When Argentine poet Juan Gelman died in January, 2014—he left behind twenty books of poetry. He is best known for work rooted in the Argentine political repression of the 70s, when military forces brought a reign of terror to Buenos Aires. In 1976, Gelman’s son, Marcelo, and daughter-in-law, Claudia, pregnant with the poet’s grandchild were “disappeared.” In danger of reprisal for his own political positions, the poet fled to safety, spending the next thirty years as an exile in Mexico and Europe creating a body of work that took in the loss of children, homeland and, after a relentless pursuit over decades, the discovery of his granddaughter alive in Paraguay.
No one details soulful transformations through suffering like Juan Gelman, with the possible exception of San Juan de la Cruz. “There are losses,” says Gelman. “The important thing is how returning to them transforms them into something new.” The crucible of an Argentina that nurtured the tango and then disappeared its people produced Juan Gelman, whose poems strike a chord in the hearts of those who hear it, a bell that nothing can un-ring. Gelman spoke for numberless voiceless victims of political repression in Argentina and throughout Latin America. He was felt by many of his peers to be one of the great masters. He garnered the highest literary honors bestowed by the Spanish speaking culture, the Juan Rulfo, Pablo Neruda and Cervantes prizes. Powerful translations of Gelman’s work by the peerless Hardie St. Martin, can be found in the volume Dark Times/ Filled with Light, (Open Letters Press), edited by Paul Pines.