Perspective is everything, some folks will tell you.
Depending on your perspective, they might be right.
I was under the impression in 1985 that I had an abundance. Of perspective, that is. I’d studied up in the months since my first trip to Argentina the year before. But one afternoon I saw the color drain from my friend Ruth’s face in a police station, and I realized I might still have very little.
Toward the end of my first trip, I visited a university campus with a friend who was an architecture student. One of the buildings was adorned with large banners stretching from floor to ceiling bearing long lists of names. Back on the subway, we asked the meaning of the banners. They were the names of the desparecidos, she told us. The school of architecture apparently had a sizable number of leftists among the students and faculty. “The former government disappeared them, ” she said.
Two months I had walked these streets and eaten in these homes and slept in these beds and I had never heard of such a thing. I’d been schooled in how to properly hold silverware, the right way to drink from the communal mate cup, to never carry an unwrapped package from a store on the street. But no one remembered to tell me about 30, 000 desaparecidos, a chapter in this country’s history that had supposedly closed mere months before my arrival? (Of course not, they would have said, had I been brazen enough to ask such a question aloud. We would expect you to have known.)
I did not know. But as a visitor to this beautiful country, at that time in history, I surely should have. And I would. When I returned home I ordered articles from my university library and even managed, in what feels now like some sort of miraculous feat in the pre-Internet age, to get my hands on a copy of Nunca Mas (Never Again), the report of the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons, a horrifying text detailing the brutal acts of the so-called National Reorganization Process, an effort undertaken by the military junta that ruled from 1976 to 1983 to control subversive activities.
In much of contemporary literature and film, coming of age has to do with sexual awakening. It is not always so. My own was political, coming with the dawning that such terror was not sealed off as distant memory’s cautionary tale of a 1930s Nazi Germany, or hidden away behind curtains iron or brick in mythic regimes of Eastern Europe and the then-USSR.
when you went past my window may
with autumn on your back
and flashed signals with the light
of the last leaves
what was your message may?
why were you sad or in your sadness gentle?
i never found out but there was always
one man alone in the street among autumn’s golds
well I was the boy
at the window may
shielding my eyes
when you went past
and come to think of it
i must have been the man
—Juan Gelman (tr. Hardie St. Martin)
Coming of age is not a once-and-done proposition. If we’re lucky, we do it again and again. I aged a few years in the police station with Ruth that day on my return trip. Our presence there was under innocent enough circumstances. We were in the city of Resistencia, in the subtropical Chaco province in the far north of the country (known to local folks as the Interior). While we were preparing for an evening event in the plaza, one of our companions needed to use the restroom so we set off down the street looking for a cafe or public outhouse. Instead, we encountered a police officer. Our Argentine friends lowered their eyes and kept walking, assuming we would do the same, but my American friends stopped and asked him if he could help us out. He obliged, leading us into the station around the corner. Ruth and Liliana were stricken, but it was too late. Ann and Karen had already left with the officer. I was somewhere in the middle. We caught up and followed close behind.
Karen and Ann surely grew up the way I did, in white middle America, or perhaps Colorado or Pennsylvania. I never thought of the police as anyone other than Ed, our next door neighbor, a big, playful father of two who made our neighborhood feel even safer. When taught how to talk to the police as a child, I was encouraged to look at them as friends. I would be much older before I learned that even in my own country there were those who’d had to learn a different lesson, by necessity. And there in Resistencia that afternoon, even after having done my homework, it took some time for the abject terror experienced by my friends to sink in. When Karen and Ann were escorted to the restroom across the courtyard of the police station and Ruth, Liliana and I were ushered into the office of the police chief. We sat across from his desk for a good long time while he asked questions about our activities in the plaza he already knew the answer to.
Things They Don’t Know
dark times / filled with light / the sun
spreads sunlight over the city split
by sudden sirens / this police hunt goes on / night falls and we’ll
make love under this roof / our eighth
in one month / they know almost everything about us / except
this plaster ceiling we make love
under / and they also know nothing about
the rundown pine furniture under the last ceiling / or
about the window the night pounded on while you shone like the sun / or
about the beds or the floor where
we made love this month / with faces around us like the sun
spreading sunlight over this city
—Juan Gelman (tr. Hardie St. Martin)
Eventually, our friends returned happily enough from an uneventful trip to the restroom. For all we knew, this was no more than a friendly chat with a local official. And why wouldn’t it be? Ruth, on the other hand, was fixated on one of the chief’s subordinates who spent the entire time dialing a large black rotary phone and speaking in a whisper to whoever was (or wasn’t, we never really knew) on the other end, certain that arrangements were being made for our arrest and that we, like thousands over the previous decade, would not leave the building alive.
Surely she was overreacting. We told her so. But we’d done nothing, we protested.
It doesn’t matter if you’ve done nothing. The look on her face was withering. You’ll never understand.
if waves from someone who threw himself into the sea
came to mind gently / what about our brothers who were
in-earthed? / do leaves sprout from their fingers? /
saplings / autumns soundlessly losing their leaves? / silently
our brothers talk about the time when
they were twothree inches away from death / they smile
remembering / even now feeling their relief
as if they hadn’t died / as if
paco were still brilliant and rodolfo were looking
up all the lost thoughts he’d always carried
slung over his shoulder / or rodolfo (forever) digging through his bitterness
had just pulled out of the ace of spades / he turned his mouth to the wind /
inhaled life / lives / saw with his own eyes the angel of death /
but now they’re talking about when
things worked out / nobody killed / nobody got killed / they
outwitted the enemy making up for some general humiliation /
with brave actions / with dreams / and all the time
their companions lying there / wordless /
flesh falling from their bones on a january night /
quiet at last / so terribly alone / without kisses
—Juan Gelman (tr. Hardie St. Martin)
We’re reading the poetry of Juan Gelman together, from the collection Dark Times Filled With Light. Join us in the comments with your thoughts on the three poems featured this week. Next week we’ll consider a trio of poems that reflect on the way Gelman, a prolific poet, viewed the power (and perhaps impotence) of poetry itself. If you have the book, you may wish to read “Facts, ” “Time Schedules” and “The Art of Poetry” in preparation.
Photo by Lisa Weichel, Creative Commons via Flickr. Poems by Juan Gelman, translated by Hardie St. Martin, reprinted with permission of the publisher. Post by LW Lindquist.