Recycling Neruda

by Stephen Kessler

The cardboard slipcases of the three-volume Obras completas and the four-in-one Libro de las odas have been through a lot since I bought them in Madrid in 1976 at one of those dilapidated bookstalls across from Atocha, had them wrapped in layers of brown paper by the ladies in the basement of Correos who expertly, with just string and hot wax, would prepare your package, not even a box, for the voyage to California, and unwrapped them intact at home in the Soquel hills a few weeks later.

Since then they have survived several moves and have not been left behind for the next residents or sold or donated like so many others, and up on the coast the carpenter ants found the uncoated cardboard just the tasty texture for their paper hunger, and the old glue in the cases’ corners was coming loose in places, and if you picked one up it would start to come apart in your hands.

Today, when I was moving some books around, their decrepitude was evident, so despite what should have been a sentimental attachment to such seminal items in my library, and despite the faded photos on the cases’ backs of the great poet I once admired so much and loved so much that I learned to translate on the training wheels of his odes—despite or perhaps because of his iconic stature, the only Hispanic poet anyone knows besides García Lorca, the brand name everyone recognizes and adores no matter how much of the poetry reeks of self-congratulation and communist bromides and pride in his prodigious gift and gloating about his great sex with Matilde—I decided I’d had enough reverence for the old man and my small way of smashing his icon was to throw those cardboard slipcases, photos and all, into the blue recycling bin alongside the driveway.

The red leather Obras and green leather Odas look better, less dust-encased, less artifacty, less iconic, more accessible, more readable. But I have read quite enough Neruda, much as he meant to me in my twenties, and amazing as the Residencia en la tierra poems remain, so much stronger and more imaginative and more authentic in their alienation than the political speechifying of the later years and his voice-of-the-people persona. Those commitments to justice and revolution may have been for him historically necessary but they didn’t do his poetry much good and have set a bad example for the kind of finger-pointing agitprop and feel-good righteousness widely practiced today across a land politically contaminated by the most grotesque presidency this country has ever suffered. Poetry may be one way to address this crisis, but who is listening?

Neruda’s most lasting work will be the early love poems, the existentially angst-soaked surrealism, a few of the odes, and Canto general, greater than Pound’s Cantos as “a poem containing history,” when Pablo’s political vision was fresh and embodied in narratives and had not congealed into slogans. I keep him on my shelf as a marker along the way and an occasional point of reference, a poet worth revisiting from time to time, but mostly a father figure, as Whitman was to Pound, whose authority it is time to question—just as I have long since rejected Pound. As Whitman wrote, “Who learns my lesson best learns to destroy the teacher.”

That’s why I’ve recycled the rotting slipcases of the Obras and the Odas, and why those books look better now on the shelf beside the equally important Borges and Aleixandre and Vallejo and Paz and Cernuda, not to get into the poets in other languages. I’m sick of old Pablo being the only name out of the mouth of anyone who learns I’m a translator—I’ve translated him, but so what, so has everyone else. He was promiscuous with his permissions, permissive with conflicting translations, and posthumously Carmen Balcells, his Barcelona agent (and practically everyone else’s in Hispanic literature), bargained hard for every new lucrative edition of even his most marginal work, which even he, who published prodigiously, didn’t choose to publish when he was alive.

But the Neruda brand has legs, and even though he was bald and built like Alfred Hitchcock, so he doesn’t have the glamour of García Lorca or Frida Kahlo, nor their tragic stories, he sells like Coca-Cola on a hot day in the tropics, and all his various publishers hear the cash registers ringing in his verses like perfect rhymes.

Down in the blue bins the cardboard slipcases are mingling already with the cereal boxes and office paper and empty bottles and plastic containers, Pablo’s picture mashed indifferently against the rest of the remnants the truck will come to pick up later this week, crashing us awake before dawn as it dumps the plastic barrels into its maw.

Why does it feel so good to recycle Neruda?

AGNI Monkey

SK photo by Christina WatersStephen Kessler’s most recent book is Garage Elegies, to be published this spring by Black Widow Press. His translations of Luis Cernuda have received a Lambda Literary Award, the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award, and the PEN Center USA Translation Award. His version of Neruda’s “Heights of Machu Picchu” appears in Machu Picchu, a book of photographs by Barry Brukoff. He lives in Santa Cruz, California, where he writes a weekly column in the Santa Cruz Sentinel. See what he’s published in AGNI here.

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Teaching Art to Scientists

Paul Christensen

For years I taught at a technical university, where all the real money for teaching and faculty recruitment went to the sciences, the engineering schools, the agricultural program, and then, like Oliver Twist’s bowl of gruel, a little bit for the humanities. The school was Texas A&M University, a fine house of learning with many excellent teachers and devoted students. I had no quarrel with its reputation or its massive federal grants for research in all manner of needed solutions to our lives. I once made the observation to some colleagues that our school was uniquely dedicated to deal with hunger, wild fires, epidemics, animal diseases, and pets. We had one of the best veterinary schools in the country; we had Norman Borlaug, the inventor of semi-dwarf wheat that saved India from starvation, and continues to feed arid countries in Africa. That was A&M, a fortress armed against the disasters of nature.

