Friday, 31 May 2013

Las Preguntas - History (Pablo Neruda)

Article by Philip Harvey first published in Eureka Street on May the 14th, 2013

Like many great poems, life is worked out by testing both questions and answers. Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?, is itself a beautiful question, made more beautiful by the thirteen line reply that follows. A poem with all the answers is as unconvincing as a poem that has never asked any questions. We seem to find ourselves somewhere between those two extremes, which is why some poems work for us now, while others bide their time.

The last poems of the Chilean Pablo Neruda are a cycle of 74 cantos called El Libro de las Preguntas, The Book of Questions. In fact, the poems consist entirely of questions, which act as much to celebrate as to query the world around us. They reveal the poet in his many moods – humourous, nostalgic, political, sentimental, metaphysical, absurd, realistic, passionate, wistful – and in just a few words reduced to the fundamentals.

The unquestionable marvel of the nursery rhyme lives in a line like “Dónde dejó la luna llena su saco nocturno de harina?”, which William O’Daly translates “Where did the full moon leave its sack of flour tonight?” Neruda’s child-like eye surprises us to the end. Soon enough though his voice toughens: “Is the sun the same as yesterday’s or is this fire different from that fire?” When he asks “How old is November anyway?” he is asking us for an answer, but what is our answer? Do we have one? With a question like “Tell me, is the rose naked or is that her only dress?” the human world and nature confront one another; the words conjure extra meanings the more we care to think about them. “Where is the centre of the sea?” could keep geographers busy for hours. Neruda can turn a question into an image in time: “Why do assemblies of umbrellas always occur in London?” And there are questions we have thought all our lives without putting them into words: “What did the tree learn from the earth to be able to talk with the sky?”

Still, not everything is living for living’s sake. Time is of the essence. Neruda wrote these poems on the eve of the violent overthrow of the elected government of Chile in 1973. He was a close friend of President Salvador Allende, which is why some lines unsettle the general sense of an enquirying mind at peace with the world: “Pero es verdad que se prepara la insurrección de los chalecos?” O’Daly has this as “But is it true that the vests are preparing to revolt?” Los chalecos means vests in Spanish, but anyone reading this poem at the time would know its military and political connotations. Vests were worn by soldiers, including top brass with lots of medals attached. When General Augusto Pinochet, the head of the army, took control of Chile in a coup d’état, it was a vindication of the fear spoken, by implication, in some of the lines of El Libro de las Preguntas.

Many suspected foul play when Neruda died twelve days later. In 2011 his former driver claimed that Neruda had been poisoned by secret agents, contradicting the official version, death from cancer. Due to legal action from the Communist Party, the Chilean government last month exhumed the body. This act is contentious itself, the Pablo Neruda Foundation disapproves, while the family want closure, one way or the other.  Preliminary results confirm that Neruda did have an advanced case of prostate cancer, but tests continue, both in Chile and the United States. Full results could take up to three months.

The questions kept on coming. Neruda could nail his colours to the mast:
It is bad to live without a hell:
aren’t we able to reconstruct it?

And to position sad Nixon
with his buttocks overt the brazier?

Roasting him on low
with North American napalm?
Dantesque conjectures were a way of dealing with political upheaval inside Chile. And through those years some of Neruda’s questions came to have prophetic meaning: “Why in the darkest ages do they write with invisible ink?” This is not softened any with a line like “Is peace the peace of the dove?” We know where his sympathies are when he says
Do all memories of the poor
huddle together in the villages?

And do the rich keep their dreams
in a box carved from minerals?

But as we return into The Book of Questions we find that all of life presents us, and the poet, with paradoxes that contain within them leads and explanations, if only we pay attention. It is almost offhand when he jokes “Cuántas Iglesias tiene el cielo?”, “How many churches are there in heaven?” Exact statistics are not on his mind when Neruda wonders, “Does a pear tree have more leaves than Remembrance of Things Past?” For these are the words of someone looking out beyond present disasters. He keeps hope alive, pays attention daily to the value and goodness in the world, seeing in these things that which is truly life-giving. It is a South American, after all, who would ask “De qué suspende el picaflor su simetría deslumbrante?” “From what does the hummingbird hang its dazzling symmetry?”            

