To read Latin American authors and poets like Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Pablo Neruda, and Octavio Paz is to see, first, what they have in common. It is a commonality of culture that goes beyond the Spanish language.
It is a culture that understands that the past is never past, that even distinguishing past from present (not to mention the future) is an aberration, an anomaly.
We North Americans nod and say we understand that, sort of, but the culture our writers and poets write from is actually very different. U.S. culture, and to a similar degree Canadian culture, is about remaking, reinventing, constantly focused on forward. The past is what happened 15 minutes ago.
I experienced this routinely when I worked for a Fortune 500 corporation. For more than two decades, the company was sloughing off its past like an old snakeskin and attempting to reinvent itself. When not actively rejecting its history, it imagined a future unaffected but the past or even the present. But its people, including its senior management, were still being shaped daily by what had happened a year ago, 10 years ago, 50 years ago.
At one point late in the attempted cultural revolution, the company deliberately began to toss the archives. The first files that went to the dumpster were the old employee photo files. A hysterical phone call from the archivist set in motion a short chain of events that stopped the lunacy. I found myself on a hot July day, wearing my suit, in a large dumpster, salvaging those files. I felt something like an archaeologist, digging through trash to find the treasure. Or perhaps a forensic criminologist, discovering the details of a crime in the shapes of spilled manila folders.
We give a nod to our past, but we destroy it without thinking. And we pay for that. During my last two years before retirement, I watched my department, charged with making huge changes, repeat the same strategy that had wrecked the company’s reputation in the first place. No one understood the why – which meant understanding the past – because the past wasn’t considered important.
In Dark Times Filled with Light, the Argentinian poet Juan Gelman writes of loss far greater than a company’s archives. He writes of the loss of his son and pregnant daughter-in-law, arrested and then “disappeared” by the military regime that ruled the country for more than a decade (Pope Francis also came out of this experience). Gelman took the refuge of exile in Mexico, but his children, likes thousands of others, were never heard from again. Some were tortured and murdered, buried in forgotten graves. Some were dropped from airplanes over the open ocean.
In a collection of poems entitled Open Letter, published in 1980, Gelman wrote that he would never accept the death of his children, Marcelo and his pregnant wife Claudia, until he saw their bodies or their killers. Their baby was born, and given to friends of the junta. It took Gelman 30 years to find her. That was a past Gelman could not reinvent himself out of, a past that remained with him until he died, a past that will remain with his granddaughter and her children and grandchildren.
Crestfallen My Burning Soul
crestfallen my burning soul
dips a finger in your name / scrawls
your name in the night’s walls /
it’s no use / it bleeds dangerously /
soul to soul it looks at you / becomes a child /
opens its breast to take you in /
protect you / reunite you / undie you /
your little shoe stepping on the
world’s suffering softening it /
trampled brightness / undone water
this way you speak / crackle / burn / and love /
you give me your nevers just like a child
- Juan Gelman, Open Letter, dedicated to his son Marcelo
At Tweetspeak Poetry today, the discussion is continuing about Dark Times Filled with Light. Please visitthe post and contribute if you’re so inclined.
Photograph: People suspected of being leftists being arrested by military troops in Argentina in the 1970s.