My Pablo Neruda scrapbook: This week

Para que tú me oigas
mis palabras
se adelgazan a veces
como las huellas de las gaviotas en las playas.

…like the tracks of the seagulls on the beaches.

Who introduced me to Pablo Neruda? It has to have been Joshua. He posts his poetry all the time and I think it was he who told a beautiful story–an incredible story–about a Spanish speaking worker, or someone like that, who discovered that they shared an affinity, and maybe developed one for each other, when the man noticed Joshua’s book of Neruda poems on his dashboard. I also had friends in college before this who read to each other poems and stories and translated vocabulary pages at the same table as me. It could have been a few months ago too, when I read as many banquet speeches of the Nobel literature prize as there were writers I was familiar with. I recommend Márquez’s, Camus’s, and Svetlania Alexiavich’s. I had to have at least recognized Neruda by then.

In his banquet speech, Neruda offered thanks and said that he would return “to the blank page which every day awaits us as poets so that we shall fill it with our blood and our darkness, for with blood and darkness poetry is written, poetry should be written.”

Part of me thinks of the suffering of political prisoners in Chile as Neruda knew it and in every civilization that oppresses its workers.

…porque con sangre y sombra se escribe, se debe escribir la poesía.

The Christian in me thinks of Jesus.

The still growing up part of me wants to shout, “This is when art is” and return to browsing the movies in the HBO GO account I don’t even pay for. And count out my likes later.

The child in me wants to share this with all of my friends.

And then they will come watch with me the 2016 film Neruda, directed by the Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín. It made me want to visit Chile–its cobbled streets lined with plane trees, its mountains filled with snow. It made me want to sing when I read poetry aloud. It made me want to read Spanish detective novels in bed and fall in love. It made me above all want to read more of his poetry.

maxresdefault

I texted my sister on Wednesday night saying, “I wrote a love poem in French. I’m a poet now.” She said something like, “Send it to me.” My sister “reads” paragraphs to me from French philosophical treatises on the subway in New York City. She even does her own “translations.” One time, in 2009, she was reading to me about the horse négligée that Lindsay Lohan once wore. My sister is as obsessed with language as I am. She does Spanish toasts in weddings. She has studied for the GRE.

I wanted to be as free as he was. I wanted not just to see the evening haze rise into the hills across from San Francisco, I wanted to feel it roll through me, like spirit. One of my favorite images from scripture is the Spirit of God moving in our hearts, filling them with love.

But I still get caught in the rhythms of what love poetry was supposed to be, what it must have meant for Victor Hugo. What people who love each other say out loud. “I strove to love you in the old high way of love,” wrote Yeats. And doesn’t language too often have a way of smoothing–as with a rich butter on a piece of crust–the sensations of our life together? I wasn’t picturing someone I’ve been in love with. That would have been different. That wouldn’t have been“Come to me, I see you standing by the lake.” It wouldn’t have been “The moon is rising on your skin.” These sound like bad translations of Chekov. We can’t be more in love with the moon than we are with the one we love or the words of love we share. It would have been “Your body is wet with the crests of waves. I’m chasing you.” It would have been “Your hair is dripping in shiny pearls, falling on your chest,” if I were picturing someone whom I loved.  Nevertheless, this is what I wrote, trying to be free.

Les eaux sont calme ice-bas, ce soir.
Les eaux qui te caresseraient le visage
qui t’appeleraient et qui t’emmèneraient au plus profond
qui t’embraseraient avec leur fraîcheur
ne sifflent plus, ne tremble plus,
ne chuchote qu’en mots d’écume.

Et toi qui savais une fois danser
qui exultais dans la valse vagueuse
de touches brusques, de secrets partagés, et de douces retraites,
es capté par le même silence
la même intransigence,
la même crépuscule douloureuse.

Veille bien tendre l’oreille,
faire descendre la main,
regarder autour de toi.
Fais un seul pas.
Toi, qui ne vois qui l’image d’amertume,
le reflet fixe, la surface mate,
tu vas voir le monde contorsionne à fleur d’eau.
Toi, qui ne sens que l’air frigide, tu vas réussir à sauter
avec des cris de joie.
Et toi, qui n’entends rien de vagues ni de soupirs de vent
tu vas ressentir, même au centre de cette nuit pesante,
les palpitations du cœur qui bat.

