30 October 2009

Juan Gelman

On Poetry
by Juan Gelman

a couple of things have to be said/
that nobody reads it much/
that those nobodies are few and far between/
that everyone's caught up in the world crisis/ and

with the business of putting food on the table/
and that's no small problem/ I remember
when my uncle juan died of hunger/ he used to say
no problem since he'd forgotten how to eat anyway/

but the problems came later/ when
there was no cash for the coffin/
and when finally the official truck came from the city
to take him away uncle juan turned into a bird/

the guys from the city looked at him with contempt/ complaining
they were always being given a hard time/ that
they were men and men was what they buried/ and not
birds like uncle juan/ especially

since unc was singing cheep-cheep all the way to the
municipal crematorium/
which seemed to them like a disrespect they didn't like one bit/
and when they slapped him to shut him up/
the cheep-cheep was heard in the cab of the truck and even
their ears rang with cheep-cheep/

that's how uncle juan was/ always singing/
and he didn't see that death was any reason to stop singing/
he even went into the oven singing cheep-cheep/ and some
chirping rose up from his ashes for a while/
and the city guys stared at their grey shoes in shame/ but

to get back to poetry/
poets are having a rough time of it these days/
nobody reads poetry much/ only a few nobodies/
the profession has lost its prestige/ its getting harder every day
for a poet/

to get a girl to fall in love with him/
to run for president/ to get credit at the grocery store/
to get some warrior to perform heroics to be sung/ or
some king to pay three pieces of gold per verse/

and no one knows if this is because we're running out of
or just poets/he two things at once and there's no use
racking you brains over the question/

the beautiful thing is knowing you can sing cheep-cheep
in the strangest of circumstances/
uncle juan after he died/ and now me
so that you'll love me/


The Deluded
by Juan Gelman

hope fails us often
grief, never.
that's why some think
that known grief is better
than unknown grief.
they believe that hope is an illusion.
they are deluded by grief

Some time ago I read a collection of John Berger's essays* and noticed, among other things, that he had quoted some remarkable verses from Argentine poet Juan Gelman. I had never heard of Gelman but have now tracked down what seems to be the sole collection of his work in English translation.** Gelman spent many years in political exile and, while it is now safe for him to return, he still does not reside in Argentina. His son, daughter-in-law and grand-daughter were disappeared by the regime. And he nevertheless manages poems of hope and beauty and humor.
* John Berger. 2001. The Shape of a Pocket. Vintage. See pages 161-64, 215.
** Juan Gelman. 1997. Unthinkable Tenderness: Selected Poems. University of California Press. See pages 119-20, 167.

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