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Juan Gelman and the poetics of surrealism.


Critical responses to the work of Juan Gelman (Buenos Aires, 1930) often presuppose a dichotomous relationship between two twentieth-century literary currents in Latin America: socially oriented, "colloquial," or "conversational" poetry versus poetry that is vanguardist in nature, formally innovative, or "pure." (1) Although critics see these two lines of influence as converging in Gelman, they tend to privilege the former in characterizing his work. (2) This double-edged critical approach does not occur by accident: it reflects both the literary-historical moment in which Gelman is situated and his own artistic stance. Gelman's stature as Argentina's leading contemporary poet is no doubt related to readers' recognition that his complex and multivalent work resists categorization. As Victor Rodriguez Nunez aptly notes, Gelman is "Un poeta que trata de fundir la vanguardia politica con la vanguardia estetica, la ideologia revolucionaria con la riqueza formal, el arte con la vida" (147). The present essay will explore surrealism as a broad modality in Gelman's work that embraces both the social-colloquial and the experimental-vanguardist aesthetic. I will consider in particular the 1988 volume Anunciaciones as the culmination of Gelman's incursions into a post-surrealist approach--an approach especially suited, as I will argue, to a troubled moment in Argentine history. An examination of surrealism both as actitud vital (3) and as poetic technique will elucidate a significant development in Gelman's trajectory, one that

has been largely overlooked by critics to date.


The historical vanguardist period in Argentina was characterized by two opposing trends. Following the lead of Jorge Luis Borges, writers of the group that came to be known as "Florida" aspired to an ultramodern, Europeanized, sophisticated poetic diction. In opposition to these values, the writers of the "Boedo" group espoused a bohemian, proletarian literature concerned with contemporary social issues. I cite these two movements (whose opposition was perhaps more staged than real) in order to point out a fundamental tension between two clusters of poetic values, a tension that has defined Argentine poetry since the early part of the twentieth century and that is still apparent in Gelman's work.

Toward the end of the 1920s, surrealism emerged in Spanish American literature as the vanguardist movement par excellence. Graciela de Sola makes a claim for surrealism "no solo como uno de los movimientos artisticos e ideologicos mas importantes del siglo, sino como el mas significativo por su sentido historico" (7). (4) The first Argentine surrealist group, Que, organized by Aldo Pellegrini, published a journal by the same name in 1928 and 1930. Over the next decade, isolated poets took up the surrealist banner, but it was not until the 1940s that poets such as Enrique Molina began to openly embrace Breton's aesthetic. By the time younger poets such as Alejandra Pizarnik, Roberto Juarroz, and Juan Gelman come of age in the 1960s, surrealism in Argentina had become a force impossible to ignore. (5) Although we cannot argue that these latter were "surrealists" in the orthodox sense of the word, we can identify unmistakable surrealist elements both in their attitudes about poetry and in their techniques.

By the time Gelman published his first volume of poetry in 1956, surrealism and other late vanguardist currents were vying for territory with an approach broadly termed "neo-humanist" (Furlan 20). Although Gelman did not participate in any generational promotion per se, neo-humanism or poesia social became one of the important strains of his work. Together with poets such as Nicanor Parra, Enrique Lihn, Mario Benedetti, Roque Dalton, Jose Emilio Pacheco, and Ernesto Cardenal, Gelman rejected the self-consciously literary or vatic voice of Neruda's Canto general (1950), opting instead for the language of everyday life. These writers, whose work matured throughout the decade of the 1960s, "comenzaban a apostar una lirica de lo cotidiano, de lo claro, de lo sentimental, de lo ironico, de lo historico y, sobre todo, de lo social" (Achugar 98). The devastating effects of two successive world wars, along with the influential work of Jean Paul Sartre and other existentialist thinkers, led Spanish American poets in the 1950s and 60s to focus their concerns on the human being in his or her particular historical circumstance.

For Juan Gelman, the historical circumstance of a deeply polarized mid-century Argentina, leading to the right-wing Proceso and the so-called Dirty War of the late 1970s and early 1980s, became the major catalyzing force of his poetic production. Gelman, a journalist and editor as well as a poet, had been active in the radical leftist branch of Peronism in the 1950s and eventually joined the urban guerrilla movement known as the Montoneros. In 1975, one year after the Montoneros were outlawed, Gelman went into exile in Europe. In August of 1976, Gelman's son Marcelo and daughter-in-law Claudia, who was seven months pregnant at the time, were abducted from their home and forcibly disappeared. (The remains of his son were located years later; Claudia's body was never found.) These same years saw the disappearance of many Argentine writers and intellectuals, such as the poet Francisco Urondo and the journalist Rodolfo Walsh, with whom Gelman had maintained strong personal and political ties. He would not be allowed to return to Argentina until 1988 (the year Anunciaciones is published) and would never again permanently reside there. The loss of companeros and family members--many of whose bodies were never recovered--and the experience of prolonged exile leave an indelible mark on Gelman's poetry.

