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?


  1. do you think Neruda sat down and planned out his imagery and the specific objects he wanted to use to illustrate it, or did he just wing it, putting down whatever he felt like?

  2. Yeah, that last one, that'll get you! And as a bonus, I believe it is true.

    I don't know how Neruda composed. A variety of ways, is my guess. Twenty Love Poems and a Poem of Despair (1924), for example, must have been highly thought out and polished. But the more surrealist poems from the 1930s? Maybe Neruda allowed himself more improvisation. But I don't know. He likely had a store of imagery and word-associations in his head.

    Poet Roa Lynn tells a surprisingly violent story about Neruda writing her an impromptu poem in 1968.

    1. pretty interesting... it did feel like the end of an era when RK was shot...

    2. Gander's story is the comic inverse. "Could they be ship's figureheads? Sure, why not?" Creative, at least.