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.


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.


Don’t Get Hysterical, Get Historical—and Mythical

by Rachel Hadas

Precisely a week before the dreaded inauguration, I found myself thinking about work written by Euripides, W.H. Auden, Walt Whitman, and—a couple of months ago—by some of my students at Rutgers-Newark. In however zig-zaggy and haphazard a fashion, allow me to try to join this constellation of dots—or as Auden put it in “September 1, 1939,” these “ironic points of light.”

A graduate seminar on myth in literature I taught this past fall met on Wednesday afternoons. On November 9, I walked the students through “September 1, 1939.”

To the best of my recollection, not one of the dozen of them (both MA and MFA students) was familiar with Auden’s work at all. Marilyn Hacker, in her trenchant essay “Poetry and Public Mourning,” reminds us that “Auden wished to excise some of his early political poetry from his oeuvre because he had ceased to hold the convictions there expressed: many readers go on reading these poems, wherever they stand in their politics.” It’s well known that “September 1, 1939” was widely circulated on the Internet after 9/11. It’s also the case that some people quickly began to refer to November 9, 2016 as “11/9.”

The reading on our syllabus that week was Euripides’ play Iphigenia in Aulis. And although for part of the afternoon Iphigenia yielded air time to Auden, her compelling and nightmarish story continued to preoccupy the students. In addition to Iphigenia in Aulis and Iphigenia among the Taurians, we’d read Barry Unsworth’s hard-hitting 2003 novel The Songs of the Kings, also about the sacrifice of Iphigenia by her father Agamemnon and his henchmen, and we had seen Michalis Cacoyannis’s 1978 film Iphigenia, which adheres closely to Euripides’ language. An ambitious father, a nubile daughter, an angry mob: “Iphigenia? Ivanka?” asked my student Ariel. Logical? Not exactly. Compelling as a parallel? Undoubtedly. For her final project, Ariel, a poet, wrote a short play on the subject. Another student wrote a dialogue, another a sequence of poems—all works that took these young women (all women) outside their usual generic comfort zones and that considered the ugly but endlessly ambiguous story of the sacrifice from multiple angles. No myth has a single or simple meaning; to understand it, you almost have to retell it, and in retelling it you can’t help changing it a little. “The forms of the tales that work survive, and the others die and are forgotten,” writes Neil Gaiman of myth in The View from the Cheap Seats. True enough; but just think of all the teeming life forms stories take before they become (as some certainly do) extinct.

Are the classics irrelevant? Walt Whitman thought so. In “Song of the Exposition” (1871) he wrote:

Come Muse migrate from Greece and Ionia,
Cross out please those immensely overpaid accounts,
That matter of Troy and Achilles’ wrath, and Aeneas’, Odysseus’ wanderings,
Placard “Removed” and “To Let” on the rocks of your snowy Parnassus…”

Whitman calls for “a better, fresher, busier sphere, a wide, untried domain.” But his breezy optimism, his airy dismissal of stale grievances, didn’t seem to pertain to the world we found ourselves living in last fall. Instead, my students were mesmerized by the darkly compelling, ironic, and multi-faceted story, which varies in every retelling, about the ruthless father and his daughter and the political backdrop against which the drama plays out.

Myth, I tell my students over and over, presents not a lesson but a vision, and lets us make of that vision what we will. At the tail-end of 2016, I was drawn back to Auden—not “September 1, 1939” this time, but to New Year Letter, a long and immensely eloquent poem Auden wrote a few months later, about politics, art, and much else. I’d remembered and sought out again the ominous notes this poem strikes at the start, his matchless evocation of global jitters leading up to World War Two. But I’d forgotten the wonderful passage, also quite near the beginning of the poem, in which Auden authoritatively puts the case that art offers neither realism nor an easy set of instructions but rather

An algebraic formula,
An abstract model of events
Derived from past experiments,
And each life must itself decide
To what and how it be applied.

What does all this have to do with the Trump era we’re being pulled into? Well, that words matter; that the classics retain their relevance, even if only because (as Auden puts it in “September 1, 1939”) “we must suffer [it] all again.” That we have to keep thinking for ourselves; even great literature of the past presents no easy answers. That the insistent tweet of the present mustn’t drown out the past or the future. Robert Frost reportedly said at a dinner party in 1960, “Don’t get hysterical, get historical. If they get some sense of historical background they’ll see how these things happen over and over again.”

Writing, teaching, journalism—these occupations, these vocations and avocations are more important now than ever. In the immediate future, they may become endeavors that call for more courage than many of us have at our disposal. Maybe we won’t need our courage; maybe we will. Some of us will find it. Time will tell—mythic time as well as the other kind; the past as well as the present.

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rachel_hadas_hiRachel Hadas is the author of many books of poetry, essays, and translations. Her most recent titles are a memoir, Strange Relation (2011); The Golden Road (2012) and Questions in the Vestibule (2016), both poetry; and she’s completing verse translations of Euripides’ two Iphigenia plays. She is Board of Governors Professor of English at Rutgers-Newark. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.