April 14, 2013

NPM 2013 - N is for Neruda

N. N is for my last name. But when it comes to poetry, I can think of some other names but can think of only one name to post today - Neruda. (I know.. I know.. it is a pen name that he took after the Czech writer Jan Neruda and his real name is Neftali Ricardo Reyes Basoalto but the world knows him as Pablo Neruda....so N is for Neruda, it is.)

When I first read Pablo Neruda's poetry in the mid-90s, I was in awe. The awe was even more overwhelming when I thought about how this was poetry in translation, at best a pale imitation of the original [1] and at its worst, translations can ruin the magic of poetry. I vowed to learn Spanish soon to read Neruda in the original. That 16+ years later I still have not learned Spanish is more a reflection of my own lack of discipline about this. But I have returned to Neruda's poems often in the years since and re-read poems and found new ones to enjoy. He is one of those poets who wrote thousands of poems that one could read and enjoy all your life - from the erotic to the sublime, from Odes to simple household objects (to books, to arthichokes, bread, tomatoes, to a large tuna in the market, to socks!) to political poems to One Hundred Love Sonnets, and lot more! So, how does one begin to sample 3-5 poems from such a vast ouevre? How can one pick just one of the erotically-charged love poems in his 1924 collection Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair or one of the poems in Residencia En La Tierra, which Neruda published in three volumes in 1933, 1935, and 1947, with the poems written over a 20 year period from 1925 until 1945. Or does one pick some of his autobiographical poems from Isla Negra or some of his more politically charged ones? Or maybe pick one of the Odes? Or.....  you see my quandary?

With that long disclaimer of sorts, here then is a random selection of 5 of Neruda's poems. You really *have* to find one of the many books available with Neruda's poetry to get a flavor of his work.

The Song of Despair
by Pablo Neruda   
translated by W. S. Merwin

The memory of you emerges from the night around me.
The river mingles its stubborn lament with the sea.

Deserted like the wharves at dawn.
It is the hour of departure, oh deserted one!

Cold flower heads are raining over my heart.
Oh pit of debris, fierce cave of the shipwrecked.

In you the wars and the flights accumulated.
From you the wings of the song birds rose.

You swallowed everything, like distance.
Like the sea, like time. In you everything sank!

It was the happy hour of assault and the kiss.
The hour of the spell that blazed like a lighthouse.

Pilot’s dread, fury of a blind diver,
turbulent drunkenness of love, in you everything sank!

In the childhood of mist my soul, winged and wounded.
Lost discoverer, in you everything sank!

You girdled sorrow, you clung to desire,
sadness stunned you, in you everything sank!

I made the wall of shadow draw back,
beyond desire and act, I walked on.

Oh flesh, my own flesh, woman whom I loved and lost,
I summon you in the moist hour, I raise my song to you.

Like a jar you housed the infinite tenderness,
and the infinite oblivion shattered you like a jar.

There was the black solitude of the islands,
and there, woman of love, your arms took me in.

There were thirst and hunger, and you were the fruit.
There were grief and the ruins, and you were the miracle.

Ah woman, I do not know how you could contain me
in the earth of your soul, in the cross of your arms!

How terrible and brief was my desire of you!
How difficult and drunken, how tensed and avid.

Cemetery of kisses, there is still fire in your tombs,
still the fruited boughs burn, pecked at by birds.

Oh the bitten mouth, oh the kissed limbs,
oh the hungering teeth, oh the entwined bodies.

Oh the mad coupling of hope and force
in which we merged and despaired.

And the tenderness, light as water and as flour.
And the word scarcely begun on the lips.

This was my destiny and in it was the voyage of my longing,
and in it my longing fell, in you everything sank!

Oh pit of debris, everything fell into you,
what sorrow did you not express, in what sorrow are you not drowned!

From billow to billow you still called and sang.
Standing like a sailor in the prow of a vessel.

You still flowered in songs, you still broke in currents.
Oh pit of debris, open and bitter well.

Pale blind diver, luckless slinger,
lost discoverer, in you everything sank!

It is the hour of departure, the hard cold hour
which the night fastens to all the timetables.

The rustling belt of the sea girdles the shore.
Cold stars heave up, black birds migrate.

Deserted like the wharves at dawn.
Only the tremulous shadow twists in my hands.

