Pablo Neruda

This entry is part 14 of 29 in the series Conversari

after Pablo Neruda

Listen on SoundCloud

In you the earth, murmurs
the make-believe sailor,
dipping his old-fashioned
straight razor into a bowl
of steamy water. Little rose,
he croons, beginning to feel
that familiar stirring in what
he has always supposed to be
his heart. Tiny and naked
he clutches the razor like a pen,
like his poet’s scalpel—
you have grown, watching
that celebrated moon emerge
from the shaving foam,
its sensuous lips, its ravenous snout.
You are loosed, my love.
You are full and fleshy.
I am all at sea.


Only by becoming an object of love does the woman come into being. Without her male lover, she is “vacía, sin substancia” (“El amor,” LVDC). This portrayal of woman in the texts is sharply juxtaposed with that of the male speaker, who does not depend on the physical presence or the love of the female for his existence. At times, the woman’s absence is even considered preferable, since it allows the male to recreate her in the text, and thus provides him with a heightened level of inspiration.
—Cynthia Duncan, “Reading Against the Grain of Neruda’s Love Poetry: A Feminist Perspective


Thanks to Rachel Rawlins for prompting this with her unexpectedly negative reaction to The Captain’s Verses, which is making me rethink my admiration for Neruda’s love poetry. Thanks also to musician and SoundCloud user Hani Maltos for uploading the music I used and licensing it under the Creative Commons (since I’m too rushed this morning to be able to get permission). I have a video in mind for this, but don’t know if I’ll get a chance to do it before my departure for Chicago tomorrow afternoon. (Incidentally, if you’re going to be at the AWP conference too, please get in touch.)

See Rachel’s photographic response, “A pair of blue eyes.”

Watch on Vimeo

I hadn’t expected to be so impressed by Blackwater Falls. The West Virginia state park was just a place to camp, conveniently located close to two microbreweries in the towns of Thomas and Davis, not to mention a portion of the Monongahela National Forest which my hiking buddy Lucy and I planned to explore the next day. But we dutifully went down to look at the falls after pitching our tents, and were blown away (see the photo in my postcard). The tannic color of the falls (whence its name) was striking, and the location in a wooded gorge couldn’t have been more picturesque.

I made an audio recording of the falls, then switched to the video camera. At a certain point, Lucy — who has an excellent eye — drew my attention to the water spraying off a large boulder at the foot of the falls and suggested that might make a good film “for a poem by you or Nic S..” I saw immediately what she was talking about.

After several more days of relishing the unparalleled silence, breathtaking scenery and wilderness quality of the “Mon,” we made our way back to Central Pennsylvania, and I discovered to my shock that Via Negativa and all its associated sites had been down for two and a half days (sorry about that). But my gloom at the unreliability of my webhost was soon cancelled out by my excitement at seeing what other, more diligent online poets had been doing during my absence. Luisa had continued to write daily poems for publication on Via Negativa even without the benefit of access to The Morning Porch archives for prompts, which is especialy impressive considering all her other commitments. And Nic S., who had recently decided to close submissions to Whale Sound, her online audio archive of contemporary poetry, had just launched a new audio project called Pizzicati of Hosanna, featuring her readings of work by dead poets in English, French, Spanish and Italian. One poem, Neruda’s “Fábula de la sirena y los borrachos,” seemed like it might make a good fit for my waterfall footage.

I whipped up a fairly literal translation — good enough for subtitling, I thought. But finding the right soundtrack consumed quite a few hours more, using various search terms at Jamendo, ccMixter and Soundcloud. Part of the problem was I couldn’t decide on the mood I wanted to establish. But once it became clear it should be elegiac (rather than, say, angry or dissonant), I quickly found something I thought might work. I shared the result at a private Facebook group where a few of us aspiring videopoets critique each other’s work, and was encouraged by their positive reactions. Brenda Clews suggested I increase the sound of the falls after the poem ends. I decided to go a little further and include waterfall sound throughout the title and credits, using the higher-quality audio from my portable recorder rather than what was on the video.

