“The need to destroy yourself and the need to survive fight each other like two brothers who’ve gone out of their minds. We hang up the soul’s clothes in the closet but we haven’t unpacked all its bags. Time passes and the way to deny exile is to deny the country we’re in, its people, its language, to reject them as specific witnesses of a mutilation: our own country is far away, what do these gringos know about its voices, its birds, its mourning, its storms.”
Argentine poet Juan Gelman (1930-2014) wrote those words in 1980, and in wrote them where he was currently living – Rome. With the disappearances and presumed deaths of his son and daughter-in-law at the hands of the military regime, Gelman fled for a safer place. And while exile was a safer place, it was also its own kind of prison.
The military junta ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983. It was a brutal and murderous experience, especially for those suspected of left-wing or progressive political beliefs. Thousands of people were arrested and “disappeared,” including Gelman’s son and daughter-in-law. She was pregnant at the time, and, as it turns out, was allowed to live until she gave birth and then killed, the baby given to friends of the military regime. Gelman found his granddaughter 30 years later.
It’s difficult for those of us born and raised in a 241-year-old still-functioning democracy to imagine what drives a person to exile, and then what exile means for day-to-day life. It’s difficult to imagine thousands of people being arrested, and then nothing ever heard of them again. Escaping from one’s one fear of arrest and death is a miraculous thing, but then one must deal with the conditions of escape, being a stranger in a strange land, separated from the streets you know, the home you know, the church you attend, the grocery store where you shop, the holidays you celebrate, and often the very language you speak and understand.
This is the plight of the refugee and the exile, difficult even in the best of circumstances. While the United States is a nation of immigrants, and that would include refugees and exiles, but they have likely been a small portion of the overall mix. We contemporary Americans do not know what it means to flee the physical destruction of our land or the destruction of a murderous military regime.
Part of Gelman’s coping mechanism was poetry, including the invention of different personas for himself and “discovering” these lost poems. Reading them in the collection Dark Times Filled with Light is to read the struggle with the pain of personal loss and the pain of loss of self. He felt displaced, knowing the people he walked among in exile could not possibly understand his grief and loss, no matter how much they might sympathize with him.
Early On the Soul Begins to Hurt
Early on the soul begins to hurt / pale /
in the wavering light to explores your not being here /
the heart rises with misgivings /
goes over the sky like the sun
in daylong search / day in or day out / it burns
freezing / as if its bones thrown out
of joint / or like an unsaid word
where i try to march against death /
sould you harmonize harmonies that barely
make it across the world’s width /
broken / it broods over
what you left me / night on its feet
In exile, Gelman had his own separation from the life he knew, as well as the permanent separation from his children. The military regime robbed him of his day-to-day life, but it also robbed him of a future. And what he had to hold on to, he writes, was the determination never to accept the deaths of his son and daughter-in-law until he saw their bodies or their killers.
At Tweetspeak Poetry today, the discussion is continuing about Dark Times Filled with Light, led by L.W. Lindquist. Please visit the post and consider adding your voice.
Top photograph by George Hodan via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.