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Las Preguntas – Tyrants (Pablo Neruda)

Don’t let the turkeys get you down, as the saying goes. For even the best regulated lives have to deal with difficult people and petty tyrants. Pablo Neruda himself asks,

Por qué me pican las pulgas
y los sargentos literarios?

Why do the fleas
and literary sergeants bite me?


His though is a world more extensive of view than a publisher’s desk or editor’s redraft.

Aquel solemne Senador
que me atribuía un Castillo

devoró ya con su sobrino
la torta del asesinato?

Has that solemn senator
who dedicated a castle to me

already devoured, with his nephew,
the assassin’s cake?


For this is a world on the edge, a society in 1973 where no one knows who to trust, where what you say today could be your death warrant tomorrow.

Qué significa persistir
en el callejón de la muerte?

What does it mean to persist
on the alley of death?


Adolf Hitler is not the most interesting figure in Second World War history, not by a long way, but that period is unimaginable without Hitler. We will never know if the course of history could have been otherwise. Pablo Neruda gets to the point.

Cuál es el trabajo forzado
de Hitler en el infierno?

What forced labour
does Hitler do in hell?


The tyrant ends up where we (and any reader of Dante Alighieri) would expect him to end up. Late in El Libro de las Preguntas the poet asks a series of questions about the tortures Hitler must suffer in Inferno, tortures he was responsible for inflicting on so many innocent people.

O debe morir sin morir
eternamente bajo el gas?

Or must he die without dying
eternally under the gas?


Hitler’s entry into the poem is ominous. He is a stand-in or exemplar for any tyrant and in the circumstances of the poem’s composition, Hitler is code for something, someone, very much alive at the time and about to act.

No es major nunca que tarda?

Isn’t it better never than late?


… Pablo Neruda asks grimly of the impending moment. It is a black joke, for he and his friends would prefer anything to the political disaster that is about to befall Chile.

Es verdad que vuela de noche
sobre mi patria un condor negro?

Is it true that a black condor
flies at night over my country?


The poet indicates that dictatorship in his country is a possibility, without naming names. He knows South America’s modern history of military regimes.

Por qué enseña el professor
la geografia de la muerte?

Why does the professor teach
the geography of death?


And though he can name President Richard Nixon in his poem, a contemporary who deserves the fires (or at least napalm) of hell, Pablo Neruda cannot dare name Chilean names in the same way. The closest he comes are surreal references to familiar local sights.

De qué rie la sandía
cuando la están asesinando?

At what does watermelon laugh
when it’s murdered?


Other names come close to the poet’s own memorial sense of inescapable tragedy.

Por qué no amanece en Bolivia
desde la noche de Guevara?

Why does it not dawn in Bolivia
after the night of Guevara?


Because for all of the thanks for life being expressed in this his final long poem, Pablo Neruda stares at the inevitable moment. He must meet the power of the tyrant, just as others have during his lifetime, in other countries than his.

Cuánto media el pulpo negro
que oscureció la paz del día?

How large was the black octopus
that darkened the day’s peace?


All the Spanish lines are from Pablo Neruda’s book poem ‘El Libro de las Preguntas’. The translations are by William O’Daly, published under the title ‘The Book of Questions’ (Port Townsend, Washington, Copper Canyon Press, c1991).

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Las Preguntas – Names (Pablo Neruda)

 Jan Neruda died in Prague in 1891. He was a Czech national poet who had a street named for him in Mala Strana. The Chilean poet who took Neruda’s name for a pseudonym did so to hide from his father the fact that he wrote poetry.

Hay algo más tonto en la vida
que llamarse Pablo Neruda?

Is there anything sillier in life
than to be called Pablo Neruda?


The pen name became his public name. Even before he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971, the Chilean had immortalised the unSpanish name of Neruda in a way undreamt of by his great Czech inspiration.

Quién da los nombres y los números
al inocente innumerable?

Who assigns names and numbers
to the innumerable innocent?


