Saturday, December 16, 2006

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week #44

Just about everyone would agree that one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, in any genre, was the famous Chilean poet and 1971 Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda. No less a writer than Gabriel Garcia Marquez called him "the greatest poet of the century, in any language." And few poets have ever had a broader appeal and readership than Neruda: he was tremendously popular all over the world (one of his first collections, Twenty Love Poems, made him an international name), which is astonishing when you think he began his life in an obscure village in the rainforests of southern Chile, far from anything you might consider "modern" or "cosmopolitan." He also, interestingly, enjoyed a long and successful career as a diplomat, serving at posts in eastern and western Europe, as well as the Far East. When he heard about his selection for the Nobel, he was in Paris, serving as the Chilean ambassador to France.

I am only just starting to get to know some of Neruda's work, and I can say that he is one of these rare poets in which, upon your very first readings of his work, you realize you are dealing with a genius, a visionary gifted with the power to transport his audience to another place through the power and beauty of language. Usually when I notice this quality in a poet's work, my head finds the work itself to be difficult to understand, even though my heart is responding to the music of the verses. That's certainly the case here -- it is the same thing I experience when reading the work of Rainer Maria Rilke, for example, or T. S. Eliot. I don't pretend to understand it yet (and likely never will fully), but I can certainly appreciate it and enjoy the unique reading experience. In this way, to me anyway, reading the truly great poets is like reading the mystics of the Church: you never fully grasp what they are getting at, but there is more than enough truth, beauty and wisdom to, in Seamus Heaney's immortal words, "catch the heart off-guard, and blow it open."

Here is a poem from Neruda that, I think, captures the astonishing visual, even cinematic, power of his language... it describes a place I guarantee you have never been to and most likely never will, and yet when you read it, it takes form within your mind's eye in all its terrifying and beautiful splendor. I don't pretend for a second to know exactly what this poem is saying, but whatever that is, it sure is saying in it in a striking and original way. I was particularly struck by his comparison of that frozen, craggy landscape to a cathedral. Stunning work!



Antarctic, austral crown, cluster
of frozen lights, cinerarium
of ice broken off
the terrestrial fabric, cathedral rent
by purity, nave brought down
over the basilica of whiteness,
immolator of shattered glass,
hurricane dashed against the walls
of nocturnal snow,
give me your double breast stirred
by the invader solitude, channel
of the terrifying wind masked
behind all the corollas of an ermine,
behind all the klaxons of the shipwreck
and the white scuttling of the worlds,
or your breast of peace polished by the wind
like a pure rectangle of quartz,
and the un-breathed, the infinite
transparent material, the opened air,
the solitude without earth or poverty.
Kingdom of strictest meridian,
whispering ice-harp, immobile,
close to the enemy stars.

All seas are your circular sea.
All the resistances of Ocean
concentrated in you their transparency,
and salt settled you with castles,
the ice raised high cities
over a crystal spire, the wind
swept along your briny paroxysm
like a tiger burnt by the ice.
Your cupolas gave birth to danger
from the vessel of the glaciers,
and life lies in your dorsal desert
like a vineyard underwater, burning
without consuming, preserving the fire
for the springtime of the ice.


Mutt Ploughman said...

This poem is astonishing!!! What incredible language is to be found here! Duke, I just got the chance to read this, and I find it exhilirating. Outstanding selection - YET AGAIN! Where'd you run across this one? You are 100% right - this one is all about the beauty of the words and the potency of the language. I loved this one!!

Aura McKnightly said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Aura McKnightly said...

Overrated! Reminded me of Happy Feet or, at worst, a poor watered down version of Ice Age.

Duke Altum said...

Mutt, glad you enjoyed it so much. Trust me, I understand why. The language is astonishing... and this is in translation!?! Neruda's one of these rare poets, as I said in the post, that you read and immediately know you're in the hands of a master. With a handful of writers, you just read something by them and are utterly blown away by the music of the language alone. A perfect example of this is Rilke's Duino Elegies. I challenge anyone to read the very first elegy, and then tell me that Rilke is not a wizard of language. The beauty of the writing goes beyond comprehension -- meaning, you may have no idea what he's getting at, but you almost don't care because it sounds so astonishing. Reading the novels of Vesaas, in a way, is like this too. Difficult to fully understand, but you savor them anyway for the astounding writing. Neruda falls squarely into this category of writing for me.

Chris, I hope you were trying to be funny because if not, well, I can't help you dawg!!!

Duke Altum said...

Want to see what I mean? Here are the opening lines of The First Elegy from Rilke, mentioned above:

Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels' hierarchies?

and even if one of them pressed me suddenly against his heart:
I would be consumed in that overwhelming existence.

For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure,
and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.

Every angel is terrifying.