[Marxism] Juan Gelman, Argentine Poet Who Challenged Junta, Dies at 83

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Jan 22 06:57:27 MST 2014

NY Times JAN. 20, 2014
Juan Gelman, Argentine Poet Who Challenged Junta, Dies at 83

Juan Gelman, an Argentine poet who challenged the petty and profound 
tyrannies of his country’s military junta — including those directed 
against his family — in works that established him as a formidable 
presence in the Spanish-language literary canon, died on Tuesday at his 
home in Mexico City, where he had lived for many years. He was 83.

News reports in Mexico attributed the death to myelodysplastic syndrome, 
a form of bone marrow disease. However, a friend of Mr. Gelman, Iván 
Trejo, said the cause was lung cancer.

Mr. Gelman, the author of more than 20 books, was revered in Spain and 
Latin America, especially for his work in opposition to the durable 
far-right strain of governance in Argentina. His subjects included 
oppression and injustice (his ire often expressed with philosophical and 
linguistic vigor rather than visceral punch); the power and impotence of 
language; the eternalness of art, and poetry itself.

His work was not routinely translated into English, partly because he 
was interested in exploiting nuances of language that were difficult to 
capture in other tongues. In his 60s Mr. Gelman taught himself Ladino, a 
language of Sephardic Jews derived from Old Spanish and written in 
Hebrew letters. He then wrote “Dibaxu,” a book that explored the 
Sephardic diaspora following the Spanish Inquisition.

The independence of languages and the relation of language to life were 
issues he addressed often, notably in “Translations III: The Poems of 
Sidney West.” A cagey 1969 collection of blank verse eulogies, its poems 
are ostensibly Spanish translations of the work of an American that 
suggest an avant-garde Edgar Lee Masters, except that there is no such 
poet and there were no English poems to translate.

(When the poems actually were translated into English and published in 
2008, the translators, Katherine M. Hedeen and Victor Rodríguez Núñez, 
wrote, “West is among the best imaginary poets not only of Whitman’s 
native land, allegedly his as well, but of all possible lands.”)

Mr. Gelman wrote essays and journalistic pieces as well as poems, and he 
was already a revered writer from the left when he became tragically 
embroiled in the so-called dirty war, the state-sponsored terrorist 
campaign propagated by Argentina’s right-wing junta after a military 
coup in 1976.

By the time democracy was restored, in 1983, thousands of citizens with 
suspected ties to socialism and dissident groups had been seized and 
“disappeared.” Mr. Gelman had been living in exile in Europe, but among 
the kidnapped in 1976 were his 19-year-old daughter, Nora Eva; his 
20-year-old son, Marcelo Ariel; and his son’s wife, María Claudia García 
Iruretagoyena de Gelman, who was seven months pregnant.

Nora Eva survived, but Mr. Gelman’s son and daughter-in-law were killed, 
and their child, a girl, was given away to a Uruguayan family. Mr. 
Gelman’s search for information about his family members’ fates made him 
a symbol of the fight for human rights. Years later he was able to find 
and identify the remains of his son, and he finally located his 
granddaughter in 2000.

In 2007 Mr. Gelman was given the Cervantes Prize, an annual award for 
lifetime achievement that is considered the highest honor in 
Spanish-language literature. (Its laureates include Jorge Luis Borges, 
Octavio Paz, Carlos Fuentes and Mario Vargas Llosa.)

“He is a gigantic voice in the constellation of Latin American poetry of 
the 20th century,” Ilan Stavans, a professor of Hispanic culture at 
Amherst College, said of Mr. Gelman in an interview.

Mr. Gelman’s poetry, he added, was in the tradition of Pablo Neruda’s, 
“mixing or juxtaposing politics and poetics, calling attention to social 
problems, confronting the powers that be and sympathizing with the 

Mr. Gelman’s favorite themes can be found woven into the conclusion of 
the poem “End,” translated by Professor Stavans:

Poetry is a way of living.

Look at the people at your side.

Do they eat? Suffer? Sing? Cry?

Help them fight for their hands, their eyes, their mouth, for the kiss 
to kiss and the kiss to give away, for their table, their bread, their 
letter a and their letter h, for their past — were they not children? — 
for their present, for the piece of peace, of history and happiness that 
belongs to them, for the piece of love, big, small, sad, joy, that 
belongs to them and is taken away in the name of what, of what?

Your life will then be an innumerable river to be called pedro, juan, 
ana, maria, bird, lung, the air, my shirt, violin, sunset, stone, that 
handkerchief, old waltz, wooden horse.

Poetry is this.

Afterward, write it.

Juan Gelman Burichson was born on May 3, 1930, in Buenos Aires to Jewish 
immigrants from Ukraine. As a boy he read widely in Russian and European 
literature under the tutelage of his brother Boris. Though he studied 
chemistry at the University of Buenos Aires, he never finished his 
degree and instead, as a Communist, went to work as an editor and 
columnist for left-leaning publications.

In the 1960s he joined the guerrilla group known as the Montoneros, 
though he eventually parted ways with them as their militarism advanced. 
His first book of poems, “Violin and Other Issues,” was published in 1956.

Mr. Gelman’s survivors include his wife, Mara; a daughter, Paola; and 
three grandchildren, including the one with whom he was reunited in 
2000. His death elicited official statements of grief in two nations.

In announcing the death on Twitter, Rafael Tovar y de Teresa, president 
of Conaculta, Mexico’s culture and arts council, called Mr. Gelman a 
“poet of the Mexican soul.”

In Argentina, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner declared a 
three-day national period of mourning. The nation’s culture secretary, 
Jorge Coscia, said of Mr. Gelman in a television interview, “His whole 
life was a committed poem.”

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