Saturday, June 20, 2020

Filling out the thumpety-thump with Nabokov, Waugh, West, and Wang Wei, the last of the "read in May" pile - “It’s a heartbreaking game.”

Well into June, the last four books I read in May, quickly dispatched.

Vladimir Nabokov, Laughter in the Dark (1932), one of Nabokov’s Berlin crime novels, a nasty shocker.  It would be something of a parody of The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) if the dates were reversed, so I suppose it is a parody of something else.  It has nothing Russian but plenty of interesting Berlin detail, including some German film industry scenes.  Some of the parallels to Lolita are interesting, too.

Still, this may be Nabokov’s most trivial novel, his simplest novel.  The prose and patterning seem simpler than usual.  Possibly I should blame the inexperienced translator, who may have simplified things.  It was his first translation.

In the evenings, there was dancing at the casino.  The sea looked paler than the flushed sky, and the lights of a passing steamer glowed festively.  A clumsy moth flapped round a rose-shaded lamp; and Albinus danced with Margot.  Her smoothly brushed head barely reached his shoulder. (Ch. 14, 116)

That moth, or its pal, visits the characters ninety pages later.


Nathanael West, Miss Lonelyhearts (1933), a great American nightmare.  A newspaperman is having an existential crisis, a religious crisis.  The letters he gets for his advice column, full of real problems, are finally getting to him.  Maybe that’s it.  Here is some representative prose:

The  old man began to scream.  Somebody hit Miss Lonelyhearts from behind with a chair.  (end of “Miss Lonelyhearts and the Clean Old Man”)

Here is more:

His caresses kept pace with the sermon.  When he had reached the end, he buried his triangular face like the blade of a hatchet in her neck.  (end of “Miss Lonelyhearts and the Dead Pan”)

I should have read this ages ago, and what’s worse is that I knew it, and what’s even worse is that the book is only seventy pages long.  Maybe I’ll have more to say when I’ve read The Day of the Locust.


Evelyn Waugh, A Handful of Dust (1934), where the Bright Young People, a bit less young than in Vile Bodies (1930), meet Fate.  The passage, about halfway through, that interrupts the story and begins “Then this happened:” and ends “Everyone agreed that it was nobody’s fault,” is close to an attack on the usual functioning of the novel as a form.  Re-reading, the tragic accident turns out to be heavily foreshadowed, and I now see that one character, Mrs. Rattery, is a personification of Fate.  She literally falls from the sky and spends the aftermath of the tragedy playing cards, as in this curiously parenthesized paragraph:

(Mrs. Rattery sat intent over her game, moving little groups of cards adroitly backward and forwards about the table like shuttles across a loom; under her fingers order grew out of chaos; she established sequence and precedence; the symbols before her became coherent, interrelated.)

She and Fate and the author overlap.  As she says a page later, folding up the cards, “It’s a heartbreaking game.”

A Handful of Dust is as grim as Jude the Obscure, but played for laughs.  If anyone wonders why or how I often find Hardy so funny, I point you toward Waugh.

All of those quotes are from the “Hard Cheese for Tony” chapter, parts 5 and 6.


Eliot Weinberger & Octavio Paz, 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei (1987), the classic of comparative translation.  “Poetry is that which is worth translating” (p. 1).  A twenty character Tang Dynasty poem is presented as text, transliteration, and in nineteen versions in three languages, with Weinberger’s commentary and Paz’s commentary on the commentary, and on his own (two) translations.  Along the way, Weinberger writes a little history of 20th century translation practices.

As a critic, he is careful yet casual:  “Where Wang is specific, Bynner’s Wang seems to be watching the world through a haze of opium reflected in a hundred thimbles of wine” (11).  “Rexroth’s great skill is apparent in three tiny gestures” (23).  “The last line adds dark to fill out the thumpety-thump” (35).

Don’t miss the postscript, where Weinberger is credibly accused of “crimes against Chinese poetry” for his “curious neglect” of “Boodberg’s cedule.”

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Woolf's Waves and Faulkner's stories - more books I read in May - I love tremendous and sonorous words

More books I read in May.

