Para que tú me oigas
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.
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.
My sister texted me from New York last week saying, “First flurries!!”
I have never written about the snow itself. My first image is of something like heavy wet feathers falling onto the glittering icy lawn, the shape of blotches of mascara– the same sadness, the same hush, but with the whiteness on the face of the clean sky.
But flurries make me want to dance. To hold a festival. To sing. To throw my scarves off and attack strangers with handfuls of ice. To laugh at a whole street of people slipping and falling like penguins. To slip myself. To shiver. To cry. To look loved ones in the eye. To catch my breath. To gather up my clothes again. To shake the flakes out of my hair. To smile to sigh and wait for still more snow.
Today is Thanksgiving. Here is a poem about snow by the great French author Yves Bonnefoy who spent some time in New England writing dozens of poems about snowflakes and storms. “Does snow fall the same in every language?” He asks. Here is the poem, followed by a translation by Emily Grosholz.
Il neige. Âme, que voulais-tu
Que tu n’aies eu de naissance éternelle?
Vois, tu as là
Pour la mort même une robe de fête?
Une parure comme à l’adolescence,
De celles qu l’on prend à mains soucieuses
Car l’étoffe en est transparente et reste près
Des doigts qui la déploient dans la lumière,
On sait qu’elle est fragile comme l’amour.
Mais des corolles, des feuilles y sont brodées,
Et déjà la musique se fait entendre
Dans la salle voisine, illuminée.
Une ardeur mystérieuse te prend la main.
It’s snowing. Soul, what were you wishing for
That you did not possess eternally?
Look, there you have
An evening gown for the occasion, death.
One of those gowns for adolescent girls,
That we take delicately in hand
Because the fine material’s transparent, gathered
Against the fingers that unfold it in the light;
Like love, we know it’s fragile.
But wreathes and foliage are embroidered over it,
And in another, brightly lighted room
Music has already started.
A mysterious ardor takes you by the hand.
…..and, perhaps strangely, the translator invents a final line which captures all of my feelings about the snow, cultivated during all those hours as a four-year-old at the window pane waiting for these very first flurries my sister called to mind…
You walk, heart pounding, into the great snow.
“Yes, I can write about desire and pleasure, I can write about kisses and heat, about blood, about tensions, I can write about folding into another, but I have no words for sexuality, I do not know how to write these scenes, it would be vulgar, it would be too common…there are authors who mask themselves, others who have chosen the truth, I am in between the two…If I had to write about the girls in the Clermont forest, I would write about height, the hand, the voice, nothing of their nights, nothing, the words slide over this.” — Nina Bouraoui, Mes Mauvaises Pensées
Sometimes I talk about the time my professor introduced me to C.P. Cavafy, the modern Greek poet. I had been feeling reluctant to spend one of my first Saturdays in college on a dorm trip to New York City, especially since I had been invited to a conference in the woods near Milton, and I happened to tell my professor about it that Friday afternoon. On my way out of her office, I remarked that I liked reading the poems she had pinned to her door, one of which was the breathtaking “Song of Ionia” (Because we smashed their statues all to pieces, / because we chased them from their temples– / this hardly means the gods have died.) I could picture the trace of the spirit who “makes its way along your crested hills,” but I did not even need to say so, because my professor picked a book off her shelves and handed it to me. “Take this for the weekend,” she said. “Don’t feel like you need to read it all. Read ‘Ithaca’ and choose one more, at your leisure. Enjoy your time in the woods.”
So I sat there the next morning on a picnic table under the Pennsylvania September leaves trouncing through the poems. “Ithaca” felt kind of trite to me then. I was only nineteen! (Reading it last month, I found it revelatory.) And then I came to the devastating poem, “The City.” It was arresting to me. Truth always is.
And it would not be the last time Cavafy would make me feel this way. I remember the time I sent a poem to Joshua. Somehow I had missed the quiet eroticism of the poem (or I probably would not have sent it), but I was struck by the way art breathes into art, by how he envisions art as a refuge to the artist, by the connection between the poet’s life and the painting of a beautiful youth, “a lovely boy,” he repeats twice, lying in the grass. “Like this, for some time,” reads the poem, “I sit and gaze. And once again, in art, I recover from the strain of creating it.”
