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Monday, February 05, 2007

Love Poem XIV: Neruda’s Sublime

Posted by Joseph Kugelmass on 02/05/07 at 04:24 AM

ATTENTION ALL READERS: The web now has a bad case of Pablo Neruda. The Anti-Essentialist Conundrum was affected first; among other notables to catch the fever was Petitpoussin at Truly Outrageous, and she has links to a number of sites getting in on the game (actually, this post is coming quite late).

For most people, everything you need can be found right around your house, since Neruda is the kind of writer whose readership extends far beyond avid consumers of poetry. (He has this in common with other writers of sexy, elemental verse, including Rainer Maria Rilke and Mary Oliver. Every copy of Rilke you find in used bookstores has been inscribed to someone.) Yet Neruda is plagued by a curious indexicality, by which I mean our tendency (at least in the English-speaking world of my experience) to share him ("read this!") without necessarily discussing him.

The poem I’m discussing below is Poem #14 from 20 Love Poems and a Song of Despair. Who knows how many times I’ve read it over the years. This is nonetheless my first attempt to articulate its passions, and make it speak.

Here it is, as translated by W. S. Merwin:

Every day you play with the light of the universe.
Subtle visitor, you arrive in the flower and the water.
You are more than this white head that I hold tightly
as a cluster of fruit, every day, between my hands.

You are like nobody since I love you.
Let me spread you out among yellow garlands.
Who writes your name in letters of smoke among the stars of the south?
Oh let me remember you as you were before you existed.

Suddenly the wind howls and bangs at my shut window.
The sky is a net crammed with shadowy fish.
Here all the winds let go sooner or later, all of them.
The rain takes off her clothes.

The birds go by, fleeing.
The wind. The wind.
I can contend only against the power of men.
The storm whirls dark leaves
and turns loose all the boats that were moored last night to the sky.

You are here. Oh, you do not run away.
You will answer me to the last cry.
Cling to me as though you were frightened.
Even so, at one time a strange shadow ran through your eyes.

Now, now too, little one, you bring me honeysuckle,
and even your breasts smell of it.
While the sad wind goes slaughtering butterflies
I love you, and my happiness bites the plum of your mouth.

How you must have suffered getting accustomed to me,
my savage, solitary soul, my name that sends them all running.
So many times we have seen the morning star burn, kissing our eyes,
and over our heads the gray light unwind in turning fans.

My words rained over you, stroking you.
A long time I have loved the sunned mother-of-pearl of your body.
I go so far as to think that you own the universe.
I will bring you happy flowers from the mountains, bluebells,
dark hazels, and rustic baskets of kisses.

I want
to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees.

The play of love in the poem is not just with “light,” but between light and darkness in both persons. For Neruda, love and eros are confrontations with the real subjectivity of another person. That otherness takes the form of traumatic, destructive passion, and reveals a mutual inchoateness almost beyond endurance. The apparent disconnection between the descriptions of love, and the descriptions of the tempest, at first conceal the fact that for Neruda, love is the only means by which two people “weather” each other. They are in fact brought to life by their encounter, instead of being destroyed, through an alchemy of sentiment that transmutes the storm.

Neruda writes, “you arrive in the flower and the water.” These tropes define the divide between new life on the one hand, and chaos on the other. The first flower imagery is suggested by the line, “Let me spread you out among yellow garlands.” This is a plea for happiness, and a gallant seduction, modes which return at the end of the poem. But first Neruda turns to the night sky: “Who writes your name in smoke among the stars of the south?” It is an image of the sublime overwritten with the beautiful – the sublime of the starry sky that becomes the backdrop for the more manageable name of the beloved. The ambivalence of this image of the sky gives way to the absolute sublimity of the inchoate beloved: “Oh let me remember you as you were before you existed.”

This incantation sets loose the storm. The violence of his beloved’s difference, which a dialectician might call her “negative capability,” tears open the poet himself: “Suddenly the wind howls and bangs at my shut window. / The sky is a net crammed with shadowy fish.” Still, the eroticism of “The rain takes off her clothes” makes it clear that this apparent digression is still the encounter between the poet and his lover. The rain, like the sky, is ambivalent, both violent and vital.

The wind is the purer image of chaos, and it drives the poet to echolalia: “The wind. The wind.” It is something that can only be survived, unlike the “power of men,” against which the speaker can wage war. The suffering he endures is like that which he discovers in her: “How you must have suffered getting accustomed to me, / my savage, solitary soul, my name that sends them all running.” Only this sort of experience can disturb the hermetic enclosure of the poet’s own self. Through becoming accustomed to the difficult object of affection, the lover finally regains peace: “Here all the winds let go sooner or later, all of them.”