Virginia Woolf, The Waves (1931).  A difficult book.  It pushes Woolf’s ideas about the representation of consciousness to a new, extreme position.  I wonder if it is a dead end.  It is a live novel.

Six friends describe or think about or experience their lives.  Childhood, school, and so on at roughly decade intervals, interspersed with a prose poem about light effects on the ocean.  The text, aside from the prose poem, is all in quotation marks, as if it is speech, except for “said Neville,” “said Rhoda,” like that, which I have to put in quotation marks here, which is confusing.  But the text is obviously not speech, but thought, and not direct thought, as in Mrs Dalloway (1925), definitely not stream-of-consciousness, but more like a summary of thought, or a retrospective description of thought.  All of it somehow “said.”

The first section, the childhood piece, is the most confusing, because I have no information besides names and gender (three boys, three girls), and, realistically, it is not clear how the childhood personality transfers to the teenager or adult.  Characters sometimes seem to blur into each other, too.  Later, I could tag Louis as the poetic sensibility, Susan as the motherly one, Bernard as the novelistic sensibility, and so on.  The six characters take turns for a while, which is a little mechanical (I think, okay, who is left, who has not “spoken” yet?), until the last section, which is a fifth of the book:

“Now to sum up,” said Bernard.  “Now to explain to you the meaning of my life…  This, for the moment, seems to be my life.  If it were possible, I would hand it to you entire.  I would break it off as one breaks off a bunch of grapes.  I would say, ‘Take it.  This is my life.’  (238)

Bernard the “novelist,” has taken over.  He has never written a novel (has he?), but it is possible that this text, or some refraction of this text, is his novel, the story of this group of friends.  Perhaps the whole thing is meant to be his.  “’I love tremendous and sonorous words’” he says, or thinks, or writes, much earlier in the book (32).  He sure does.

I assume, when I re-read The Waves someday, I will abandon everything I just wrote.


William Faulkner, These 13 (1931).  His first book of short stories; his worst title?  Faulkner occasionally rearranged his work, so this book has vanished, dissolved into Collected Stories (1951), but I wanted to think about the stories in their earlier context.

Four stories are about World War I, mostly pilots.  They are now  housed in “The Wasteland” in Collected Stories, almost by themselves.  Three stories are about Americans in Europe after the war, and are in “Beyond.”  The Italian stories in particular sounded more like Hemingway than I would have guessed possible for Faulkner, but perhaps I am being addled by the shared subject matter.

None of these are Faulkner at his best, but he did keep them.  They are not essential Faulkner, unless the question if “how did Faulkner become Faulkner”.

The other six are essential, good or bad.  They express the essence of Faulkner’s art circa 1930.  “A Rose for Emily,” Faulkner’s first published story (!), the perfect distillation of “Southern Gothic”; “Dry September,” a clear-eyed lynching story; “Hair,” Southern Goofic, but the shared protagonist with “Dry September” shows how Faulkner’s Balzac-in-Mississippi concept works; and “That Evening Sun,” about racial incomprehension, and ditto on the Balzac thing except the characters are from The Sound and the Fury.

That’s only four.  “Red Leaves” and “A Justice” are about Chickasaw slave-owners and the history of Yoknapatawpha County before it was Yoknapatawpha.  Faulkner is mythologizing.  I only have a vague sense of what he is doing in these two stories.  A problem for later.

Monday, June 15, 2020

The enchanted novels of Sigrid Undset and Marly Youmans

About a year ago I read The Wreath (1920), the first volume of Sigrid Undset’s 14th century Norwegian domestic epic Kristin Lavransdatter.  Last month, I read The Wife (1921).  Maybe in a year I will read The Cross (1922) and finish up.

Our headstrong heroine Kristin married the man she loved at the end of the first novel.  For much of this novel, she manages her household, raises her children, and fights with her husband.  Maybe ten years pass.

I finally saw, in the first third of the novel, why Kristin Lavransdatter became, soon after its first English translation, a cult novel in the United States, a book that women passed from hand to hand.  Who in English in the 1920s, or for that matter much later, was writing so directly about difficult childbirths, or sexual conflicts between spouses, or simply the anxieties of moving to – taking over, managing – a new household for the first time?  These are ordinary problems, experienced by millions of young women who were not medieval Norwegians, and Undset writes about them clearly and without melodrama.

