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Sublime Blue: Selected Early Odes by Pablo Neruda


  © 2013 by Wings Press

  All Spanish texts from Odas elementales © 1954 by Pablo Neruda.

  All English translations © 2013 by William Pitt Root.

  Cover: Mendocino Coastline. Photograph by William Pitt Root.

  First Edition:

  Print Edition ISBN: 978-0-916727-87-1

  ePub ISBN: 978-1-60940-195-5

  Kindle ISBN: 978-1-60940-196-2

  Library PDF ISBN: 978-1-60940-197-9

  Wings Press

  627 E. Guenther

  San Antonio, Texas 78210

  Phone/fax: (210) 271-7805

  On-line catalogue and ordering:

  www.wingspress.com

  All Wings Press titles are distributed to the trade by

  Independent Publishers Group

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  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data:

  Neruda, Pablo, 1904-1973.

  Sublime Blue: SELECTED EARLY ODES OF PABLO NERUDA/Pablo Neruda; Translated by William Pitt Root. -- First Edition.

  pages cm

  This is an English translation of the Spanish texts from Odas elementales © 1954 by Pablo Neruda.

  ISBN 978-0-916727-87-1 (pbk.: alk. paper) -- ISBN 978-1-60940-195-5 (epub ebook) -- ISBN 978-1-60940-196-2 (kindle ebook) -ISBN 978-1-60940-197-9 (library pdf ebook)

  I. Root, William Pitt, 1941- translator. II. Neruda, Pablo, 1904-1973. Odas elementales. III. Neruda, Pablo, 1904-1973. Odas elementales English. IV. Title.

  PQ8097.N4O413 2013

  861’.62--dc23

  2012040300

  Except for fair use in reviews and/or scholarly considerations, no portion of this book may be reproduced in any form without the written permission of the author or the publisher.

  Contents

  Introduction: “Our Bread and Our Dream”

  El hombre invisible

  The Invisible Man

  Oda a la alcahofa

  Ode to the Artichoke

  Oda al dtomo

  Ode to the Atom

  Oda a la esperanza

  Ode to Hope

  Oda a la flor azul

  Ode to the Blue Flower

  Oda a la intranquilidad

  Ode to Restlessness

  Oda a la malvenida

  Ode to the Unwelcome One

  Oda a los numeros

  Ode to Numbers

  Oda a los poetas populares

  Ode to the Poets of the People

  Oda a la tristeza

  Ode to Gloom

  Oda a la pobreza

  Ode to Poverty

  Oda al vino

  Ode to Wine

  About the Translator

  Acknowledgments

  Dedicated to Pamela, with love, for the brilliance of her spirit reflected in the artesian outpouring of her own odes, and to Bryce Milligan, without whose patience this work may never have seen the dark of printer’s ink or the light of day.

  INTRODUCTION

  “OUR BREAD AND OUR DREAM”

  When Neruda wrote in his Memoirs* that “We must open America’s matrix to bring out her glorious light,” he took metaphorically the el dorado image Cortés and company have always taken literally. In doing so, he projected a perspective which, by placing a higher value on light than on the mineral which merely imitates it, resembles the idea of gold prevalent among las indigenas, the first people native to the American continent. For Neruda, the poet’s role as explorer was to discover and rediscover the many forms of wealth native to the spirit and to return it all mysteriously gleaming to those closest to the source.

  Neruda discharged this labor unflaggingly, mining a ceaseless vein of epics, lyrics, and dramatic narratives, stopped only by his death. He died shortly after the bloody CIA-assisted coup on September 11, 1973, which toppled the popular government and ended the high promise of Salvador Allende, his close friend. Neruda’s last words, according to Matilde Urrutia, his wife, were repeated over and over in his final hours: tortured by news of the brutal purge claiming the lives of Allende’s friends and sympathizers, the dying poet lapsed in and out of consciousness crying, “My people, my people, what are they doing to my people!” Neruda’s funeral quickly swelled to threatening proportions as his countrymen learned of his death and gathered in the streets to quote verses they knew by heart. This spontaneous convocation constituted what may be construed as the first public show of opposition to Pinochet. About that time, Pinochet’s forces rerouted a small creek to flood through the poet’s home, where many of his poems were written and stored. It is unlikely that they appreciated the profound irony of this, given the connection Neruda, throughout his life, had felt with water in all its forms.