In sum, given the surrealists' desire to incorporate the most disparate realms of existence, it should not surprise us that a belated version of surrealism, essentially avant-garde in nature, should cohabit a space with social poetry in twentieth-century Argentina, where one of its major poets would take up its banner. Moreover, surrealism posited itself broadly as the spirit of revolt, an attitude that resonated with many Latin American poets in the decade following the Cuban Revolution. As late as 1962, Argentine poet Juan Jose Ceselli articulates values explicitly grounded in Breton's manifestos: poetry, he says, is nothing less than "la rebelion y la busqueda de una liberacion a traves del lenguaje o de la imagen, en donde el sueno, la magia, o simplemente lo insolito o lo diferente los une" (30). This broad definition of poetry as liberated and liberating language opens a space for poetic diction that ranges from the colloquial to the hermetic, from the self-consciously sentimental to the mystical. And here we come face to face with Gelman's own conception of language.


We have seen that surrealism was an important, though not exclusive, literary current in Argentina during the first half of the twentieth century, one that doubtlessly affected Juan Gelman's formation as a poet. Gelman himself has stated succinctly, with regard to his literary geneology, "Hay influencia del surrealismo frances" (Benedetti, "Juan Gelman" 204). This influence manifests itself in the patently surrealist themes that Gelman repeatedly identifies as "obsessions" in his work: childhood, death, love, and revolution. (6) Furthermore, the surrealist sense of the marvelous informs Gelman's perception of ordinary reality: "A mi me parece que la realidad se da a traves de lo cotidiano; tambien lo maravilloso se da a traves de lo cotidiano. Esto siempre me ha obsesionado [...]" (Benedetti, "Juan Gelman" 188). (7)

Thirdly, and even more importantly, Gelman shares with the surrealists the conviction that poetry can and should, in the words of Arthur Rimbaud, changer la vie. North American poet Michael Benedikt gives this explanation: "The Surrealist poet's work is a proof of vision and a personal testimony of faith in the attainability of Surrealism's goal of 'the transformation of the world.' But it is also much more. Every single poem by each poet is not only an esthetic gesture, but also an action. Each is not only a testimony, but a reality" (xvi). Gelman echoes this conviction directly when he affirms, in an interview with Uruguayan writer and critic Mario Benedetti, that there are instances in which it is possible to "modificar [la] realidad" through poetry ("Juan Gelman" 194). Other testimonies to this belief abound: in an interview with Jorge Fondebrider, Gelman insists that "La palabra no copia simplemente lo que la obsesion dicta, sino que interviene y por si misma tambien dicta" ("Juan Gelman" 4). The notions of intervention and modification are crucial ones here: for Gelman--as for the French surrealists--the poetic word not only reflects reality but also participates actively in it. It is important to--note here that in spite of Gelman's participation in leftist politics, his view of affecting reality through poetry never implies mere propagandism. Although he acknowledges the political and social character of his poetry, he sees the efficacy of poetry in terms coterminous with--but not identical to--the efficacy of political action. "Hay quien pregunta si la poesia puede servir para otros fines," he says, with characteristic wry humor: "Siempre ha servido, en la medida que sirven todas las artes. Ahora bien, no cabe duda de que con endecasilabos no vas a matar a nadie, y mucho menos tomar el poder. Pero creo que no hay disyuntivas entre una cosa y otra" (Benedetti, "Juan Gelman" 194). Implicit here is a faith--impossible to define in empirical terms--that aesthetic practices are viable and necessary forms of effecting change in lived reality, forms that must be allowed to coexist with other more direct forms of "taking power."

Central to the surrealist world view--and perhaps its most popular legacy--is the notion that authentic reality transcends ordinary perceptions and rational systems of thought. This gives rise to the surrealist intermingling of dream and waking consciousness. In the first Manifesto, Breton declares: "I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality, if one may so speak" (14). In a similar vein, Gelman, more a poet of questions than of proclamations, interrogates the relationship between interior psychic states and exterior reality:
   ?cual es la relacion entre esa
   realidad exterior y esta irrealidad interior?
   ?cual es la relacion entre esa irrealidad exterior
   y esta realidad interior? (Relaciones 24)

The very structure of this passage--a kind of interrogative retruecano in which interior/exterior and reality/unreality are assigned dynamic, mutually interchangeable values--points to Gelman's will to discard antithetical notions grounded in a rigidly logical view of existence.