Nearing his own death soon after that Prize, Pablo Neruda wrote a poem filled with questions. We can hear him gazing at the world. One of his recurring concerns is names. For poets, as for most of us, names are essential meaning, but as he meets mortality Pablo Neruda wonders even about names.

Dónde están los Donaldas,
las Clorindas, las Eduvigis?

Where did they go, the Donaldas,
the Clorindas, the Eduvigises?


Where the Pablos and Jans? Questions in the poem move with the familiarity of thought. Our names are our own, whether we wrote a word in our lives. Poets too have names that, with death, become associated with their words. They go, leaving colours.

Quando escribió su libro azul
Rubén Darío no era verde?

When he wrote his blue book
wasn’t Rubén Darío green?


Pablo Neruda wonders if he will leave behind yellow ribbons. He asks, it seems to himself but also to us, well what is fame, or lack of fame, before the force of time? It is as though the name itself matters not at all, it may as well be invisible.

Es verdad que reparten cartas
transparentes, por todo el cielo?

Is it true they scatter
transparent letters across the sky?


Even the great names of history turn into comic parts before the vast sweep of human time. Pablo Neruda has wry fun with this Hispanic turner of time and tide.

Por qué Cristóbal Colón
no pudo descubrir a España?

Why wasn’t Christopher Columbus
able to discover Spain?


While throughout the poem it is Pablo Neruda’s knowledge of time running out that inspires the questions.

Y encuentras en la calavera
tu estirpe a hueso condenada?

And in the skull do you discover
your ancestry condemned to bone?


Faced with what he knows about the scale of the Earth and Creation, Pablo Neruda gets intimate, as intimate as France and Venezuela. Some of his questions are in the nature of the Chicken-and-the-Egg.

Y por qué el queso se dispuso
a ejercer proezas en Francia?

U cuando se fundó la luz
esto sucedió en Venezuela?

And why did cheese decide
to perform heroic deeds in France?

And when light was forged
did it happen in Venezuela?


Like France, names have their special meanings, obviously, but like Venezuela, they look preposterous almost and small against the processes of time. Even the days of the week are no more than names before mortality.

Pero por qué no se convence
el Jueves de ir después del Viernes?

Why doesn’t Thursday talk itself
into coming after Friday?


Months are a matter of convenience.

Y cómo se llama ese mes
que está entre Diciembre y Enero?

And what is the name of the month
that falls between December and January?


Until, as if by some magical transformation, Pablo Neruda toward the end of his poem, asks questions about language itself. The poet recognises that the very means of expression, his passport to immortality, are only words that can do nothing to stop the inevitable.

Y no naufragan los veleros
por un exceso de vocales?

When they stow too many vowels
don’t sailing ships wreck?


Words are human consolation, they bind us together while nature operates according to its own wordless process. Santiago in 1973 was in crisis.

En qué idioma cae la lluvia
sobre ciudades dolorosas?

In which language does rain fall
over tormented cities?


All one can do, at an extreme, or in the depth of meditation, is put words out there, not knowing how they will make contact, or if they will.

Un diccionario es un sepulcro
o es un panal de miel cerrado?

Is a dictionary a sepulchre
or a sealed honeycomb?


Pablo Neruda gazes upon existence, watching the patterns, knowing patterns are omnipresent, and that for humans in their mortal awareness, language is the favoured pattern, the quickest means, our way to understand ourselves. Even one’s name is original but borrowed from out of the generations.

Qué letras conoce la abeja
para saber su itinerario?

So it can understand its itinerary,
which letters does the bee know?


All the Spanish lines are from Pablo Neruda’s book poem ‘El Libro de las Preguntas’. The translations are by William O’Daly, published under the title ‘The Book of Questions’ (Port Townsend, Washington, Copper Canyon Press, c1991).

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Las Preguntas – Cancer (Pablo Neruda)

So now we know, the poet had prostate cancer when he died.

La muerte será de no ser
o de sustancias peligrosas?

Will death consist of non-being
or of dangerous substances?


They chose to dig up his remains in April of this year.

Qué cosa irrita a los volcanes
que escupen fuego, frío y furia?

