The Bigness of Small Poems – # 35 in a Series – To Grieve, Yet Credit Marvels – Gelman, Berger & Heaney


Argentinian-born poet and journalist Juan Gelman. Photo credit: The Independant

“The Deluded”

hope fails us often
grief never.
that’s why some think
that known grief is better
than unknown grief.
they believe that hope is illusion.
they are deluded by grief.

Juan Gelman (1930-2014) from Unthinkable Tenderness: Selected Poems, ed, and trans. Joan Lindgren, Berkeley University of California Press, 1977

Many years ago riding the Bowen Island ferry to West Vancouver on a warm summer day I saw a young woman, I would guess in her early twenties, wearing a backless dress. Her back was turned to me so I could see emblazoned as a tattoo on her back in large capitalized Gothic letters: HOPE IS FOREVER BANISHED FROM ME.

Before we landed I approached the woman and expressed my surprise at such a statement on a person so young. In a manner so matter of fact as to be disquieting she told me her life was much easier to live without hope. I heard her. I did not understand her. Having just come back from a war-torn part of Africa where I met some of the most hopeful people in what seemed to be the most hopeless of circumstances, this woman’s tattoo still felt like an affront. A slap across the face.

I thought of this young woman a few days ago when I read Argentinian-born Juan Gelman’s poem, selected as the epigraph for this post,  in John Berger’s 2013 collection Understanding a Photograph. This series of essays and articles (some included in books by photographers they discuss) has been my steady companion in these days leading up to and now past, Christmas. Nothing dry or technical here. Just the breadth of Berger’s knowledge, wisdom, curiosity, his outrage at the greed of what he coins the ruthless class but above all, his Whitmanesque embrace of humanity in its day to day unguarded moments.

The  poem by  Gelman, was included in a series of letters between Berger and the photographer Martine Franck, included as the Foreword to Franck’s book of photographs One Day to the Next. Berger included the poem as part of an answer to Franck’s question of him: Are you happy?

Gelman’s poem came as such a surprise and as a marvelous antidote to my own grief over humanity’s many injustices and cruelties today. And served also to address my own confusion over the woman with her provocative tattoo. This idea of Gelman’s of the ubiquity of grief but worse, its ability in some way to corrupt our spirit, comes as a welcome awareness.

What a comfort for me to hold on to this: grief, not hope, as the delusion. This powerful message, coming from Gelman,  takes on ever more force.  Gelman fled to Mexico in 1976 from Argentina after the military Junta took power there. His son and pregnant daughter-in-law were arrested and murdered  and their daughter born in captivity was given up secretly for adoption by the regime. What grief, yet what hope Gelman cherished;  never gave up hope he would find his grand daughter and twenty years later, did. Incredible! Inspirational!

I take from Gelman’s poem not that grief in itself is a bad thing but that if we use grief as our only lens to see the world and especially if we use it to deny hope, then it can become destructive, a bad thing. By not giving up his hope, Gelman found a marvel!

This day, at the dark time of the year, in our own dark time, I choose hope. And thank Berger for including Gelman’s poem in his answer to the question are you happy. And in his full answer Berger sums it up by saying to Martine Franck that even in the dark time in which he lived (1998): I’m happy to be able, at certain moments, to marvel. Yes! To be able, no matter what, at times, to marvel!

My hope during this Christmas time and especially this New Year’s Eve 2017: never to lose my ability to hope and to marvel. Thank you John Berger for reminding me to claim this hope to marvel  and to Seamus Heaney who reminds me to credit marvels in this poem:

 ‘That heavy greenness fostered by water’

At school I loved one picture’s heavy greenness -
Horizons rigged with windmills’ arms and sails.
The millhouses’ still outlines. Their in-placeness
Still more in place when mirrored in canals.
I can’t remember never having known
The immanent hydraulics of a land
Of glar and glit and floods at dailigone.
My silting hope. My lowlands of the mind.
Heaviness of being. And poetry
Sluggish in the doldrums of what happens.
Me waiting until I was nearly fifty
To credit marvels. Like the tree-clock of tin cans
The tinkers made. So long for air to brighten,
Time to be dazzled and the heart to lighten.
Seamus Heaney from Opened Ground, Faber & Faber, 1998


On this New year’s Eve 2017, my hope for all of you reading this: you will always remember to credit marvels! Hopeful blessings on you and your families. And thank you for following my blog! A true blessing for me!

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