In the same volume, Relaciones (1973), Gelman voices a similar conviction through his heteronym Jose Galvan: "Hay que hundir las palabras en la realidad / hasta hacerlas delirar como ella" (Relaciones 21). (8) Here Gelman speaks directly to the role of poetry in sorting out our relationship to the world. Words must be "submerged"--that is, they must be forced below the surface of perceptions, common sense, and ordinary communication. Breton postulates that "If the depths of our mind contain within it strange forces capable of augmenting those on the surface, or of waging a victorious battle against them, there is every reason to seize them--first to seize them, then, if need be, to submit them to the control of our reason" (Manifestoes 10). Galvan's imperative "hay que hundirlas" participates directly in this surrealist plumbing of psychic depths. Interestingly, however, Galvan clarifies that words must be submerged not into some inchoate space, but into reality itself, to the point that they become delirious "como ella." Here we are presented with a paradox. In an echo of the previously cited passage, Gelman suggests that reality and delirium may be interchangeable, that in fact, the true nature of reality may be something more akin to madness--a madness into which the poetic word can and should sink. Breton's desire to submit the deep forces of the mind, if necessary, to "the control of our reason" is called into question by Galvan's declaration. Here Gelman goes beyond Breton in suggesting that surface and depth, reality and unreality, communication and raving, are interchangeable forces. We can postulate that this view of language and reality reflects not only surrealist philosophy carried to an extreme, but also the experience of living in a politically repressive period, a period in which language was routinely twisted and subverted to meet political ends. (9) Galvan/Gelman's desire to submerge words into reality may be on the simplest level a desire to restore to political and social language its transparency and directness.

Perhaps the most unmistakable link to surrealist notions of dream and reality in Gelman's poetry occurs in the following passage from Fabulas (1971):
   queria que no suene mas
   nocturnamente o que se suene
   de dia y se haga noche el dia
   y se haga realidad el sueno
   o sueno toda realidad
   y cada hombre se cosiera
   ya dulcemente sus mitades [...] (Antologia 118)

The poetic speaker of this fabula, which is an elegy for the leftist activist Emilio Jauregui, voices a constant tension between death and life, light and shadow, pueblo and hero. (10) He arrives at the conclusion that "no hay manera o forma senores / de poner todo eso de acuerdo / cosa que el Emilio queria [...]" (Antologia 118). The poem contends that the various antinomies surrounding Emilio's existence are in fact irreconcilable--a stance that contradicts surrealism's faith in the fusion of opposites. But what remains, incontrovertibly, in Gelman's poem is the human desire to meld nocturnal dream with waking reality--a melding that would allow us to "sweetly stitch together our disparate halves."

My intention to this point has been to trace broadly some of Gelman's incursions into the territory of surrealism--his distinctly surrealist thematic "obsessions" (including erotic love, childhood, and revolution), his heterogeneous poetic diction, his conviction that the poetic word should intervene in and change reality, and his exploration of states of consciousness that transcend ordinary perceptions and rational thought. As the passage from "Muerte de Emilio Jauregui" demonstrates, Gelman's exploration of this territory leads ultimately to the desire to reestablish a lost unity, so that the metaphorical two halves may be sewn together. In the following pages I will analyze the culmination of Gelman's surrealist approach in the 1988 volume Anunciaciones.


Juan Gelman is a poet who continually reinvents himself. As Jaime Giordano has observed, Gelman's trajectory constitutes "un impulso de ampliacion de los horizontes semanticos del verbo lirico" (169). This expansive impulse has allowed Gelman to construct volume after volume of poetry, each with a distinct raison d'etre and a unique poetic modality. In my reading of Anunciaciones, that modality is the surrealist aesthetic itself. Argentine poet and critic Jorge Fondebrider was the first to identify this strain: "Anunciaciones--quizas su libro menos difundido--mantiene el cruce de discursos y niveles de lengua, pero la perspectiva tiende inesperadamente al surrealismo, a su brillante recuperacion en otra cosa" ("Introduction" 28).

The fact that this book is perhaps the least read of Gelman's collections to date is testimony to the extreme experimental nature of its language. (11) Lilian Uribe refers to Anunciaciones as "un poemario peculiar y desconcertante" (111), while Benedetti claims that its author "hace delirar las palabras" ("Gelman hace delirar" 55). In true surrealist fashion, the poems of this collection do not comprise coherent statements about or meditations upon perceived reality: they are explorations through language of the revelatory properties of language itself. Thus, the poetics of Anunciaciones directly contradict common critical appraisals of Gelman's work that underscore its simplicity, clarity, or orientation toward "el individuo comun y corriente" (Oliveira-Williams 84). Gelman himself addresses the question of difficulty in his writing in his 1971 interview with Benedetti:

Si me preguntas si me quiero comunicar, te contesto que si; si me preguntas si estoy dispuesto a sacrificar algo para comunicarme, te digo que tambien. Pero lo que estoy dispuesto a sacrificar para esa comunicacion no es cuestion poetica, sino cuestion de vida. Y en la medida en que vitalmente eso se resuelva, pienso que se va a resolver en mi poesia. Pero de ninguna manera pienso renunciar a lo que aparentemente pueda ser dificil de entender [...]. ("Juan Gelman" 189)

The attitude toward difficulty in poetry that Gelman expresses here is fundamentally avant-garde in nature: the poet's desire to communicate goes beyond the mere conveyance of a preconceived message. Gelman's claim that the task of "reflecting reality" is not a simple matter of employing everyday, accessible language flies in the face of the tenets of conversational poetry, pointing once again to this poet's rhetorical complexity. Finally, it should not escape us that the concern Gelman expresses here with reality's "marvelous" nature ("lo maravilloso que la realidad tiene") links him directly to the surrealists.

