Mu­sic of an­other mind

Pablo Neruda’s ‘lost’ po­ems, scrawled on nap­kins and re­ceipts, are worth the wait, writes Felic­ity Plun­kett

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Felic­ity Plun­kett

For Ro­ma­nian poet Paul Ce­lan, a poem’s jour­ney to its reader is a fraught trans­fer­ral. A poem, he writes, “can be a mes­sage in a bot­tle, sent out in the — not al­ways greatly hope­ful — be­lief that some­where and some­time it could wash up on land, on heart­land per­haps’’. The long­ing and in­ti­macy of this metaphor is un­der­lined when, in a pas­sion­ate let­ter to Is­raeli writer Ilana Sh­mueli, he writes: ‘‘I trans­late you over to me.’’ Ce­lan’s im­age of the poem mak­ing its haz­ardous sea cross­ing evokes the del­i­cate chem­istry that pro­duces a read­ing — the align­ment and em­pa­thy in­volved — and sug­gests a poet­ics of trans­la­tion.

Ce­lan’s mul­ti­lin­gual frame­work — his Ger­man, He­brew, French, Ro­ma­nian and Latin, along with bril­liant ne­ol­o­gisms, nar­ra­tive obliq­uity and vi­sion­ary sur­re­al­ism, and his trans­la­tion of more than 40 po­ets — makes him a fo­cal point in dis­cus­sions of poetry’s lit­eral and fig­u­ra­tive trans­lata­bil­ity, or its un­trans­lata­bil­ity.

Robert Frost fa­mously de­scribes poetry it­self as ‘‘what is lost in trans­la­tion’’ and Percy Bysshe Shel­ley warns ‘‘it were as wise to cast a violet into a cru­cible that you might dis­cover the for­mal prin­ci­ples of its colour and odour, as to trans­fuse from one lan­guage into an­other the cre­ations of a poet’’. For many, it’s less clear. Bri­tish-Le­banese nov­el­ist Naeem Murr cap­tures this am­biva­lence: ‘‘Cer­tainly literature should be trans­lated and, of course, it can’t be.’’ In his short lyric piece Seven Min­utes on Trans­la­tion, Lux­em­bourg-Amer­i­can poet and critic Pierre Joris, whose work in­cludes the most sub­stan­tial trans­la­tion of Ce­lan, de­scribes the eth­i­cal drive in­volved in cre­at­ing trans­la­tions to help re­alise ‘‘the beauty of the other, of the poetry of the other, of the speech of all the others’’.

Faced with trans­lat­ing the “lost po­ems” of Chilean No­bel lau­re­ate Pablo Neruda, Amer­i­can poet and writer For­rest Gan­der was un­cer­tain. Was this a case of ‘‘squeez­ing the last pur­ple juices from the Neruda es­tate’’? These are, af­ter all, drafts writ­ten on the backs of re­ceipts and menus, frag­ments scrawled on pa­per nap­kins. De­li­cious as this prospect might be — like Emily Dickinson’s en­ve­lope po­ems or the 2014 dis­cov­ery of a Sap­pho frag­ment — were the po­ems worth pub­lish­ing?

And hasn’t Neruda’s work al­ready en­joyed a vast read­er­ship? His Twenty Love Po­ems and a Song of De­spair is the best­selling book of po­ems writ­ten in Span­ish and con­tin­ues to sell 100 years af­ter its publi­ca­tion when the poet was 19. Neruda, who died aged 69 in 1973, is one of the few po­ets you might find in the av­er­age Aus­tralian book­shop, lodged be­tween an an­thol­ogy of joke po­ems and a leather-bound vol­ume of John Keats, shar­ing this cu­ri­ous and de­light­ful ubiq­uity only with Rumi.

The po­ems dis­pelled Gan­der’s doubts, and so be­gan the process of trans­la­tion, which he de­scribes in the in­tro­duc­tion as one start­ing ‘‘in hu­mil­ity, a sub­li­ma­tion of the self so ex­treme that the mu­sic of some­one else’s mind might be heard’’. The po­ems are un­ti­tled. They are sim­ply listed as poem 1, poem 2 and so on. There are 21 in to­tal.

In one of the high­lights, poem 7, Gan­der de­scribes ‘‘a kind of ad­mon­i­tory Rilkean let­ter … to him­self as a young poet’’. Given the per­va­sive read­ing of that young poet’s work — when read­ers know Neruda’s work, it is usu­ally the work of a young man not yet 20, achily in love and at odds with poetry and with love it­self — this arch self-ex­am­i­na­tion is brac­ing. It has none of the gra­cious pa­tience of Rilke’s Let­ters to a Young Poet and sparks with ir­ri­ta­tion at the younger self’s naive pom­pos­ity. Even his ‘‘verses’’ seem ‘‘rep­e­ti­tious as / grains / of oats’’.

Yet self-re­proach is far from ab­sent from the early po­ems. That speaker com­pares a lover’s beauty with ‘‘ mi cuerpo de labriego sal­vaje’’ Then Come Back: The Lost Neruda Po­ems By Pablo Neruda Trans­lated by For­rest Gan­der Cop­per Canyon Press, 210pp, $46 (HB) (trans­lated as ‘‘my rough peas­ant’s body’’ by WS Mer­win). These are po­ems of ‘‘ lamento ob­sti­nado’’ (Mer­win’s ‘‘stub­born lament’’), roil­ing with an­guish, loss and ab­sence, not so far from the ‘‘ paven­tosa speme’’ (trem­bling hope) of Pe­trarch’s son­nets, on which the tra­di­tion of the English son­net is built, and in which not be­ing hap­pily with one’s beloved is more or less manda­tory.