The water is calm here this evening, still.
The waves that would caress your face
that would call to you and lead you farther out
that would embrace you with a cool kiss
no longer stir, or tremble,
or whisper anything but words of foam.

And you who once knew how to dance,
who gleamed in the waves’ waltz
of quick touches, secrets shared, and soft goodbyes,
are stuck in the same silence,
the same intransigence,
the same painful obscurity of the evening.

 But come incline your ear,
lower your hand,
look around you.
Make just one step.
You, who only see the bitter image
of your fixed reflection, a matte surface,
you will see the world twist itself on the upper layer of water.
You who who only feel the frigid air
will rise to jumping with cries of joy.
And you, who now hear nothing of waves
or the breathing of the wind
will feel, even in the middle of this heavy night,
the palpitations of a beating heart.

 

The Nobel prize committee in 1971 evoked Pablo Neruda’s sense of, his yearning for, man’s harmony with nature. Some day, we’ll find this harmony. We won’t dream of disaccord and intransigence. We won’t be an unsettled people. We’ll sing our suffering and our jubilation, ours and each others, from the fullness of our breaths in our once sunken chests. Some poets have reached this. Some poets have lived this. Some poets have died for this. For the rest of us, and until then, we will have them–the ones like Neruda–to help us search our darkness and find our blood still moving in the life inside.

 

 

The lesser-valued foreign language skills, and maybe rightly so: A list

381410_2866155296036_706006361_n

Because it is not always about the grand moments, the flourishes, the ecstasies. It is not even the culminations, necessarily, the closing of good books after a prolonged period of study, that characterize our knowledge of a foreign language. We may use them to define our ability and ease–I have asked for a seat on a bus–I have read Balzac–I have made a friend–but these are just benchmarks. If, in life, there are a few simple, uncomplicated rules that govern the new heights and depths, the few important moments of our lives, there are countless complicated rules that govern everything else. And I wonder if getting to know another language, like getting to know another person, resides mostly in the expansive matrix of everything else.

When I was studying abroad in France, I convinced myself to ride my bike from where I was staying in Tours to the nearby town of Ambroise, a popular route, one that followed a river, clung perilously to a highway, took me over a bridge to avoid a railway, and then deposited me in a forest of dark green leaves where I discovered a network of mountain bike trails. Not having a mountain bike, I stuck to the safest-looking paths, but what little I did of the twists and bumps and rises and falls was exhilarating enough to make me dream of coming back someday to take the trails more adventurously.

When we learn a language, we we follow the wide-ranging paths, laid by wide-stepping people who have crossed in both directions and in every direction (can I just add that the word for direction in French translates to “sense?”) we experience the same movements that we undergo when we meet a new “other”–the same awkwardness, the same formality, the foul and fair territory, the shifting between the poles. And whatever our capacity for familiarity or intimacy may be–will she be a friend, a regretted companion, a counselor to me (a judge, an executioner, a priest)?–few would argue that they knew the precise moment their love for each other became something different. Few could say that the warmth of their companionship consisted in the outline of cold hard facts of desires recorded, laughs counted, and tears measured. No one who is in love can keep track of the hours spent together. Time flies from this. So it is with the languages we learn to love, to hate, to reject, and sometimes to forget, but ultimately, I hope, to cherish.

These have never made my list of defining moments. We don’t get to learn them in class. No one thinks of these skills when they applaud your ability. But they are the kinds of things we do–and often half to do–when we choose a path and step into the matrix. And though we were following a clear, well-established thoroughfare, before we realize it and after several steps and missteps, we find ourselves cycling in the afternoon shadows on a woods-rutted path somewhere outside of Ambroise, rushing through the bushes down a sudden incline at full speed.

