I step into the kitchen. She is seated at the table, trembling slightly from her Parkinson’s disease. I approach her and give her a hug, which she does her best to return, touching my hand with hers. I ask her if she remembers me from our first meeting in 2013. “Claro que sí,” she responds, smiling gently and gazing at me with stunning blue eyes. She is eighty-seven years old and gorgeous.
Alas, her ninety-year-old husband, Arturo, does not remember me from our previous meeting. I explain to him that I am a literary translator, that for ten years I’ve been translating and writing academic articles on the poet Marosa di Giorgio (1932-2004), who was a close friend of Selva. I explain that during my last visit to Uruguay, di Giorgio’s sister Nidia put me in contact with Selva, and that I came to this very house, to sit with them at this same table. He smiles with recognition and immediately darts to the kitchen to make me tea. I turn my attention back to Selva, who is gazing at me intently. She reaches across the table to pick up a book — her newest, Abro la puerta de un jardín de plata (I open the door of a silver garden), published in 2016. She hands it to me gently, and when I open to the first page, I see that she has signed it: “For Jeannine, who came to beautify this afternoon.” For a moment I feel ashamed, as three and a half years have passed since our first meeting, and I have been extremely slow in translating any poems at all from the six books she gave me at our first meeting. Life and other projects have gotten in the way.
But seeing her now, witnessing her own diligence — the loss of mobility and an inability to speak in any tone louder than a whisper have not held her back from reading, writing, and painting each day — I am inspired to begin again. Looking at Selva, who in addition to her immense talent is incredibly compassionate, generous, and brave, I see a role model for the kind of person I hope to become. “What’s the secret of living to be old and staying in such great shape?” I ask. Arturo is the one to answer this. “You have to laugh a lot. Never stop laughing.” I look at Selva, and she nods in agreement. I am amazed at this lawyer who has seen the best and worst of humanity, and who, like everyone of her generation, lived through Uruguay’s brutal military dictatorship that lasted from 1973 to 1985, under which thousands of people were illegally kidnapped, tortured, and murdered. How can she maintain such a warm and positive attitude toward the world? When I ask her how she does it, she gestures to the papers on her desk. “Everything in life nourishes poetry,” she says. “Everything.”
Seeing that she is tired, I take my leave, determined to keep my promise and translate her work. The people of the Anglophone world need to hear her words, now more than ever. Selva Casal is a poet who looks at reality with open eyes, who sees human beings in all our beauty and ugliness, who is fully conscious of the injustice of our systems and the capacity for cruelty that dwells in all of us. And yet, rather than leaving her cynical or embittered, this awareness has endowed her with steadfast courage and a profound capacity for compassion. I am so grateful to have met her, and I am very happy to share some of her words with you.about the author