To the extent that Anunciaciones has a place in Gelman's neo-humanist poetics, it represents a radically non-colloquial, non-discursive approach to social or political circumstance. Written in the years immediately following Argentina's Proceso and Dirty War (1976-83), and published in the very year Gelman was first permitted to return to his country after a thirteen-year exile, Anunciaciones "performs" through its difficult linguistic structures a sense of existential confusion. Uribe claims that the trouble readers may have in identifying a recognizable world in this collection is intentional on the part of the lyric speaker, whose purpose is to transmit his own uneasiness and sense of estrangement: "Anunciaciones es la mirada del sobreviviente--sobremuriente--por el campo de batalla al terminar la guerra" (114). Contrary to the impulse to forget, which characterized much political and cultural discourse in Argentina after the return to democracy, Gelman insists on remembering and on acknowledging through oblique and hermetic language a sense of spiritual disarray.

The difficult nature of the poems of Anunciaciones is offset by certain structural features that unify the collection and lend it greater readability. The poems, all untitled, are generally brief and compactly organized on the page. The insistent use of the diagonal slash or barra within or at the end of lines creates a syntactic density, a sense of verbal tension, which is uniform throughout. (12) Most poems in Anunciaciones are similarly constructed: the poem opens with a series of declarative phrases, sometimes interspersed with questions. This declarative + interrogative pattern gives way to a hammering, insistent set of exclamations, creating the illusion of unified emotive development in poem after poem. I cite one (untitled) poem as an example:
   el envoltorio trae perros pulidos por el hambre
   y nadie reconoce sus mejillas/
   cantan los fieles ojos al reves/
   la realidad es traicion/han matado
   el golpe que me distes/la bondad que mostrastes
   en tu sillita esta sentado el lindo amor
   ?quien escribio su vendaval comido?/
   ?donde brota la hoja de la despiadacion?/
   ?hasta donde esperar al farol de diciembre/
   totalmente chillado por tu mano?/
   venis ahora con los textos y cada piedra nueva
   tapa la cara del furor/
   la espada cruje en el bisonte verbal/
   !es muy verdad que hay un abuelo roto
   en cada dia desdichado!/
   !que maria bramo contra el violin!/
   !que los escondederos estan tristes!/
   ?y de ahi?/
   !pongan manteles sobre el pedazo descosido!/
   !no molesten la lentitud del puro!/
   !nadie esta libre de su vez!/
   !tus rodillas abren la boca en plena oscuridad!/
   !abajo los espejos sin calles!/
   !viva la huelga general de lo que queda
   cuando te fuiste realmente!/ (29)

Benedetti observes with regard to Hechos y Relaciones that the poetic tone gradually rises from one question to the next ("Gelman hace delirar" 44). I would argue that the abundant exclamations of Anunciaciones carry this technique to an extreme, providing a structural and tonal "logic" for the trope of prophetic announcement suggested in the title. Put simply, the speaker's observations and questions repeatedly lead to a sense of discord and desperation, to an "annunciation" that remains largely incoherent.

Beyond the unity of structure and tone that mitigates the complexity of this poetry, Anunciaciones is integrated as a collection through the common nature of much of its imagery. In the construction of his images, Gelman seems to revel in a basic surrealist technique: the juxtaposition of unrelated elements that creates a spark of revelation in the reader's consciousness--what Breton calls "the luminous phenomenon" (Manifestoes 37). The French surrealists took their notion of the image from Pierre Reverdy, who claimed that "It cannot be born from a comparison but from a juxtaposition of two more or less distant realities" (qtd. in Manifestoes 20). This technique underscores Gelman's skepticism toward rational thought (in the province of literature, at least) and his desire for a more emotive and unmediated communication than that provided by ordinary discursive language.

The simplest structure of the surrealist image in Anunciaciones involves a noun combined with an adjective that bears no logical relation to it, as in "pescuezo perenne (44)," "monologo madre" (44), "perico platonico" (50), or "tigres permitidos" (50). In some instances, such as "perfil palomado" (50) or "tu jamas avestruzado" (58), the adjective itself is a neologism. Deprived of a larger context in which these images could take on meaning--a narrative, say, in which we might make sense of a "perennial neck"--we are left to absorb the images in their raw suggestiveness. The basic noun + adjective combination often occurs in the variant of noun + prepositional modifier: "el arroz lujoso de la fragilidad" (37), "el tartan de mapamundi proscrito" (44), "las vacas de la fascinacion" (47), or "las tenduchas del estar" (50). With both techniques, Gelman relies on his reader to make associative leaps. The logic of these images, if there is logic at all, is internal and phonic: the use of alliteration in "pescuezo perenne" and "monologo madre," and of assonance in "arroz lujoso" and "las vacas de la fascinacion," invites a perception of coherence that may stand in place of empirical meaning.

