Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Pablo Neruda

In my freshman year of college, at East Carolina University, I was invited by two English professors to join an honors seminar called, "Good Books." The point was that these were not great books, which might be overwhelming, and not invite much criticism. These were good books - worth reading, but with room for improvement, room for comment. The twelve or so freshmen were all interesting, from many different backgrounds, and the discussions were lively. The two professors were a bit like "Sneak Previews" hosts Michael Medved and Jeffrey Lyons, full of good humor and banter, and encouraging of any well considered, well expressed thought. We all learned a lot about critical thinking, critical reading, and the enjoyment of good books. I got to take part two in my second semester - all in all it was some of the best I had in college.

The books were all over the map. We read one of the lesser plays of Shakespeare, an early play, Titus Andronicus. We read two short baseball novels. We read Dune by Frank Herbert. We read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. A lot of these books I still own, and I've read them again.

And we read a collection of poetry by Pablo Neruda, from an out of print edition that had the original Spanish on the left, and an English transalation on the right. Part of what we discussed was the translation, as several of us knew some Spanish. The poems are beautiful, earthy, humorous, passionate, living things in any language. I sent parts of some to my girlfriend in Boston. It's been a while since she read any of these; the style might look familiar when she reads this post. I recall the students nearly unanimously enjoyed them, and had little criticism, just favorites that we read to each other and discussed. We didn't dissect them - we drank and ate them, which is what Neruda seemed to have in mind. We related most to the love poems and the odes to common things (like a lemon, salt, wine...)

This poem was the sort of thing that nearly expressed my loneliness and longing for my love while we were apart during that first year and a half of college. The hyperbole is almost enough.

Don't go far off... by Pablo Neruda

Don't go far off, not even for a day, because --
because -- I don't know how to say it: a day is long
and I will be waiting for you, as in an empty station
when the trains are parked off somewhere else, asleep.

Don't leave me, even for an hour, because
then the little drops of anguish will all run together,
the smoke that roams looking for a home will drift
into me, choking my lost heart.

Oh, may your silhouette never dissolve on the beach;
may your eyelids never flutter into the empty distance.
Don't leave me for a second, my dearest,

because in that moment you'll have gone so far
I'll wander mazily over all the earth, asking,
Will you come back? Will you leave me here, dying?

Or this one, which also still fits.


Your Laughter - by Pablo Neruda

Take bread away from me, if you wish,
take air away, but
do not take from me your laughter.

Do not take away the rose,
the lance flower that you pluck,
the water that suddenly
bursts forth in joy,
the sudden wave
of silver born in you.

My struggle is harsh and I come back
with eyes tired
at times from having seen
the unchanging earth,
but when your laughter enters
it rises to the sky seeking me
and it opens for me all
the doors of life.

My love, in the darkest
hour your laughter
opens, and if suddenly
you see my blood staining
the stones of the street,
laugh, because your laughter
will be for my hands
like a fresh sword.

Next to the sea in the autumn,
your laughter must raise
its foamy cascade,
and in the spring, love,
I want your laughter like
the flower I was waiting for,
the blue flower, the rose
of my echoing country.

Laugh at the night,
at the day, at the moon,
laugh at the twisted
streets of the island,
laugh at this clumsy
boy who loves you,
but when I open
my eyes and close them,
when my steps go,
when my steps return,
deny me bread, air,
light, spring,
but never your laughter
for I would die.

This last poem is one I would wish my children to consider. I think the outcome of this poem is what is called for - but I suspect "depression" might be a more likely translation here, rather than sadness. I think the description fits depression far better than it does sadness. Depression runs in the family, a natural outcome of our introspective ways, and all of us over 10 years of age have felt its touch or lived under its cloud.

Ode to Sadness by Pablo Neruda

Sadness, scarab
with seven crippled feet,
spiderweb egg,
scramble-brained rat,
bitch's skeleton:
No entry here.
Don't come in.
Go away.
Go back
south with your umbrella,
go back
north with your serpent's teeth.
A poet lives here.
No sadness may
cross this threshold.
Through these windows
comes the breath of the world,
fresh red roses,
flags embroidered with
the victories of the people.
No entry.
your bat's wings,
I will trample the feathers
that fall from your mantle,
I will sweep the bits and pieces
of your carcass to
the four corners of the wind,
I will wring your neck,
I will stitch your eyelids shut,
I will sew your shroud,
sadness, and bury your rodent bones
beneath the springtime of an apple tree.

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