Maybe I also saw why the novel has receded, even with Tiina Nunnally fine recent translation.  Now there are lots of novels and films that tell these stories.

Undset’s best artistic move is to accumulate elements of more or less ordinary life into an extraordinary scene.  In The Wreath, the great scene was the long, complex wedding at the end of the novel.  This time, in The Wife, there were two, the death and funeral of Kristin’s father at the end of Part II, and Kristin’s pilgrimage, expiating her sins from the first novel, that ends Part I.  I was not surprised to learn that Undset readers still travel to St. Olav’s shrine in Trondheim to re-create Kristin’s pilgrimage – not the real pilgrimage, but the fictional one, which is kind of funny.  But it’s a beautiful, powerful sequence.  Undset’s prose is often quite plain, with occasional hints of bestsellerism, but the big, climatic scenes are artful.

Part III of The Wife turns into more of a Walter Scott novel, about Kristin’s husband’s political schemes, and did not seem that special.

Undset’s fictional, historical world is enchanted, in the sense that it is not disenchanted.  Religion, God, and darker things exist in this world, in the mentality and behavior of the characters.  By chance, I read a contemporary exercise in enchantment almost alongside Undset, Marly Youmans’s new novel Charis in the World of Wonders (2020), where the enchantment is visible in the title.

“For this is the world of wonders, an enchanted place of dreams, portents, and prodigies” – that’s the end of the first paragraph, when poor Charis, a young Puritan woman in New England, is awakened to spend the first long chapter fleeing catastrophe.  She spends the rest of the novel rebuilding a life, until she has to – chooses to – flee again.

The world’s “wonders” are its mysteries, whether beautiful or terrifying or in some other category, since the phrase is specifically evoked when Charis sees a moose, and I have trouble calling a moose beautiful; no trouble calling them wonders:

He lowered his head, crowned with new nubs of antlers, and began to lip at the foliage under the trees.  His breath ruttled as he blew outward and sent the plants to trembling. (216)

The voice, the action, and the ethos of the novel are all from the perspective of not just Charis’s faith, but her view of the world, a difficult thing to capture.  It is tricky. since no one at the time would write a first person account with so much dialogue, detail, or action.  The idea is to get close to the mentality of The Pilgrim’s Progress, the symbolic world, but not the form or the language.  Well, to some degree, the language.  Youmans borrows period language, wonderful archaic words, many of which we should return to use.  Nabbity, nattle, naughty-pack, nazzle, niffle-naffle, nightwalking, nittle.  The novel ends with a twelve-page glossary that I found readable and pleasurable on its own.  And I do not remember one time when I needed to turn to the glossary, since the vocabulary was always clear enough in context (e.g., ruttled up above).  The glossary is a bonus.

I should note that Youmans is a Friend of the Blog.  Marly, what a time to publish a novel!

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

the rest of my French reading in May - André Breton's war and Jean Giraudoux's peace

Two authors, aside from Kessel, filled out my May reading in French, André Breton and Jean Giraudoux.

Nadja (1928), Breton’s novel-like textual art object, some mix of the early history of Surrealism, art criticism, and a fictionalized encounter with a mentally ill woman who is perhaps what we now call an “outsider artist.”  Breton’s use of photographs – of his friends, his art collection, his favorite cafés, documents, scraps – is the most notable feature of the book, full of ideas.  I suppose I found all that more interesting than the central story about the woman in the title.

I read the revised 1964 version of Nadja, which seems to be the one in print in France.  The only English translation is of the original 1928 version.  So strictly speaking, whatever I read is not available in English.  My understanding is that there are some substantial differences in the texts, but I do not know what they are.  All of this was a surprise to me.

