Thursday, February 14, 2013


The Selected Poems of Mario Benedetti    

"The spirituality of work. Works make us experience in the most exhausting manner the phenomenon of finality rebounding like a ball; to work in order to eat, to eat in order to work. Workers need poetry more than bread. They need that their life should be a poem."
   Simon Weil, "The Mysticism of Work"

We may forgive the saintly Weil for exaggerating: workers need bread more than poems, but we do need poems and we need poets.  Among the poets whose sensibility includes work--its glories and trials and beauty--is the great Uruguayan, Mario Benedetti, who died in 2009, and who was among a handful of the most prolific, popular, and versatile of Latin American writers of the 'boom' period, the "generation of 1945" in Uruguay, that hopeful post-War, liberal moment of Latin American history that was crushed--in Uruguay, Nicaragua, Cuba, Guatemala, El Salvador, and elsewhere--by the bipolar hostilities of the Cold War. 

Benedetti, born of Italian immigrant parents in Pasa de los Toros, "Was a man of the left who criticized the United States, championed Cuba’s revolution, embraced independence for Puerto Rico and, in 1971, helped organize a left-wing coalition in Uruguay called the Broad Front to challenge the two-party system that had prevailed for nearly 150 years."* Like many other Latin American intellectuals and progressives, Benedetti was forced into exile; banned from the United States, he lived in Argentina, Peru, Cuba, and Spain, before returning to his beloved Montevideo, in 1985.

I first read Benedetti, in Spanish, while living in Nicaragua in the 1980's.  A friend gave me one of Benedetti's many books--Viento del exilio--that I could barely make out.  Benedetti's Spanish is lively and idiomatic and attuned to the speech patterns of ordinary people--it is difficult to translate, but thanks to Louise B. Popkin and the good people at Buffalo's White Pine Press, we now have a generous, lucid, and accurate version of some of Benedetti's poems--he was enormously prolific, publishing eighty books, including poetry, plays, song-lyrics, and many novels (which I hope Ms. Popkin will consider translating as well). 

I love poets who are engaged with the world, whose political passion informs their writing.  We have few such poets in North America, and their work is generally marginalized in our search for the merely entertaining and our discomfort with art that doesn't affirm our way of living and thinking.   But Mario Benedetti's work demonstrates the richness of poetry that derives its life from this world, with us, the poetry of workers and of ordinary people who need bread and poems:

In this everyday poem I miss autumn
   with its permanent radiance
that golden sun encircling the pines
   and highlighting their majestic stillness
a certain aroma of boulevards taken over
   by dead leaves and grapes for sale
and of young girls digging their woolens
   out of mothballs.
[y tambien a muchachas que exhumaban sus prendas/de lana y naftalina], from Everyday Poem 4/20

Benedetti wrote some lovely poems to his wife, Luz, to whom he was married for half a century:

We've arrived at at neutral twilight
where day and night melt into sameness.
No one can ever forget this interlude.
The sky glides smoothly over my fallen lids,
emptying the city from my eyes.
Don't think now of time on the clock,
the time of petty sorrows,
Now there's only naked yearning [el anhelo desnudo]
the sun breaking free of its weeping clouds,
your face fading into the night
until it's but a voice and the whisper of a smile.
  [from Taking Hold of You]

My favorite Benedetti poems celebrate ordinary life:

From time to time joy
tosses pebbles at my window [!]
so I'll know it's out there waiting
but since today I'm feeling calm
I'd almost say cool-headed
I plan to stash my cares away
stretch out and look up at the ceiling
which is a fine comfortable position
for sifting out news and letting it sink in

who knows where my next steps will lead me
or when the measure of my life will be taken
who knows what words of caution I'll yet come up with
or what shortcuts I'll take to ignore them....[from Pebbles at My Window]

Like all great poets, Benedetti is not for the day, or the mood, or the cause, or the single idea--his poetry touches on the beauty of a life lived with passion, on politics and marriage, on joy and the great sorrow of exile.  He can write poems of grief and rage--as in "At Dream Level"--and then shift gears to meditate on hope, however fragile: "Hope so gentle/so polished so sad/a vow so lightly taken/is not my way/hope so docile/is not my way/rage so meek/so humble so weak/anger so discreet/is not my way/ way is your gaze/so giving yet firm/your silence so guileless/is my way...." [My Way]

"We've arrived at that neutral twilight/where day and night melt into sameness./No one can ever forget this interlude...."

Witness: The Selected Poems of Mario Benedetti, trans. by Louise B. Popkin, with a (loving) introduction by Margaret Randall, published by White Pine Press, a great source for excellent poetry.

*New York Times obituary, May 19, 2009.

George Ovitt (2/14/13)

1 comment:

  1. George, thank you so much for your thoughtful and personal review of Witness. It is a joy to see how much attention the book is getting, and how many people are discovering Mario Benedetti through my work. I have linked to your review from the Comments/Reviews page at

    Louise B. Popkin, Translator