When asked at a cocktail party or a public lecture what I did on the campus, I always faced the same look of disappointment or confusion. “I’m an English Professor,” I would say. How English could possibly contribute to the stern rules of nature was beyond almost everyone. You measured, you weighed, you whirled things on the cyclotron, or hung them up on wires to watch how metabolism worked in a cockroach. I played jazz with a bass saxophonist who specialized in cockroach digestion. He was wonderful, British born, with twenty postdocs following him around his suite of labs like so many ducklings. He was short-listed for the Nobel in chemistry, but I haven’t heard if he ever received it.

On my first day of class, I would tell my students we were starting on a journey into the imagination, into the murky, secret corridors of human feeling, and the even more arcane depths of myth and symbol. The groans were audible; the boys especially seemed nervous and looked around at the girls, who were clearly in the majority. The girls were happy, and were already writing stuff down into their notebooks. The boys were going to stonewall me; they felt threatened, intimidated, disenfranchised by the subject matter, which had so little to do with logic and its myriad integers and connections. That was their pride, their source of strength, their armor against a world that might deceive them with tricks and intuition. I was used to their grim faces at first.

The weeks went by and the poems and stories they wrote were, for the most part, adamantly literal. They had no idea how to access this organ called the imagination. They might have applauded vigorously Hugh Kenner’s assertion that imagination was essentially empirical, and that art was based almost exclusively on experience! Modernism was the temple of empirical art, and everyone was a realist, a critic, a satirist of the actual world. When the postmodernists came along, dreams and fantasies were included in their esthetic, which made the new poetry and fiction seem almost impenetrable as forms of communication.

But I believed in dreams and myths, in the power of mind to combine the real and imaginary in a single work. So on we plunged toward boundaries of awareness, and each student struggled to justify a use of language that did not “prove” anything, except to say that other realities existed. I couldn’t convert everyone to my premise that language was a house of many worlds, but curiously, science fiction was very popular and I could use it as a reference to some of my most rigid engineers. Little by little, something else occurred in class—students began to enjoy this other mode of consciousness. It was like discovering a path in the woods that led nowhere but deeper into the trees. To make things up was liberating; it wasn’t like lying, which had a specific purpose. It was lying to amuse, to entertain, to drift out of the mundane world into miracles. Even if they couldn’t let themselves go fully, they saw the freedom of beginning a poem by saying, “I died, and rose out of my bed/ in the dark of night,/ and floated among the stars.” Others would sit and think about the language, whether it was wordy, or not vivid enough. Not whether such a statement was fact. It wasn’t.

We read Borges, and Neruda, Donald Barthelme, and snippets of Homer, Dante, Richard Brautigan, Kurt Vonnegut, Emily Dickinson, Gogol, Kafka, Plath and Sexton. The more we talked, the more we seemed willing to believe in the world constructed out of such prose. There was a vast library of alternative realities out there, which most had never discovered before my class. They came to writing with high standards of accuracy and verifiability, but it turned into something different, a carefully constructed and plausible non-reality.

It made the facts of their other classes all the more curious and wonderful. A professor would lean over a lab bench and say that the solution was too rich or lean, or that the weight scale was off by a fraction of a gram. A math problem had slipped a cog deep in the intricacies of an equation, which made the whole argument false. A history professor dismissed an exam response of one of my students by calling it a willing fabrication of actual events. But it was only the date that was off, by a hundred years. In other words, students discovered that reality was a surface, an exact plane of calculations and facts, any of which broke the surface and revealed an ocean of oddities and wonders underneath.

Of course, they went back to the real world again after having me for a semester and left me alone with my alembics and coned hat sewn with stars. My robes trailed the ground of the classroom where I pondered strange mysteries and paradoxes. But some who had known me for such a brief time decided to become writers, to enter that secret garden of errant realities for good. My colleagues in creative writing were a kind of Hogwarts tucked in among the Lockean temples of absolute truth. We offered Piranesi’s staircases in place of Euclid’s ladders. And they restored the echoing past of the 17th century to the mind of the 21st.

AGNI Monkey

IMG_0200Paul Christensen has published eight collections of poems, most recently The Human Condition (Wings Press) and The Jack of Diamonds Is a Hard Card to Play (Lamar University Press). He was a NEA fellow in poetry, and is a member of the Texas Institute of Letters. He lives in Vermont and spends his summers in southern France. See what he’s published in AGNI here.

 

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.

AGNI Monkey

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.