Second Manifesto of Surrealism (1930).  The original Manifesto of Surrealism (1924) felt like a work of Surrealist art, while this one read more like an important historical document.  Breton fights with his enemies and also his friends, some of whom will be enemies soon enough.  Freud is diminished a little, Marx, or maybe more accurately Stalin, elevated.  Passages on the great Surrealist predecessors – Lautréamont, Rimbaud, Poe – were interesting, but this is not really a work of criticism.  A couple of later essays included in the same volume, written when Breton had some distance and was not getting in fistfights, have more insight into the artistic purpose of Surrealism.

Both Nadja and Second Manifesto were difficult texts, sometimes discursive and obscure.  An important aspect of learning a language by reading is to puzzle out words and phrases from context, but Surrealist writing often deliberately jerks the language away from the context.  That is much of its fun.  But perhaps the French language-learner should not spend so much time with Surrealism.  Yes, perhaps.


I read two Jean Giraudoux plays, Intermezzo (1933, in English as The Enchanted) and La guerre de Troie n'aura pas lieu (1935, The Trojan War Will Not Take Place – I would add an exclamation point).

Intermezzo is about a young woman who has fallen in love with a ghost, and the small-town bourgeois officials (the mayor and so on) who try to save her.  Aside from the good comedy about the pompous, self-centered officials, I did not understand this play, “the point,” I mean.  I think I was all right with the language.  I have read two earlier Giraudoux plays, Siegfried (1928) and Amphitryon 38 (1929), both of which were about divided identities, or divided loyalty.  Intermezzo belongs with them, at least I can see that.

The Trojan War Won’t Happen! has a point that is clear enough.  Giraudoux's day job was in the diplomatic service, and this play is an outraged warning.  Paris has just brought Helen to Troy, and the Greeks are in pursuit.  Hector, the great warrior, and a few other characters do everything they can to stave off war, but we know that Cassandra is right, the Trojan War will happen, and poetry will pass from Troy to Greece, as she says in the last line.  The old men, hotheads, incompetents, and theorists will make sure of that.  The Trojans are the French, the Greeks the Germans.

The most audacious scene, I thought, features an expert in international law, who first argues that the law requires peace, then, just as easily and logically, that it requires war.  I think this is where I double-checked the date of the play.  No, this is 1935, not 1938, long before “peace in our time” and all that.  Giraudoux obviously saw what was happening, for all the good it did him.

Monday, June 8, 2020

Joseph Kessel's days of adventure - Abyssinia, Berlin, Barcelona, Kenya

Joseph Kessel was a real discovery for me when I was in France.  A journalist and novelist, he was a major French writer who barely exists, in terms of reputation or actual books, in English.  He is likely best known in English, if this counts as “known,” as the author of the novels on which the movies Belle de Jour and Army of Shadows are based.  But in France any well-stocked bookstore has numerous titles, scattered in different sections of the store, and any bookstore at all has one title, Le Lion (The Lion, 1958).  It is taught in junior high, although how often I do not know.  It was always there, and was one of the first novels I read in French.

The second-most common book in 2017 was En Syrie (In Syria, 1927), a book that had suddenly become relevant.  Kessel was as much a travel writer as a journalist, an old-fashioned “foreign correspondent” whose greatest pleasure was to drop into the middle of some new, dangerous place and have an adventure, telegraphing dispatches home, then, later, writing a novel about wherever he had been.

The book of his I finished in May is titled Les Jours de l’aventure: Reportages, 1930-1936The Days of Adventue, one of a series of seven volumes of Kessel’s journalism.  Kessel travels to Abyssinia and Djibouti in 1930 to report on – to track down – the African slave trade, to Berlin to witness the violent elections of 1932, to New York City in 1933 to see the Great Depression firsthand, and to Barcelona in 1934 to witness not the beginning of the Spanish Civil War but a preview, although he says that one was an accident, that he was on vacation when the shooting started.

Kessel’s idea of reporting on the Abyssinian slave trade was to see the trade for himself.  Nothing abstract for him.  He finds and follows the slave hunters; he follows a slaving caravan across the desert and then across the Red Sea.  Somebody else can write up statistics and international law.  Kessel is going out into the desert, even if it kills him.

