The Uruguayan poet Mario Benedetti is relatively unknown in the United States, but in Latin America the name Benedetti is synonymous with Poetry. Even though the work of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda is more heavily championed in the United States, Benedetti is the real workhorse of Latin American Poetry. By the time of his death in 2009, Benedetti had published over 80 books (poetry, novels, plays, etc.) in Spanish, and his poetry, plays, and fiction have been translated into more than 25 languages. Although he is primarily known as a poet, his work was the basis for two movies, 1975’s La Tregua and 1992’s El Lado Oscuro del Corazón (both produced by Argentine movie companies).
Benedetti’s poems are the ones young boys in Montevideo plagiarize the most to their girlfriends. His poems are the ones on the lips of taxi drivers, sanitation workers, and salarymen. That is why, Witness: The Selected Poems of Mario Benedetti, translated by Luoise B. Popkin, is such a gem. Witness not only brings Benedetti’s best work to light for a discerning American public, it does so through a translator that knew and had a working relationship with the author while he was alive. A personal relationship with an author does not a translator make, but Popkin travels frequently to Uruguay and knows the Uruguayan dialect and several of the registers Uruguayans utilize on a daily basis. Thus, in terms of proximity to source language, Popkin’s translations are on some next-level, high-fidelity grind.
Reading Benedetti’s poems are like listening in on a phone call to Montevideo, or ear hustling a pavilion of Uruguayan ingenues. Benedetti’s poems are colloquial and direct in ways all poets aspire to emulate, but rarely can. In Office Poems (1959), Benedetti sings of the numbing drudgery experienced by the salarymen and salarywomen of Montevideo. These poems address that sense of financial obligation that suffocates office workers the world over, but Benedetti doesn’t point his finger at them: dread is universal, an almost modern rite of passage,
“in this envelope stuffed with peso bills
dirty from so many dirty hands
which they pay me, of course, at the end of each month
for keeping their books up to date
and letting life go by,
one drop at a a time
like rancid oil.”
Benedetti played a large part in legitimizing Cuban literary venues and endeavors, serving as a celebrity poet at several conferences and workshops on the island during the late 60’s. Furthermore, he was politically aligned with the Tupamaros, an urban guerilla movement that gained notoriety after staging some dramatic fund-raising in banks and depositories. Benedetti was a lefty, but he was openly critical of the atrocities and the state-supported terror that Latin American military inflicted upon the populace during most of the 70’s. With that said, one of my favorites from Witness: The Selected Poems of Mario Benedetti, is “Desaparecidos,” the term used in Latin America for dissidents and students that were “disappeared” by police and military agents during most of the 70’s.
“They’re out there somewhere/ all assembled
disassembled/ bewildered/ voiceless
each seeking the others/ seeking us
hemmed in by their question marks and doubts
with their eyes on the ironwork in the plazas
the doorbells/ the shabby rooftops”
According to Margaret Randall, the feminist poet, writer, photographer and social activist, Mario Benedetti visited the United States in 1959, but was later denied an entry visa by the U.S. government. This might go a long ways to explaining why his allure is so dismal in the United States, but Benedetti doesn’t strike me as a person interested in the court of American public opinion. Witness: The Selected Poems of Mario Benedetti (White Pine Press, 2012) is the definitive, comprehensive tome for enthusiasts of Latin American Poetry but the translations are so seamless that poetry fans writ large are bound to take notice and hopefully a revival of Benedetti’s work might ensue.