Poem 1 from Twenty Love Poems

Last post I said that Pablo Neruda’s departed lover was by definition absent by the time we got to the final love poem in his Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair.  I’ve now read the entire collection in an English translation, and I’d have to say that the lover is to a large degree absent throughout—not just in the sense that elements of a doomed romance are woven into the whole series, but in the sense that she isn’t really given a living presence.

Still, quiet, and dark are all attributes Neruda sees or applies to her.*  Erotic attention is  given, moments of apparent mutual intimacy are sketched, and most importantly to us as readers (as opposed to actual partners of Neruda) a range of striking imagery is used to represent her and the poem’s apprehension of his experience with her.

This last point may be crucial. Without it, this poetic series would be only another example of the syndrome of “The Male Gaze.” If that sort of thing, and the patriarchal power dynamics associated are a point of pain, this series of poems by the eventually Nobel Prize winning poet may not be for you.

Sexuality and its expressions, its inescapable intertwining with the rest of society’s hierarchies and prejudices, is not a simple thing. Twenty Love Poems’  popularity testifies that not everyone in the past 100 years sees it this way or is equally bothered by that element.

I’m willing to put Neruda on the stand, but only in our moot court, since he is now long dead, and no one now living likely had to try to negotiate an erotic relationship with him. He’s now become his writings, and his youthful lovers too have become the imagery that he preserved them as. Take that in the balance as we weigh the once living beings and their kindnesses, cravings and blindspots against the art that one of them has left.

“Poem 20”  in the series began by launching one last extravagant image about the love affair as it writes that there can be no more, but as I now turn to the opening of the series, the 19 year old Neruda is going to try numerous audacious images to describe his beloved and their relationship. They’re all going to be one-sided. She never speaks. Her emotions can be sometimes made out if one reads the poems in an Imagist manner (where emotional words are not used, but depicted with external description) but they are not the point of the series which is focused on the male speaker’s suffering, confusion, and dissatisfaction.

I’ve mentioned before that I fear that I may ere in my translations because my prime goal is to make vivid the images I discern in a poem. In Neruda’s “Poem 1,”  I differ from other translations I’ve read of it in that I see some images they have muted or made more abstract and “prettified.” I worried about my tendency here so much that I pulled back from some rawer translations I considered. This may be cowardice on my part—but the most noble explanation I can give is that to make a sure judgement on that level of tone I would need to be a fluent speaker of the source language and more familiar with the entirety of Neruda’s work.

Poem 1

Here’s the translation I mined from Neruda. “It’s much cheaper down in the South American towns where the miners work almost for nothing.”

 

Here are some brief notes on my experience of “Poem 1”  in making my fresh translation of it from the original Spanish.

The poem opens with an audacious image: the beloved is portrayed as an immense (if inhuman—not even animal, but mineral!) landscape. My reading is that Neruda is making an extended metaphor that erotically he’s engaged in mining his lover’s body. Are there subtexts here (I assume unintentional, but who knows) to foreign corporate exploitation of Chilean resources?

The first quatrain ends with what I read as a brag that lover-man Neruda is so potent that his lover could only conceive a son from his mining operation. See what I warned about? Either Neruda or I—or both of us—is risking risibility here.

In the second quatrain, Neruda recovers. This is flat-out marvelous and mysterious writing. Perhaps it benefits in that Neruda is no longer trying to describe his beloved, only himself here. In my translation task I worked a bit on what word to use for “túnel.” “Tunnel” is the obvious choice, but I never liked it as word-music when I tried it. I chose “cave” instead, preserving the anima subtext I sensed.

The third stanza, problematic again. It opens well, and as word-music compels. The “de leche ávida y firme” phrase is rendered by all the other translators in whatever their best Surrealistic/poetic manner finds. I’m more base it seems, and was struck by secondary Spanish meanings for “leche.” I could also have chosen the idiomatic meaning of smacking or bumping, even though other translators haven’t. Third line? If she was to speak: “Neruda, my absent eyes are up here!”   Fourth line. “Rosey pubis” is just bad, and I couldn’t justify linguistically my alternative.

OK, you in the back row. Stop snickering. Or otherwise we’ll stop with erotic poetry and go back to Longfellow right now!

Last stanza. How self-aware was Neruda when he wrote this?** As he refrains on woman and body, he goes and drops in the “my woman” formulation with it. Given that in the course of this series of poems or even the rest of this stanza, this isn’t going to be a long-term commitment, I’m not sure how he gets the deed and mineral rights on his beloved’s mortal corpus, but if you like you can just say that I’m 2020 anachronistically considering 1924. The final three lines make plain, even if it’s lovely verse, that, well: a man’s gotta ramble, I can’t be satisfied, and the problems of us little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.

