Argentine poet Juan Gelman (1930-2014) died last month. President Cristina Fernández proclaimed three day’s of national mourning. Argentina’s flags flew at half-mast. Yet there was no state funeral for Gelman. Instead his ashes were spread in Mexico on the slopes of Popocatépetl.
Such was Gelman’s admiration for writer/poet Sor Juana Inés de la
Cruz (1648-95) that he had asked that his ashes be spread near her
childhood home in Nepantla. His widow and friends fulfilled Gelman’s
request by tossing his ashes from a railroad bridge into a fast running
Gelman had been living in exile in France when his daughter, son and
pregnant daughter-in-law were seized by a repressive Argentina
government in 1976. His son and daughter-in-law were killed; their
infant child disappeared. Gelman spent 20 years in an ultimately
successful search for the child. Throughout his life, he used his poetic
voice to bring attention to injustice. Gelman relocated to Mexico and
for many years wrote from here for Argentina’s “Página 12.”
Each time I visit the Sor Juana Museum I take a detour to that
bridge. On the way is an abandoned steam locomotive. It may be the same
locomotive that broke down around the turn of the 20th century leaving
Mexican poet Amado Nervo (1870-1919) and other passengers stranded in
Nepantla for three star-lit hours. Nervo wrote about his delight having
time to walk the same streets Sor Juana had walked as a child all the
while wondering which had been her house.
Amado Nervo became the Mexican ambassador to Argentina and Uruguay.
When he died in Montevideo the Uruguayan president dispatched the
cruiser “Uruguay” to repatriate his remains.
I asked Digs collaborator Carol Hopkins “what is it about poets —
especially Latin American poets — that earns them such acclaim?” She
answered by quoting other poets.
“A good poem speaks volumes in mere words,” Indian poet Meena
Alexander has said. “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the
world. In time of violence, their task is, in some way, to reconcile us
to our world and to allow us a measure of tenderness and grace with
which to exist.”
A British anthology of poetry published last October, “In Protest:
150 Poems for Human Rights,” contains poems about slavery, indigenous
human rights, massacres, genocide — even the current war in Syria. The
book’s editor, Helle Abelivik-Lawson, says: “Reading and writing poetry
is a therapeutic way to process some of the darker aspects of humanity.
That said, it’s not all doom and gloom — there are some very empowering,
fun and funny poems in this book.”
Many of Carol’s favorite poets are singer-songwriters. Harry Chapin
(1942-81) often gave three concerts a day, donating 50 percent of all
proceeds to world hunger programs. When asked about his commitment on a
radio program, Harry answered, “Pete Seeger was asked the same question.
Pete said: ‘I don’t know whether anything I’ve done has made a
difference in the world.’ This said by a man who stood up for every
progressive cause of the 20th century. ‘What I do know is that my
commitment to those causes has allowed me to be with the people with the
live eyes, live hearts, live heads and that has been its own reward.’”
Two weeks after Juan Gelman’s death, Pete Seeger (1919-2014) died.
Though they used different mediums, both spent their lives in the ether
of poetry, struggling for justice while enduring heroic clashes with
governments that tried to silence and imprison them. Both were fortunate
to live long enough to die lionized — Gelman acclaimed throughout the
Spanish-speaking world; Pete Seeger invited to sing at President Obama’s
inauguration — and at Occupy Wall Street.
Last Sunday, in a long ranging conversation, I asked
Minneapolis-based writer/poet Alison Morse for her view on why Latin
American poets gain such acclaim. She told me: “There is a tradition in
Latin American poetry of having the responsibility to be the bearer of
news in poetry. It’s about giving voice to things that can’t be given
voice to. There is a different view of language in Latin America — it
involves turning language into art. Reading poetry in the United States
isn’t as important as it is here.”
Referring to Mexican poet Javier Sicilia, who ends every speech and
article with a signature paragraph that begins with “Además opino …”
(“Furthermore, I am of the opinion that …) followed by a listing of the
political demands of the social groups he supports, Alison said, “That’s
poetry!” Adding, “If he did that in the United States he’d be a
Saturday Night Live skit. On the other hand people would probably love
him. Maybe poets in the United States just aren’t as brave. However,
there are some U.S. poets that are really proud they’ve been banned from
school libraries in Arizona. Banned because they’re too political or
because they have other languages in their poems, besides English.”
Perhaps it all boils down to what Max said to Liesel in the wonderful new movie The Book Thief. “Words are life.”