Tree questions

white oak burl

Today is the deadline to send tree- and forest-related links in for the upcoming Festival of the Trees. Email your submissions to kelly (at) ginkgodreams (dot) com, with “Festival of the Trees” in the subject line.

I just opened up my copy of Pablo Neruda’s El libro de las preguntas (The Book of Questions, a bilingual edition from Copper Canyon, with translations by William O’Daly) at random, and found this:

Cuánto dura un rinoceronte
después de ser eternecido?

Qué cuentan de nuevo las hojas
de la reciente primavera?

Las hojas viven en invierno
en secreto, con las raí­ces?

Qué aprendió el árbol de la tierra
para conversar con el cielo?

I can’t improve on Daly’s translation:

How long does a rhinoceros last
After he’s moved to compassion?

What’s new for the leaves
of recent spring?

In winter, do the leaves live
in hiding with the roots?

What did the tree learn from the earth
to be able to talk with the sky?

El libro de las preguntas bears a strong, if superficial, resemblance to the 4th-century B.C. Chinese work Tian Wen, “Questions of Heaven” (which are really questions for heaven, though I’d be the first to agree that there’s something divine about the impulse to raise difficult questions). It too features riddles without answers, such as:

焉 有 石 林? Yan you shi lin?
何 � 能 言? He shou neng yan?

Where do the stones have their forest?
Which animals can talk?

Of course, both books were written in the absence of internet search engines. I typed “question tree” into Google and found this intriguing sentence: This is a leaf Question in a boolean Question tree and its pointers to boolean operands are null values.

It occurred to me this morning that if I wanted to make the contents and purpose of this blog more readily apparent to first-time visitors, I could replace the Rene Char quote with something like, “Living with the questions.” But that’s not a question, is it?

*I studied classical Chinese in college. I haven’t kept up with it, but the grammar is fortunately quite basic and I haven’t forgotten how to use a Chinese dictionary.

Steven Field did a translation of Tian Wen for New Directions, but I haven’t seen it.

Incidentally, if you see only question marks in front of the Pinyin in the two lines of Chinese above, that’s not me trying to be cute. It means you don’t have Chinese characters enabled in your browser.

6 Replies to “Tree questions”

  1. I have Neruda’s Odes to Opposites and Odes to Common Things, but not his Book of Questions. Will have to find a place for it here.

    Two of my students last semester grew up in Hong Kong and tried to explain to me (multiple times!) how a Chinese dictionary works – really very fascinating.

  2. It’s one of his very last books, which are each very different and interesting. Copper Canyon has brought out seven of them, all translated I think by William O’Daly (I have three).

    As for Chinese dictionaries, looking up a character can be quite an adventure sometimes. You have to guess which part of the character it will be indexed by, look up that element, then count the separate brush strokes required to write the remainder and look under that number.

  3. I am always rereading the Neruda books that I have. My favorite book of his is “Cien soneta de Amor”. My wife and I recently watched the DVD of ” Il Postino” again. The DVD has an extra part where various actots read his poetry. Somewhere among my CDs I have a CD of various Latin American singers singing his poetry….wish I could recall the name.

  4. I’ve never seen Il Postino, believe it or not.

    I guess if I had to pick a favorite Neruda book it would be Canto General – there’s so much in it. But each of his books or book series was so distinct, it’s like he was a dozen or more poets in one. A truly protean figure. An ordinary poet could’ve cemented an international repution just with the Residencia books, or with the odes, or with the CG…

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