Am I being unfair to Neruda? Even here as a 19-year-old he’s an accomplished poet who found an avid audience that bonded with what they received in his art. When reading his Twenty Love Poems and Song of Despair   I came across as many “wow!” lines as problematic ones, and I wasn’t bored. Not everyone looking for a lover, much less a love poet, is going to ask for the correct dialectic to get them through the night.

A possible defense is that this isn’t poetry as memoir (a common form today) and that the woman in the poem seems soul-less and silent because she is intentionally an abstracted metaphor. As I said when we started—whatever, she is now.

For my performance I chose not to go romantic for this as I did with “Poem 20”  last time. While there is a tender cello present, the main music is carried by pianos playing astringently. I performed it more as if it was a Browning-like dramatic monolog—for monolog it is. Feel free to hiss or sigh with the character of this very young dramatis personae.***  The text in Neruda’s original Spanish alongside another English translation is here. The player gadget to hear my performance is below.

 

 

 

*In “Poem 15”  the poet says to her “I like for you to be still: it is as though you were absent,/distant and full of sorrow as though you had died.” This may be taking a Goth stance a bit too far.

**In “Poem 14”  he shows a moment of sympathy, “How you must have suffered getting accustomed to me.”

***Former REM frontman Michael Stipe had one of those interviews via a standardized questionnaire recently. To the question “To whom would you most like to say sorry, and why?” he answered:

“Anyone I slept with before the age of 27…”

Poem 20 from Twenty Love Poems

This should be embarrassing to admit, but I’m not that familiar with Pablo Neruda’s poetry. This project is a great motivator to fill in such gaps. English translations from Chilean Neruda’s Spanish exist, but there may be no better way to become truly familiar with a poet than to translate them yourself.

As 2020 began, I saw a list of some works that came into public domain status on January 1st. Neruda’s Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada (Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair)  was one of those 1924 books that are now free to perform and use.

Published when Neruda was 19, it has reached a large audience for a poetry collection: the Wikipedia article says it’s the “Best selling poetry book in the Spanish language ever” and gives overall sales as 20 million copies. These are poems of erotic love and desire, and that subject no doubt helps its popularity. I think it’s safe to assume that some of the sales would be love-token gifts.

Veinte Poemas Title Page

“If you see her, say hello. She might be in Tangier…” Pablo Neruda’s 1924 “Blood on the Tracks”

 

I’ve only translated one poem in the series completely: the final love poem. But on a cursory examination this collection of poems is an example of a genre that if presented as a sung recording would be called “a break-up album.” That is, it’s an expression of the author’s experience of a romantic relationship that has come to an end. It’s a common enough trope that many singer-songwriters have one in their catalog, and most of the rest could support a playlist to create one in effect.

A problematic element in the break-up album, sung or printed, is that the hard-end of a relationship tends to leave the writer who gets to document it a number of not always elevated states: self-pity, anger, hopelessness, revenge, grief, confusion, sorrow. By definition, the singer is “working through this.”

The former beloved likely appears, but they often don’t get a very well-rounded portrayal—the author’s pain is the side that gets sung. Sometimes you get Blood on the Tracks, and other times you get “Ballad in Plain D”  from Another Side of Bob Dylan. Where’s Neruda, who was a few months younger than the Dylan of Another Side when Twenty Love Poems was written, in this continuum? The poet’s beloved here is referred to mostly in the sense of her absence in this final poem. Not much is said about who did who wrong and in what ways, and by this it’s a universal poem.

Universal can risk banality. Against this danger Neruda arrays considerable musicality in his poem. It’s not a strict form like a villanelle, but repeating lines and phrases work like that form and remind us of the stuck-ness and the self-mantras at the end of a relationship. From my start at a couple of other poems in the series, the whole collection seems to be full of sensual imagery, but this last poem, so full of loss and lack, challenges this tactic.

Neruda wrestles with that right from the start, saying in one of the refrains that the dissolution has caused him to be able to write “the saddest lines” and he then immediately launches into some of the most elaborate images in this poem:

‘…The night is full of stars
And the dark stars on the horizon are shivering’
The night wind swirls the sky, singing.”

 

Yet the rest of the poem is not consistently in this voice. Alternating with the more striking images are lines you, I, or the next person might say at the end of a relationship. This may make the poem more inviting to those not ready for a full-on array of Surrealist images.

