What they don’t know – Juan Gelman

Juan GelmanThe great Argentine poet, Juan Gelman (d. 2014) was born in Buenos Aires on May 3, 1930. On August 26, 1976, his children, Nora Eva, 19 years old, and Marcelo Ariel, 20, were kidnapped by the security forces, along with their daughter-in-law María Claudia Iruretagoyena, 19 years old, who was seven months pregnant. On January 7, 1990, the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team identified the remains of his son Marcelo, found in a river in San Fernando (Greater Buenos Aires), inside an oil drum filled with sand and cement. The poem translated below describe the plight of individuals on the run during Argentina’s so-called Dirty War (1976-1983).


dark/luminous times/the sun
shrouds in sunshine the city rent
by sudden sirens/the police on the hunt/night falls and we
we will make love under this roof/the eighth

in a month/they know almost everything about us/except for
this plaster ceiling under which
we will make love/and neither do they know
the old pine furniture under the previous ceiling/nor

the window that the night pounded while it shone like the sun/nor
the beds or the floor where
we made love this month/surrounded by faces like the sun that
shrouds the city in sunshine

Juan Gelman, from Hechos (1974-1978)
Translated by John Lyons

tiempos oscuros/luminosos/el sol
cubre de sol la ciudad partida
por súbitas sirenas/la policía busca/cae la noche y nosotros
haremos el amor bajo este techo/el octavo
en un mes/conocen casi todo de nosotros/menos
este techo de yeso bajo el cual
haremos el amor/y tampoco conocen
los viejos muebles de pino bajo el techo anterior/ni
la ventana que la noche golpeaba mientras brillaba como el sol/ni
las camas o el suelo donde
hicimos el amor este mes/rodeados de rostros como el sol que
cubre de sol la ciudad


The murder of Federico García Lorca

Juan Gelman (1930-2014)


it’s raining on the Río de la Plata and it’s almost
36 years since they killed Federico García Lorca but
what’s the relationship between that
outer reality and this inner unreality? or
what’s the relationship between that outer unreality
and this inner reality?
I don’t know the river’s gray line  
looks like the knife with which they slit the sky
looks like the knife with which they slit childhoods in Azul
slit childhoods in Santa Fe and other places in the republic
sometimes forever or always forever
it’s one of the country’s great agonies
that’s for sure in the west
the sunsets are not inflamed by the sun here
children’s blood inflames the republic’s sunsets  
children from Salta children from Tucumán little angels
blood evaporated or fallen swept away by the sunset
each and every each and every day
and what’s that got to do the death of Federico García Lorca
with the execution of Federico García Lorca in Granada in 1936?
or the sunset in the west of Spain
that is inflamed not by the sun but from the blood
of Federico García Lorca poet
each and every each and every day
I don’t know I don’t know
“child, you’re going to fall into the river!” said Federico García Lorca
“when he was lost in the water I understood” said Federico García Lorca
“within the rose there’s another river” said Federico García Lorca
but why does his blood inflame
Granada each and every day every day?
and the children of Azul Santa Fe Tucumán Salta
why do they inflame the sky of the republic
beneath which they have forgotten them or pretend to forget?
why did they fall into the river were lost
in the water went to the river of another rose from
ugly poverty?
what’s the relationship between that
outer reality and this inner unreality? or
what’s the relationship between that outer unreality
and this inner reality?
when did they kill Federico García Lorca in Tucumán?
when was he shot in Azul Santa Fe Salta?

Juan Gelman

(Translated by John Lyons)

In this poem, Juan Gelman – of Ukrainian origin and one of Argentina’s greatest poet – draws a parallel between the murder of the poet Federico García Lorca by Franco’s fascist troops at the start of the Spanish Civil War and the slaughter of innocents in Argentina during the so-called Dirty War (the name used for the period of United States-backed state terrorism in Argentina from 1976 to 1983). Azul, Santa Fe, Salta and Tucumán are representative provinces of Argentina, though the military dictatorship spread terror throughout the country.

The Cave of Hands

Cave of Hnads

The Cave of Hands

Those hands
           on the cave wall
in Santa Cruz
waving to us
           from 9000 years ago

Silhouettes created
           by blowing paint
through bone-made pipes
           : and such warmth
in these gestures
           as if to say
we’re here and in our art
           we salute you
our friends
           to come

John Lyons

Revised from an earlier post on 2 April 2018

The Cave of Hands

Cave of Hnads.jpg
Santa Cruz, Argentina

The Cave of Hands

Those hands on the wall
            of the cave in Santa Cruz
Argentina waving to us
            from 9000 years ago
The silhouettes created
            by blowing paint 
through bone-made pipes
            The warmth of these
gestures as if to say
            we were here and we
salute you those of you
            who are to come

John Lyons

Noises, by Juan Gelman

Juan Gelman
Juan Gelman

The poet Juan Gelman was born in Buenos Aires in 1930. The third son of Ukrainian immigrants, his father, José Gelman, had been a social revolutionary who participated in the 1905 revolution in Russia before finally settling in Argentina.

