I’ve been reading Juan Gelman’s The Poems of Sidney West. Gelman is one of Argentina’s greatest living poets, although this volume was the first time I’d heard of him.
First thing to say is that the book presents an immediate oddity. The poems are ostensibly Gelman’s Spanish translations of work by a U.S. poet, Sidney West, but it’s also clear that West is an entirely fictional creation. The book therefore, consists of notional translations into Spanish of non-existent English poems, which have then been translated into English by Katherine Hedeen and Victor Rodriguez Nuñez.
The poems are all laments for people Sidney West has known, but these aren’t conventional elegies. They use surreal images, which recur in different laments throughout the book. Also phrases and unusual syntax patterns echo one another from elegy to elegy, as if the collection as a whole converges around Death as well as a series of deaths.
What I really want to talk about here is the first poem, ‘lament for the death of parsifal hoolig,’ a poem that really knocked me sideways and set up a foundation for the rest of the book. You can read the poem (in both Spanish and English) at pp. 20-23 of the book’s .pdf sampler (the introduction to Gelman’s life and work is also well worth reading). It starts off with a surreal description – ‘it began to rain cows’ – and then narrates the effect of this on various characters. A man is then found ‘dead several times’ and the surreal descriptions continue, now centring on the dead body. In many surreal poems, I find the surrealism frustrating, as an excuse for not fully engaging with reality rather than an angular commentary on it. However, in this poem, Gelman’s ‘Sidney West’ uses the crazed backdrop like a foil to the vulnerable humanity at its centre:
that rain fell years and years on the pavement of Hereby Street
without ever erasing the slightest trace of what had happened!
without dampening one of the humiliations not even one of the fears
of that man with hips scrambled tossed in the street
late so his terrors can mix with water and rot and end
I just find this incredibly moving, that the rain (cows or not) can’t dampen or dilute the man’s fear and humiliation, but he isn’t seen by others as a humiliated man:
and so died parsifal hoolig
he closed his silent eyes
kept the custom of not protesting
was a brave dead man
and while his obituary did not appear in the New York Times and the
...........Chicago Tribune paid no attention to him
he did not complain when they picked him up in a truck from the city
him and his melancholy look
and if someone supposes this is sad
if someone is going to stand up and say it is sad
know this is exactly what happened
nothing else happened but this
under this sky or vault of heaven
I like the way Gelman withholds judgement here. We don’t know who the dead man was, the source of his humiliations, whether he was right or wrong not to protest, but he is, I think, a kind of everyman/everywoman (I wondered if there were also allusions to the 'suffering servant' passage from Isaiah 53). He is all of us, or a side of all of us, and Gelman creates for him a particular kind of sympathy and dignity, whatever his faults. It made me think of Denis Johnson’s poem, ‘The Circle’ which recounts a helicopter crash and the reaction of people to the dead pilot, trying to explain what might have happened. Johnson’s narrator walks through the scene of chaos:
the machine burst ajar like a bug,
the corpse a lunch pail
left open and silly music coming out –
I couldn’t seem to find a way
that didn’t lead straight to the heart of the trouble
and involve me forever in their grief.
I think that’s what Gelman has found too and the rest of his collection reflects on what that means using both surreal and realistic imagery – the silly music that plays the heart of the trouble.