  Among North American poets, the kind of popularity excited by the man born Ricardo Eliecer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto and reborn Pablo Neruda, is quite unknown. Only in the figure of Walt Whitman, whom Neruda revered, can we find an equivalent sensibility. Both men exhibited a spirit whose passionate openheartedness readily engaged at an elemental level the issues and history of their times with the intention of making available to their contemporaries a portrait of themselves, in language close to their own speech, making them participants in a vision they could not otherwise experience so memorably.

  Whitman’s reception, less than a century earlier, little resembled Neruda’s acclaim, which began early and lasted throughout his life. “Gossiping in the early candlelight of old age,” Whitman acknowledged how “public criticism on the book and myself as author of it yet shows mark’d anger and contempt more than anything else.” Now an institution, our good grey poet was first reviled as “arrogant” for proclaiming himself “the Poet of the time” and as “disgraceful” (this was the received opinion cited by Emily Dickinson to explain why she had not read her contemporary) for rooting “like a pig among a rotten garbage of licentious thoughts.” Neruda, however, saw to the center of Whitman’s enterprise. “I like the ‘postive hero’ in Walt Whitman … who found him without formula and brought him, not without suffering, into the intimacy of our physical life, making him share with us our bread and our dream.”

  Among the most prolific important poets ever to live, Neruda is, again like Whitman, one of the most widely translated poets of present times. Scores of his poems have appeared in new English translations every year since his death in 1973. The poems in this selection come from his first collection of Odas elementales, published in 1954, when Neruda was about 50. Of this time he has said “nothing out of the ordinary happened to me, no adventures that would amuse my readers.” Yet it was during this period that he received the Stalin Prize (later renamed the Lenin Peace Prize), and, more importantly, it was then that he and Delia del Carril “separated for good” and he moved into his new home, La Chascona, with Matilde Urrutia, his beloved, tempestuous, and final wife.

  When Neruda began writing the odes, in 1952, he already had completed his ambitious Residencia en la tierra (a book he later said “breathed the rigidly pessimistic air” of the time) and, more recently, his epic Canto general, each a major contribution toward opening “America’s matrix.” So, when he turned to the odes it was, in a sense, with a heart unburdened, momentarily relieved of certain charges and free to explore experience at the simplest, most ordinary level. It was as if, reversing the chronology of Blake (whom he translated), having completed a round of songs of experience now he could embark upon these odes of innocence.

  The famous, widely imitated form he chose for these poems—tall, slender poetic stalks, not unlike Queen Ann’s Lace slowly rocking in a seaside breeze—brilliantly suited the air of quick spontaneity these works exude. The phrases
fall like thin wrists of water cascading from great heights, exploding at intervals against ledges and obstacles protruding from a sheer cliff-face. Fluent, sinuous, riddled with delightful surprise, the offhand form is also suited to the tone of seemingly casual surmise that can so suddenly pool in a conclusion of great clarity and depth. The poet speaks of his style as a “guided spontaneity.” It has also been suggested that the form derives in part from Neruda’s plan to serialize these poems for newspapers whose columns, of course, are restrictively narrow.

  Of his first collection of Odas elementales Neruda declared:

  I decided to deal with things from their beginnings, starting with the primary state, from birth onward. I wanted to describe many things that had been sung and said over and over again. My intention was to start like the boy chewing on his pencil, setting to work on his composition assignment about the sun, the blackboard, the clock, or the family. Nothing was to be omitted from my field of action; walking or flying, I had to touch on everything, expressing myself as clearly and freshly as possible.

  Elsewhere he remarked that his “tone … gathered strength by its own nature as time went along, like all living things.”

