“There are losses. The important thing is how returning to them transforms them into something new.”

Juan Gelman


The haunting and politically charged poetry of Argentinian poet, journalist and political activist Juan Gelman points to the unwavering connection between poetry and political expression and political activism, particularly among Latin American poets.

Juan Gelman is one of Argentina’s finest and most acclaimed poets. His work is profoundly shaped by his political activism, the recent political history of his country, as well as the tragic history of his family under the military dictatorship that ruled Argentina between 1975 and 1983.

Gelman was born in Argentina in 1930 into a communist family.  His father had participated in the 1905 Russian Revolution before emigrating to Argentina.

Gelman released his first collection of poetry in 1956. He was jailed during the 1960′s due to his leftist political activism and journalism and was forced into exile in 1975 when a right wing military dictatorship overthrew the Peron Government. He spent the next 30 years  in exile.

Much of Gelman’s poetry speaks to the horror, suffering and tragedy of life under the tyranny of Argentina’s right-wing military and police dictatorship. The fate of “the Disappeared“- 15,000 Argentinians who disappeared without trace, assumed murdered by the military dictatorship because they were  dissidents, and activists or considered subversive- is central to his work.

In 1976 the ultra-right kidnapped his son and daughter and his son’s wife. Gelman’s son, daughter and daughter in law (who was  7 months pregnant at the time) were among the 15,ooo Argentineans who ‘disappeared’.

Gelman never knew what happened to his ‘disappeared” family and wrote a sequence of poems to his lost son and daughter and his son’s family.

The Deluded

hope fails us often
grief never.
that’s why some think
that known grief is better
than unknown grief.
they believe that hope is an illusion.
they are deluded by grief.

Gelman’s son was murdered and his  daughter-in-law transported to  Uruguay where she gave birth to a daughter (Gelman’s granddaughter) who was adopted by a Uruguayan family.

Gelman’s daughter survived.

In the 1990′s Gelman tried to locate the child of his son and daughter-in law and in April 1995 he published an open letter to his granddaughter in a Buenos Aires newspaper.

In 2000 the Uruguayan President acknowledged that Gelman’s granddaughter was living in  Uruguay, resulting a reunion between Gelman and his granddaughter.

Gelman’s search for the truth about the fate of his family members made the poet a symbol of the struggle for the truth of what happened to the ‘disappeared’ and for the fundamental respect of human rights in Argentina.

Gelman has written poems for 60 years although his work appears mainly in Spanish. Two English translations of his poetry- Dark Times Filled with Light and Unthinkable Tenderness are now available in English.

One reviewer describes Gelman’s poetry as revolutionary:

A poetry that renounces authoritarian monologue, the usurption of the other’s voice, and accepts without fanaticism the values and language of the people on the streets. A critical and auto-critical poetry that ultimately defies oppressive social realities as much as redeeming revolutionary ideals.

A review of Juan Gelman’s  Dark Times Filled with Lightcan be found here.

Under Foreign Rain (Footnotes to Defeat): XXV (1980)

Europe was the cradle of capitalism, and the child in the cradle was fed on gold and silver from Peru, Mexico, and Bolivia. Millions of Americans had to die to fatten the kid, who grew strong, developed languages, arts, sciences, methods of loving and living, further dimensions of being human.

Who says culture has no odor?

I stroll through Rome, Paris-what beautiful cities. On the via Corso on the Bulmish suddenly I catch a whiff of Tainos devoured by Andalusian dogs, of Ona ears mutilated, of Aztecs destroying themselves in Lake Tenochtitlán, of the diminuitive Incas broken in Potosí, of Querandí, Araucan, Congo, Carabalí, enslaved, massacred.

You don’t smell old, Europe.

You smell of double humanity, the one that murders and the one murdered.

Centuries have passed, and the beauty of the conquered still rots upon your brow.

(from Unthinkable Tenderness: Selected Poems by Juan Gelman. Edited/translated by Joan Lindgren. Copyright © 1997 Juan Gelman and Joan Lindgren. courtesy of the University of California Press.)