The preponderance of startling surrealist images in Anunciaciones is coupled with a tendency toward word play that keeps the reader on edge, often thwarting syntactic and semantic expectations and introducing a ludic note into the poems. In the following examples, an effect of surprise and even black humor is achieved by substituting an unexpected word for an expected one. "El hermano derecho" (57) suggests "mano derecha" or, even more intriguingly, "derechos humanos." (13) The phrase "Tiras de una carreta de huecos" (41) confuses huecos for huesos and leaves the reader seeing both a death-wagon and a not-quite imaginable wagon of gaps or hollows. This ambiguous image undoubtedly alludes to the desaparecidos and to the general sense of absence (of persons, of bodies) that haunted post-dictatorship Argentina. In a similar vein, the imperative "pone un huevo en el odio vueltero" (41) plays on the phrase "poner un huevo en el viento," perhaps marking Gelman's own return (vuelta) and that of other exiles as a futile act incapable of dissolving hatred. The command "para tu viaje alrededor del mudo" (39) plays mudo off the expected mundo, creating an unusual, dynamic image of human silence, perhaps associated with exile. In all these examples (many more of which could be drawn from this collection), Gelman strings words together in unusual ways that echo, faintly or clearly, more logical or familiar uses of language. In doing so, he pushes the reader to question assumptions, to see unexpected associations, and at times to laugh.

I have suggested that Anunciaciones is a fundamentally vanguardist collection, one whose language does not invite readers for an amicable repartee, but rather challenges them with hermetic diction, startling and irrational imagery, and various forms of word play. At the same time, I have argued that Gelman counteracts the centrifugal force of such elements with centripetal elements that create a sense of unity. The reiterated structure of the poems themselves, a commonality of tone (questioning and desperate), and the widespread use of a particular kind of image (the surrealist juxtaposition of unlike entities) all work to keep the reader swimming in this poetic river. In other words, in this collection Gelman manages his techniques deftly in order to achieve communication without sacrificing--to recall his own explanation--"la cuestion poetica." The final unifying element I wish to discuss is a set of reiterated semantic fields that, while aligned with a surrealist world view, point obliquely to the historical context of Anunciaciones.

Allusions to the human body are ubiquitous in this collection. In their totality, these images comprise a cubist portrait of the body, which is fragmented into unconnected parts. Reiterated terms include ojo, higado, cuello or pescuezo, boca, entranas, corazon (or descorazon), aorta, cerebro, lengua, piernas, pies or patas, coxis, esternon, and huesos or huesitos. Such a fractured treatment of the body serves metaphorically to portray a broken country and culture, as well as the broken subjectivity of a man exiled from his homeland, but in a much more concrete way alludes to the treatment of the bodies of the detained and disappeared. Accordingly, the adjectives modifying these nouns are often negative in connotation and can imply torture and pain. The eyes, for example, are variously characterized as "ojo roto" (55), "ojo fregado" (42), "ojos sacados (43), and "ojos machacados" (35). (Luis Bunuel's famous image of a razor-slit eye comes immediately to mind in this context.) More complex images built upon body parts or organs reinforce this unsettling view: the phrase "los cerebros partidos por tanta conduccion" (26) connotes torture with electrical current, a common practice during the dictatorship. In the few instances in which the poetic speaker refers to the body as a whole, there is an overwhelming sense of fragmentation and alienation, of bodily harm or death coupled with silence:
   manos/pies/cabecitas del silencio que das/
   !a ver que cuerpo haces con tanta ahogada!/ [...]

Jorge Boccanera points out that the imagery of the fragmented body increases in intensity in the collections leading up to Interrupciones II (1986), the book immediately preceding Anunciaciones. This is a development whose logic rests not only in the Argentine political situation but also in Gelman's own condition of exile, given that "el exilio mutila" (Boccanera 67). In one poem, the body is reduced to the status of a homeless dog:
   nuestro cuerpo es un perro sin amo/
   un borracho sin sombra/
   todos los viajes encallan en nuestra enorme palidez/

In this series of rather transparent metaphors, the speaker laments the body's essential unconnectedness and even, paradoxically, its lack of corporeality. The self that experiences this shadowless body runs the danger of disappearing entirely:
   me fui por un dia cualquiera y volvio el dia/
   con una pierna/un brazo/una flor de papel/
   un pie escribido en bailes de agua/ [...] (23)

Here Gelman's speaker touches upon the fear--both primordial and actual--that he will disappear "on any ordinary day," leaving behind only body parts and some ephemeral scraps of evidence that he once existed.

The body imagery described above works on a literal level--as we have seen, one does not have to look far into Argentina's contemporary history to find evidence of the fragmentation and disappearance of bodies--but also on a broader, more metaphorical level. The integral human body is arguably the most apt metaphor for wholeness of existence; it is, in James Clifford's words, "a privileged image of order" (132). These poems' insistence on displaced body parts points away from order and wholeness, toward lost unity and a concomitant desire to regain that unity-one of the central desires articulated by surrealist writers. (14) One particularly striking semantic field that Gelman employs in this regard involves the notions of tying, sewing together, or otherwise binding dispersed fragments.

