Seminar 3 Notes — Cien Sonetos and Translation

Neruda Seminar 3   Neruda’s “100 Sonnets of Love” was written in the 1950’s to his third wife, Matilde.  He married her in the mid-1950s after an affair while he was still married to Delia del Carill, the wife of his days in Europe and a woman twenty years his senior. However, Neruda delayed the publication of these personal love poems until Delia’s death out of respect for her.

Veinte Poemas de Amor (1924) and Cien Sonetos de Amor (1960) have long been the favorites among Latin American readers as opposed to the popularity of his political poetry in the US (Neruda became popular during the anti-war years in the US for his Marxist and insurrectionary poetry). In Cien Sonetos Neruda adopts the traditional 14-line sonnet form. However, he is not bound by its traditional logic (the octave setting the problem; the sestet providing an answer). As usual, Neruda’s approach is less contained by rules than responsive to the force of feeling and the unwinding of metaphor.

While considering five of his sonnets, we also talked about the challenges of translation. Sometimes Neruda employs language within the idiom of his Chilean Spanish; word-for-word often misses the point (e.g., if the words say he misses her aroma, does that mean her perfume, or the perfume of her?); if we take the most general dictionary meaning, we may miss a network of metaphor (as in the network of nautical metaphors in Sonnet 58) that depend upon secondary meanings – also, you wouldn’t want to downplay that puma in “Tengo hambre”, whose deadly prowl sharpens that understanding of “hambre”; sometimes English makes available a more vivid meaning (as in the translation of “angles” for “esquinas”, literally corners, but better in the gambling phrase of “knowing the angles”); finally, there is the matter of Neruda’s habits – when he uses “entre tus columnas” (sonnet 12) he means “between your thighs”, which he does in several other poems. A good translator must be alert to all these matters and more, translation being an art of its own.

We began by talking about Neruda’s reliance on the South of Chile, which is already the south of Latin America, and his strong memories of Temuco, his little town, and the forests he loved. Mathilde, unlike the more sophisticated Delia, came from southern Chile and from the poverty Neruda knew and trusted, and “Vienes de la pobreza de las casas del sur” (Sonnet 29) evokes this world they share. Here the Araucanian  gods have perished and have not been replaced by the conqueror’s God but instead by the recognition of the force of nature the lovers share. Neruda recalls their poverty. The piggy bank of tears, her mouth that did not always enjoy bread or sweets, and the hard work of their mothers, both imaged as doing the wash “en su cielo” together. “Cielo” is one of those words that move in several directions of meaning (sky, heaven, but also that heavenly sky of that particular Chilean world). The poem ends with two stunners: the simplicity of his choosing her, and the warmth of the term “campañera”, best left untranslated into English that could never evoke its tone of meaning.

“Entre los espadones” (sonnet 58) also yields good results from a biographical reading.  Here Neruda comments on himself as an outsider in the highly competitive world of European art circles. Critics snap at his heels; he pays them no mind. In the octave Neruda has some fun with nautical references, some of them explicit and others recondite. The references grow from his homeland, that South past which there is nothing but archipelagoes, small islands, and the wild arctic sea. To figure how out of keeping he felt with the vicious world of European literary criticism, he sees himself as a foreign sailor in a strange city. He does not have a map, but worse, he does not know how the city works, the angles. He has brought with him a wheezy accordion, a relic of his wild sea-side world of poverty and rough song. The accordion, with some holes in its wind-box from long wear, is depicted as a low-pressure, or stormy instrument. Things come at him in waves “rachas” (storm systems) of crazy rain, the rain of the tropics. He inherits, too, the slow ways of the South; and all these things “set the course” (determinaron) for his ragged and wonderful life, his “corazon silvestre”. The English translator cleverly keeps the network of nautical metaphor going by figuring “almacenes” (warehouses) as “dockyards” of his childhood, as he traces his way back to a world of comforting memories, including “donde mi vida se llenó con tu aroma”, where my heart was filled with the perfume of you. The closing line, so often a strategy of these sonnets, introduces a surprise. Matilde has not been mentioned, yet everything about this experience, his muse, his motivation as a poet that allows him to disregard his fashionable critics, is her.