It’s hard, sometimes, for me to read Cavafy’s poems. Sometimes it makes me covetous of the richness and boredom of an amateur of cosmopolitan European culture. Sometimes it makes me romanticize the intensity of the cravings of a poet of nineteen, especially when I still recognize something of myself in them. Often, I feel sad when I hear his characters reject, with so clear (and beautiful) a voice, the faith and the truths I’ve come to hold onto, the way I love people.
When they saw Patroclus had been killed,
he who’d been so brave, and strong, and young,
the horses of Achilles began to weep:
their immortal nature was indignant
at this work of death, which it now beheld.
They’d shake their heads and toss their flowing manes,
and with their feet they’d stamp the ground and grieve
for Patroclus who they knew was lifeless–undone–
shabby flesh by now–his spirit vanished–
left without defenses—without breath–
returned from life unto the great Nothing.
Beautiful is very much the right word for Cavafy. Radiant is another one. Didactic. And yes, sensual. “Golden luster,” “tenderness,” “ironic and rueful” –all the reviewers of new translations say the same things. But his beauty…Cavafy uncovers beauty in a way I usually expect only from music, as in a good Romantic concerto, of any instrument. In the stirring, silvery lines, the escalations, the knots of motifs and positioning, where suddenly, joined by the full orchestra, the soloist leads the roaring restatement of the first theme, the conditions of our life–our struggles, our ambitions–rearrange. Sadness, the lonely desperation, becomes full-throated supplication. Agony, no longer seasoned with bitterness and unreflected hatred, can quench its great thirst. Melancholy, once a faint dying, becomes a glowing expanse. Longing strains towards yearning, restlessness is metamorphosed into grief, and shame rides in its long canyon to a kind of victory. This beauty makes me weep, not just because I can feel the scar of the pain or reach the exuberance of some bright dream, but because I believe that the voice that sings so distinctly has to be heard, that the tangle of feelings are right to be felt, are even necessary, and that the words, pronounced in so big a way, are justified in their speaking. The conditions of our life take on new flesh.
In the theatre of Olympus, in it worthy dust,
Hippolytus, Ajax, Alcestis, Clytemnestra
tell the story of our terrible, cruel life
and upon the ruinous earth there falls a drop
of divine pity.
I can’t always read Cavafy, but in the moments I choose to, I am awakened in some way, and as I first experienced in the woods near Milton, arrested.
Here are three more moments.
* * *
All the waiting was exhausting him. Because,
alone as he had been for many hours, he
began to be possessed by irksome thoughts…
But when he saw his friend come in –all at once
the weariness, the boredom, the thoughts all fled.
His friend brought some unexpected news:
In the card game he’d won sixty pounds.
Their handsome faces, their exquisite youth,
the sensitive love that they shared between them,
was refreshed, revived, invigorated by
the sixty pounds from the game of cards.
* * *
Vaguely, I had the feeling that
Myres was going far away from me;
had a feeling that he, a Christian, was being united
with his own, and that I was becoming
a stranger to him, very much a stranger; I sensed besides
a certain doubt coming over me: perhaps I had been fooled
by my passion, had always been a stranger to him.
I flew out of their horrible house,
and quickly left before their Christianity
could get hold of, could alter, the memory of Myres.
* * *
Aphrodite, sweet affection,
keep from me your wreaths.
Though I’ve searched every footpath,
Of love I want there is none left:
The heat of the archer’s breath
in the hush before the violence
and after the release.
I wrote this back in college during a time when I was reading a lot of Thomas Merton and learning about silence and solitude. I was also grieving the loss of a sort of friend. I think I should also add that though there are many places and seasons in which to experience solitude, there may not be a more beautiful one than fall in central Pennsylvania.
Today, I’ll just move on
like I woke up and stepped from my bed.
I don’t feel as quiet or alone,
but I still fear these things
in prayer. I found warmth as sharp and low
as a small bright candle.
