from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Friday, 26 July 2013

'to be one more stone' – Pablo Neruda

The last few days fragments of a poem by the Chilean writer and dissident Pablo Neruda (immortalised, as they say, in the film Il Postino) have been insinuating their way into the gaps in my consciousness. The fragments have been: 'Earth, give me back your pure gifts, / the towers of silence which rose / from the solemnity of their roots/' and '...being one stone more, the dark stone / the pure stone which the river bears away.'

I know these words by heart. These scraps have been living beings in my inner world since I first came to this poem (in translation) when I was around 19 or 20.

My introduction to this poet (as with my intro to another great poet, also a politico from the Hispanic Americas, Octavio Paz), came in the form of the gift of a book of his poems, Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair. Both poets have shaped my thinking and my writing; and several decades on I'm as inspired as I ever was by their work.

There is something very distinctly Latin American in both poets' work: a richness, a rawness, a depth that characterises, it seems to me, Latin American consciousness, and epitomised in, for instance, Gabriel Garcia Marquez' One Hundred Years of Solitude. Somehow, it seems to spring from a deep awareness of the continuing creative tension of solitude and community (even when that community might just be the one other of a love affair).

What I love about both poets is their deep passion, their duende: their ability to live with and juxtapose in their writings, too, both hope and despair, love and loss, the brutality of war and the gentler fruits of peace, birth and death, without covering up or anodysing the one or over-sugaring the other in compensation. Look, they say: this is how it is, and I'm not afraid to witness and record the heights and the depths of our humanness.

Ultimately, their work is something about how we have to make our own freedoms from what we are given; from what there is. This is the same for the person as for the poet, and I'd say is an inescapable conclusion of attempting to live life consciously.

Both of them bring an awareness of the cycles of relationship and silence; and how a life craves both, and makes something of their union (also something I think about a lot). And implicit in their work is the responsibility we have, we all have, poet or not, for the language we use and how it affects the world, its audience.

'Against silence and noise I invent the Word,' says Paz, 'freedom that invents itself and invents me every day.'

Another thing that I value in the Neruda poem from which those fragments come is his subtle and successful rendering of that ancient human need: to slip the boundaries of the constricting ego enough as dissolve, find union with, all that is. How may we move beyond a sense of separateness? This is one of my own preoccupations visible in my own poetry, too, I think. Mystics call it seeking divine union. Christians name the separative state in which we live The Fall. You could see our journey here on the material plane as a movement towards the enlarging of consciousness to the point at which it encompasses everything: other humans, other beings, the whole natural world; this is our task, perhaps, to move towards the wholeness that doesn't separate self from other.

I barely speak Spanish, but I can stumble through enough on the page as to be able, largely, to make my own translation of the Spanish alongside an English version. Sometimes this helps me figure whose translation works the best, to my ear, both as an accurate setting-down of the poet's intentions, and as a new poetic entity being given form. I've read a number of translations of the poem from which my opening fragments come, and this one, based on the translation by Alastair Read from Neruda's Isla Negra and collected into Nathaniel Tarn's Selected Poems of Pablo Neruda (Penguin) moves me enormously. I've taken the liberty of basing my own version on Read's, so what is below contains my tweaking of some of his words and punctuations to satisfy my own ear and eye.

Oh tierra, esperame (Oh, Earth, Wait for Me)

Return me, oh sun,
to my wild destiny,
rain of the ancient woods.
Bring me back its aroma, and the swords
that fall from the sky;
the solitary peace of pasture and rock,
the damp at the river margins,
the smell of the larch tree,
the wind alive like a beating heart
in the crowded restlessness 

of the towering araucaria.

Earth, give me back your pure gifts,
towers of silence which rose 

from the solemnity of their roots.
I want to go back to being what I haven’t been,
to learn to return from such depths
that among all natural things
I may live, or not live.  It doesn't matter 

if I'm just one more stone, the dark stone,
the pure stone that the river bears away.

Pablo Neruda

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