In “tengo hambre por la boca” (sonnet 11) Neruda creates a portrait of savage love. In the first quatrain we might for a moment think we have a quite conventional love complaint. The lover wanders the streets in the night, starved and hungering for his beloved. However, there are disturbing ripples here. Is this hunger the usual love’s madness or is there something more. Is this hungering for her mouth and her hair picturesque or something more sinister? The translator opts for “prowl” “por las calles”; the lover is disquieted by the breaking of dawn, even as he listened intently for her footsteps through the day. Into the second quatrain the lover hungers to eat her skin, like cracking into an almond still intact. The image is peculiar and calls up a memory of breaking the almond in two with our incisors; it seems a bit too tactile for a lover’s soft imaginings. The emphasis on “wanting to eat” his beloved, his prey, continues into the sestet in growing specificity. Now it is the sunlight flaring from her beautiful body; and then the fleeting shadow of her eyes as her looks flicker uncertainly. The hunter has an uncanny precision in sensing his prey. And in the last lines we understand the full force of these suggestions. He is sniffing the air for her scent and hungering to devour her hot heart (a Valentine?) “como un puma en la soledad de Quitratúe”, like a puma prowling the desert waste of the jungle of his wild South.

Some fans of poetry do not like this kind of intense close reading where we pay complete homage to the writer and his craft. Some prefer using the poem as a Rorschach, a springboard to their own imaginings, free from the poet’s craftiness. I prefer tracking the artistry of Neruda rather than drawing upon my own meager bank of imaginings. I assume he has something to teach me I don’t already know.

Neruda: Sonata and Destructions

SONATA Y DESTRUCCIONES     Residencia in la Tierra I

DESPUÉS de mucho, después de vagas leguas,
confuso de dominios, incierto de territorios,
acompañado de pobres esperanzas
y compañías infieles y desconfiados sueños,
amo lo tenaz que aún sobrevive en mis ojos,
oigo en mi corazón mis pasos de jinete,
muerdo el fuego dormido y la sal arruinada,
y de noche, de atmósfera oscura y luto prófugo,
aquel que vela a la orilla de los campamentos,
el viajero armado de estériles resistencias,
detenido entre sombras que crecen y alas que tiemblan,
me siento ser, y mi brazo de piedra me defiende.

Hay entre ciencias de llanto un altar confuso,
y en mi sesión de atardeceres sin perfume,
en mis abandonados dormitorios donde habita la luna,
y arañas de mi propiedad, y destrucciones que me son queridas,
adoro mi propio ser perdido, mi substancia imperfecta,
mi golpe de plata y mi pérdida eterna.
Ardió la uva húmeda, y su agua funeral
aún vacila, aún reside,
y el patrimonio estéril, y el domicilio traidor.

Quién hizo ceremonia de cenizas?
Quién amó lo perdido, quién protegió lo último?
El hueso del padre, la madera del buque muerto,
y su propio final, su misma huida,
su fuerza triste, su dios miserable?

Acecho, pues, lo inanimado y lo doliente,
y el testimonio extraño que sostengo,
con eficiencia cruel y escrito en cenizas,
es la forma de olvido que prefiero,
el nombre que doy a la tierra, el valor de mis sueños,
la cantidad interminable que divido
con mis ojos de invierno, durante cada día de este mundo.

Sonata and Destructions

After so many things, after so many hazy miles,

not sure which kingdom it is, not knowing the terrain,

travelling with pitiful hopes,

and lying companions, and suspicious dreams,

I love the firmness that still survivives in my eyes,

I hear my heart beating as if I were riding a horse,

I bite the sleeping fire and the ruined salt,

and at night, when darkness is thick, and mourning furtive,

I imagine I am the one keeping watch on the far shore

of the encampments, the traveler armed with his sterile defenses,

caught between growing shadows

and shivering wings, and my arm made of stone protects me.

There’s a confused altar among the sciences of tears,

and in my twilight meditations with no perfume,

and in my deserted sleeping rooms where the moon lives,

and the spiders that belong to me, and the destructions I am fond of,

I love my own lost self, my faulty stuff,

my silver wound, and my eternal loss,

The damp grapes burned, and their funereal water

Is still flickering, is still with us,

And the sterile inheritance, and the treacherous home.

