Juan Gelman (1930-2014)

remembering their little bones when it rains
the compañeros stomp on darkness
set forth from death
wander the tender night
I hear their voices like living faces

—from Remembering Their Little Bones

1483390_607946285939188_1493907624_nJust learned form his French translator, Jean Portante, that the great Argentinian poet Juan Gelman passed away the night before last in Mexico where he had been living for several decades. Gelman was a major force in Latin American poetry in the second part of the 20C & into our own. In 2000, he received the Juan Rulfo Award, one of the most important literary awards in the Spanish-speaking world, and in 2007,  the Cervantes Prize, the Spanish-speaking world’s top literary prize. He saw his work translated into many languages (two Selected & one other volume are available in English, though we need way more of the work to be made available). Gelman’s oeuvre “celebrates life but is also tempered with social and political commentary and reflects his own painful experiences with the politics of his country,” especially the death of his son & the abduction of his daughter-in-law at the hands of Government assassins.

A/P report from Mexico City puts it thus:

Argentine President Cristina Fernandez on Wednesday announced three days of mourning in his native country, where writers paid homage to him as one of the most brilliant writers in Spanish of the 20th century.

“Gelman worked with words like they were plastic, he modeled them,” writer Vicente Muleiro told reporters.

He was widely mourned as well in Mexico, where he lived for more than 20 years before his death Tuesday of undisclosed causes.

“Juan Gelman, poet of the Mexican soul, major poet, has died. My condolences to his loved ones,” Mexico’s National Culture and Arts Council President Rafael Tovar y de Teresa said via Twitter.

Gelman’s life and work were deeply affected by personal loss suffered during Argentina’s 1976-1983 military dictatorship. Government forces kidnapped and killed his son and daughter-in-law, among tens of thousands of suspected leftists who were “disappeared” across Latin America in that era.

“I died many times, and with each report of a murdered or disappeared friend, the pain of those lost became greater,” he said during his acceptance speech of the Cervantes prize in 2008.

“The wounds are not closed yet. They lie just below the surface of society like a relentless cancer.”

He was tall and wispy and spoke in a soft, raspy voice. He lived in a roomy, well-lit apartment stacked with book shelves in the Mexico City neighborhood of La Condesa. He received numerous awards including the Juan Rulfo prize in 2000 and in 2005 the Reina Sofia poetry award and the Pablo Neruda Iberoamerican poetry prize.

The son of a Russian leftist who became disillusioned with Joseph Stalin’s regime, Gelman was born in 1930 and grew up in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood of Buenos Aires.

He joined the Communist Youth Federation at 15, but left the party in the 1960s to become part of a group that would later evolve into the Montoneros guerrilla group, which he also quit in 1979 in opposition to its militarism.

Up until then, he published the poetry volumes “Gotan” (1962) and “Colera buey” (1962-1968).

Gelman was abroad at the time of the 1976 coup, but his 20-year-old son Marcelo and 19-year-old daughter-in-law Maria, who at the time was seven months pregnant, were seized. He never found Maria’s remains, but in 1990 he was able to identify his son’s.

For years, he tried to track down his granddaughter, who was adopted after her parents were killed in prison, and finally found her in neighboring Uruguay in 2000. After learning she was related to the poet, she changed her last name to Gelman.

(Associated Press writer E. Eduardo Castillo reported this story in Mexico City and Almudena Calatrava reported from Buenos Aires, Argentina.)


And here a  poem of Gelman’s in the original & in my translation:


chair I sit on maybe
plates shirts & other alibis
the pure truth is that I’m not here
the great truth is that I left

or could it be they all left leaving me alone
with myself & other nightmares
as real as a hole
as deep & heavy as a god

let’s see juan
let’s see gelman
let’s see those bits of paper
let’s count to a hundred
the little birds sing

seeing we will see that I’m not here at all
that honestly I’m gone
that juan holds tight & that gelman doesn’t weep
the plates plate & the chairs chair
without respite that riff-raff



silla donde me siento tal vez
platos camisas y otras coartadas
la verdad pura es que no estoy
la gran verdad es que me fui

o se habrán ido todos dejándome ya solo
conmigo y otras pesadillas
reales como un agujero
hondo pesado como un dios

a ver juan
a ver Gelman
a ver los papelitos
a contar hasta cien
los pajaritos cantan

viendo veremos que no estoy para nada
que sinceramente me fui
que el juan aguanta y que el Gelman no llora
los platos platan y las sillas sillan
sin tregua los canallas

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1 Response

  1. Eve says:

    Sad to say I don’t read Spanish, so call me clueless, but this “Journeys” comes through in more ways than one, rings fine-feathered and true. Thanks for posting. Would be lovely to hear more…

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