Argentine writer Néstor Perlongher (1949-1992) was one of the major poets arising during the early 1980s, a time when the Argentine military “disappeared” thousands of people who opposed or seemed to oppose its dictatorship. Perlongher, a gay man, escaped to São Paulo, Brazil, where he graduated from the University of Campinas with a master’s degree in social anthropology and was appointed professor in 1985. He was the founder and an instrumental activist for the Frente de Liberación Homosexual (the Homosexual Liberation Front), one of the world’s first LGBT organizations. He died in São Paulo of AIDS in 1992.

During these same years, he wrote six volumes of poetry, which were collected in the 1997 volume, Poemas completos: 1980-1992. Previously, only a few of his poems had been translated into English. With the release of “Cadavers” by the small publishing house Cardboard House Press, expertly translated by Roberto Echavarren and Donald Wellman, English speakers now have one of his major poems, from his important 1987 volume, Alambres. As Ezequiel Zaidenwerg notes on the book’s back cover:

Legend has it that Prelongher wrote this poem on the interminable bus trip from Buenos Aires to São Paulo that would take him into exile from a regime that had paradoxically criminalized him not for his fierce political activism, but for his militant homosexuality.

And, as the book cover makes clear — a rainbow-tinted X-ray of a skull — the body, the corporeality of the “disappeared” figures is what “Cadavers” is truly about. In Perlongher’s surrealist world, cadavers are everywhere, resurfacing under the active glare of everyday life:

Under the brush
In the scrub
Upon the bridges
In the canals
There Are Cadavers
In the chug of a train that will not desist
In the wake of a boat that runs aground
In a wavelet, that vanishes
On the wharves loading docks trampolines piers
There Are Cadavers
In the nets of fishermen
In the tumbling of crayfish
In she whose hair is nipped
by a mall loose hairclip
There Are Cadavers

His is a world in which these bodies reappear again and again and reveal themselves as the individuals they once were; in this revelation, Perlongher lays bare his fundamental love of the people of his homeland, his pleasure in their daily life despite the horrific government under which he is living. Although his subjects are death and torture, “Cadavers” is full of life, full of “country girls / lavish on their pimps,” and the “the gauchos, in the fur / of that rebel troop, in the reedbeds (wild hay), in their booty / of that boy, in the stench of that judge’s pubic hair.”

Everywhere, the poem evokes Argentina, its people, and their resistance, their love of live and pleasure that persists, even under the control of a violent dictatorship.

The poet’s language is quite surreal and disjunctive. While it expresses horrors, it also comes alive as Perlongher’s heightened language pushes his content into another dimension:

In mama’s baskets that alternatively are emptied or filled
with emeralds, tubes, in the tuck
of that bias that tightens — a little too much — those bras, in the moony blue hair
seaglory, in the sucking of that squeezed tit, in
the kneeling stool, against a mandolin, salami, pool of smooth pipes
There Are Cadavers

As the poem grows into a kind of rhythmic litany of the endless deaths, the poet calls upon his own friends, living and dead, for their ethical oversights:

I don’t want to mention it, Fernando, but that time you sent me
to the office to do the paperwork, while I
was crossing the street, a little old woman fell down, hit by a piston rod, and
the carriages going by, with those outdated crepes (I happen to need,
as I’ve told you, another pair of white pants) do you think
they are going to stop, Fernando? Just imagine…
There Are Cadavers

“Cadavers” is both a dirge for the numerous deceased and an angry screed against the regime responsible for these killings. Yet it also celebrates the beloved dead, while the poet momentarily questions his own assertions, only to reassert the obvious explicitness of the reality:

Allegorical coffins!
Metaphorical basements!
Metonymical teacups!
There Are Cadavers

The people disappear from mysterious and almost comical reasons, a son has been “drafted,” a girl has a boyfriend in the army, but the truth is the truth. Lightening did not kill an individual; a brutal government did. Yet in Perlongher’s writing the person comes alive.

You Went out Alone
In the Freshness of the Night
When the Lightening Took you by Surprise
You Didn’t wear a Woolen Jacket
There Are Cadavers

Cadavers by Néstor Perlongher, translated from the Spanish by Roberto Echavarren and Donald Wellman (2018) is published by Cardboard House Press and is available from Amazon and other online retailers.

Douglas Messerli is an American writer, professor, and publisher based in Los Angeles. In 1976, he started Sun & Moon, a magazine of art and literature, which became Sun & Moon press, and later...