  A few odes from this and from the two subsequent collections by Neruda have become widely available to American audiences. Originally I avoided rerendering odes already familiar in order to concentrate on others less known or altogether unknown in English. In the early 80’s when I began this work, only one of these odes had appeared widely in English. Twice previously this collection was accepted for publication; one publisher held the mss for years before announcing it was henceforth a printer-for-hire rather than a publisher, and the other, also after years, went bankrupt. As it happens, those delays made for a much improved set of translations. In the intervening years, other translators, including María Jacketti and Ken Krabbenhoft, have brought out collections of odes, Margaret Sayers Peden’s Selected Odes of Pablo Neruda chief among them. Not surprisingly her collection includes versions of several more of the odes I, too, have rendered. I gladly recommend her fine work to anyone interested in the Odes, with this proviso: she has avoided altogether the more politically oriented works and such selection serves to domesticate a body of work as deliberately gnarly and behorned in some aspects as it is luminously tender in others.

  I open my selection with the “The Invisible Man,” which Neruda himself chose to preface his collection. (Nancy Willard has published a book-length study of this poem and its implications for modern poets and poetry.) Here Neruda saunters familiarly first through a landscape comprised of the literary clichés of certain unnamed predecessors. He chides “my poor brother,/the poet” for his blinding degree of self-absorption and for his isolation from the “dailiness of life,” to borrow from Randall Jarrell the phrase he once borrowed from a student. For Neruda, dailiness was a constant source of replenished vitality as the field of ordinary clover, rather than hothouse exotica, is sustenance to the honeybee. Then as he moves from the literary to the common world, declaring his characteristic intention to “transform [all the sorrow of the entire world] into hope” in song that reunites mankind in a spirit of celebration, he states and demonstrates a principle of self-effacement as similar in conception to Keats’ “negative capability” or Eliot’s annihilation of the personality as it is unlike either in execution.

  In “The Invisible Man” and elsewhere, he gives us the antidote to the “I” as all-devourer and to the private ego as self-reflexive, ersatz universe, stances he regarded as essentially Romantic, defunct responses inadequate to contemporary existence. “As an active poet,” Neruda recalled, “I fought against my own self-absorption and so was able to settle the debate between the real and the subjective deep within myself.”

  We also have here Neruda’s apostrophes to the atom, to numbers, to restlessness, to hope and gloom, all general subjects paradoxically amplified by the intimacy of their rendering. Among his more intriguingly personal poems, there is his “Ode to the Unwelcome One.” And in the odes to wine and the artichoke we have further evidence of his unquenchable capacity for inventive celebration. Of the blue flower also praised, his recollections from the Memoirs are revealing:

  Peasants and fishermen [in Chile] have forgotten the names of the small plants long ago, and the small flowers have no names now…. To be a hero in undiscovered territories is to be obscure; these territories and their songs are lit only by the most anonymous blood and by flowers whose name nobody knows. Among these flowers there is one that has invaded my whole house. It’s a blue flower with a long, proud, lustrous, and tough stem. At its tip, swarms of tiny infra-blue, ultra-blue flowers sway. I don’t know if all human beings have the gift of seeing the sub-limest blue. Is it revealed to a select few? Does it remain hidden, invisible to others? Has some blue god denied them its contemplation? Or is it only my own joy, nursed by solitude and converted into pride, gloating because it has found this blue, this blue wave, this blue star in riotous spring?

  Finally, his “Ode To The Popular Poets” is yet another exploration of how the natural poet—untutored in books but instructed by the history of the vulnerable heart—can prevail upon the most painful circumstances to manifest that universal vigor “repeated in the song.” Referring to certain of his fellow artists, Leonardo in his notebooks once complained of the growing tendency among aspiring artists to school themselves at the feet of their predecessors rather than in the academy of nature. He singled out as an exception Giotto, praising him for having begun his artistic career as a common shepherd sketching the objects he observed with charred sticks upon flat stones.