There is a part of the beloved that runs, and a part that does not. Neruda writes, “You are here. Oh, you do not run away....Even so, at one time a strange shadow ran through your eyes.” This strange shadow, mentioned almost reproachfully, recalls the “shadowy fish” of the storm. The depth of shadow in the Other yields to the reflective pearl of the body, and to the interposed fan of morning light, itself softened from a “burn” to the image of a kiss.

For Neruda, love is divided between knowledge of the violent and unsingable moments of sunderance, and the celebration of those particulars that can be shared: “You are more than this white head that I hold tightly / as a cluster of fruit, every day, between my hands.” The physical details of the body, and the homely rituals of days and nights together – these survive the storm, and in fact stake their claim to the truth upon the ravages they manage to contain. In the phrase “You are more than this,” we hear both humility, and despair.

Blossoms are Neruda’s symbol for love at the moment when it is achieved. They are suitable because of their naïve, sufficient externality, which reminds us of the inter-subjectivity of the love affair. Flowers appear on the outside of dark branches, or cover the ground after a rain. Neruda writes, “you bring me honeysuckle,” and, in return, “I will bring you happy flowers from the mountains,” in contrast to the devastations of the “sad wind.” The implicit sunshine of the “yellow garlands” returns in the “sunned” body of the beloved, and in the blue of the bluebells. There is only a whisper of their origins in the “dark hazels,” which bring back the “whirl of dark leaves” from the storm.

For Neruda, love finds its way as a negotiation between savage, solitary souls. Each braves the other, and breaks its seals in the process. In the space of familiarity created between them, both lovers emerge from remoteness and shadow, manifest. The rain, the storm, take their places among the signs of the spring.


A beautiful reading, Joe, and one I’ll look forward to responding to in more detail in a post of my own soon. For now, I wonder: given your reading of this poem as an encounter with the real, radically other subjectivity of another person, what do you make of the line, “You are like nobody since I love you”? I don’t know whether “desde que” has the same double meaning (duration/causation) that “since” has in English; my dictionary is ambiguous on the subject. But even if causation isn’t specifically one of the meanings of “desde que,” a narrowly “duration” reading would still lead to a rendering like, “Ever since I have loved you, you have seemed like nobody,” which still seems to imply causation.

So, that got confusing, but what I mean to ask is, how is the erasure of the beloved equivalent with an encounter with her real otherness? Would you say that it’s a sort of defamiliarization, wherein the lover is disabused of his habits of thinking about “normal” people in order to contemplate the beloved’s singularity? Or what?

(Also, though probably unrelatedly, I can’t help but think of Dickinson: “I’m nobody, who are you? / Could you be nobody too?")

By uncomplicatedly on 02/05/07 at 01:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think the reference to Dickinson is absolutely on-point; Neruda is playing with the meanings of “nobody” here. The valuable familiarity that Neruda eventually regains has to first be destroyed by the discovery of what is permanently strange and unfamiliar in the other person.

I take this to be a poem of discovery, not one of erasure; the speaker is discovering the dialectical other of the mellow happiness suggested at the poem’s beginning and end. When he writes, “you are like nobody,” he means of course to praise her exceptionality. He also means that she is like a person without an identity: in the midst of the storm, things fall apart, the center cannot hold.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 02/05/07 at 03:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

uncomplicatedly: I’m pretty sure “desde que” refers only to time.  “Ya que” covers the other meaning of English “since.”

By on 02/05/07 at 03:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

How funny that this post should come up, as a last minute lesson plan revision I decided upon last night has me incorporating Neruda’s “The Poet’s Obligation” for my students ("To whoever is not listening to the sea /this Friday morning . . .").  I want to spend a bit more time with your analysis before I comment, but just had to post my surprise at that neat little overlap.  Oh- perhaps one more thing.  I have read there are certain translations of Neruda to avoid- apparently a big bone of contention with Neruda scholars- which are they and what are the issues involved?

By gregory on 02/05/07 at 05:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

That’s true.  And the use of the present tense in Merwin’s version is a bit misleading.  We tend to express this concept in the present perfect in English.  “Desde que vivo en Nueva York,...” “Since I have lived in New York.”

By Jonathan Mayhew on 02/05/07 at 05:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Wow--I came to this blog via Brad DeLong. And shit I have the contrarian anti-meme post, where I nominate Neruda for writing the worst poem of the 20 th century. 6 degree of seperation if ya feel me.

