Mine Own Neruda

by William Archila

I was ten and my father was gone, already living here in the States, when my mother woke me up in the middle of the night to listen to a strange voice coming out of the transistor radio. It was Pablo Neruda reciting his love poems while violins and guitars played in the background. For two years I fell asleep to the voice of Neruda rising and falling like waves in the distance, like seagulls swooping down, my head filling with poetry.

The broadcast was interrupted in November, 1980, when I fled El Salvador and the war that was tearing my country apart. I was twelve years old. I arrived in Los Angeles, California, with many questions unanswered, conversations unfinished and years of my young life unfulfilled. I gave up much of my national culture and Spanish language to learn a new culture and language. My English was full of street vernacular and strong raw accents—my words squashed, shredded, forced to dance a Shakespearian rag. I became part of the growing immigrant community, speaking ghetto Spanish. “Go back to your country” echoed throughout these years. Ahead a long road stretched into darkness.

In high school I began writing long before I read any poetry that excited me. My writings were fragments—verses and scribbles not meant to be taken seriously or shared. I pursued this calling in secret, writing only for myself. In college I tried to read the masters of the English language: Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Dickinson, Whitman, but none of them spoke to me—or maybe I wasn’t ready to listen. It wasn’t until I read Ginsberg’s “Howl” that I was amazed to discover I was not the only young man who saw the best minds of his generation destroyed.

In 1992, after a peace treaty was signed, I returned to El Salvador hoping to find a home, but instead found a war-torn country full of poverty, death, illiteracy, and crime. All my friends and family members were gone, especially those who were capable of changing a society. I was searching for something that no longer existed—a quality remembered from childhood, a sense of belonging to a country and a language. But these had changed. And I had changed. I found myself a stranger in a strange land.

I returned to California and bounced between LA and San Francisco, feeling rootless and without home. Yet that yearning for a sense of home—for union with my country, my family, for other Central American immigrants—grew deep inside me. To cope with these feelings of exile, I needed to write what I could not voice. That’s when I consciously began to write poems.

Within a year of discovering Ginsberg, I rediscovered Pablo Neruda. From poems such as “Walking Alone,” I learned to take the pencil and run across the pages, like a horse galloping across Latin America. I could remember the tree outside my childhood window, the fragile eggs boxed in my mother’s store, the lightbulb hanging from the ceiling, and the moon bending over the neighborhood. I could go outside, feel the cracks of the street and remember my small country of El Salvador.

Neruda demanded more breadth, more precision, more memory of home in my reading and writing. I became interested in writers who sense home as a source of identity more than as a refuge: Pessoa’s Portugal, Neruda’s Chile, Rushdie’s India, Levine’s Detroit, Whitman’s American soil, and Roethke’s North America.

Neruda’s “Residence on Earth” helped me understand that the identity of the exile writer is homelessness and its attendant loneliness. As an exile writer you try to recreate your home in your work. Of course, you never can. You create fictions instead. But in this trajectory, in this country, I never travel alone. I travel with Neruda.

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W.ArchilaWilliam Archila earned his MFA in poetry from the University of Oregon. His first collection of poetry, The Art of Exile (Bilingual Review Press, 2009) won an International Latino Book Award in 2010. His Second book, The Gravedigger’s Archaeology (Red Hen Press), won the 2013 Letras Latinas/Red Hen Poetry Prize. He has been published in American Poetry Review, The Georgia Review, AGNl, and Los Angeles Review of Books, and the anthologies Theatre Under My Skin: Contemporary Salvadoran Poetry, and The Wandering Song: Central American Writing in the United States. He also has poems forthcoming in Prairie Schooner and Tin House. See what he’s published in AGNI here.