His dispatches from this adventure were simultaneously published in Paris, London, and in the New York Times.  I wonder how common that was.  A little book was published, too; this stuff is in English.  In a horrible irony, fascist Italy used Kessel’s reporting as one of its justifications for the invasion of Abyssinia – to suppress the slave trade.

In between the sad, doomed German elections, Kessel spends a week hanging out with one of Berlin’s organized criminal gangs, operating somewhere between a mafia gang and a fraternal organization.  Highly recommended to anyone who enjoyed Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1928).  Very highly recommended to anyone who read Döblin but wondered if he was exaggerating.  Apparently, no.

That one Kessel novel I have read, The Lion, is about an eleven-year-old girl, the daughter of an English park ranger in Kenya, who has an uncanny rapport with animals, and whose best friend is an adult male lion.  Which is a bad idea, obviously.  Something terrible will happen.  This is one of several French books with child protagonists I have read that end with crushing disappointment and disillusion.

Anyway, I thought that two scenes were genuinely sublime, first, when the Kessel-like narrator watches the girl wander among the African animals at a watering hole, and second, when the girl introduces “Kessel” to the lion.  By genuinely sublime, I mean they were beautiful and also terrifying.

The Lion is available in English, in an old translation, and there was a Hollywood movie, but I do not remember ever coming across either, or any reference to them.

Representative Kessel trivia: he acquired the first visa to enter the State of Israel.

He was a combat pilot in World War I, and again in World War II, in the Free French Air Force, alongside Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and Romain Gary.  Three great pilot-writers – that seems like a lot.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

it may be fun to be fooled - Dylan Thomas, E. E. Cummings, Louis MacNeice

I am in the process of writing up what I read in May, much like I did in April.  Is this a good idea?  When I finished up April, I did not write another word until more or less now.  So I have doubts.  Yet here I am.

Last month I read Dylan Thomas’s debut, 18 Poems (1934); this month, Twenty-five Poems (1936).  Why did he change the representation of the number in the title?  Was it to make me look up the titles over and over again, never getting them right the first time?

Two years later, Thomas is marginally more coherent, with the sound-to-sense ratio moving a little ways towards “sense.”  His biological metaphysics is presented more directly.  “Beginning with doom in the bulb, the spring unravels” and so on, from the first poem, “I, in my intricate image,” where the poet is born.  A conceit of D. H. Lawrence is that we are all, we humans, just another species of animal, however much civilization we build around ourselves.  Thomas goes a step back on the phylogenetic tree, believing that animals, and thus all of us, are specialized plants.  “My images stalk the trees and the slant sap’s tunnel… / I with the wooden insect in the tree of nettles” etc.  Not exactly the way biologists draw the tree now, but close enough for a poet.

These poems, like the last batch, are likely more fun to bellow than to read silently:

from Altarwise by owl-light, Stanza V

And from the windy West came two-gunned Gabriel,
From Jesu’s sleeve trumped up the king of spots,
The sheath-decked jacks, queen with a shuffled heart;
Said the fake gentleman in suit of spades,
Black-tongued and tipsy from salvation’s bottle.

This Dylan is beginning to sound like that other Dylan.


E. E. Cummings, No Thanks (1935).  More Cummings poems, like he had been writing for a decade, but carpentered onto a complex frame of four sections, each section built out of sequences of three free poems capped by a sonnet.  There is a snow, star and moon quarter, and also one more that I could not figure out.

There is plenty of this kind of fun – how much do you like puzzles, or grasshoppers:

And as I now expect from Cummings, there are some earthy poems (see #24, “let’s start a magazine”) and some sex poems, divided into the sensual and the silly, as in this excerpt from #16:

(may I touch said he
how much said she
a lot said he)
why not said she

We all enjoy mocking Hemingway, yes?  That’s #26:

what does little Ernest croon
in his death at afternoon?
(kow dow r 2 bul retoinis
wus de woids uf lil Oinis

And look, #27 is an authentic Joe Gould poem.  Someone should publish a Joe Gould sourcebook.  The Joe Gould Saga.  If you do not know what I am talking about, I urge you to read Joseph Mitchell, “Professor Sea Gull” and “Joe Gould’s Secret,” or at least watch the 2000 movie.

