Monday, November 2, 2009
Pablo Neruda Explains a Few Things
I've been reading Pablo Neruda in earnest over the past couple weeks, intensively and chronologically in a way that I hadn't. Actually, I'd really only read a chunk of the odes and some of the love poems, but since I got The Poetry of Pablo Neruda, I thought it was time to get up to speed on the most highly-regarded Latin American poet, and one of the most popular, even in English. What struck me was that though he began as a somewhat-obscure (in both senses) surrealist love poet, his time as a Chilean diplomat beginning at age 23 radically altered both his subject manner and his style.
When, in the 1930s, he saw the Spanish Civil War first hand, his radical politics were solidified irrevocably. That's when he wrote the following poem, "I Explain a Few Things," in which he stakes a claim for own transformation as a poet. When one speaks of the blood of children flowing in streets, metaphors fail. The poems of this phase are haunted, agitated and agitating, and founder upon their own irritable (and explicable) horror. They are occasional, but they also bridge the early Neruda to the great, brilliantly-flawed historical epic, Canto General, which attempts to tell the story of the Americas from its mythic beginnings, into Neruda's own present.
"I Explain A Few Things"
You are going to ask: and where are the lilacs?
and the poppy-petalled metaphysics?
and the rain repeatedly spattering
its words and drilling them full
of apertures and birds?
I'll tell you all the news.
I lived in a suburb,
a suburb of Madrid, with bells,
and clocks, and trees.
From there you could look out
over Castille's dry face:
a leather ocean.
My house was called
the house of flowers, because in every cranny
geraniums burst: it was
a good-looking house
with its dogs and children.
Eh, Rafel? Federico, do you remember
from under the ground
my balconies on which
the light of June drowned flowers in your mouth?
Brother, my brother!
loud with big voices, the salt of merchandises,
pile-ups of palpitating bread,
the stalls of my suburb of Arguelles with its statue
like a drained inkwell in a swirl of hake:
oil flowed into spoons,
a deep baying
of feet and hands swelled in the streets,
metres, litres, the sharp
measure of life,
the texture of roofs with a cold sun in which
the weather vane falters,
the fine, frenzied ivory of potatoes,
wave on wave of tomatoes rolling down the sea.
And one morning all that was burning,
one morning the bonfires
leapt out of the earth
devouring human beings —
and from then on fire,
gunpowder from then on,
and from then on blood.
Bandits with planes and Moors,
bandits with finger-rings and duchesses,
bandits with black friars spattering blessings
came through the sky to kill children
and the blood of children ran through the streets
without fuss, like children's blood.
Jackals that the jackals would despise,
stones that the dry thistle would bite on and spit out,
vipers that the vipers would abominate!
Face to face with you I have seen the blood
of Spain tower like a tide
to drown you in one wave
of pride and knives!
see my dead house,
look at broken Spain :
from every house burning metal flows
instead of flowers,
from every socket of Spain
and from every dead child a rifle with eyes,
and from every crime bullets are born
which will one day find
the bull's eye of your hearts.
And you'll ask: why doesn't his poetry
speak of dreams and leaves
and the great volcanoes of his native land?
Come and see the blood in the streets.
Come and see
The blood in the streets.
Come and see the blood
In the streets!