1. That one word.

For decades scientists, moralists, and middle school teachers everywhere have debated how often the human mind thinks about sex. I can’t speak for everybody, but I can say that at the very least, I think about it every time someone uses the reflexive verb “s’exprimer:” to express oneself. This has been a source of untold giggling, and please tell me I not alone. We all need that one word that keeps our 11-year-old self within reach, that keeps his unparalleled mind-unraveling wonder at the transgressive beauty of language–its curious new forms, its inexplicable forces, its bodies of work–in fresh supply. We keep him just around the corner. Because we have entered a new room: We are twenty-two. One of our classmates is applying Bourdieu’s theory of social reproduction to a novel by Émile Zola that we did not take the time to read. We cannot concentrate. Our mind buzzes with white noise. If there is cultural capital to be gleaned, we are on the wrong field. We want to look out the window, but this classroom has none. We are enveloped in darkness with nothing but the gently intoned words of our classmate dripping like pieces of melted silver onto the blank pages of our notebook. And then we hear him first, the 11-year-old’s clinking footsteps on the hallway tile. He peers in the doorway, and at that moment, like a thunderclap, the word is used. Bourdieu sexpresses himself. We sexpress ourselves. The individual suffering the blight of a post-industrialist existence sexpresses himself. Words cannot sexplain the vistas, the curtains raised, shuttered windows flung open, and, in less than a second, if we can respect our classmate who is still presenting, our 11-year-old self disappears, he has run down the hallway, he is basking in the morning sunshine, he is doing somersaults in the quad grass. And, invigorated, we are listening to our classmate’s lecture and, finally, taking notes.

2. We still need to know how to do things

I didn’t want to get political, but I discussed Sarah Palin’s possible candidacy once in 2011 with an older French woman. She said, “Dans la politique, il faut savoir. In politics, you have to know things.” And I would agree wholeheartedly, except that I had just been stopped when walking by the cathedral. A woman had noticed the watch on my arm, and she asked me what time it was. This is among the first things we learn in language class. Don’t ask me why I still wear an analog watch. Don’t ask me why I am twenty-seven and I still cannot tell time. This is among the first things we learn in kindergarten class. Don’t ask me why a French woman was asking me for the time like she didn’t already know it. (Telling time and complaining about the presidents all the way back to Henry IV are France’s national obsessions.) I looked at my watch. I looked at my wrist. I fumbled awkwardly in my pocket, opened my phone, and translated to one minus fourth in my head before brashly proclaiming it to the woman who, miraculously, was still standing there. When she heard my accent, she apologized. I’m sorry too, I wanted to say. I’m sorry for being a foreigner. Every time I look at a clock, I murmur an apology to this woman who accosted me at the cathedral. In politics and in life, you have to know things.

3. We still need know things, like really basic things.

Students who travel abroad are counseled to let moments sink in, to cultivate a sense of presence, to catalogue their sights and joys and then, in the angled sunlight of a different terroir, to let the pages ruffle open, and for several precious seconds, to practice breathing. I did this for a half hour once in an outdoor café in Montmartre. Actually, it may even have been longer. And I did it because I could not figure out how to pay for my coffee. Do I go up to the front? Do I keep looking around for a server? No one is coming. Do I just keep practicing breathing cigarette smoke and staring at a man reading a newspaper? The coffee was less than four ounces and took fewer than four seconds to drink. Do I just keep watching all the schoolchildren walking home from school? Do I wait for the next presidential election so that maybe the man will look up and I can say something witty I thought of myself about Sarah Palin? Is the person who served me invisible now? Is she a ghost? Are there ghosts all around us? Is this how the world ends? Is there even a man behind this newspaper? Finally, I just walked back inside, found the nearest human being–not even sure if she worked there–and said, of all things, “I need to pay.” And then I whimpered, “Where…” This is how the world ends, not with a bang but with a whimper. She told me to wait, disappeared–(French servers are great at this)–and then came back to receive my payment. On the counter was a toilet paper-looking roll of receipt paper, the kind that the machine keeps printing but that is never torn, the mythical snake not even looking for its tail that keeps growing. It was on this ledger that she recorded my payment. Ghosts don’t keep short accounts.

4. Culture

There might be a lot that I do not know, but there are a number of things I know how to do. One time I was so interested to know how the French internet interpreted Adele’s “Send My Love,” that I looked it up and went line by line, ultimately agreeing that on the whole it worked as a translation. I don’t even like that song.

5. More culture

One time I stood at the edge of a glacier field during a family trip to British Columbia reading the wonderfully informative description on a placard of Earth’s unchanging forces that have joined to create this icy marvel of eternally advancing ephemera. Because the placard was also wonderfully succinct, I read the same description in French. I still had time to watch the wind blow and think about my heart and wonder how many more minutes it would take until we were all back in the car if indeed the glacier could outlast the length of the line at the visitor’s center restroom.