“All the Deceits of the World”: Poetry and Spirituality

by Emilia Phillips

In the waist-roped, white linen robe that, in my monthly service, denuded me of choice for church dress, I creaked across the wooden altar to the pulpit in St. Peter’s, which built itself upon the rock of high Anglican ceremony and socially liberal mores. In, I’d processed with the crucifix ahead of Father Paden, and now I would read the first scripture, from Matthew Chapter 6—“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin…”—and onward, Let us pray, and we knelt, and we rose, and we knelt; and we voiced our scripted supplications from The Litany—“From all the inordinate and sinful affections; and from all the deceits of the world, the flesh, and the devil, Good Lord, deliver usand so on into the vague remembered of what-usually-happened those Sundays. Many years later, as I drafted a poem for my first book, these memories shepherded me into the notion that “The first love poems I knew were // prayers.” God the Beloved, God the unrequited. This gesture of ars poetica codifies, if not complicates, my lifelong but allusive association of poetry—or, at least, beautiful and rhythmic language—with spirituality.

Although my faith in the Christian God went dark long ago, my faith in mystery—the great Ineffable—remains and, through poetry, swells. For me, spirituality is the belief in, acceptance, and willing experience of the unknown, and reading poetry is an ecstatic exercise in blind-leading-the-blind agnosticism. The poetry I value most, perhaps paradoxically, allows for, yet draws close to what can’t be said, the ineffabilis, the “not utterable.”

I’ve never encountered a poet of the Ineffable quite like Emily Dickinson:

There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference,
Where the Meanings, are –

None may teach it

The “certain Slant of light” provides the tone through which the speaker reads experience. It and its effects are inexplicable, “None may teach it”; yet, in another paradox, Dickinson describes the experience by saying it cannot be described. This gesture is kin to the notion that one knows God better by admitting one cannot fathom God, the infinite “I am.” Dickinson invites the ineffable into her act of utterance, exposing the limitation of that utterance and, therefore, the self, furthermore allowing the self to transcend the bounds of utterance so that the self is author of what is said and what cannot be said.

All of this reminds me of the contemporary poet and Catholic mystic Fanny Howe’s writings on bewilderment. Howe invokes the concept as an ethics and poetics rooted, I think, in Samuel Johnson’s 1752 use of “bewilder” to mean “To lose in pathless places, to confound for want of a plain road.” It means, quite literally, to be or become wilder. Howe writes:

“In the Dictionary, to bewilder is ‘to cause to lose one’s sense of where one is.’
“The wilderness as metaphor is in this case not evocative enough because causing a complete failure in the magnet, the compass, the scale, the stars and the movement of the rivers is more than getting lost in the woods.
“Bewilderment is an enchantment that follows a complete collapse of reference and reconcilability.”

Bewilderment, the argument against context; the unknown acting upon or erasing the known. Bewilderment as perfect spirituality.

So, how does one come to—or, rather, into—bewilderment? How is one bewildered? Can poetry bewilder us?

On our way home from supper tonight, as my husband drove, I rode with my head out the passenger’s side window, like I often do when I’m out of words. I removed my glasses, and the world I knew receded to vagary. (Vagary, I should note, comes from the Latin vagari, “wander.”) The wind filled my ears, and the sound and motion allowed me to transcend my body, the day’s narrative, even ego. Moments like these, in which I am humbled to a trance induced by rhythm and sound, have brought me as close to true bewilderment, I believe, as I’ve ever felt. Here, I’m instinct rather than intellect. I have invited the unknown into the known.

Poetry, like the car ride with one’s head out the window, can offer the bewilderment of motion, vagary, and noise. The poetry of bewilderment appeals to the senses to allow the self to be unconscious of the senses—that is, the known. I’m most aware of my senses (“the deceits of the world, the flesh”) when those senses are overloaded—as they are with pain, blinding light, or deafening noise—or when they are not appealed to—as happens in a dark room when I can’t see or when I have a stuffy nose and can’t smell. For poetry to bewilder, and therefore become a spiritual engagement, it must balance meaning (utterance), silence (the ineffable), and sound (the senses).