Here’s my translation, for those with dial-up connections who don’t feel inclined to wait for the video to load:

Fable of the Siren and the Drunks
by Pablo Neruda

All those gentlemen were there inside
when she came in completely naked
they’d been drinking and they began spitting on her
fresh from the river she didn’t understand anything
she was a siren who’d gotten lost
insults streamed down over her smooth flesh
filth drenched her golden breasts
she didn’t know how to cry so she didn’t cry
she didn’t know how to put clothes on so she didn’t put clothes on
they branded her with cigarettes and charred corks
and laughed until they fell down on the bar room floor
she didn’t speak because she didn’t know how to speak
her eyes were the color of distant love
her arms were made of twin topazes
her lips were cut from coral light
and she went out that door as suddenly as she came
no sooner had she entered the river than she was clean
she shone like a white stone in the rain
and without looking back she swam anew
swam toward never again swam toward death

Listen to Neruda himself reading the poem at Palabra Virtual.

Incidentally, speaking of Brenda Clews, she’s just launched a weekly series of blog posts reviewing videopoems, “videopoem Fridays.” Here’s the first installment. “Satellite Photos of Japan, Before and After the Quake and Tsunami”
It’s hard to imagine a better way to convey the devastation and horror of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami than this interactive feature. With a sweep of the cursor, we can reenact apocalyse.

Wikipedia: Sendai
I was moved to learn that Sendai is nicknamed City of the Trees, and has a couple annual festivals that highlight its magnificent zelkova trees.

t r u t h o u t : “Assault on Collective Bargaining Illegal, Says International Labor Rights Group”
I have a theory that the Wisconsin governor is actually a stealth socialist, doing everything he can to revive the union movement in America.

Poetry Daily: Three poems by Laura Kasischke

The day
en route to darkness. The guillotine
on the way to the neck. The train
to nudity. The bus
to being alone. The main-and-mast,
and the thousand oars, the
thousand hands.

New Internationalist: “Daring to Care: Notes on the Egyptian Revolution”
By Egyptian expat poet (and Facebook friend) Yahia Lababidi.

As they recited poetry, people were admirably organized and generally festive — singing, dancing and staging improv-theatre — showing us all that a revolution could be a work of art, and a way of life, even.

The Task at Hand: “Porch Poetry”

While The Morning Porch is Dave’s, there are plenty of porches — or at least perches — in every neighborhood. With that in mind, I’m calling my little collection A View From Another Porch. While I’ll certainly be adding new posts on other subjects throughout the season of Lent, each day an additional observation will be tucked in here. After not quite a week of looking around, I’m enjoying the discipline far more than I expected to, and I’m looking forward to continuing the heart and eye-opening exercise until Easter.

Shearsman ebooks: Talking to Neruda’s Questions by M T C Cronin [PDF]
Anyone who’s read Pablo Neruda’s Book of Questions should appreciate this. Cronin attempts to answer each of Neruda’s questions in the same spirit. Delightful.

Spring Beauty and the bees: Volunteer pollinator monitoring
Awesome pun, great-sounding citizen science project.

Drawing the Motmot: “Tropical Rainforest Sounds”
Some field recordings by artist-blogger Debby Kaspari. Biological diversity translates directly to sonic diversity, I imagine. Hands down the most interesting music I’ve heard all week.


Revamping Via Negativa’s About page this week, I came up with my best thumbnail description to date: “Via Negativa is a personal web log with delusions of grandeur.” I also included a new take on my old “Words on the Street” cartoon by Siona (the blogger, not the inchworm genus). Check it out.

You want an oracle? Consult Neruda. This morning, I was mulling over a very persuasive argument against hope from the latest issue of Orion magazine. If hope is counter-productive, I wondered, what will take its place? I opened The Book of Questions at random, and read:

Se convierte en pez volador
si transmigra la mariposa?

Which William O’Daly translates as:

If the butterfly transmogrifies
does it turn into a flying fish?

Though I think transmigra actually means transmigrate, i.e. reincarnate.

If hope isn’t to be trusted, what about other religious or quasi-religious impulses? For example, what about faith, belief, or simply trust in the universe? Let us consult El libro de las preguntas once again.