  On the other hand, Neruda notes, “It’s obvious that the poet’s occupation is abused to some extent. So many new men and women poets keep cropping up that soon we’ll all look like poets, and readers will disappear.” The myth of the “mute, inglorious Milton” can become a conceit harboring disdain for discipline and self-discipline, as in the Elvis Presley movie “Wild In The Country,” popular some decades back. For Neruda and his countrymen, the rigors of the Chilean peasants’ daily lives did not include such self-aggrandizing attitudes. That life was—and is— hard, basic, perilous, joyous. Songs providing stays against despair inevitably raise the spirits of an audience. This is done not by standing outside the common lot but by sharing and reshaping it from within, much as early blues musicians, and occasional rare individuals such as Woody Guthrie, have done earlier for us in the 20th century and as indigenous musicians globally are doing for us now in this new cyber-century. Speaking of “the other family of poets” (those not nurtured by an aristocracy), Neruda fondly lists “the militant wanderers of poetry, bar lions, fascinating madmen, tormented sleepwalkers. And let’s not overlook those writers tied down, like the galley slave to his oar, to the little stools in government offices.”

  Speaking of an earlier vatic function of poetry—”from it came liturgy, the psalms, and also the contents of religions”—, Neruda suggests an interesting transition from the function of poet as witness of nature to poet as witness of human nature:

  The poet confronted nature’s phenomena and in the early ages called himself a priest, to safeguard his vocation. In the same way, to defend his poetry, the poet of the modern age accepts the investiture earned in the street, among the masses. Today’s social poet is still a member of the earliest order of priests. In the old days he made his pact with the darkness, and now he must interpret the light.

  Implicit in the scope and textures of Neruda’s work is the challenge of a model which poets anywhere in any time, even American poets in our time, might usefully reconsider:

  The bourgeoise [Neruda warns his fellow poets] demands a poetry that is more and more isolated from reality. The poet who knows how to call a spade a spade is dangerous to a capitalism on its last legs. It is more convenient for the poet to believe himself a “small god,” as Vicente Huidobro said … [so that] the poet basks in his own divine isolation, and there is no need to bribe or crush him. He ha
s bribed himself by condemning himself to his heaven.

  A complete poet is a complete human being—not a specialist, a technician comprehensible chiefly to fellow technicians—who works as the universe itself works, building out of elemental materials those increasingly profound structures in which may live and breathe the astonishing and mysterious varieties of the human spirit.

  The model and spirit of the model are apparent and pervasive among the Odas elementales, where effortlessly high spirits keep close company even with grave matters.

  For invaluable help in rendering these poems from Spanish, I wish to acknowledge my thanks to Junardi Armstrong of Oracle, Arizona, who went through my earliest versions of most of these poems with me years ago; to Professors Lois Welch and David Loughran of the University of Montana, who kindly offered further corrections of some of the later drafts; and to my daughter, Jennifer Lorca Root, who first helped me draft “Ode To The Blue Flower.” I also wish to thank Teresa Acevedo and Juanita Melendez for help with “Ode to Poverty.” And I wish especially to thank both Maria Luisa R. Lacabe of Seattle and Hedy Hebra of the Western Michigan University, who encouraged me and painstakingly annotated my versions of most of these poems with countless invaluable suggestions and corrections. Thanks also to Dave Oliphant of Austin for his invaluable last-minute suggestions, to Melissa Pritchard, who so generously and often has harbored us in the sanctuary of her Phoenix home as Pam has been courageously resurrecting herself from the ashes of her cancer. And of course, and as always, I thank my wife, the poet Pamela Uschuk, for her many helpful readings and suggestions.

  I once wrote a short piece positing that “translating poetry is like trying to carry a wave in a bucket.” Certainly these poems often do refer us to the sea, for a sense of what is most vital, dauntless, vast, finally reassuring. Perhaps it is apt that I first undertook to translate them in the Sonoran desert, ghost of a vast prehistoric sea. Whitman wrote of believing sea waves could be a poet’s most apt mentors. Translators, perhaps, more often settle for the modest model inherent in Robert Creeley’s “Be wet/with a decent happiness.”

 
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