises”: “those steps, are they looking for him? / that car, is it stopping at his door? / those men in the street: are they after him …”

Then, later in 1980 in “They Wait”: “we’re going to begin the fight again / the enemy / is clear and we’re going to begin again / we’re going to correct the errors of the soul / its pain / its disasters / so many little friends wasted / little sons wasted … we’re going to begin all of us / against the great defeat of the world / little compañeros who never end / or who burn like fire in the memory / again / and again / and again.” 

The public record

On February 28, 2011, The Guardian in London ran a lengthy story headed “Argentine Dictators Go on Trial for Baby Thefts.” Some excerpts follow:

Jorge Videla and Reynaldo Bignone are accused in 34 cases of infants who were taken from mothers held in Argentina’s largest clandestine torture and detention centers. … Also on trial are five military figures and a doctor who attended to the detainees.

The case was opened 14 years ago at the request of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a leading human rights group. It may take up to a year to hear testimony from about 370 witnesses … this is the first trial focused on the alleged plan to steal as many as 400 infants from leftists who were kidnapped, tortured and made to disappear during the junta’s crackdown on political dissent. …

The dictatorship generally drew the line at killing children, but the existence of babies belonging to people who officially no longer existed created a problem for the junta leaders. The indictment alleges they solved it by falsifying paperwork and arranging illegal adoptions by people sympathetic to the military regime.

… Some 500 women were known to be pregnant before they disappeared, according to formal complaints from their families or other official witness accounts. To date, 102 people born to vanished dissidents have since recovered their true identities with the aid of the Grandmothers, which helped create a national database of DNA evidence to match children with their birth families.

The stolen grandchildren of Estela de Carlotto, co-founder of the Grandmothers, and poet Juan Gelman are among the cases cited in this trial.

And, earlier, here’s an excerpt from an April 25, 2008, Canadian Press article on the award ceremony for Gelman receiving the Cervantes Prize in Spain:

Gelman’s son Marcelo and daughter-in-law Maria Claudia were killed during the Argentine dictatorship. Gelman spent years tracking down a granddaughter born of that marriage and reared in adoption in neighbouring Uruguay.

It is one of Argentina’s most famous cases of babies being born to political dissidents, taken from their mothers and given up for adoption. Gelman met his granddaughter Macarena for the first time in 2000. When she learned the poet was her grandfather, she changed her last name to Gelman. Macarena Gelman was among relatives of the poet who attended Wednesday’s ceremony.

A happy, though bittersweet, ending of sorts, but even so, as the article goes on to quote Gelman’s Cervantes Prize acceptance talk: “The wounds are still not closed. They beat in society’s foundations like a cancer that does not rest. The only treatment is truth. And then, justice.”