Who performed a ceremony of ashes?

Who loved the lost thing, who sheltered the last thing of all?

The father’s bone, the dead ship’s timber,

and his own end, his flight,

his melancholy power, his god that had bad luck?

I lie in wait, then, for what is not alive and what is suffering,

and the extraordinary testimony I bring forward,

with brutal efficiency and written down in the ashes,

is the form of oblivion that I prefer,

the name I give to the earth, the value of my dreams,

the endless abundance which I distribute

with my wintery eyes, every day this world goes on.

[tr. Robert Bly]

Neruda: El Poeta

El poeta           from Canto General

El Poeta

Antes anduve por la vida, en medio                                In the old days I went through life
de un amor doloroso: antes retuve                       in the grip of a tragic love and cherishing
una pequeña página de cuarzo                                        a little notebook of quartz
clavándome los ojos en la vida.                               And I fixed life down firmly with my eyes.
Compré bondad, estuve en el mercado                          I shopped for generosity, walked
de la codicia, respiré las aguas                                           in the market of greed, inhaled
más sordas de la envidia, la inhumana             the most sordid fumes of envy, the inhuman
hostilidad de máscaras y seres.                                          Hostility of masks and men.
Viví un mundo de ciénaga marina                                      I lived a world of bog and marshes
en que la flor de pronto, la azucena                    where the sudden flower, the madonna lily
me devoraba en su temblor de espuma,                           devoured me in her shivering foam
y donde puse el pie resbaló mi alma                    and wherever I set my foot, my soul slipped
hacia las dentaduras del abismo.                                        Into the jaws of the abyss.
Así nació mi poesía, apenas                                       So my poetry was born – no sooner than
rescatada de ortigas, empuñada                                         redeemed from nettles, ripped
sobre la soledad como un castigo,                                      from solitude like a punishment,
o apartó en el jardín de la impudicia                   or set apart in the garden from lewdness,
su más secreta flor hasta enterrarla.                            its most secret flower, awaiting burial.
Aislado así como el agua sombría                             Locked out this way like the dark waters
que vive en sus profundos corredores,                       that live in its deep channels
corrí de mano en mano, al aislamiento                   I ran this way and that seeking isolation
de cada ser, al odio cuotidiano,                                from every being, the daily hatefulness.
Supe que así vivían, escondiendo                                  I knew that they lived so, half hidden

a mitad de los seres, como peces                                             from life like fish
del más extraño mar, y en las fangosas       in the most foreign seas, and in the hugeness of
inmensidades encontré la muerte.                         The vasty deep I met with death.
La muerte abriendo puertas y caminos.                      Death opening doors and paths.
La muerte deslizándose en los muros.                     Death slithering in the walls.

Neruda: La United Fruit Co.

Pablo Neruda: “La United Fruit Co.”            from Canto General

Cuando sonó la trompeta, estuvo

todo preparado en la tierra,

y Jehova repartió el mundo

a Coca-Cola Inc., Anaconda,

Ford Motors, y otras entidades:

la Compañía Frutera Inc.

se reservó lo más jugoso,

la costa central de mi tierra,

la dulce cintura de América.

Bautizó de nuevo sus tierras

como “Repúblicas Bananas,”

y sobre los muertos dormidos,

sobre los héroes inquietos

que conquistaron la grandeza,

la libertad y las banderas,

estableció la ópera bufa:

enajenó los albedríos

regaló coronas de César,

desenvainó la envidia, atrajo

la dictadora de las moscas,

moscas Trujillos, moscas Tachos,

moscas Carías, moscas Martínez,

moscas Ubico, moscas húmedas

de sangre humilde y mermelada,

moscas borrachas que zumban

sobre las tumbas populares,

moscas de circo, sabias moscas

entendidas en tiranía.

Entre las moscas sanguinarias

la Frutera desembarca,

arrasando el café y las frutas,

en sus barcos que deslizaron

como bandejas el tesoro

de nuestras tierras sumergidas.