Cummings wrote the book on a Guggenheim fellowship, but such were the hard times of the Depression that no one would publish No Thanks, thus the title, except for his mother, who paid to have it self-published.  Shoulda called it Thanks, Ma!


Finally, I read the first sixty pages or so of Louis MacNeice’s Collected Poems, roughly up to or just past his trip to Iceland with Auden.  Unlike the poems of Thomas, Cummings, Neruda, and all of those Spaniards, MacNeice’s poems are about concrete, material things, with scenes and settings, and they make rational sense.  I love them, but have nothing to say about them.  Maybe the next batch.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

that voice in which the freshness of those days still breathes - more 1930s Spanish poems, from Vicente Aleixandre and Rafael Alberti

A pliable notion of “international surrealism” has helped me read a number of poets from the 1930s, but in Vicente Aleixandre I find the Spanish version of the real thing.  He was – today I would call him a corporate lawyer – who dabbled in poetry.  He fell ill and read the real Surrealists, the French ones, André Breton and that crowd, and their approved precursors like Rimbaud.  Aleixandre did not move to Paris and swear fealty to Breton; he was not a real Surrealist.  But his poetry, his life, permanently changed.

from Lightless

The swordfish, whose weariness arises first of all from its inability to pierce the shadow,
to feel in its flesh the cold unliving blackness of the sea bottom,
where there are no fresh gold seaweeds
illuminated by the sun in the first waters.  (tr. Stephen Kessler)

This one is from the early 1930s.  It is free verse, but coherent in its imagery and mood.  It is concrete but not really about its subject.  Aleixandre’s interests are psychological and interior.  That swordfish is inside the head, maybe in a dream.  In the last line, the unpierced shadow is identified as “where calm slime doesn’t imitate exhausted dreams.”  I don’t want to say I know what each element of the poem means, but I get the feeling.  Mostly.

In the 1950s, Aleixandre’s poems become more straightforward and exterior.  The poems are directly about whatever is in the title: “To My Dog,” “On the Way to School,” “My Grandfather’s Death.”  “On the Death of Miguel Hernández” – so many tributes to Hernández, to Lorca.  The poems are also about other things, but Aleixandre now gives his reader a form place  to begin.

from Who I Write For (from the 1950s)
For the bully and the bullied, the good and the sad, the voice with no substance
and all the substance of the world.

For you, the man with nothing that will turn into a god, who reads these words without desire.

For you and everything alive inside of you,
I write, I write.  (tr. Lewis Hyde)

The book I read is A Longing for the Light: Selected Poems (1979), translated by many hands, a curious and enjoyable feature of that period of publishing.  Robert Bly is always in there somewhere.


Rafael Alberti is more my kind of fun, more playful, more humorous.  I read Mark Strand’s translations, The Owl’s Insomnia (1973).  “Alberti’s poems number in the thousands,” Strand writes (p. ix), and this book contains exactly fifty of them, half from 1929 and 1930, so what do I know about Alberti.  But I enjoyed these.

Thirteen have the word “Angel” in the title, or hidden elsewhere in the poem; the angels seem to represent any number of beings, including schoolchildren:

from The Angel of Numbers

Virgins with rulers
and compasses were watching
the heavenly blackboards.

And the angel of numbers
was thoughtfully flying
from 1 to 2, from 2
to 3, from 3 to 4.

Or perhaps the angel is the personification of grade school education.  It ends the poem “lifeless, shrouded” – how sad.  See also the poem “The Grade School Angels.”

Alberti writes tribute poems not just to Charlie Chaplin (“Charlie’s Sad Date”), but to Buster Keaton (“Buster Keaton Looks in the Woods for his Love Who Is a Real Cow”) , and not just to Keaton but to Harold Lloyd.  Where, I ask, is Fatty Arbuckle?

from Harold Lloyd, Student

The Spring rains over Los Angeles
in that sad hour when the police
are unaware of the suicide of the isosceles triangles,
the melancholy of a Naperian logarithms
and the facial unibusquibusque.

