Somewhere I had read (or at least I think I had read) that Pablo Neruda preferred that his poetry be read aloud. And why not? Poets throughout time, from Homer to Emerson, wrote poetry to be read to an audience, and for the audience to read out loud in the quiet of their homes or in lonely moments in nature. Previously I have read Neruda’s Selected Poems aloud, as well as collections by Gary Snyder, A.E. Housman, Allen Ginsberg, some ancient Greeks, and the poems occasioned upon in places like The New Yorker, World Literature Today, and other periodicals. There’s just something about forcing the words (and their underlying rhythms) into the vacant air. Poetry is meant to be heard.
And so I read Neruda’s collection of poetry, Fully Empowered (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001), aloud, in the quiet of my apartment (lest I embarrass myself). Uniquely, Fully Empowered, a slim anthology of fewer than forty poems, is bilingual; after I read a poem in English (at least twice), I then turned to the Spanish version to practice that romantic tongue.
Enjoying Neruda’s poetry in two languages simultaneously is a treat, but I couldn’t help but pick up on some inconsistencies in the Spanish to English translation. For example, in “The Sea,” the final word of the poem in the original Spanish is “movimiento,” but translator Alastair Reid chooses to finalize the English version with the dual “movement, movement.” It’s a subtle difference, but poetry, the most economic form of literature (Thoreau), must be precise. Subtle motions in the language can move like tidal waves if not dealt with delicately. Why double up on Neruda’s single “movement”? Another example: In “In Praise of Ironing,” Neruda alludes to innocence being born of the sea foam (espuma), but Reid translates this as “swirl” instead. Espuma is a recurring visual theme of Neruda’s—foam is scattered across his full record of poetry like rents in a worn blanket. A man in love with and inspired by the sea, the crash and gurgling of foam was a constant in his mind’s eye and at the tip of his pen. With references to espuma, the man knows what he wants to say. Why, then, does Reid see fit to alter the visual? Brazen substitution happens elsewhere in the collection too, with other word choices. Reid, it seems, took poetic license away from The Poet—tsk tsk.
Plenty of the pages in my copy of the book have their corners turned down. Here are some lines from a couple of my choicest picks:
The first and last lines from “Births:”
We will never have any memory of dying / …
The only thing you remember is your life.
From “The Word:”
Still the atmosphere quivers
with the first word uttered
in terror and sighing.
from the darkness
and until now there is no thunder
that ever rumbles with the iron voice
of that word,
perhaps it was only a ripple, a single drop,
and yet its great cataract falls and falls.
And falls and falls through page after page of Neruda’s graceful prose. Despite my grievances with some of Reid’s translations, Fully Empowered is an elegant collection of poetry that touches on the many facets of Neruda’s character: his love of nature, his amorous tendencies, his compassion and empathy for the working man, and ultimately, his acceptance of the finality of existence.
This is one of several "quick reviews," a series that provides a snapshot of international arts and culture.
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Chile, Pablo Neruda, Poetry, Quick Review