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a few things must be said /
that nobody reads it much /
that those nobodies are few /
that the whole world is into the issue of the global crisis /
and the issue of eating every day / this is
an important issue / I remember
when Uncle Juan was dying of starvation /
he said he hadn’t remembered to eat and there was no problem /
but the problem was afterwards /
there was no money for a casket /
when at long last the municipal van came to take him away Uncle Juan looked like a birdie /
the guys from the municipality looked at him with scorn or disdain / complaining
that they are always being harassed /
that they are men and they bury men /
and not birdies like Uncle Juan /
especially as he chirped all the way to the municipal crematorium /
and it seemed disrespectful to them and they were very offended /
and when they told him to shut up already /
the cheeping flew through the truck and they felt
he was cheeping on their heads / my
Uncle Juan was like that / he loved to sing /
and he didn’t see death as a reason to stop singing /
he entered the furnace singing cheep-cheep / his ashes came out and chirped for another moment /
and the guys from the municipality looked at their shoes gray with shame / but
back to poetry /
things are grim now for poets/
nobody reads them much / those nobodies are few /
their profession has lost prestige / day by day it’s harder for a poet
to win a girl’s love / to run for president/
for a shopkeeper to give him credit /
for fighters to perform heroic deeds so he’ll sing about them /
for a king to pay him three golden coins per line /
and no one knows if this is because girls / shopkeepers / fighters / kings are extinct
or simply because poets are extinct /
or both of the above and it’s useless
to wrack our brains over this question /
what’s nice is to know that it is possible to chirp
in the strangest circumstances /
Uncle Juan after his death / I, now,
so you will love me.
Translated from Spanish by Rami Saari and Vivian Eden
Argentine poet Juan Gelman died at the age of 83 on January 14 in Mexico, where he lived for many years. Born in Buenos Aires in 1930 to Jewish immigrants from Ukraine, he was active in leftist politics and journalism and went into exile in Europe after the right-wing military coup in Argentina in 1976. His daughter, his son and his pregnant daughter-in-law were among the many “disappeared” by the regime. Of them, only his daughter survived and in 2000 he located his granddaughter, who had been given away at birth to a policeman’s family in Uruguay. He published many volumes of poetry as well as a number of volumes of prose and is considered one of the great Latin American poets of our time. His work has been translated into many languages and he was the recipient of numerous awards. Argentina's President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner declared three days of national mourning in his honor.
As part of his engagement with questions of identity and human rights, Gelman was deeply engaged with his Jewish heritage but was not religiously observant. Though from an Ashkenazi family, he taught himself Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) and between 1983 and 1985, while in exile in Europe, he wrote a book in that language, “Dibaxu” (“Under”). He then translated his own work into standard Spanish. According to critic Francine Masiello, in “Dibaxu,” Gelman “shows that no poem is free of the language of another, that a language is free for all to adopt, that it cannot belong only to a single group.” He participated in the International Poets Festival in Jerusalem at Mishkenot Sha’ananim in 1997, for which Rami Saari translated this poem into Hebrew. In recent years, as a columnist for the Mexican newspaper Pagina 12, Gelman was often critical of Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians.
In “On poetry” Gelman takes a fresh view of the ancient trope of the soul as a bird, which goes back at least to ancient Egypt and biblical times.