By drydock on 02/05/07 at 11:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

A very interesting reading, Joe.  I’m still having trouble with the first stanza, though--"you arrive in the flower and the water / You are more than this white head that I hold tightly / as a cluster of fruit, every day, between my hands”

These lines seem to point towards a different sort of experience of the beloved--not the excess of the inchoate, but rather the excess of something else which perhaps would be best called the symbol.  In both cases, the beloved is said to be “more than” the experience of the body.  You read this as pointing towards something in excess of experience all together--the experience of depth, of the inchoate, of that which is radically unavailable to the experience of the lover.  But “you arrive in the flower and the water” seems to suggest instead that the “more than” is the more than of another type of experience, that the experience of the beloved is more than an experience of the body of the beloved, that the beloved is encountered in other elements--the flower and the water, spread out among yellow garlands, i.e. dispersed into the experience of the world.  I’m having trouble reconciling this with your reading of the rest of the poem, though this may be explained by the fact that the poem suddenly shifts beginning with the third stanza.  Any thoughts?

Also, curiously, the word from which “visitor” is translated is not the standard “visitante,” but rather “visitador,” a word which bears the connotations either of a door to door vendor or a traveling doctor, which is to say, of a more professional, official, or economic visit.  “Sutil visitadora” almost suggests a kind of weaseling one’s way in.  I find Neruda’s word choice here extremely difficult to account for.  What do you make of this?

By surlacarte on 02/06/07 at 02:09 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks to everyone who’s written in to help clarify some of the questions of translation; of course, it’s always risky to present readings of a translated poem. Can anyone help gregory?

drydock, the poem you reprinted on your site was, in fact, very bad. C’est la vie.


Actually, I think that’s a very similar reading to the one that I am pursuing; the dispersal of the beloved in symbols is another sign of the final irreducibility of the beloved to any particular symbol. In other words, there is a secret alliance between the echolalia of “The wind. The wind”, and the rippling outward of symbolization to the point of believing that she “owns the universe” because everything in it symbolizes her.

An additional observation: “you arrive in...the water” foreshadows the rain.

The formality of “visitador” makes me wonder again about the word “subtle.” It is possible that “subtle” has the other meaning here that it does in English, where it can refer to superadded, spiritual quintessence of a thing? And if so, does this help to explain the unusual word for “visitor”—is there the suggestion of a ghost or spirit?

By Joseph Kugelmass on 02/06/07 at 03:03 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Joe & interested parties, my response to this post is now up right here. It is, more or less, a defense of the flowers.

By uncomplicatedly on 02/06/07 at 11:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

And I’ve put up some rather contrasting thoughts (in part on this poem, but mainly more generally on the Veinte poemas) here.

By Jon on 02/07/07 at 09:43 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Oh, and I’m not a Neruda scholar… I just play one for my students.  But I certainly have seen problematic translations.  Just one example from Nathaniel Tarn’s Heights of Machu Picchu.  In the Spanish, Section XI ends with the line “sube a nacer conmigo, hermano.” And Section X starts with the line “Sube a nacer conmigo, hermano.” You don’t have to be much of a linguist to work out that that’s the same line, repeated.  Presumably to some purpose.  So what does Tarn do in the English?  In the first instance, he translates it as “rising to birth with me, as my own brother”; in the second, as “Arise to brith with me, my brother.” I find that just bizarre.

Meanwhile, and returning to the poem under discussion, it’s certainly true that “visitadora” is an odd word to employ.  (It makes me think immediately of the euphemism employed within and in the title of Mario Vargas Llosa’s Pantaleón y las visitadoras).  The RAE suggests that (in line also with some technical uses) “visitadora” implies frequent visits.

But that’s also grist to my mill: she comes, she goes; never fully present, never fully absent.

By Jon on 02/07/07 at 10:53 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Birth doesn’t really work very well as a verb in English.  Nacer = to be born.

By Jonathan Mayhew on 02/08/07 at 10:24 AM | Permanent link to this comment

You wouldn’t be able to tell that “visitante” is feminine without an added particle, and since the speaker is directly addressing her, there’s no question of using a feminine pronoun, demonstrative, adjective, or article; also, “sútil” is neuter.

By on 02/08/07 at 10:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Come to think of it, I hardly ever hear “visitante.” Why didn’t he use “invitada,” is what I’m wondering.

By on 02/09/07 at 02:06 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Never mind, don’t post that, it’s a stupid question.

By on 02/09/07 at 02:08 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Sorry, Wade—couldn’t resist.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 02/09/07 at 02:13 AM | Permanent link to this comment

To my way of thinking, this poem describes the love between the night and the moon.

It is the moon that was, once, considered by some ancient people to be the center of the universe (in some cultures).

It is the moon the small white head (la blanca cabecita) that appears in the middle of the dark night.

It is the moon the one that plays everyday with the light of the universe.

Of course, each one (both the night and the moon) represent something deeper.

By on 11/08/08 at 08:43 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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