This also made it easier for me as a translator. I feel my task as a translator of surreal images is to make them vivid for speakers of contemporary English, and that leads me to feel I should understand even the most hermetic image to render it as well as I can. I’ll often spend a long time on just one phrase, one image. What is the poet’s mind, however disassociated from convention, sensing, seeing, in this?

As a performer, my other task was to invest this poem about the end of a passionate state with appropriate emotion. How much to understate? How much to state with extra conviction or extra doubt? What I lack in skills there I can try to shore up with music. The composition’s core is an acoustic guitar part that while it isn’t exactly based on a drone tone, doesn’t have the kind of progression that takes the listener on an irresistible linear route. I let my strings sing with the bass guitar part, an instrument that can portray a heart-sob better than most. Standing in for the stars, the night winds pushing clouds, the distant singer, and the lost beloved is a high melody part off in the right-channel distance.

The player gadget to hear this performance in English is below. If you’d like to hear the poem read in the original Spanish, you can find that here. Normally I’d provide the full text of the poem—in this case, my fresh English translation—but this one is rather long on the page. I’ll post it separately if I get some requests for it.

 

 

Thanks as always for reading and listening.

The Parlando Winter 2018-19 Top Ten part 3

Should I stop for a moment in our count-down of the most liked and listened to pieces this past winter to describe briefly what the Parlando Project is? After all, there are always new people coming upon this stuff.

What we do is take various people’s words, mostly poetry, and we combine them in various ways with original music. The music too is not one style. Sometimes we sing the words, but not always, or even usually. Sometimes we read them or chant them or talk-sing them. Singing gives a particular effect to the words, and though I admire many examples of art-song, including some examples that use the same texts that I’ve used, I think there are other facets of the poetry that can be shown with other performance styles.

I wish we had more modern or semi-modern poetry here, but very soon in this project I determined that the effort to obtain the rights to creatively engage with work still in copyright protection would reduce the amount of encounters we could produce.

Limits and restrictions often engender creativity though. I’ve found that being largely restricted to the pre-1923 public domain world still allows me centuries of material to pour over, and there seem to be a great many under-appreciated and forgotten writers to discover. A lot of what I end up using is work from the first part of the 20th century, the Modernists that established the world of literature we are still continuing and reacting to. It’s been fascinating to experience this early formative time of Modernism by adapting and performing their words.

Now let’s return to our countdown with numbers 4, 3, and 2 in popularity this winter. Yes, they’re all early-20th century Modernists. And one poet takes two slots in the countdown today.

4. A Winter’s Tale.  D. H. Lawrence is another novelist who was also a poet. In my youth he was probably better known for his novels, and their spicy rep in the mid-century world no doubt helped his youthful readership. I recall reading some Lawrence poems in the sixties and I remember liking them then, but I have to say that my interest in them didn’t continue. Now in this project, in this century, I’ve run into him again. The Imagists who kicked off British literary Modernism considered him one of them.

I liked this poem of his, even though I still can’t say for sure what’s going on in it, but we often can forgive that in the context of music and words. My musical setting for an early 20th century poem kind of took some small inspiration from the late 20th century music of Mark Hollis (of Talk Talk) who died last month.

 

D H Lawrence in Mexico 1923

D. H. Lawrence asks “Is that a Mexican poncho, or is that a Sears poncho?”

 

3. Gacela of the Dark Death.  Here’s another work that I translated into English myself for presentation here, a poem of passion and wit from Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca. I actually first heard this poem as part of a project that attempted to do something like what the Parlando Project does: Joan Baez and Peter Schickele’s 1968 LP Baptism.  Baez read Stephen Spender’s translation of Lorca’s poem earnestly there, and the poem’s title would lead one to read it as sorrowful. As I translated Lorca’s Spanish I sensed a more playful and mocking attitude in some of the images, and my performance tries to bring that out from my translation. As part of conveying the emotional range of the piece, I sang the opening and closing sections while speaking the middle of the poem—an example of how singing and speaking words changes the experience of them.

 

Baptism back cover

Baez and Schickele do Parlando 51 years ago

 

 

2. Self-Pity. D. H. Lawrence again, but a different kind of poem from “A Winter’s Tale.”  Shorter, and superficially an Imagist poem, it so clearly makes its “no whining” point that it was once used in a film by a drill sergeant. Poetry that makes straightforward self-improvement/empowerment points was not that common in early Modernism, and it’s not the usual way to literary cred these days either. I’m not sure why that would have to be. There’s an audience that likes it, and the 19th Century revered some poets who plied lessons like this poem does, although usually with many more words and stanzas. My best guess is that artists, particularly now in an era when literary poetry is something of an outsider art, like novelty and rebelliousness too much to settle for earnest self-improvement.

