Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Soul of Neruda

Pablo Neruda, the poet who always wrote in green ink because to him it was the color of esperanza, or ‘hope’ was once described by Gabriel García Márquez as “the greatest poet of the 20th century in any language.” The New Times called him “the most influential, and inventive poet of the Spanish language.” After a full and dynamic life as a poet, diplomat, senator, and political exile, Neruda was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971, just two years before his death. He was born in Parral, Chile in 1904 and died in Santiago in 1973.

In a personal Neruda favorite, “Keeping Quiet” from Full Woman, Fleshly Apple, Hot Moon, the poet suggests we take a lesson from nature, with its quiet cycles of dormancy followed by rebirth and the fresh greening of spring, an implication that quiet stillness can be productive. Perhaps a time of stillness, a respite from our restless interference might serve to freshen clouded eyes. Neruda says it this way…


Now we will count to twelve

and we will all keep still.

This one time upon the earth,

let’s not speak any language,

let’s stop for one second,

and not move our arms so much.

It would be a delicious moment,

without hurry, without locomotives,

all of us would be together

in a sudden uneasiness.

The fishermen in the cold sea

would do no harm to the whales

and the peasant gathering salt

would look at his torn hands.

Those who prepare green wars,

wars of gas, wars of fire,

victories without survivors,

would put on clean clothing

and would walk alongside their brothers

in the shade, without doing a thing.

What I want shouldn’t be confused

with final inactivity:

life alone is what matters,

I want nothing to do with death.

If we weren’t unanimous

about keeping our lives so much in motion,

if we could do nothing for once,

perhaps a great silence would

interrupt this sadness,

this never understanding ourselves

and threatening ourselves with death,

perhaps the earth is teaching us

when everything seems to be dead

and then everything is alive.

Now I will count to twelve

and you keep quiet and I’ll go.

—translation by Stephen Mitchell

In 1938 Neruda built the house that was to be, until his death a cherished home. Apart from periods of travel and exile, he spent most of his time in the coastal community west of Santiago, given the name Isla Negra, or 'Black Island’ by Neruda for the outcropping of dark rocks offshore. The place became for the poet a kind of spiritual sustenance, a depth easily seen in the work about Isla Negra. The poem below is from a small paperback published in 2000 and titled Isla Negra.


Perhaps this is the house I lived in

when neither I nor earth existed,

when all was moon or stone or darkness,

when still light was unborn.

Perhaps then this stone was

my house, my windows or my eyes.

This rose of granite reminds me

of something that dwelled in me or I in it,

a cave, or cosmic head of dreams,

cup or castle, ship or birth.

I touch the stubborn spirit of rock,

its rampart pounds in the brine,

and my flaws remain here,

wrinkled essence that rose

from the depths to my soul,

and stone I was, stone I will be. Because of this

I touch this stone, and for me it hasn’t died:

it’s what I was, what I will be, resting

from a struggle long as time.

—translation by Dennis Maloney

1 comment:

  1. Yes, Neruda is one of the best. And of course the writer in me immediately plucks one of the lines out, something of opposition--thinking it would make a good title of something: Victories Without Survivors.


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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America