Mientras tanto, por los abismos

azucarados de los puertos,

caían indios sepultados

en el vapor de la mañana:

un cuerpo rueda, una cosa

sin nombre, un número caído,

un racimo de fruta muerta

derramada en el pudridero.

When the trumpet sounded

everything was prepared on earth,

and Jehovah gave the world

to Coca-Cola Inc., Anaconda,

Ford Motors, and other corporations.

The United Fruit Company

reserved for itself the most juicy

piece, the central coast of my world,

the delicate waist of America.

It rebaptized these countries

Banana Republics,

and over the sleeping dead,

over the unquiet heroes

who won greatness,

liberty, and banners,

it established an opera buffa:

it abolished free will,

gave out imperial crowns,

encouraged envy, attracted

the dictatorship of flies:

Trujillo flies, Tachos flies

Carias flies, Martinez flies,

Ubico flies, flies sticky with

submissive blood and marmalade,

drunken flies that buzz over

the tombs of the people,

circus flies, wise flies

expert at tyranny.

With the bloodthirsty flies

came the Fruit Company,

amassed coffee and fruit

in ships which put to sea like

overloaded trays with the treasures

from our sunken lands.

Meanwhile the Indians fall

into the sugared depths of the

harbors and are buried in the

morning mists;

a corpse rolls, a thing without

name, a discarded number,

a bunch of rotten fruit

thrown on the garbage heap.                     [tr. Robert Bly]

Neruda: Oda Al Tomate

Oda al Tomate          from Odas Elementales

La calle                     se llenó de tomates,             mediodia,

verano,                    a luz

se parte                    en dos                 mitades                    de tomate,

corre                         por las calles                    el jugo.

En diciembre          se desata

el tomate,                invade       las cocinas,       entra por los almuerzos,

se sienta                   reposado                 en los aparadores,

entre los vasos,      las matequilleras,            los saleros azules.

Tiene                         luz propia,               majestad benigna.

Debemos, por desgracia,            asesinarlo:

se hunde                  el cuchillo            en su pulpa viviente,

es una roja              viscera,

un sol                        fresco,             profundo,            inagotable,

llena las ensaladas             de Chile,

se casa alegremente                 con la clara cebolla,

y para celebrarlo         se deja          caer                    aceite,

hijo                            esencial del olivo,

sobre sus hemisferios entreabiertos,
agrega                            la pimienta              su fragancia,

la sal              su magnetismo:

son las bodas                      del día

el perejil       levanta         banderines,

las papas                  hierven vigorosamente,

el asado                    golpea           con su aroma     en la puerta,

es hora!                    vamos!

y sobre                     la mesa, en la cintura                del verano,

el tomate,                astro de tierra,

estrella                     repetida                   y fecunda,

nos muestra            sus circunvoluciones,         sus canales,

la insigne plenitud             y la abundancia

sin hueso,                sin coraza,           sin escamas ni espinas,

nos entrega             el regalo                de su color fogoso

y la totalidad

de su frescura.

Ode to the Tomato

The street                 is filled with tomatoes         at noon

in summer                the light

parts the tomato    in two halves

and the juice            runs through                  the streets.

In December            the tomato               beaks loose

invades          the kitchens       inviting itself for          lunch.

Seats itself                at rest            on the sideboards

among the glassware          butter-dishes           and blue salt-cellars.

It has its own glow             a friendly majesty.

We should ask pardon                  for murdering it;

the knife plunges                into its innards

and its red                viscera —

a sun              fresh              deep               inexhaustible —

floods the salads                 of Chile,

and weds happily               the blonde onion;

and to celebrate             the oil      son of the olive’s essence      falls

and anoints the open hemispheres;

the pimiento            adds its          fragrance,

and  salt                    its magnetism.

In these daily weddings.

The parsley waves             its little flags,

potatoes       boil away,

and the roast           beats the doors                with its aroma.

It’s time                     let’s go!