What is it that upsets the volcanoes
that spit fire, cold and rage?


So many with a claim on Pablo Neruda still, so many wanting the truth.

Pero sabes de dónde viene
la muerte, de arriba o de abajo?

But do you know from where death
comes, from above or from below?


Now we know for sure that while writing all of these Spanish words he was suffering from cancer, these words that are the lines of his final long poem.

Por qué anduvimos tanto tiempo
creciendo para separarnos?

Why did we spend so much time
growing up only to separate?


Everyone has their own Pablo Neruda, politicians and historians and readers and rivals and friends and family and strangers.

Cuando ya se fueron los huesos
quién vive en el polvo final?

Now that the bones are gone
who lives in the final dust?


Each with their own questions needing firm and conclusive answers. While Pablo Neruda, as he sat through what were to be his final months alive, made up a poem consisting only of questions.

Quién trabaja más en la tierra,
el hombre o el sol cereal?

Who works harder on earth,
a human or the grain’s sun?


Questions that hint at the answer and how the answer cannot be firm or conclusive. How the answer is, like the question, a lead to further questions.

Verdad que parece esperar
el Otoño que pase algo?

Is it true that autumn seems to wait
for something to happen?


And when Pablo Neruda asks questions like this we sense that something is impending, something we will have to accept, even though we don’t know what it is. It could be upheaval or loss or change of some kind.

Qué sigue pagando el Otoño
con tantodinero amarillo?

What does autumn go on paying for
with so much yellow money?


The Chilean Government this year ordered the exhumation of the remains of Pablo Neruda and the autopsy confirms that the poet had prostate cancer at the time of his death, with extended metastasis.

Ayer, ayer dije a mis ojos
cuándo volveremos a vernos?

Yesterday, yesterday I asked my eyes
when will we see each other again?


The rumours of forty years ago are fresh on the internet. At the time of the coup in 1973 Pablo Neruda planned to escape to Mexico. He had lived in exile before.

Y qué me dio por transmigrar
si viven en Chile mis huesos?

And why did I decide to migrate
if my bones live in Chile?


While Pablo Neruda pursued poetry his whole life, he was also committed to a cause. Pablo Neruda was human: one day he was going to die. It could be next week.

Es el orden o la batalla
este quebranto sucesivo?

Is this continual breaking
the order or the battle?


Whether or not he knew he was going to die twelve days after the coup, he stayed by the ocean where his house was located and made up a poem made entirely of questions. Question sentences were the single grammatical construction, the form, he chose to write his long poem of seventy-four cantos.

Has pensado de qué color
es el Abril de los enfermos?

For the diseased, what colour
do you think April is?


Alone with all his thoughts, closer still for Pablo Neruda is the knowledge of mortality.

Y cómo el invierno acumula
tantos azules lineales?

[Have you noticed] how winter collects
so many layers of blue?


There was so little time and maybe the poem was not even completed. Events press in as he tries to handle daily tasks, like his health and the emerging political situation and his next poem.

Se fundirá tu destrucción
en otra voz y en otra luz?

Will your destruction merge
with another voice and other light?


All the Spanish lines are from Pablo Neruda’s book poem ‘El Libro de las Preguntas’. The translations are by William O’Daly, published under the title ‘The Book of Questions’ (Port Townsend, Washington, Copper Canyon Press, c1991). 

Members of Chile's Medical Legal Service in April 2013 digging up the grave of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda in Isla Negra.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

My Brother’s Book, by Maurice Sendak

 Since ‘My Brother’s Book’ came out posthumously this year, I have been reading it nearly every night. The book only takes five minutes to read. Over five, ten, fifteen minutes I find something new each time in ‘My Brother’s Book’. Because, reading is only one of the things we do with any book by Maurice Sendak. Really the main thing we do is look. We look at each page in turn, each change of line or colour or sequencing or display, in a way that cannot be done were ‘My Brother’s Book’ an e-book. Because reading a book by Maurice Sendak is a book experience. No one reads his books for the information. We don’t read his books in order to get to the end in order to read something else next. We read his books for every detail of word and picture, ready to refer back or forward to other pages. We don’t want to miss anything. We go down or, as happens in somewhat equal measure, up wherever the author goes.