Oh farther than everything. Oh farther than everything.

It is the hour of departure. Oh abandoned one.


Saddest Poem
by Pablo Neruda

I can write the saddest lines tonight.

Write for example: ‘The night is fractured
and they shiver, blue, those stars, in the distance’

The night wind turns in the sky and sings.

I can write the saddest lines tonight.
I loved her, sometimes she loved me too.

On nights like these I held her in my arms.
I kissed her greatly under the infinite sky.

She loved me, sometimes I loved her too.
How could I not have loved her huge, still eyes.

I can write the saddest lines tonight.
To think I don’t have her, to feel I have lost her.

Hear the vast night, vaster without her.
Lines fall on the soul like dew on the grass.

What does it matter that I couldn’t keep her.
The night is fractured and she is not with me.

That is all. Someone sings far off. Far off,
my soul is not content to have lost her.

As though to reach her, my sight looks for her.
My heart looks for her: she is not with me.
The same night whitens, in the same branches.
We, from that time, we are not the same.

I don’t love her, that’s certain, but how I loved her.
My voice tried to find the breeze to reach her.

Another’s kisses on her, like my kisses.
Her voice, her bright body, infinite eyes.

I don’t love her, that’s certain, but perhaps I love her.
Love is brief: forgetting lasts so long.

Since, on these nights, I held her in my arms,
my soul is not content to have lost her.

Though this is the last pain she will make me suffer,
and these are the last lines I will write for her.

Sonnet XVII (From 100 Love Sonnets)
by Pablo Neruda

I don't love you as if you were the salt-rose, topaz
or arrow of carnations that propagate fire:
I love you as certain dark things are loved,
secretly, between the shadow and the soul.

I love you as the plant that doesn't bloom and carries
hidden within itself the light of those flowers,
and thanks to your love, darkly in my body
lives the dense fragrance that rises from the earth.

I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where,
I love you simply, without problems or pride:
I love you in this way because I don't know any other way of loving

but this, in which there is no I or you,
so intimate that your hand upon my chest is my hand,
so intimate that when I fall asleep it is your eyes that close.


And this poem is from his third book of poems, 'Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair', which he had a tough time getting published because of its open celebration of sex. Only the recommendation of one of Chile's most respected writers convinced a publisher to take it on.
Body of a woman, white hills, white thighs
by Pablo Neruda

Body of a woman, white hills, white thighs,
when you surrender, you stretch out like the world.
My body, savage and pleasant, undermines you
and makes a son leap in the bottom of the earth.

I was lonely as a tunnel. Birds flew from me.
And night invaded me with her powerful army.
To survive I forged you like a weapon,
like an arrow for my bow, or a stone for my sling.

But now the hour of revenge falls, and I love you.
Body of skin, of moss, of firm and thirsty milk!
And the cups of your breasts! And your eyes full of absence!
And the roses of your mound! And your voice slow and sad!

Body of my woman, I will live on through your marvelousness,
My thirst, my desire without end, my wavering road!
Dark river beds down which the eternal thirst is flowing,
and the fatigue is flowing, and the grief without shore.

And last but not least, given the recent  investigations into his death due to suspected possible murder by the military junta, this poem..

Absence and Presence
by Pablo Neruda

If I die, survive me with such sheer force
that you waken the furies of the pallid and the cold,
from south to south lift your indelible eyes,
from sun to sun dream through your singing mouth.
I don't want your laughter or your steps to waver,
I don't want my heritage of joy to die.
Don't call up my person. I am absent.
Live in my absence as if in a house.
Absence is a house so vast
that inside you will pass through its walls
and hang pictures on the air.
Absence is a house so transparent
that I, lifeless, will see you, living,
and if you suffer, my love, I will die again.


[1] In writing about the "chasm between the translation and the original", Joe Winkler quotes the poet W. S. Merwin in an article in The Rumpus:
This indecisiveness, I realize, is quite consistent with the impossible art of translating poetry at all, for there is no such thing as a final translation. Only the original is unique and absolute, and essentially cannot exist in “other words.” And one part of the impossibility of translating any poem is the fact that we want the translation to be is exactly what it never can be: the original. Yet the impossibility of the whole enterprise is part of the perennial temptation to try again.

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