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.
Remember, Raul?
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,
stacked-up fish,
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
Spain emerges
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!


Lyle Daggett said...

I first read Neruda in I guess it would have been 1972, his book The Captain's Verses, on a Greyhound bus in late December going through northern Indiana and Ohio late at night. The bilingual edition, translated by Donald Walsh, published by New Directions.

I like Walsh's translations, also his translation of Neruda's Residence on Earth also published by New Directions. I like that Walsh translates fairly directly, doesn't try to "improve" on the originals.

I also very much like Jack Schmitt's complete translation of Neruda's Canto General, Neruda's greatest work, I think -- you describe it as "brilliantly-flawed," I think how I would put it is that it transcends any flaws I might find.

Neruda's words were the first Spanish I learned to read. I've read very much of him over the years, have translated a few of his poems here and there (mainly to get a sense of what the originals were saying, when I wasn't satisfied with whatever translation was at hand).

I think the translation you've given here is by Nathaniel Tarn? (Correct me if I'm wrong.) The translation of this poem that I've liked best is the one by Walsh in Residence on Earth, mentioned above. I found the Spanish original online, here, in the Neruda website of the University of Chile.

Philip Metres said...

Thanks, Lyle, for your extended comment here. I think it must be hard to translate Neruda, because there is something ineffable about the sound of his poems in Spanish that doesn't seem evident in the English. But this is probably the eternal abyss of translation.

I plucked this translation online, but it was not attributed. I should figure that one out.

As for CANTO GENERAL, I agree with you that it is Neruda's master work. Somehow, for me, it seems to flag in energy and purpose as it reaches Neruda's present, particularly when it begins to extol Stalinism as the way out of Latin America's bloody history. I know why he does that, but it just seems to be a glaring blindspot.

Anonymous said...

I am discovering, actually through a friend who first noticed it, that there are occasional problems with Walsh's translations of Neruda.

Take, for example, Neruda's poem Naciendo en Los Bosques. Merwin, in my opinion, gets the sense of the poem immediately by translating the title as "Being Born in the Woods" as opposed to Walsh's "Born in the Woods.

The most critical error, and the one pointed out to me be a friend that got me examining Walsh's translation more closely, lies in the fourth stanza where Walsh translates "encerrar" as "cut off," which is not only a linguistically unjustifiable translation, in my view, but destroys the piece poetically.

The third stanza sets up the image of surrounding and encircling this seed of life, this dove--of drawing it in and protecting it. Can one really justify or believe then, in the next paragraph that the speaker was born to "'cut off' the passsage of everything that approaches," as Walsh translates? This is a horrible, lazy rendering of the verse. Again, Merwin hits the proper note by translating it born to "contain the steps of all that approaches," not only rightly continuing the idea of accepting and bringing things to oneself (as opposed to pushing them away, cutting them off and not allowing them in), but paralleling the same word used earlier "steps" as Neruda does with "paso".

Whereas Walsh divides the translation, robbing us of the powerful repetition, by translating paso as "step" in the first instance and "passage" three lines later.

I cannot imagine Neruda would have approved and there are other instances which are just as off-base unfortunately.

--Careful Reader