And on the table                 at mid-summer

tomatoes                  earth’s stars,

stars of multitude               and fecundity,

show off                   their convolutions              and canals

sign of plenitude                 and abundance,

boneless                    without rind              without scales or spines,

to give us                  the gift                  of their fiery color

And their freshness                  in total abandon.                [tr. SZ]

Neruda: Seminar 1

Selections for Neruda — Seminar I

Poema XIV – “juegas todos las dias” —  is from Neruda’s very early, and still remarkably popular, collection Twenty Love Poems (1924), published when he was only twenty years old. There is nothing juvenile or immature about them in subject matter, treatment, or style. At the time, these poems caused a sensation because of their sexual directness, though to our jaded eyes, that shock is difficult to recover. They are, however, unblinking, in portraying desire and sexual pleasure.

The lines are mostly pentameter and more regular than Neruda’s later work. The lines proceed with relaxation, as if spoken rather than written to formula. The themes are romantic in traditional fashion – the loneliness of the lover, pain healed by love, references to the processes of nature, and appeal to the beloved by the lover to be understood, and so forth. The language is clean, rejecting familiar lyricism associated with the genre. The poem collects its images gradually in the form of comfortable reflection, some of the images fairly certain and direct, and others more symbolic and puzzling.

“Sonata and Destrucciones” is from Neruda’s first comprehensive collection of poems published as Residencia en la Tierra I (1933) … [Residencia en la Tierra II was published in 1935]. This collection, developed under the influence of Neruda’s growing artistic friendships in Paris and in Spain, announced his triumph as a Symbolist poet. Symbolism – think Breton, Cocteau, Picasso, and Dali – looked to the unconscious for the deeper truths of our nature, unfiltered by rational demands for orderliness and by social demands for conventional morality and good sense. The writer is more likely to present himself as a collector of impressions, in some ways almost at random and bearing metaphors (tropes of meaning) that are surprising and unstable. Neruda seeks to simulate the eye, open to what it sees without imposing an order to sensations. The lines are irregular, the stanzas governed by no obvious format or plan, the whole bourn as a mood, a truth-telling, looking-on and receiving impressions and the thoughts they stimulate as they happen.

“El Poeta” appears in Canto General (1950). Neruda’s immense collection includes over 300 poems arranged in 15 units tracing the broad history of America Latina. For example, one section “Los Conquistadores” compiles portraits of the invaders, from Colon in 1493 and events, mostly brutal, until the time of Magellan. “Los Libertadores” celebrates heroic resistance, including caciques, Bartolemé de las Casas, Túpac Amaru, Toussaint L’Ouverture, Martí, Emiliano Zapata, and many more. In another section, Neruda recounts the humiliations of Hispanic nations, including Puerto Rico:

Truman a nuestras aguas llega                                   Truman comes to our waters

a lavarse las manos rojas                                              to cleanse his red hands

de la sangre lejana. Mientras                                      from foreign blood. Meanwhile

decreta, predica y sonríe                                  he makes decrees, and harangues with a smile

en la Universidad, en su idioma,                                  in the University, in his own language;

cierra la boca castellana,                                               he shuts the Castilian mouth,

cubre la luz de las palabras                                           hides the brilliance of the words,

que allí circularon como un                                          that here flow like a river

rio de estirpe cristalina                                                  of crystal pure descent,

y estatuye: “Muerte a tu lengua,                 and imposes a statute: “Death to your tongue,

Puerto Rico.”                                                                     Puerto Rico.”

This passage is a good example of Neruda’s poetry in the form of public and political rhetoric rather than personal sensation and imagery. “El Poeta”, from section 11 of Canto General, is one of the many poems Neruda penned over his lifetime tracking his path as a poet. In this case he journeys from the poetry of the sensitive soul seeking beauty to an encounter with the horror of events infecting his world. It is a poem full of ugliness and ending in an imagist nightmare of reptilian horror.

Canto General, in a section entitled “Las Oligarquías,” contains also a series of bitter, mocking poems aimed at American corporations – Standard Oil, Anaconda Copper, and United Fruit – that were transforming Latin America, despoiling the land, and ravaging the people.”La United Fruit Co.”, while political and polemical, is also a work of rich imagination. The local dictators hatched by the corporations are flies; the heavily laden ships with their plunder are teetering tea-trays, the Indians dumped into the harbors “a bunch of rotten fruit”. Things are literally what they are and also what they become in the imagination, transformed for bitter disdain and revolution. The lines are curt and stinging, ripe with anger and menace.