We have already seen, in the passage cited from "Muerte de Emilio Jauregui" the young activist's desire that "cada hombre se cosiera / ya dulcemente sus mitades" (Antologia 118). In a highly alliterative line from Anunciaciones that uses the same trope of sewing, "los perros cosen costuritas del carino insistido" (12). The combination of the diminuitive "costuritas" and the mention of "carino" mark this as a particularly Gelmanian line, one that points to the human capacity for love as the ideal binding agent. (We note the irony implicit in the fact that dogs--not humans--are performing the task of sewing.) In another line that freely evokes a very un-surrealist sentimentality, Gelman's speaker recalls "!la [vida] que cose los ojos esparcidos / por tanta sal de panuelito!" (26). In this case the abstraction "life" reconnects what has been scattered through suffering. In yet another passage, a surrealist series of unrelated elements is consolidated by images of sewing and tying:
   es necesario/alma/que te pares
   en tu violin cosido/el herbario/el criollito/
   ata los bajos de tu luz/
   los escarpines matan enemigos mientras cantas en
   tus tijeras [...] (19)

Here the speaker exhorts the soul, which is later identified as the "alma desasida" (33), to stand upon a sewn object and to tie together the lower parts (or hems) of its light. In the last line this soul is "singing in its scissors," an image that may refer to the general act of sewing with its various tasks or to the particular act of cutting, separation, excision. The overall sense of each of these passages is the need to rejoin disconnected parts--to reconstruct a subjectivity blown apart by historical violence--a need perhaps best articulated in the question "?adonde fue la red que nos ataba a la primera vez?" (52). With this question, the poem alludes to the mythical notion of an originary state of wholeness, a state acknowledged here only as an absence. It is important to note Gelman's technical virtuosity in this context, as he employs disconnected phrases and images to enact poetically a loss of physical and spiritual integration.

Love and erotic desire--cornerstones of the surrealist worldview (15)--are presented in Anunciaciones as another possible response to fragmentation, dispersal, and the concomitant sense of anguish. Apart from frequent references to "woman" in her various incarnations--amada, senora, hembra, pajara, caballa-and to metonymic allusions to the female body--pechos, vientre--certain lines in Anunciaciones reflect the surrealist conviction that women are the arbiters of mythical, if not worldly, power, as exemplified in the line "una mujer mueve los pechos para empezar la eternidad" (28). The surrealist sense of the marvelous, which is to be found not in otherworldly spaces but in the often hidden side of daily existence, is evident in the speaker's praise of "la voz de mi amada/que fue maravillosa/" (13) or of "tus piernas [que] ardian al lado de los angeles" (15). In verses that recall ironically to Octavio Paz's famous poem "Viento entero," in which two lovers resist the horrors of war through erotic union, Gelman's speaker muses that "si conmovedoramente nos amasemos / tu gana seria un musculo de paz/ / un recuerdo sin hambre/un rocio glorioso/" (14). In all these instances, the poems of Anunciaciones suggest an optimistic (if mildly ironic) view of the potential of erotic desire to reconstruct a broken existence.

Unlike many of his surrealist predecessors, however, Gelman continually problematizes this potential. The woman whose breasts open onto eternity is, alternatively, the "!hembra/hembra/hembra / que mezclas todas las heridas!/ / !los dioses de oro con la tierra!/ / !lujosa de odio y soledad!" (18). Similarly, the speaker who laments that "la reina de la seduccion / [...] no pasa mas por aqui" marks erotic desire as essentially unfulfilled (13). Nostalgia, rather than optimism, is the predominant tone in many verses that witness the failure to establish connections: "quien quito la escalera que subia / a los jacintos de tu voz?/" (37). We can conclude that faith in erotic love is counterbalanced in these poems with a more realistic, experience-based acknowledgement of its limitations.

The synesthesic phrase "jasmines of your voice" brings us to the final semantic field this essay will examine, that of voice and language--the very set of poetic motifs connoted by the title Anunciaciones. There are abundant references to language, to the production of speech or writing, terms ranging from voz, boca, lengua, and palabra to escribir and escribido (Gelman's preferred participle). Within the set of associated tropes in Anunciaciones we have discussed so far, language--particularly the language of annunciation--stands out as a potentially powerful means to bind the unbound, to restore unity to a fragmented being or group.

But things are not so simple. Gelman's particular gift, as many critics have noted, is the ability to interweave different registers, tones, and formal techniques. Although the term anunciacion may refer to the incarnation of the divine word, the voice in this book is not that of sacred prophecy. It is rather a polysemic, enigmatic, and sometimes incomprehensible voice that undermines its own authority by constant interrogations and reversals. "En estas 'anunciaciones'," argues Uribe, "el poeta, mas que augurar, preludiar o anticiparse a algo que va a ocurrir, parece estar dando a conocer o pregonando algo que ya acontecio o que tal vez no acontecio ni acontecera" (111). The irony implicit in this non-prophetic annunciation is conveyed to the reader through a tone that is both fiercely ironic and bitter, and it reveals a degraded reality or one in the process of deterioration (Uribe 112).

