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Charlie Goff
Charlie Goff The Light Under, A Conversation with “Dibaxu” by Juan Gelman A poem by Alison Morse
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This is the year of the immigrant, the refugee, the dispossessed. Not since the aftermath of World War II has there been such world-wide disruption in the lives of men, women and children. Many will never have the opportunity to return to their roots.

Of course it is not just Syria and the Middle East. Last month at the U.S.-Mexico border, Pope Francis excoriated both countries for their respective anti-immigrant, anti-poverty policies. On his way from New York to Philadelphia in 2015, Francis asked his helicopter pilot to make a loop around Ellis Island. The symbolism was not lost on the world–the beloved Statue of Liberty is no longer quite so welcoming.

During the early 20th century diaspora, Minnesotan poet Alison Morse’s Jewish grandparents left their meager possessions behind in Ukraine and Poland. Her grandfather traveled with no shoes – only rags wrapped around his feet. Some of her extended family ended up in the United States, others in Argentina. Alison is driven to find the Argentine branch and is currently visiting Mexico and studying Spanish in preparation.

Two years ago while on a study tour Alison asked me about the Jewish community in Mexico. I introduced her to the work of Argentinian poet Juan Gelman (1930-2014) who had made Mexico his adopted home.

Gelman was the recipient of the 2007 Cervantes Prize – the most prestigious offered in Spanish literature. He famously taught himself Ladino, a Judeo-Spanish language threatened with extinction, and wrote one of his major works, Dibaxu (translated as “Debajo” in Spanish or “Under” in English) in this Sephardic dialect.

Alison bonded with Gelman’s poetry, social activism, and even his style of writing that is almost devoid of punctuation or capital letters–not even a period at the end.

She wrote a poem in honor of Juan Gelman that tells his story, the story of her grandparents and others whose lives are torn apart by political systems and social injustice that requires leaving everything behind.

Juan Gelman’s son and pregnant daughter-in-law were among the disappeared and killed in Argentina’s dirtywar. Gelman spent 23 years searching for a grandchild he hoped was still living. Finding his granddaughter Macarena was cause for celebration throughout Latin America.

Alison sent me a copy of “The Light Under, A Conversation with ‘Dibaxu’ by Juan Gelman.” Yes, “by Juan Gelman” is part of the title of her poem. I was intrigued by its visual structure as well as its poignant words and wasn’t surprised to learn she’d focused on creating art before going back to college to get an MFA in writing. Here it is.

The Light Under, A Conversation with “Dibaxu” by Juan Gelman By Alison Morse

Under the metal wing
of another plane leaving home

               a field of clouds, moisture
                              no one can hold

under the clouds
a white page of snow

under the snow
roofs like book covers
splayed open

under the roofs
our cranial bones

under bone
our songs remembering
                              life after leaving:

                in the city
               we walked in rags
               wrapped around our feet

                              hunger held us;
                              we did well
                              if we had potatoes

               new laws took
               our fathers’ work
               then took our fathers

                              they aimed at our elders’ hearts
                              for “friendship
                              with God’s enemies”

               led us to clothed bones
               in barrels; yes, we said
               these are our sons, disappeared.

                              Certain of always losing
                              we stand on the Strong Cliff
                              ready to strike.

Our tongues tremble
                              with this exile.

Yet, under our songs of the separated

our roots sing through soil
               to other root clusters
                              feeding trunks, branches
                                             multi-mouthed, green-voiced
                                                            leaves of every shape and language

under the leaves, the word

under the word

Last week Alison told me she’s had no success finding her Argentinian relatives. She’d already tried Facebook. I suggested the time-tested source of information. I opened my computer, Googled the Buenos Aires phonebook, and looked up Kaplan. There are lots of them. This past weekend Alison wrote letters to each of the names and addresses on that list. I’m wishing her success in finding missing family.

Anthropologist and longtime Cuernavaca resident Charlie Goff can be reached at <>. Carol Lamb Hopkins, Cuernavaca resident, former teacher and school administrator collaborates on this column. Previous Charlie’s Digs are posted at

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