6. Social media capital

Sometimes I make French posts on Facebook and then wonder why know one likes them. In these times, I need a friend to talk me through this–it could even be my 11-year-old self. He could say to me, “John, no one speaks French. No one knows who Marguerite Duras is. And look at what you wrote, ‘Tu as le droit to sangloter.’ You have the right to sob? No one is going to like, love, laugh, or be thankful for this. Even if Facebook had a baguette button no one would use it. Your posts would make Charles de Gualle himself quit the presidency again.”

I just want to add that the photo at the top of this page, which I took in Paris, received only one like. This is the kind of thing that happens in our world.

But thank you, small John, for your advice. I will take it to heart.

7. Trial but mostly error

Except I didn’t, because this was a conversation that I tried to have with my English-speaking family.

Mom: Who wants a slice of pie for dessert?
John: Moi, j’en veux.
Mom: Daniel, would you like a slice of pie?
John: Moi, j’en veux.
Daniel: Yes, please.
Mom: Here you go.
John: Moi, j’en veux.
Mom: Catherine, would you like a slice of pie?
Catherine: Yes, please. Thank you.
John: Moi, j’en veux.
Mom: Anyone else? Any last takers?
John: WHY IS NOBODY LISTENING TO ME?
[Silence.]
11-year-old self: Because you need to speak in English for your family to understand you when you say, “I, I want of the that.”

8. I would have liked to see…

Sometimes I feel frustrated that people who don’t speak French don’t quite know the thrill of starting a sentence with the words, “J’aurais…” Perhaps some of the most interesting sentences–in any language–begin with the words, “I would have…”

9. More “J’aurais”

And though there are many times I regret having spent years learning a language that has only served to help me judge the translations of Adele songs and glacier placards in Canada, I feel the regret the strongest when I think of all the Gabriel García Márquez novels I could have been reading (“J’aurais pu lire?”) in Spanish all these years. My 11-year-old self tells me there is still time. That’s actually a lie. Those books leave him alone in his room crying.

10. The modern conversation

But of course, nothing can compare–even if nothing can prepare us–to the everyday conversation with a familiar speaker of the foreign language into which we have invested our hearts across years of trial and error, classrooms full of inspirational messages and blank stares, and embarrassing encounters with the authorities in airport security lines. I was playing basketball with an uncle who speaks French. Another family member asked him to do something, and though my uncle is never given to complaining, I could tell that he wanted to keep beating me at horse rather than fulfill this request. Seasoned with a semester’s worth of the vibrant literary culture of 17th-century France, I turned to him and said, “Le devoir est beau. Duty is beautiful.” He shrugged and said, “What?,” sunk a basket, and then went inside to do his beautiful duty leaving me alone in the driveway to practice my breathing.

But the beauty of basketball is that one can still shoot hoops with oneself, even if one’s self is 11 years old. His defense is no good, but he knows how to s’exprimer once he gets you in the key.

 

 

 

A Translation

For Christmas, my sister gave me a book by Nina Bouraoui, who is becoming one of my favorite authors. I told my sister that this book, called Mes Mauvaises Pensées (or “My Bad Thoughts”) was changing the way I perceive both the world and language. I also admitted that I had just had a huge cup of McDonald’s coffee. Attribute it to whatever you will, but as I was walking through Walmart the morning after reading a little chunk of the book, I felt like I was swimming in a world of untouched motives, of violences hidden inside violences, of new loves and old identities, of DVD racks, children’s clothing, and women buying children’s cough medicine.

I thought I’d translate a couple of passages to share some of what has been touching me lately in my reading.

…from Garçon Manqué (the Franco-Algerian protagonist’s reflections about an oppressive experience of aloneness at the beach while visiting her French family).

Who here will say: Are you okay, Nina? Are you figuring it out? It’s not too hard? What do you dream about at night? What are your images? Have you come to accept them? To live with it? With these moments? With what you brush against every day? With what defines you? And why this sadness in your eyes?

…from Mes Mauvaises Pensées (my favorite quotes about writing)

I’ve always wanted to run away from life; writing and love are the ultimate means.
* * *
With you, I am in life, in my life, within its folds, and it’s a way for me to rediscover writing.
* * *
I could write my own history book and make myself a subject with deep roots; books are like arms–I put myself to sleep in their warmth.