“Oda al Tomate” is from Odas Elementales (1954). These are odes to homely objects and experiences, including such unpoetical things as onions, and books (as objects), and shoes, and even one that celebrates laziness. The lines are short, blunt, direct, and seemly haphazard. However, these jolly pieces are not only precisely observed but delicately organized. Neruda delighted in styling himself a peasant and a plain worker, and these delightful poems have a universal gaiety and celebrate simple life. He makes the everyday thing into a marvel. You will never look at and think about a tomato in any casual way again after reading this poem.

Neruda: Veinte Poemas de Amor: XIV

Poema 14

Juegas todos los días con la luz del universo.

Sutil visitadora, llegas en la flor y en el agua.

Eres más que esta blanca cabecita que aprieto

como un racimo entre mis manos cada día.

A nadie te pareces desde que yo te amo.

Déjame tenderte entre guirnaldas amarillas.

Quién escribe tu nombre con letras de humo entre las estrellas del sur?

Ah déjame recordarte como eras entonces cuando aún no existías.

De pronto el viento aúlla y golpea mi ventana cerrada.

El cielo es una red cuajada de peces sombríos.

Aquí vienen a dar todos los vientos, todos.

Se desviste la lluvia.

Pasan huyendo los pájaros.

El viento. El viento.

Yo solo puedo luchar contra la fuerza de los hombres.

El temporal arremolina hojas oscuras

y suelta todas las barcas que anoche amarraron al cielo.

Tú estás aquí. Ah tú no huyes

Tú me responderás hasta el último grito.

Ovíllate a mi lado como si tuvieras miedo.

Sin embargo alguna vez corrió una sombra extraña por tus ojos.

Ahora, ahora también, pequeña, me traes madreselvas,

y tienes hasta los senos perfumados.

Mientras el viento triste galopa matando mariposas

yo te amo, y mi alegría muerde tu boca de ciruela.

Cuanto te habrá dolido acostumbrarte a mí,

a mi alma sola y salvaje, a mi nombre que todos ahuyentan.

Hemos visto arder tantas veces el lucero besándonos los ojos

y sobre nuestras cabezas destorcerse los crepúsculos en abanicos girantes.

Mis palabras llovieron sobre ti acariciándote.

Amé desde hace tiempo tu cuerpo de nácar soleado.

Hasta te creo dueña del universo.

Te traeré de las montañas flores alegres, copihues,

avellanas oscuras, y cestas silvestres de besos.

Quiero hacer contigo

lo que la primavera hace con los cerezos.

Every day you play with the light of the universe.

Subtle visitor, you arrive in the flower and the water.

You are more than this white head that I hold tightly

as a cluster of fruit, every day, between my hands.

You are like nobody since I love you.

Let me spread you out among yellow garlands.

Who writes your name in letters of smoke among the stars of the south?

Oh let me remember you as you were before you existed.

Suddenly the wind howls and bangs at my shut window.

The sky is a net crammed with shadowy fish.

Here all the winds let go sooner or later, all of them.

The rain takes off her clothes.

The birds go by, fleeing.

The wind. The wind.

I can contend only against the power of men.

The storm whirls dark leaves

and turns loose all the boats that were moored last night to the sky.

You are here. Oh, you do not run away.

You will answer me to the last cry.

Cling to me as though you were frightened.

Even so, at one time a strange shadow ran through your eyes.

Now, now too, little one, you bring me honeysuckle,

and even your breasts smell of it.

While the sad wind goes slaughtering butterflies

I love you, and my happiness bites the plum of your mouth.

How you must have suffered getting accustomed to me,

my savage, solitary soul, my name that sends them all running.

So many times we have seen the morning star burn, kissing our eyes,

and over our heads the gray light unwind in turning fans.

My words rained over you, stroking you.

A long time I have loved the sunned mother-of-pearl of your body.

I go so far as to think that you own the universe.

I will bring you happy flowers from the mountains, bluebells,

dark hazels, and rustic baskets of kisses.

I want to do with you

what spring does with the cherry trees.                                [tr. W. S. Merwin]