Well, this poem isn’t one of my favorites, but you know something: I need its message some days as much as anyone. I may have worked extra hard on the music I wrote and performed for it to compensate for that.

 

So what will be the most popular piece from last winter? I’ll be back soon to reveal that.

Gacela of the Dark Death

Here’s a piece using a fresh translation I made this month of a Spanish poem by Federico García Lorca. I’m sure there’s much to say about Lorca from those that know his work better than I do. That group of Lorca admirers includes many other artists whose work I respect, so it’s about time to present something by him here.

I’m told that a Gacela is a traditional Spanish form, but that Lorca’s poem follows the form only in spirit. Because Lorca was executed during the Spanish Civil War, not long after this poem was written, some view it as reflecting his experience of the war, but I get the impression that death elements were present in Lorca’s work even before the war. While encountering this poem in order to translate and perform it, I came to believe there’s a compound commentary on human mortality and more here.

Federico_Garcia_Lorca

Federico García Lorca, a poet with open heart dreams

 

The poem opens and closes with a refrain that ends with a strong, bloody, and yet ambiguous last line carrying the image of a boy wanting to cut his heart. I chose not to overdetermine that image because I believe its ambiguity should remain. It could be an image of desire, or of self-harm, or emotional outreach—so let it be any or all of those things.

The middle portion of the poem, which I chant rather than sing, has a tone in my reading that has humorous elements, even if that seems to go counter to other readings of the text I found. When this section starts with what sounds like folk aphorisms about the dead, I take them as dark humor. In the next line “No quiero enterarme de los martirios que da la hierba” I decided for the only time in my translation to intentionally make the image stronger to American readers, by making the hierba, the grass, “leaves of grass” to connect to Whitman and his great image forged in the American Civil War. I can’t be sure, but I spent a long time on that stanza’s moon with a snake’s mouth image, “la luna con boca de serpiente” and what with the punch line about that mouth always working before dawn got me asking the question if this was a vampire image, which I decide to refer to sideways by determining that fangs were what serpent’s mouth means. Consistently in this stanza Lorca is giving us death images, but he’s also saying he doesn’t want to hear them.

I think the next stanza is meant to be humorous too, starting off with the wanting to sleep (perchance to dream?) for a moment to maybe as long as a  century—but “pero que todos sepan que no he muerto,” “let everybody know I’m not dead” as I translate it. Yes, like Hamlet he wants to compare sleep and death, but he’s playing with it. I’m at a loss if the “pequeño amigo del viento oeste,” “little friend of the west wind” is referencing something. It sounds almost like a children’s story or lullaby. I think this stanza’s concluding line is so wonderful that it transcends mood and attitude: “soy la sombra inmensa de mis lágrimas,” “I am the immense shadow of my tears.”

This stanza’s concluding line is so wonderful that it transcends mood and attitude: “soy la sombra inmensa de mis lágrimas,” “I am the immense shadow of my tears.”

The final chanted stanza before we return to the sung refrain also seems to me to be playing with death. Are we meant to take the insects here as accomplices of the grave’s earth? But this sounds like a boyish schoolyard dispute “He threw ants at me!” And what’s with the scorpion claw? As a northern North American I don’t deal with actual scorpions (hey, tropic readers, let me tell you about black flies…) but isn’t it the stinger that’s the weapon? I’m left wondering if there’s some idiom here that I just don’t know, even some kind of schoolboy pestering like unto a “noogie.”

And then the poem returns to a variation of the refrain, mysterious, beautiful, and I think serious. As to the intent of the poem, I felt I could perform the mystery and commit to the humor I found in the middle section without knowing the poem’s heart entirely. I think you can listen to it the same way. It is a darkly playful meditation on death? A comment on the outbreak and casualties of a civil war? Or is it a longing for childhood life and adventurous dreams? Or a love poem to a young man in Lorca’s life at the time the poem was written? Walt Whitman could sing all those things together, so why couldn’t Lorca?

I felt I could perform the mystery and commit to the humor I found in the middle section without knowing the poem’s heart entirely. I think you can listen to it the same way.

Musically, I sought to contrast the two refrain sections from the poem’s middle one. I was going to play my nylon string guitar for a Spanish flavor on this. Sadly, when I opened its case this week I found that its bridge had come completely off the top. Oh well, my battered Seagull Folk guitar had to stand in. My orchestration brings a bassoon part forward.

You can hear my performance of my English translation of Federico García Lorca’s “Gacela of the Dark Death”  with the player gadget below.