In prayer I found reason for friendship
and contemplated God’s motherly and fatherly love.
In prayer I found silence and solitude,
the remembering of swollen voices of past pain,
and the acceptance of these and all love’s fallen leaves.
When we watch the sun set down through the branches
we forget the clouds and the cold, cold rain.
We remember the sharp breeze in our face,
the moss and the frozen mud underfoot.
Only with closeness with God can I trust for more closeness.
And I’ll always remember you and count you as one
of my closest friends.
I’ve often been aware of how the way I write is influenced by what I am currently reading.
This is why, for instance, when I was reading a lot of George Eliot during a summer break in college, I tried to write this sentence in a story:
“Her pensive glance did not signify any more deeper yearning than her exactness in dress and manners emerged from unacknowledged desires for her friends’ approval—just a judicious gesture, her brother thought.”
Don’t ask me what it means.
It is also why, in a less painful way, I think, I included this image in the same story:
“As she lifted her glass to her lips, she peered out the window, past the murmuring crowd, to take in the end of another hot afternoon thickening in the trees.”
We take on other writers’ prejudices, their comfort with certain emotional content and symbols or with braver (in my case foolhardy) attempts at syntactical complexity. We take on their narrowing of focus on a character’s inner life, and in rare instances for me, their sensitivity to the physical details of a scene.
I mentioned that I have been reading Mes Mauvaises Pensées by the French author Nina Bouraoui. Some of my recent writing bears this mark.
Bouraoui talks about knowing someone by their “silences,” about writing that bleeds, of lives inside of life, of never being dishonest with oneself even if one is too weak to handle it, of a life other than our life that envelops us, about past nights of dancing when one wants to cry, of needing to write a book with silence, of writing a book with prayers.
And here is a poem I wrote while I was caught up in this way of reading, this way of looking at my life:
too many times
two nights ago
I said that there are too many ways
to break my heart
by dropping it or letting it fall
by bending it in ways it shouldn’t want to bend
by freezing, by overheating, by chilling it again
I saw that my heart was either ice or metal
and that neither of these was a real heart
of flesh and blood and throbbing
I wondered where my heart was
in the depths it lives in
and who I was on the surface
and I had another vision:
my heart was a rubber ball in a theatre
a giant orb glowing green in a black night sky
waiting to shatter
into hundreds of bursts of light, take cover
I told you, from the rain,
from the pieces of my heart when it shatters
take cover from my looks,
with my eyes that only want one thing—
to be the kind of guy
I think you want me to be,
that part I used to act out
that role I’ve played too many times
but when I said to take cover
I was talking straight to myself
because I’m tired of breaking my own heart
because I don’t want to let you down
I wondered where my heart was
who I was deep down
and on the surface
“Wait, did you make the cookies?”
“No. I’m just a participant in the cookies.”
Tonight during my group Bible study of the book of Amos* I tasted a sugar cookie that took me to a new place, an old place.
As I bit into it, my journey must have glowed on my face, because someone asked how I liked it. “It’s speaking to me,” I said.
Everyone laughed. Then someone asked what the cookie was saying to me.
But to be honest, there was a deeper reality than
I could let on. The cookie took me back to a junior high Christmas party. Hot chocolate and kitchen tiles. Waiting for my parents to pick me up. Sugar cookie after sugar cookie in a neat circle on a Santa Claus plate.
The thing is, sugar cookies have always felt to me like a transgression. My parents never made them. We never bought them at Food 4 Less.
While there may be more to be said about sinking one’s teeth into a freshly (or not so freshly) baked holiday sugar cookie–something about new experiences, coming of age, the feeling of trespass and being at home at the same time, what have you–my tasting of this sugar cookie tonight can perhaps be best expressed by a line from Elizabeth Browning’s famous sonnet.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs
This is what it means to be alive. This is what it means to remember.
What do you think? Have you eaten something that tasted good lately? Tell me about it, and I’ll give you a poem to read.
*Amos. If you are troubled by my seeming ease in going on and on about eating a cookie while studying one of the most urgent social justice texts of the Ancient Near-East, you are right.