It is still not completely clear what this story is all about. It doesn’t matter. We will never know what it’s all about. The narrative is fairly straightforward though. Two brothers, Jack and Guy, are separated by a cosmic cataclysmic event that strikes where they live on earth. Jack ends up frozen on “continents of ice”, so Guy (whose fortunes the reader then follows closely) experiences several encounters all of which have as their main concern the need to be reunited with his lost brother. This includes being eaten by a bear, descending into some kind of hell, until eventually   he arrives somewhere paradisal, but only really paradisal because Jack is there.

Readers of Sendak know the themes: separation from those we love; a trip or journey for which the overriding objective is reunion or resolution or a state of personal peace; elements of the unexpected, even bizarre. Each picture in the book has a consistency and continuity unique to that particular book. We see William Blake in the figuration, but also Symbolist French etching and Renaissance cartography. We hear William Shakespeare’s ‘A Winter’s Tale’, bur are not too far from the endearing wackiness of Edward Lear say when we are told of Jack, “His poor nose froze.” The story is about love and loss, about death as decisive but not final. The book is a eulogy for a lover lost through death, but also (as we know from its publication date) a farewell to life from the author himself. Too, we have met characters called Jack and Guy before today.

Like all Sendak books the seeming strangeness of the story grows familiar with re-reading until we come to own it as our own. We know it is never just our own, but this does not lessen the sense of ownership. My personal reading of the book is affected by the Blakean image opposite page 12.

 On his journey through time and space Guy “wheeled round in the steep air” before he dropped “down and down on soft Bohemia.” Last year’s visit to Prague causes an instant connection for me with this moment in the book. Of all the places to choose, Sendak has Guy descend from above upon Bohemia, which he wants to identify, it seems, as a paradisal and personal place on Earth. His choice of the word ‘soft’ is perfect. What better word could anyone find to describe the greenery and undulation of that beautiful place? We are being assured through poetry that Guy made a soft landing and that Bohemia is somewhere that can console him temporarily, ease him on his way. The hint is there that Bohemia is a strong memory for Sendak, its connotations personal, but shared with his readers now that loss of his friend is real.

Maurice Sendak made many different kinds of books. ‘My Brother’s Book’ has its own special place in that extensive catalogue. It is for this reason that the one jarring note in this production comes on the publisher’s dust-jacket. Tony Kushner gets rather carried away with the moment. “It’s Maurice’s elegy … for the world of astonishing beauty he created in his books. In these pages, Maurice seems to have gathered up that world, all of it, every corner, in a gorgeous, mad, heart-stopping condensation of every theme, every rhythm, every poetic and visual trope associated with the name Sendak, and then released it.” Why do people say such things? This is manifestly not what is going on in ‘My Brother’s Book’. Nor would we want it to be. True, the book is an elegy. We see some of the artist’s interests and repetitive fixations, e.g. a boy falling through space, but it is a disservice to Sendak’s work to say that all of his world has been “gathered up” in this one book, or that it is a “mad, heart-stopping condensation of every theme”. What kind of a book would that be, even given Sendak’s increasingly self-referential style toward the end of his life? Sendak’s work is much too complex, various, and protracted over periods to be thus contracted to one “condensation”. Demonstrably, Sendak pays homage to some of the great surprises of his life’s work, but not all of them, nor I think are we meant to see this homage as a simplistic reduction of past glories. Kushner’s wish to see in ‘My Brother’s Book’ a definitive encapsulation of Maurice Sendak’s work not only sells short that work, it sells short the book called ‘My Brother’s Book’.

Preferable is to spend minutes, minutes stretching into hours over a lifetime, reading and enjoying each image in Sendak, living and interpreting living through the eyes of the artist, knowing the while that we will never have a complete explanation for the marvels before our eyes. Nor, I hazard, would Maurice Sendak have expected to achieve such a condensation, such a complete explanation for his readers. Because, that’s the way it is, it is in the telling, and the re-telling.