Gelman himself was an ardent political activist and in 1975 briefly became involved with the Montoneros, later distancing himself from the group. Following the 1976 military coup, Gelman was forced into exile. In 1976, his son Marcelo and his pregnant daughter-in-law, Maria Claudia, aged 20 and 19, were kidnapped from their home. They became two of the 30,000 disappeared, the people who vanished during the period of the military junta and the so-called Dirty War.

In 1990 Gelman was taken to identify his son’s remains (he had been executed and buried in a barrel filled with sand and cement). Later still, in 2000, Gelman managed to trace his granddaughter, who was born in a clandestine hospital before Maria Claudia was murdered. The baby had been adopted by a family that supported the military government. Maria Claudia’s remains have not been recovered. The poem below was published in 1991. In 2007 Gelman was awarded the prestigious Miguel de Cervantes Spanish language prize. He died in 2014.  


those footsteps are they looking for him ?
that car is it stopping at his door ?
those men in the street are they lying in wait ?
there are all sorts of noises at night

in the midst of those noises day breaks
nobody can stop the sun
nobody can stop the cock crowing
nobody can stop the day

there’ll be nights and days he might not see
nobody can stop the revolution
nothing can stop the revolution
there are all sorts of noises at night

those footsteps are they looking for him ?
that car is it stopping at his door ?
those men in the street are they lying in wait ?
there are all sorts of noises at night

in the midst of those noises day breaks
nobody can stop the day
nobody can stop the sun
nobody can stop the cock crowing

Juan Gelman

(translation by John Lyons)

The last waltz in Buenos Aires

Calle Florida, Buenos Aires

During the ten years I lived in Brazil, I visited Argentina on five occasions, spending at least two weeks in Buenos Aires each time. I loved the city, and I loved the people, the long-suffering people of Argentina, who had endured the most savage and macabre of military dictatorships of all the dictatorships of South America.

Within a few years of returning to democracy in 1983, the country was yet to suffer further at the hands of the dictatorship of international capital, which led ultimately to a virtual overnight devaluation of the country’s currency in 2002 and stripped the value of millions of people’s savings. Despite the terrible years of political and economic attrition, the population remained dignified and proud of its cultural heritage, proud of the tango and of its immensely rich artistic culture and its love affair with books. While it was rare in Brazil to see people on the public transport system reading a book, in Argentina the opposite was true, and in Buenos Aires, at least, there was a bookshop on every street corner.

I wrote the poem below in my hotel room one afternoon and it was inspired more by the crisis in my relationship at the time than by the problems of the Argentinean economy. The hotel, ironically, was called Casa calma (the calm house) but for me it was anything but calm. I knew that that particular visit to the country was going to be my last, certainly, my last with that particular partner.

As to the form of the poem, inspiration came from two sources. The concept of ‘the first of the last times’ I borrowed from a poem by an elderly Nicaraguan poet, José Coronel Urtecho, whom I had met some years previously in his home, a few months before his death. The poem was called Panels of Hell, and my translation of that text was commissioned and published by Harold Pinter. The second source was from the catechism lesson I was taught as a child in primary school:

Q. Which are the four last things to be always remembered?

A. The four last things to be always remembered are: Death, Judgment, Hell, and Heaven.

 The Last Waltz

What will be the first of the last things
The first word of the last words
The first day of the last days
The first kiss of the last kisses;
What will be the first breath
Of the last breaths, the first sigh
And the first of the long goodbyes?
Here in Buenos Aires the streets
Are haunted by those who have
Gone before, by those who have walked
These noble streets that fell in recent years
Upon such hard times, a sad dreary elegance
Now clinging to so many crumbling façades.
This clear blue sky and crisp ocean air
Known to Borges, known to Cortázar,
Which weathers the skin in the daily bounty
Of those who survive. This may be the first
Of the last memories, the first taste
Of the last tastes to tantalize my palate
The first of the last loves to be made
In the first of the last beds. And as I wake
And dress in the first of the last clothes
Put on the shoes that may be blessed
To take the first of the last steps,
I recall the sibilance of Emily’s valley-licking train,
A vector of sound in the long speechless distance
A vector of thought, a rugged nugget of words
Condensed around an ecstasy of emotion:
From distance, the sensation of intimacy,
From a silence broken, the tactile meaning of words
Of love, the first of the last words of love,
The first of the last brushes of skin against skin,
Of lip against lip. This is, and always was a merry
Macabre dance, whether upon a lush city stage,
A retarded Calvary or in the empty heart of the pampas:
Our steps are numbered, even as the band is poised
To strike up the very first chords of our very last waltz.

John Lyons

Buenos Aires 31 October 2011