Here, poem 7’s crit­i­cal rec­ol­lec­tion of the young poet (‘‘so stupid, so re­mote, / so aban­doned’’) turns to an imag­ined con­ver­sa­tion in which he ad­vises against self­ish­ness and ar­ro­gance, and to wait ‘‘un­til the words / ripen / in you’’ be­fore jump­ing in to show off: ‘‘a swan, / a trapeze artist be­tween high phrases’’.

At­ten­tive­ness to the world and to others might help the young poet: ‘‘toughen up / take a walk / over the sharp stones / then come back’’. This is a blunt ver­sion of Rilke’s ‘‘be pa­tient to­ward all that is un­solved in your heart and … try ver­si­fier with sharp­ened brows shoes worn to trans­parency you are me me again alive, ma­te­ri­alised from the land of rain, your si­lence and your arms are mine your grainy verses re­peat­ing like oats freshly swollen with wa­ter run­ning from leaves, shaken from for­est birds, all’s good my friend, and now lis­ten or silent stay hushed un­til your words ger­mi­nate, see, touch, play these mat­ters at hand, hands know, hav­ing hold of sightless knowl­edge, friend, you have to be a good-enough stoker of the oven to love the ques­tions them­selves’’, yet as Gan­der notes, ad­vice to work with the par­tic­u­lar and quo­tid­ian res­onates with Neruda’s No­bel ac­cep­tance speech in which he ad­mires the poet who ‘‘pre­pares our daily bread’’ in a ‘‘duty of fel­low­ship’’. This is the ac­tivist Neruda who re­fuses metaphor when it might dis­tract at­ten­tion from what needs to be seen, as in I’m Ex­plain­ing a Few Things, about the Span­ish Civil War, which re­fuses to pro­duce po­etic ‘‘lilacs’’ and ‘‘poppy-petalled meta­physics’’ in the face of a need to bear wit­ness. There is no metaphor that can get closer to un­der­stand­ing atroc­ity: ‘‘the blood of chil­dren ran through the streets / with­out fuss, like chil­dren’s blood’’.

In the un­fin­ished poem 9, mind­ful of poetry’s lim­i­ta­tions, he ex­am­ines his van­ity, con­clud­ing: ‘‘I’ve done noth­ing / more than others, / maybe less than any­one’’. In con­trast, the lost love po­ems are a lyri­cal cel­e­bra­tion of the poet’s in­tri­cately-bound 22-year re­la­tion­ship with Matilde Ur­ru­tia, named through­out the col­lec­tion. In­stead of the mood­ily hy­po­thet­i­cal love po­ems of in­ex­pe­ri­ence, he writes about the tex­tures of one woman’s skin and na­ture, the ‘‘kisses your mouth taught me’’ through which ‘‘my lips came to know fire’’. Poem 5 evokes through images of ‘‘bread, fire, blood and wine’’ a love at a sin­cere stoker don’t stuff about get­ting ahead of your pen or haz­ard­ing the Argo or snake-necked drift­ing swan or the trapezist be­tween high phrases and empti­ness all around, your duty is car­bon and fire you have to smear your hands with charred cook­ing oil, with ket­tle smoke, clean your­self suit your­self up and with this new alti­tude think about lilies and switches of orange blos­som and the dove you get to lu­mi­nesce with­out for­get­ting your state of be­ing for­got­ten of blackness with­out for­get­ting those who are yours nor solid earth, toughen your­self up make your way across sharp stones and come back. once spir­i­tual and vis­ceral, bound by ap­petite, cre­ativ­ity and gen­eros­ity. Poem 3 mocks and laments the sense of lone­li­ness Mathilde’s ab­sence from their home cre­ates.

Re­cur­rent Neru­dan imagery — the sky, shad­ows, a cor­morant’s coast­line flight — are wo­ven into poem 2, with its re­frain ‘‘never alone, with you’’ and its evo­ca­tion, again, of shared wine, bread, love as well as ‘‘wounds, sor­row / hap­pi­ness’’.

Then Come Back in­cludes re­pro­duc­tions of the weath­ered hand­writ­ten po­ems with the poet’s cross­ings-out and notes to him­self. There is pre­ci­sion and care in Gan­der’s work, and ad­mirable ex­ac­ti­tude, as he brings the line’s syl­labic pat­terns and con­tex­tual res­o­nances into English.

Some­how, at times, some of Neruda’s wild­ness es­capes, and there is a sense of cor­rect­ness tamp­ing down some­thing of the po­ems’ en­ergy. A trans­la­tion bal­ances the poet’s rhythms with the trans­la­tor’s, re­gard­less of the lat­ter’s hu­mil­ity. Yet the po­ems come across — Gan­der brings them across — as ful­fill­ing Neruda’s sense of poetry as it­self a trans­la­tion: ‘‘to con­vey to others what we are’’. is poetry ed­i­tor at UQP.

Poet Pablo Neruda and his wife Matilde Ur­ru­tia

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