One good Neruda deserves anuder

From Veinte poemas de amor y una cancion desesperada by Pablo Neruda:


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.

Cuánto 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.

Translation by W.S. Merwin, with variations marked:


Every day you play with the light of the universe.
Subtle visitor but steady visitor, you arrive in the flower and the water.
You are more than this white head that I hold tightly white little head that I squeeze
as like a cluster of fruit, every day, between my hands.

You are like nobody since I love you For as long as I have loved you, you resemble no one.
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 then, when you did not yet exist.

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 rain disrobes.

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 Curl yourself up at my side 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 your plum 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 [OR “kissing each other’s 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.

In my ongoing series of posts on irony, I’ve already introduced you to one of the bloggers I read regularly with most interest. I’ve been meaning to introduce another: uncomplicatedly, another colleague of mine who has been a generous commenter on this blog so far. While I had initially planned to post in response to a series of excellent posts uncomplicatedly has written on lives becoming texts and the ethics of self-effacement in the writings of Georges Bataille and Simone Weil (a post which may yet happen, especially when Bataille comes up on my own reading list), another opportunity has arisen on which I have more ready to say.

Joe and uncomplicatedly have been dialoguing on a very rich poem by Pablo Neruda, and I’m excited to join the conversation. The potential of the blogosphere for collective exegesis is immense, and I’d like to see us take more advantage of it.

From a certain point of view that I can’t entirely disavow personally, Pablo Neruda’s Soneto XIV from Veinte poemas de amor y una cancion desesperada (20 Love Poems and a Song of Despair) is a strikingly beautiful love poem. Joe and uncomplicatedly both bring this out in unique ways which suggest that the experience of this beauty is quite meaningful.

Joe begins the discussion here with a concise reading of the poem, driven by the thesis that:

For Neruda, love and eros are confrontations with the real subjectivity of another person. That otherness takes the form of traumatic, destructive passion, and reveals a mutual inchoateness almost beyond endurance.

The telling line in the poem for me here is “You are more than this white head that I hold tightly / as a cluster of fruit, every day, between my hands”: the other is always more than the body can reveal, a subjectivity which is always grasped at violently and passionately in the experience of love, never grasped; but this is a source of beauty as much as of pathos. Thus, Joe concludes, “For Neruda, love is divided between knowledge of the violent and unsingable moments of sunderance, and the celebration of those particulars that can be shared.”

uncomplicatedly takes up the discussion here through the lens of a sort of reader response criticism–which is to say, she draws on her experience of the poem in a way that reveals a lot about its basic structures:

What probably sticks out in your mind if you’ve ever read this particular Neruda poem before are its final lines: “I want / to do with you what the spring does with the cherry trees.” When I encountered this poem for the first time as a fourteen-year-old girl, I nearly perished on the spot; the beauty of those lines was more overwhelming than words had ever been before.

This sense of “perishing on the spot” becomes essential to her understanding of the poem and, in turn, of poetry – it helps her to emphasize the essentially tragic nature of the unbridgeable otherness of the other which is never undone or overwritten by the experience of beauty or communication it produces.

In short, Joe and uncomplicatedly take as a starting point the assumption that this is a love poem concerning the erotic relationship between two subjectivities which are by definition radically different – in a sense, never entirely reachable to each other. Joe thematizes the process by which the achievement of love compensates this radical difference through shared experience or the experience of sharing: “love finds its way as a negotiation between savage, solitary souls. Each braves the other, and breaks its seals in the process”; uncomplicatedly, in contrast, emphasizes the limits of shared experience, and finds beauty in radical difference itself.

I’m going to try to take the discussion in a bit of a different direction, away from passion and pathos and beauty and love, because I’m confused about pronouns.