In order to illustrate the workings of this annunciatory voice, I cite almost in its entirety one of the key poems of the collection:
   vendra tu parentela concertada/
   tu delantal de migas serviciales/
   tu pajara ascendida/
   en la carcoma de la aorta han escribido que asi sea/
   nadie hojea las paginas del cielo para decir perdon
   ?han desterrado al hombre de este mundo
   o al mundo de este hombre?/
   !levanten el sombrero de la aguita callosa!
   !paso!/!paso!/!ya pasara!/
   !huelan su sexo universal!
   !mueran los versos objetivos!/
   !inventen una lengua donde quepa
   todo el furor que falta!/
   !acaballen su numero para que sude Venus!/
   !cuenten los anos del carino lavado!/
   !los bergantines de la infancia!/
   lo que no va a venir!/ (45)

Although the poem displays several rhetorical devices that might characterize a prophetic voice, the traditional function of that voice--to announce the coming of significant events, to exhort a people to action--is repeatedly deconstructed. The first line, "vendra tu parentela concertada," is in fact an announcement of a coming event in the emphatic future tense. However, the unidentified referent of the possessive "tu," and the mysterious "parentela," leaves the reader/listener unsure of the nature of this announced event. (In one possible interpretation, the gathering of an extended family in the absence of the "tu" may suggest a funeral.) In the fourth line, writing as prophecy is evoked: the poetic voice tells us that "they" have written "que asi sea." This amen, however, is not written on tablets of stone but on "la carcoma de la aorta," a surreal image that suggests the decomposition of the body, and specifically of the heart. In the following line, the act of seeking forgiveness (human or divine) is negated, since "nadie ... [pide] perdon." The subsequent question ("?han desterrado ...?") postulates a double exile of man from world and of world from man, recalling the images of broken unity examined previously and evoking an archetypal image of exile in a contemporary context pertinent to Gelman's own history.

The final lines of the poem, beginning with the cry "!huelan su sexo universal!", function as a series of authoritative exhortations, grammatically signaled by the imperative mode but weakened as commands by their hermetic nature. The poetic voice calls for an end to "objective verses"--a line reminiscent of Neruda's refusal to write "pure" verses. The lines "inventen una lengua donde quepa / todo el furor que falta" suggest that language should exalt the subjective and open a space for boundless emotion--in particular, rage. Clearly we are in the presence here of an ars poetica that springs from Gelman's literary and political consciousness. The allusions to erotic encounters (a sweating Venus) and to childhood in the last lines refer us back to the surrealist themes that Gelman has embraced. But the passage ends with the paradoxical image of a female figure--probably la infancia--gazing out toward what is not to come. The poem comes full circle here, dismantling any sense of true prophecy or annunciation.

In sum, Anunciaciones is a difficult, often impenetrable volume that is never likely to attract the broad readership that many of Gelman's other volumes enjoy. But it takes its place in Gelman's oeuvre as an important work, an extreme of avant-garde experimentation within a humanizing vision very much in the tradition of Cesar Vallejo's Trilce. It is a book that provokes the reader into an unusual and more unmediated dialogue than that allowed by more accessible poetry. I have insisted on the surrealist elements in Anunciaciones in order to demonstrate how Gelman absorbed and reconfigured a certain worldview and set of poetic devices that were particularly apt for the historical context in which this book was written--the aftermath of Argentina's Dirty War. The difficulty arising out of language that melds the irrational with the rational may have appeared to Gelman as the only viable way to confront a situation that promised a political resolution, but that could never resolve the matters of the heart. Gelman's work has always been characterized by a certain revolt against rational thought and the orderly discursive speech that embodies it. But in Anunciaciones this revolt is carried farther than in any other book. For those willing to take the leap of surrealist understanding, Anunciaciones will dazzle and disturb, hide and reveal, and leave us wanting more.


Achugar, Hugo. "La poesia de Juan Gelman o la ternura desatada." Hispamerica 14.41 (1985): 95-102.

Balakian, Anna. Surrealism: The Road to the Absolute. Chicago: U Chicago P, 1986.

Benedetti, Mario. "Gelman hace delirar a las palabras." Como temblor del aire: La poesia de Juan Gelman, ensayos criticos. Ed. Lilian Uribe. Buenos Aires: Vinten, 1995. 39-57.

--. "Juan Gelman y su ardua empresa de matar la melancolia." Interview. Los poetas comunicantes. Montevideo: Biblioteca de Marcha, Coleccion Testimonio. 1972.

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Benedikt. Boston: Little Brown, 1974. vii-xxviii.

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Ceselli, Juan Jose. Poesia argentina de vanguardia. Surrealismo e invencionismo. Buenos Aires: Direccion General de Relaciones Exteriores y Culto, 1964.

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de Sola, Graciela. Proyecciones del surrealismo en la literatura argentina. Buenos Aires: Ediciones Culturales Argentinas, 1967.

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Escalante, Evodio. "Prologo: Por los goznes Gelman (corte) de nuestra gracia." En el hoy y manana y ayer: Antologia personal. By Juan Gelman. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, 2000

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Gelman, Juan. Anunciaciones. Madrid: Visor, 1988.

