Wednesday, August 1, 2007

SUMMER POETRY CHALLENGE - The Book of Questions - Pablo Neruda

Welcome to the third of my four poems on this, the first official day of the Summer Poetry Challenge. If this is your first visit - the other participants and their poems are listed and linked on my side bar - check 'em out!

The Book of Questions by Pablo Neruda, written in 1973 as he was dying. My volume is translated by William O'Daly and is has the texts in both Spanish and English.

Now I'm a big Neruda fan, as you may have noticed from previous posts, but these poems are a departure from his usual form. They are short and sparse - mostly 4 or 5 couplets. Each of the 74 little poems asks a question or questions with uncomplicated diction - the tone is almost childlike - and the questions he asks vary from irrational and unexplainable to incongruous and profound, to witty and silly. They resemble koans, which are short questions or phrases which seem irrational and yet are thought to be accessible with the non-rational mind . The most famous one by Hakuin Ekaku is usually paraphrased as:
Two hands clap and there is a sound. What is the sound of one hand?

They are often meditated on in Buddhist practise, while literally unanswerable and in a sense meaningless, they aim to shock the mind into spiritual enlightenment.

Here are some examples from this last book of Neruda's. This one has, I think, an amusing tone:
And what did the rubies say
standing before the juice of pomegranates?

Why doesn't Thursday talk itself
into coming after Friday?

Who shouted with glee
when the color blue was born?

Why does the earth grieve
when the violets appear?

And I love how this one animates normally inanimate objects:
But is it true that the vests
are preparing to revolt?

why does spring once again
offer its green clothes?

Why does agriculture laugh
at the pale tears of the sky?

How did the abandoned bicycle
win its freedom?

The picture of the bicycle, at first destitute and abandoned, lying rusty against a fence, and later racing riderless and free is so potently clear to me, even in the absence of of those details.

And this one seems sad, especially the last line in which I hear the resentment of the dying man:
Have you noticed that autumn
is like a yellow cow?

And how later the autumnal beast
is a dark skeleton?

And how winter collects
so many layers of blue?

And who asked springtime
for its kingdom of clear air?

In this one, I feel him asking real questions to which he wants the answers. He is less oblique:
Whom can I ask what I came
to make happen in this world?

Why do I move without wanting to,
why am I not able to sit still?

Why do I go rolling without wheels,
flying without wings or feathers,

and why did I decide to migrate
if my bones live in Chile?

And here is the poet's joy of the sounds of words:
Do the o's of the locomotive
cast smoke, fire and steam?

In which language does rain fall
over tormented cities?

At dawn, which smooth syllables
does the ocean air repeat?

Is there a star more wide open
the the word poppy?

Are there two fangs sharper
than the syllables of jackal?

And this one seems to contemplate the ending of things - wondering if dead love is irretrievable and whether the silenced voice is just, well, silent:

Do thought of love fall
into extinct volcanoes?

Is a crater an act of vengeance
or a punishment of the earth?

With which stars do they go on speaking,
the rivers that never reach the sea?

I included some of my favorites above. I had dipped into these poems one-at-a-time over the years, but I'd never read the volume all at once. The poems can be delightful, sad, mysterious, and at times I felt also vapid and frustrating. Some of the incongruities seem like naturally occurring explosions of his soul, others are playful, some seem to want to provoke but sound a false note for me :
Do you not also sense danger
in the sea's laughter?

Do you not see a threat
in the bloody silk of the poppy?

Do you not see that the apple tree flowers
only to die in the apple?

Do you not weep surrounded by laughter
with bottles of oblivion.

"Bottles of oblivion" seems too obvious to me, and the "sea's laughter" and "bloody poppy" just felt forced as I read this one in the context of all the others. Although coming back to it today and reading it alone, I am appreciating it more.

I first felt as I read the volume that there was no added benefit to reading these poems all at once. If anything, they are better to contemplate 1 or 2 at a time. As I read them together there are themes repeated again and again: autumn, yellow, poppies, and they could seem trite with repetition whereas they are surprising and distinct on their own. However, as I read through poems 31 - 47 there was a sequence of real beauty and the later poems, say around 66 - 74 were charged with the mystery of what lies beyond this life. So ultimately, if you like these poems on their own, they can deliver new insights when read together.

I'll leave you with two of the last poems, which I found poignant but which also made me smile:
If all rivers are sweet
where does the sea get its salt?

How do the seasons know
they must change their shirt?

Why so slowly in winter
and later with such a rapid shudder?

And how do the roots know
they must climb toward the light?

And then greet the air
with so many flowers and colors?

Is it always the same spring
who revives her role?


Why does it linger in the branches
until the leaves fall?

And where are its yellow trousers
left hanging?

Is it true that autumn seems to wait
for something to happen?

Perhaps the trembling of a leaf
or the movement of the universe?

Is there a magnet under the earth,
brother magnet of autumn?

When is the appointment of the rose
decreed under the earth?


Dewey said...

I really like these. I could just read poems like this and be sent into daydreams all day long!

Ted said...

I've loved these poems and disliked them too. This reading brought me appreciation for what they do and the imaginative spirit behind it. It helps actually to read them in the company of other readers (like you) reading poems. I was noticing, for instance in your post today, how Blake and Neruda both used couplets - even sometimes to both ask questions about what is profound to them - but so differently.

Eva said...

They kind of remind me of a scene from Alice in Wonderland. I think the one with the opium-smoking caterpillar.

I hadn't read these before, I'd only read his love poems (which I love). It's an interesting variation. Have you seen Il Postino?

Ted said...

I have seen Il Postino - I'm kind of a nut about anything Neruda. They are a little druggy - aren't they?