I. Performing Neruda, and the Rehearsal of the Pronoun System

Pronouns play an interesting role in this poem. The two subject pronouns, “I” (“yo”) and “you” (“tú”) are used, along with the equivalent object pronouns (“me,” etc.), but used sparingly and strategically. This was the first thing I noticed, reading the Spanish. Spanish allows a sentence to be written without a subject pronoun because, unlike in English, the subject can be inferred from the verb (“llegas en la flor” = “(you) arrive in the flower”). The subject pronoun “you” (“tú”) doesn’t appear until the fifth stanza, where it is repeated three times (“Tú estás aquí. Ah tú no huyes. / Tú me responderás hasta el último grito,”: “You are here. Oh, you do not run away. / You will answer me to the last cry.”) The lines emphasize the fact that the subject pronoun is finally being used: “you are here” i.e. your presence is finally being invoked, marked, by a subject pronoun, whereas before, your presence was merely inferred in a series of objects.

Pronouns are thus important in this poem. They are used self-consciously, deliberately. They are used in place of names, though names too (proper names) are discussed more than once:

  • “Quién escribe tu nombre con letras de humo entre las estrellas del sur?” (“Who writes your name in letters of smoke among the stars of the south?”)
  • “mi nombre que todos ahuyentan” (“my name that sends them all running.”)

The proper name, in this poem, is elusive. It is written somewhere, but in smoke, and not here (instead, among the stars of the south). It is a source of fear. To include a proper name in a love poem is frightening; to keep the beloved from fleeing, it must be kept unspoken.

In a sense, it is the absence of proper names in this poem that permits it to be what it is, which is to say, what it is for Joe and uncomplicatedly and any reader who has ever been attracted to its beauty as an expression of a romantic ideal. As Joe notes:

Neruda is the kind of writer whose readership extends far beyond avid consumers of poetry…Yet Neruda is plagued by a curious indexicality, by which I mean our tendency (at least in the English-speaking world of my experience) to share him (”read this!”) without necessarily discussing him.

Neruda was, after all, the poet depicted in Il Postino, the exiled poet who teaches the ordinary postman how to express his feelings to the woman he loves. Nevermind what Neruda was exiled for – namely, his alliance with Salvador Allende’s socialist government before it was overthrown by the brutal, U.S.-backed dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. The wide readership of which Joe speaks is not interested in Neruda’s critical edge, in his political commitment, but rather in the sensuality of his language. Il Postino belongs, after all, to approximately that same moment in films-you-watch-in-English-class-in-high-school as Dead Poet’s Society and Renaissance Man, which taught us that poetry was primarily a vehicle for the expression of the profundity of the human soul.

Having been raised in the 80’s and 90’s, I confess to having belonged to that moment. I confess that it inspired a great deal of my initial enthusiasm about the study of literature. I even confess to having spent my first Valentine’s Day with Sarah reading to her over the telephone from Veinte poemas de amor y una cancion desesperada while half a country apart. While at the time I think this was a meaningful gesture for a relationship that was simultaneous just beginning and terribly fragile (given the long distance), the same gesture today would seem, to me, disingenuous: rehearsing someone else’s words as a placeholder for an expression which cannot be guaranteed by words.

Neruda – and, in particular, the Neruda of Veinte Poemas – lends himself, in his current cultural afterlife, at least in the U.S., to precisely this kind of disingenuous rehearsal, precisely because of his application of the pronominal system. The absence of proper names allows this poem to appear as a universal expression of love from a generic “I” to a generic “you,” pronominal positions which can be rerouted from any speaker to any addressee at will (it is significant that, in Il Postino, the protagonist is a postman, a letter carrier, whose occupation is to carry other people’s words to their destinations).

