The Spanish language edition of this article is available immediately below the English. We also present selections of Juan Gelman’s poetry below, in both Spanish and English, translated courtesy of Katherine M. Hedeen and Víctor Rodríguez Núñez.
WHEN WE LAST SAW Juan Gelman, on the morning of January 12, just 48 hours before his passing, it didn’t seem like death was near. He was noticeably frail, but he also enthusiastically rang a tiny bell to call his nurse. He spoke in whispers, but with precision and clarity. In his wheelchair, a poncho covering his shoulders, a blanket covering his legs, he was dignity personified. He gave us a solemn report on his health: the relentless anemia, the beginnings of lung cancer. He explained his decision to hold out from home, to not go through with chemotherapy. He was well aware of everything, including our translation projects. The conversation never once slipped through his fingers, and as always, his great wit was present. He even spoke of Cervantes, one of the captivity narratives, where he’d found some excellent verses. He offered us coffee, served in lovely china cups, and we gladly accepted. The Mexico City winter light filtered through every cranny of his apartment in Colonia Condesa. We were sure of his determination to fight for his life.
Juan Gelman is the most read, most influential Spanish-language poet of our times. With 30 books published, he is the winner of the Cervantes Prize (2007), the top literary honor in Spanish-language literature. He worked as a journalist and translator, spent many years exiled in Europe and Latin America, and remained an ardent critic of Argentina’s military dictatorship throughout his life. He was above all faithful to poetry as a transformative act — as the quest for a more humane society, and a way to broaden our understanding of the world through universal dialogue. The Argentine novelist Julio Cortázar said that Gelman’s work must be read “by remaining open, allowing meaning to enter other doorways than those of syntactical structure,” for “only in this way can the reader discover the reality of the poems, which is none other than the exact and literal reality of the horror and death, but also the hope, that define Argentina.” (Gelman, Unthinkable4). His death marks not just the end of an era in poetry written in Spanish, but also the passing of a man who never forgot he was part of a family of Jewish immigrants from the Ukraine — an Argentine underdog until the very end.