No te engañó la primavera
con besos que no florecieron?

Did spring never deceive you
with kisses that never blossom?

It occurs to me that Bible doesn’t say that hope or faith are essential to understanding. Instead, fear or awe are held to be the beginning of wisdom. To most contemporary North Americans, fear is without any virtue; we like to quote Roosevelt — “There is nothing to fear but fear itself.” But let me put it to Neruda.

Tendré mi olor y mis dolores
cuando yo duerma destruido?

Will I have my smell and my pain
when, destroyed, I go on sleeping?

I think about the dour ending of the book of Proverbs, with its magnificent (and often mis-translated) poem about the ruined face in old age. I can never make up my mind whether or not tragedy or sorrow have anything in common and wisdom. It often feels as though laughter is the only sane response to the slings and arrows of outrageous whatever. What say you, Pablo?

Por que razón o sinrazón
llora la lluvia su alegría?

By what reason or injustice
does the rain weep its joy?

But perhaps this is an abuse of Neruda’s poetry. He was, after all, a committed atheist, so presumably he wouldn’t think much of bibliomancy. Would he?

Dónde puede vivir un ciego
a quien persiguen las abejas?

Where can a blind man live
who is pursued by bees?

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.

Of the most ancient origins,
who can tell the story?
Before “above” and “below,”
how to venture a description?
With light and darkness undivided,
who can discriminate between this and that?
The supposed chaos of forms without substance –
how do we know anything about it?

Thus begin the Questions of Heaven (Tian Wen), a 4th-century B.C. text from southern China. This short book consists entirely of questions, addressing first cosmology, then mythology and history. Modern scholars have their own questions about the work: why was it compiled? What genre should we assign it to?

One traditional view is that it may have been a kind of final exam for candidates to public or ritual office in the ancient kingdom of Chu. Thus, we should read the title as “Divine Questionnaire.” But David Hawkes, translator of Ch’u Tz’u: Songs of the South – the larger anthology of works that includes Tian Wen (Oxford U.P., 1959) – argues that the questions are in fact riddles. “One of the indications that the questioner . . . is neither asking for information nor challenging accepted beliefs is the frequency with which he uses kennings and other riddling devices in order to conceal the subject of his questions . . . If this explanation is correct, it would seem to follow that [Tian Wen] was written as pure entertainment, and not with a view to fulfilling any religious or philosophical function.”

Although there is obviously a strong riddling quality to the work, I am more inclined to view it as a collection of questions for Heaven. (Heaven was still personalized as a divinity during the time it was written.) In other words, I see it as a secularized, poetic version of the questions posed ritually to Heaven during divination. The I Qing (I Ch’ing) and its innumerable commentaries testify to the immense philosophical significance accorded to the arts of divination in ancient China.

And in fact, one of the companion texts to Tian Wen, Bu Zhu, consists of two brief dialogue-stories in which the limits of divination are assessed. Both address the mythic poet-scholar-public servant Chu Yuan’s Hamlet-like dilemma (in Hawkes’ translation):

“‘Is it better,’ Chu Yuan asked [the diviner Jan Yin] ‘to be painstakingly honest, simple-hearted and loyal,
Or to keep out of trouble by welcoming each change as it comes?
Is it better to hoe the weeds and put one’s strength into husbandry,
Or to win a name for oneself by dancing attendance on the great?
Is it better to risk one’s life by speaking truthfully and without concealment,
Or to save one’s skin by following the whims of the wealthy and high-placed? . . .
Of these alternatives, which is auspicious and which is ill-omened?
Which is to be avoided and which is to be followed?
The world is turbulent and impure:
They call a cicada’s wing heavy and a ton weight light;
The brazen bell is smashed and discarded; the earthen crock is thunderously sounded.
The slanderer proudly struts; the wise man lurks unknown.
Alas, all is silence: no one knows of my integrity.’
Jan Yin threw aside the divining stalks and excused himself.
‘There are times,’ he said, ‘when a foot is too short; and there are times when an inch is too long.
There are times in which the instruments [of divination] are of no avail, in which knowledge can give no enlightenment.
There are things which my calculations cannot attain, over which the divinity has no power.
My lord, for one with your mind and with resolution such as yours,
The tortoise [shell] and the divining stalks are really unable to help.'”

