Tuesday, July 12, 2016



Dark Times Filled with Light: The Selected Work of Juan Gelman, translated by Hardie St. Martin and edited by Paul Pines
(Open Letter, University of Rochester, N.Y., 2012)

Born in Argentina to a Ukrainian family recently settled in Buenos Aires, Juan Gelman (1930-2014) is one of the twentieth century’s best poets writing in the Spanish language. For the books he published during the course of his career, he was awarded the Cervantes Prize in 2007, the highest honor in Spanish literature, as well as other prizes such as the Pablo Neruda Prize (Chile, 2005) and the Juan Rulfo Prize in Latin American and Caribbean Literature (Mexico, 2000).

Hardie St. Martin, known as one of the best translators from the Spanish, began working on Gelman’s poems in the early 1990s. His experience in literary translation includes works by Roque Dalton, José Donoso, Blas de Otero, Miguel Hernández, Pablo Neruda, Nicanor Parra, and Luisa Valenzuela. According to poet Paul Pines, who published the manuscript of Dark Times Filled with Light with Open Letter, after St. Martin died in 2007, and who wrote its introduction: “St. Martin understood that the translation must touch the emotion at its origin. He located that point in Gelman’s fascination with the 16th century poet and mystic, San Juan de la Cruz, who used the language of loss to approach divine love through what he called ‘the dark night of the soul.’ St. Martin reflected Gelman’s courage at the edge of the abyss.”

In a poem entitled “Poetics,” Ernesto Garcia López writes:

The most significant part of a man
is the way in which he is trapped
in the contradictions of his time
and of his soul.

is the bridge that unites them.

The Spanish poet’s vision can concisely describe Juan Gelman’s personal and communal history as they appear in his intricate poetry. The anthology Dark Times Filled with Light shows that the mid-1970s caused a dramatic change not only in the socio-political structure of the Argentinean society, when thousands of people were “disappeared” under the reign of terror imposed after the coup d’état, but also in the form of his poetry. By 1975, he had been involved in left-wing activism, but the guerilla groups known as Montoneros forced him to leave the country, so that he was absent when the 1976 coup took place. His son and his pregnant daughter-in-law were among the “disappeared.” Only in the 1990s did he find out about them: only his granddaughter survived, brought up by a pro-dictatorship family in Uruguay. The tragic destiny of his son’s family made him sometimes invent new language and an aesthetics that could better describe the indescribable of his personal loss and exile.

Two recurrent themes in the volumes before 1976 are the art of writing and immigration. The soul tormented by his ancestors’ ghosts as in “The Art of Poetry” from One Man’s Wake (1961) – “I’ve never been the owner of my ashes, my poems, / obscure faces write my verses like bullets firing at death” – reappears with even more vigor in the poem “CCLXI: These Poems” from John Wendell’s Poems (1965-1968) and in the short prose poem “Questions” from Colera Buey (1964-1971). In the latter, the lack of punctuation adds more authenticity to a monologue on the motivation of writing:

now that you’re sailing through my blood and are familiar with my limitations and wake me in the middle of the day to make me lie down in your memory and push my patience too far tell me what the devil i am doing why do i need you wordlessly coursing through me alone you the object of my passion why do i want to fill you with just me and encompass finish you off mingle with your bones when you are my only country (with me) against the beasts of oblivion

The subject of immigration as family history rather than personal history is evident in poems such as “CIII: I Saw My Country’s Map in Yellow One Day” from John Wendell’s Poems (1965-1968) or in “XX: Those Who Created God” from Yamanocuchi’s Poems (1968). The former poem is a subtle interpretation of the collective trauma experienced by the post-World War I immigrants from Europe to the Americas:

full of lives and tremors i
my country floating
on the Atlantic we

were drifting along with it i felt
something like terror
or love or grief

Almost each line of the poem has a meaningful enjambment. In the fragment above, the distance between the small “i” and the act of seeing suggests that, as a child, the sensitive poet “saw” the consequences of immigration among his family members and fellow immigrants.

Beginning with the volume Facts (1974-1978), which covers radical themes, such as death, sexuality or dictatorship, his poems are marked with typographical slashes here and there, sometimes a few slashes in a line. They act like visual but wordless reminders of a personal, family and national trauma and indicate Juan Gelman’s struggle as a poet to employ loss as a source of creativity.

Starting with this period, his poems contain new forms of language and poetic expression. For example, in Notes (1979), “Note V,” the poet personifies sadness: “sit here beside me / old gal / you’re never going to leave me.” Or, in Open Letter (1980), a volume dedicated to his son, the poet invents new words to better transmit the realities he has been through. In the poem “IV: Crestfallen My Burning Soul,” the author wants to “undie” his son, speaks of “undone water” and invites him: “give me your nevers just like a child.” The same happens in “Quiet at last” from If Gently (1980). The poem starts with “quiet at last / so terribly alone / without kisses / my comrades / think me night after night,” in which the verb “think” becomes a transitive verb, and the speaking subject turns into an object, very much influenced and haunted by the memory of the dead.

In Commentaries (1978-1979) and Citations (1979), Juan Gelman draws on the European literary tradition, on Spanish authors such as Saint Theresa or Saint John of the Cross, on medieval poets like Hadewijch or on artists such as Vincent van Gogh, to describe his own story of exile and sorrow.

A repetitive technique present in Gelman’s work is to adopt various personas and speak behind these masks, both before and after the beginning of his exile. There are no less than six collections bearing invented names: John Wendell’s Poems (1965-1968), Dom Pero’s Poems (1965-1968), Yamanocuchi’s Poems (1968), Sidney West’s Poems (1968-1969), José Galván’s Poems (1981) and Julio Greco’s Poems (1981). The choice of these names evokes a sense of oscillation from one culture to another and simultaneously an incessant search for essence. 

Dark Times Filled with Light, which contains poems from twenty six collections, appears like a lifelong diary: all poems are about people, the labyrinth of the human soul and an arduous desire to understand or at least to illustrate its nature.


Monica Manolachi is a lecturer at the University of Bucharest, where she teaches English in the Department of Modern Languages and where she completed her doctoral thesis, Performative Identities in Contemporary Caribbean British Poetry, in 2011. Her research interests are American, British and Caribbean literature and culture, postcolonial studies and contemporary Romanian and Eastern European literature in translation. As a poet, she has published two collections in Romanian, Trandafiri (Roses) (2007) and Poveștile Fragariei către Magul Viridis (Fragaria's Stories to Magus Viridis) (2012) and one in English and Romanian, Joining the Dots / Uniți punctele(2016). She is also a translator and editor, contributing to the multilingual literary magazine Contemporary Literary Horizon.

1 comment:

  1. Of interest may be Paul Pines' essay in Big Bridge, "In the Dark With Juan Gelman: The Test of Truth in Translation" at