Returning to Dickinson, whose poetry owes much to the composition of prayers, we find this trinitas at work. We have what the poem is trying to say—winter light causes me to be depressed—and the allowed ineffable—but I have no idea why, except that it seems to connect me to some unknowable, perhaps divine, misfortune—delivered through highly rhythmic and musical verse. Like the scenes in MacBeth featuring Shakespeare’s Three Witches (sans Hecate), Dickinson’s poem renders divine disorder—and, furtively, her unease—through largely trochaic lines, an inversion of the heartbeat-like iambic pattern; furthermore, Dickinson emphasizes this instability with additions and substitutions that don’t allow for a full number of feet per line and that stress the lines’ final syllables, an effect (somewhat problematically) referred to as a “masculine ending”:

/            ˘  |   /     ˘   |      /       ˘     |         /

There’s a     certain       Slant of     light                    Three and a half trochaic feet

/       ˘   |   /   ˘ |      /

Winter     After     noons –                                        Two and a half trochaic feet

In the same way that the ineffable is allowed into the uttered, Dickinson gives us regularity in the midst of irregularity through her rhyme scheme, ABAB CDCD, where the A and C rhymes (light/heft, us/difference) are slant rhymes, and B and D are true rhymes (noons/Tunes, scar/are). The poem’s regularity gives shape to its irregularity and, therefore, produces an effect on the reader analogous to someone running across a collapsing bridge; with every step, the stones fall away from order into disorder. Perhaps this is the way in which poetry offers us a kind of bewilderment and connects us spiritually with the unknown: it gives us the tools of navigation, but then the compass starts to spin, the scale dips to one arm and then another, the stars confuse, and the rivers flood out of their paths.

In chapel one Wednesday, for I also went to St. Peter’s School, I watched the rain twisting like clear snakes over the windows while I absently sang “Seek Ye First,” a hymn derived from Matthew 6:33, with the other children. The rain I imagined rising to deluge, rising up to flood St. Peter’s even though it was on a hill, so that I would be stranded there to make a small fire from dried palms, to eat communion wafers and drink wine in the rafters, to paddle the halls in a canoe I carved from a pew—a plague, a miracle. Imaginative impulses, like the imagined flood, were the closest I came to knowing God and among my first experiences of writing, and they came out of a backdrop of utterance—“Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you, singing Hal-le-lu-halle-lu-jah”—and what couldn’t be uttered, of getting lost in thought, bewildered: of inviting the unknown into the known. When I wrote about this moment in my second book, I responded to my first book’s idea that the first love poems I knew were prayers; this time, I realized that the first and perhaps truest love poem was that of absence, what couldn’t be put into words.

All These Things Shall Be Added Unto You

In chapel I castled in air a flood
from rain that forked on the windows

silver and sheeted in gusts
to mirrors flashing moments,

and although the school was
citadeled on a hill, I imagined the halls

as canals I paddled with canoes carved
from pews—my oars

the crucifix and torch, my life
vest fashioned from the Common

Prayers. I camped in
the rafters and made hand-sized fires

of palms ignited by match and oil. At night I
would drink myself to my first

drunk on communion
red and spread Peter

Pan on the wafers. My daydream then
was not of love, though the stairs

became a waterfall, the computer monitors—
conchs on the lakebed, silent,

their green hypnotic
now dark. The organ pipes were dead

coral that burbled when I dove
from the nave to plunge

its keys. I once said
that prayer was the first form

of love
poem I knew, but before prayer there was

absence. I drowned the other
sticky children

pewed alphabetically
on either side of me

in absence—their bodies not
floating facedown, unrescued by their parents

or the Coast
Guard. They were simply

gone with the flash flood
like the masses in Noah’s time that we never heard

knocking against the hull
or discovered in trees

bloated and winking, petal eyed
like Benny Goodman.

Noah didn’t survive
long after the ark. The water,

we know now, was
poisoned by us.

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Emilia-HS-8.15-5785-1Emilia Phillips is the author of two poetry collections, Signaletics (2013) and Groundspeed (2016), from the University of Akron Press, and three chapbooks including Beneath the Ice Fish Like Souls Look Alike (Bull City Press, 2015). Her poems and essays appear in Agni, The Kenyon Review, New England Review, Ninth Letter, Ploughshares, Poetry, and elsewhere. She has received StoryQuarterly’s 2015 Nonfiction Prize and fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, The Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop, and elsewhere. She is the Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Centenary College (NJ) and the 32 Poems interviews editor. Her poem “All These Things Shall Be Added Unto You” was originally published in Waxwing. Find out here what she’s published at AGNI.