In the other dialogue, a cynical fisherman advises him basically just to “go with the flow” and ape his corrupt lords. Chu Yuan’s famous suicide by drowning is anticipated in the mean-spirited suggestion that he try to become more like the fish.

The posing of questions without obvious or immediate answers may possess superior powers to educate or enlighten: one thinks immediately of the koan (gong-an), literally “question/response,” in which the response is not merely provisional but tailored to the needs of the questioner and the exigencies of the occasion. To quote more or less at random:

“What was [Bodhidharma’s] purpose in coming from the West?”
The Master replied, “[You must be hungry after such a long trip;] there’s gruel and rice on the long bench!”
(Master Yunmen, trans. by Urs App, Kodansha, 1994)

“What was the intention of the Patriarch [Bodhidharma] when he came from the West?”
The Master replied, “What good is it to mumble in one’s sleep in broad daylight?”

The closest modern literary parallel to Tian Wen of which I’m aware is by the indefatigable Pablo Neruda, El Libro de las Preguntas, or The Book of Questions. This is one of his last and most playful works, ably translated by William O’Daly for Copper Canyon Press (1991). It begins:

Why don’t the immense airplanes
fly around with their children?

Which yellow bird
fills its nest with lemons?

Why don’t they train helicopters
to suck honey from the sunlight?

Where did the full moon leave
its sack of flour tonight?

A similar playfulness infects the last poems of the equally prolific William Stafford. (Despite my gentle mocking of him the other day, I do place Stafford in the same class as Neruda – two of the greatest poets of the last century.) In “Facts” he questions the most basic data of received opinion about the world:

‘Zurich is in the Alps.’ I learned
that, and had a fact. But I thought the Alps
were in South America. Then I learned
that’s the Andes – the Alps are somewhere
else. And Zurich is famous, for something.

So I gave up fact and went to myth:
Zurich is the name of a tropical bird that
whets its bill on the ironwood tree in south America
singing about life and how good facts are. . . .

Another poem in the same collection (Even in Quiet Places, Confluence Press, 1996), echoes the traditional reading of Tian Wen: an existential questionnaire.

My NEA Poem

A blank place on the page,
like this here “______,”
means, oh it means,
you know, but not said.

And it is better when you come to these
“______”s again
to leave blank places.

But some people
get a grant
and want to show
artistic freedom;

So all they say is,
and “______.”

Also among Stafford’s final works are the almost effortless-seeming Methow River Poems, written in answer to a request from a couple of imaginative forest rangers for a series of poetry road signs. Out of the twenty he submitted, seven were ultimately chosen to be etched and mounted on signs along the North Cascades Highway in Washington state. These are poems that, in a very understated way, go to the heart of our call-and-response relationship with the world,

. . . the elaborate give-and-take,
this bowing to sun and moon, day or night,
winter, summer, storm, still – this tranquil
chaos that seems to be going somewhere.
(“Time for Serenity, Anyone?”)

In the Afterword to Even in Quiet Places, William Stafford’s son Kim asks, “What do we make of a line like, ‘How you stand here is important’? The line hardly says anything, asserts nothing in particular, turns in place clear as water or air.” He goes on to describe an incident from his youth in which his father deflected the attention of a gang of Hell’s Angels solely by adopting “the most pronounced nonchalance I had ever seen, a kind of studied slouch. His baggy pants helped, and the way he leaned back into his left heel, face turned up. It was the quiet, the insistent, the unmistakable posture of a pacifist: Nothing is going to happen. You can do as you will. You will not draw me into violence.

I can’t help thinking William Stafford would’ve given a more useful response to the disgraced exile Chu Yuan than either the diviner or the cynical fisherman.

Suddenly this dream you are having matches
everyone’s dream, and the result is the world.
If a different call came there wouldn’t be any
world, or you, or the river, or owls calling.

How you stand here is important. How you
listen for the next things to happen. How you breathe.

William Stafford, “Being a Person”

Cross-reference: The world of the riddle.