Look, more angels hidden in there, more math.  The three poems about the great comic film actors are all pretty crazy, barely connected to their subjects as far as I can tell, and full of verbal (and numeric) play that give Strand something to do.

There is of course a Lorca tribute (“The Coming Back of an Assassinated Poet”).  There is a tribute to Vicente Aleixandre!

from The Coming Back of Vicente Aleixandre (1958)

Where are you, my friend,
where are you coming from, from what depth
of years do you come to me
this noon so far
from those other noons or those nights
in which I would meet you,
tall, trim, and blond,
as if you were already looking for what would give you
with time that voice in which
the freshness of those days still breathes?

Monday, June 1, 2020

I speak of things that exist - more of Pablo Neruda's Residence on Earth

Glancing at Pablo Neruda’s Residence on Earth, just the first part from 1933, I discussed the pleasures and difficulties of what I called “international surrealism.”  Sometimes it makes no sense, that is the difficulty.

Now I’ve read the second part, from 1935.  Does reading more Neruda help me find more sense?  Let’s look at a passage from the first poem, “Un Día Sobresale / One Day Stands Out” (tr. Donald Walsh):

From resonance come numbers,
dying numbers and dung-covered ciphers,
dampened thunderbolts and dirty lightningflashes.

This is a strange start.  The previous collection was also full of thunder and lightning.  “Resonance” is “de lo sonoro,” and the next stanza begins with the same phrase.  Now that is a clue.  Pay attention to the sounds, even if, as in the fourth stanza, they are “Fishes in sound, slow, sharp, moist.”  It also seems to be nighttime.  The poem is several pages long, with the beginnings of most stanzas including either “resonance” or “silence.”

Brusque shoes, beasts, utensils,
waves of harsh roosters overflowing,
clocks running like dry stomachs,
wheels unrolling on downcast rails,
and white water closets awaking
with wooden eyes, like one-eyed pigeons,
and their sunken throats
make sudden sounds like waterfalls.

Now Neruda has done it.  He has given me what I like, things, things I can take literally.  The sounds of shoes, roosters, clocks, and streetcars, the sounds of the toilets above and below and in the next room.  The poet is in a bedroom – a hotel room, is my guess, sleeping, dreaming, waking, likely earlier than he had planned as the city and the hotel awake around him.  A few of the concrete nouns are parts of similes, but the rest are part of the scene.  This must be one of the finest literary descriptions of a toilet.

A couple of stanzas later, the sun is up, “shadow recently fleeing / and drops that from the heart of heaven / fall like celestial blood,” the poem ends, and the book begins.  Up, poet, up!  But the next poem is “Only Death,” where “To resonance comes death” and death is “like a pure sound,” so I see why he wanted to stay in bed a little longer.

Images and individual words link the poems, allowing me to create a mood or perhaps even a narrative.  The sounds continue.  Sea imagery is everywhere, foam and waves and coffins with sails.  The poet is always alone, lonely.  “Do you want to be the solitary ghost that near the sea / plays upon its sad and sterile instrument” (“Barcarole”).  For a poet, that sounds bad.

This piece of Residence on Earth is in six parts, and each part builds its own structure of imagery.  I did not figure out a way in to each part, but I have a better idea of how to do it.  Part III contains the poems about sex, which felt like kitsch, and Part IV attacks my preference for things by loading “Three Material Songs” with the goofiest images, “hats of defeated bees” and wine that “walks its lugubrious hedgehogs” and that sort of glorious nonsense.  Those examples are from “Ordinance of Wine,” and I am happy to interpret the whole poem as a parody of the language of wine snobs.  But then how to interpret the previous material poem, “The Apogee of Celery”?

I speak of things that exist.  Heaven forbid
that I should invent things when I am singing!

That’s also from “Ordinance of Wine.”

Part V begins with a beautiful, direct, but uncanny “Ode to Federico García Lorca” – “Federico / you see the world.”  Neruda became friends with many Spanish poets while serving in the Chilean consulate in Spain.  Please remember that this is 1935, and there is no Civil War:

What are verses for if not for that night
in which a bitter dagger finds us out, for that day,
for that dusk, for that broken corner
where the beaten heart of man makes ready to die?