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Melanie Nicholson

Bard College

(1) Critics who discuss this dichotomy specifically in relation to Gelman's work are Victor Rodriguez Nunez, Ana Maria Porrua, Hugo Achugar, Jorge Boccanera, and Maria Rosa Olivera-Williams.

(2) One of the important models for Gelman's double-voiced poetry was the Peruvian Cesar Vallejo. Although Vallejo had published his first volume of poetry in 1918 and died in 1938, he was not widely read in Argentina before the 1950s. The year 1958 marked the beginning of the "difusion masiva" of Vallejo's poetry (Salas 30). Viewing his work as a whole, we see in Vallejo a masterful combination of colloquial diction with a prophetic tone, everyday imagery with startling metaphor, extreme linguistic rupture with ordinary syntax, socialist message with impenetrable vanguardist experimentation. Numerous critics have noted Gelman's indebtedness to Vallejo, and I do not wish to belabor the point here. What is important to note is that there was ample precedent set for a poetics that combined the colloquial, neo-humanist model embraced by most poets of Gelman's generation with an insistence on formal experimentation and sometimes hermetic diction.

(3) Ana Balakian notes that "Before becoming an art, surrealism became a philosophy and a way of life" (124). The notion of surrealism as actitud vital is the element that will be adopted by Latin American surrealists and post-surrealists, over and above any particular technique or artistic practice.

(4) De Sola goes on to explain surrealism's longevity as a literary force in twentieth-century Argentina: "En cuanto a lo especificamente literario [...] se hace aun mas indiscutible la vigencia que mantienen, luego de haber caducado sus posturas mas estentoreas de combate, muchas de las proposiciones teoricas del surrealismo y de sus conquistas tecnicas o linguisticas. Parece innecesario ya arguir, como se hiciera en otras oportunidades, que muchos grandes poetas de hoy son o han sido surrealistas" (8).

(5) De Sola, writing in the late 1960s in Buenos Aires, observes that "Dificilmente, ya podra hallarse un escritor que, situado en la estetica de su tiempo, haya permanecido enteramente ajeno a las proposiciones del surrealismo" (109).

(6) In an interview with Tomas Eloy Martinez, Gelman comments: "Todo el que escribe tiene pocas obsesiones. Algunas se van y luego renacen. Las mias se llaman amor, otono, ninez, revolucion, muerte" (19). Versions of this statement appear in other interviews.

(7) Breton says, "Let us not mince words: the marvelous is always beautiful, anything marvelous is beautiful, in fact only the marvelous is beautiful" (Manifestoes 14).

(8) Benedetti says of this epigraph by Gelman's heteronym Jose Galvan: " [...] por cierto podria server como definicion general de la obra de Gelman" ("Gelman hace delirar" 55).

(9) For an excellent discussion of the effects on language of the Argentine Proceso, see Marguerite Feitlowitz, A Lexicon of Terror.

(10) Emilio Mariano Jauregui was a young Argentine activist who was assassinated by order of the military forces during the dictatorship of Juan Carlos Ongania. The assassination took place in 1969, one month after Jauregui joined the Vanguardia Comunista.

(11) Significantly, Joan Lindgren does not include any poems from Anunciaciones in Unthinkable Tenderness (1997), the only anthology of Gelman's work in English published to date. The difficult nature of these poems, their relative inaccessibility to all but the most engaged reader, would have made this choice a justifiable one.

(12) Gelman's use of punctuation in fact goes against the French surrealist's desire to capture the free flow of thought. Breton claims that "punctuation no doubt resists the absolute continuity of the flow with which we are concerned [...]" (Manifestoes 30). Although Gelman's language in Anunciaciones often has the feel of "spoken thought," he seems to work consciously to stop the thought. This is accomplished not only by the diagonal slash, both within and at the end of lines, but also by the insistent use of question marks and exclamation points, all of which makes the reader pause, hold back, move forward fitfully.

(13) The suggestion of "derechos humanos" is corroborated by the lines containing the above-cited phrase: "?el hermano derecho ya no escuchaba exhortaciones?/ / ?hundia su frente en el gorrion mas mudo?/ / ?el que devora carceles de vos? [...]" (57).

(14) The impulse toward reintegration or the desire to recuperate a lost unity does not, of course, begin with the surrealists. In terms of literary and cultural history, the surrealists are reformulating romantic attitudes that in their turn drew from various manifestations of Judeo-Christian mystical and neoplatonic traditions. See the introduction to Nicholson's Evil, Madness, and the Occult in Argentina Poetry.

(15) In a note to the Second Manifesto of Surrealism, Breton remarks: "The problem of woman is the most wonderful and disturbing problem there is in the world. And this is so precisely to the extent that the faith a noncorrupted man must be able to place, not only in the Revolution, but also in love, brings us back to it" (Manifestoes 180, unnumbered note). By citing Gelman's reiteration of imagery related to "woman," love, and erotic desire, I do not mean to equate his attitude toward women with that of the French surrealists, which has been rightly criticized on many fronts, but only to mark the importance of this motif in his poetry.
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Author:Nicholson, Melanie
Publication:La Nueva Literatura Hispanica
Article Type:Interview
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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