It’s interesting to note the complex way in which uncomplicatedly’s reader response approach to the poem simultaneously performs and ironizes this very rehearsal. In a sense, she places herself precisely in the position of the addressee (she describes what the final lines of the poem did to her, which is related to but not identical to “what spring does with the cherry trees”) and wraps the poem in a narrative which parallels the situation of address (she tells the story of “a very strange boy” she once dated who gave her a poem that had a similar effect on her to the Neruda poem). At the same time, she doesn’t exactly identify with this position, narrating instead in past tense: “When I encountered this poem for the first time as a fourteen-year-old girl, I nearly perished on the spot.” She does not say that when she reads the poem today, she perishes. The “I” that is the addressee is not uncomplicatedly, but a fourteen-year-old girl that has since, essentially, perished. There is, it seems, a bit of unease about taking up the position of the addressee (“When you compare your beloved to a tree,” she writes, “you deny her even a tongue to speak with; she becomes something wholly alien to you that you can only engage with by analogy and — yes — the pathetic fallacy”) which is parried in the act of speaking. Narrating in past tense allows uncomplicatedly to attain the level of abstraction or ironic distance which makes it possible to thematize the process of identification or performance which is essential to Neruda’s poem without lapsing into disingenuousness.

Where does this unease come from? Well, while uncomplicatedly can speak better than I for her own relation to herself as a fourteen-year-old girl, I think there is enough insight in her and Joe’s readings to account, at least, for my own unease. The irony of the situation is that Joe and uncomplicatedly both make of this poem – quite accurately, I should add – an expression of radical otherness which is opposed to the universalism implied by the abstract repeatability of the pronoun system. To be truly repeatable, the poem must erase all traces of otherness in particular (all traces of Neruda and his beloved, and of the proper name) in favor of an expression of otherness in general. In a sense, it is the direct opposite of the version of Frank O’Hara’s “personism” which Joe describes here and sums up as follows:

The poem arises out of the relationship – in particular, the love relationship – and brings it one step further along; when it is published, it still carries the traces of that afternoon and feeling. After his death, O’Hara’s poems had to be “collected” from the letters he sent to friends.

Unlike O’Hara’s work, Neruda’s poem relies on the absence of any specific relationship. It replaces the referential traces of afternoons and feelings with abstract symbols. This allows, for example, the beloved to appear as the rain which undresses herself or to “arrive in the flower and the water.” The other is essentially “spread out among yellow garlands,” disbursed into almost clichéed figures which cannot be traced back to the beloved either in terms of resemblance (metaphor) or contiguity (metonymy) – the other literally “resembles no one.”

II. Radical Otherness as Abstract Equivalence

If, on the one hand, the lack of specificity of the pronoun system permits the repetability of the poem which allows it to be passed on as a love poem within a wide reading public, on the other hand, it does so at the cost of not lending any substance to the otherness of the other, or even to the radical difference between the speaker and the addressee. Other than their positions relative to this problem of knowledge, there seems to be no substantive difference between the I and the you here – any otherness is purely nominal, i.e. pronominal, a difference in the deictics which are merely superficial and reversible (if I were there and you were here, you would be me, and I would be you).

The pronouns “you” and “I” are almost entirely unembodied. Neruda goes to great lengths to avoid gendering either pronoun, which is rather difficult in Spanish because adjectives have to agree in gender and number with the noun or pronoun they modify. This means that Neruda actually has to strictly avoid ever modifying “tú” or “yo” with any adjectives – adjectives are instead attached to other nouns, like “blanca cabecita” (“white little head”) which is feminine, but only because the noun (“cabeza”) is always feminine, even when referring to a male head. Language does force Neruda to mark the gender of the addressee in three places through gender-specific nouns (“visitadora,” “dueña,” and “pequeña”), and the relationship between the “yo” and the “tú” submits to “traditional” or stereotyped gender roles which abound in Spanish-language poetry (“Curl yourself up at my side as though you were frightened,” for example: the male as protector, etc.), but this all assumes an entire logic of gender which is not dependant on the body, which can be put on or taken off like the rain taking off her dress. The gender of the speaker is never marked once. It is presumably guaranteed by the assumption that the speaker is Neruda, but there’s no reasons why this poem couldn’t be read by a woman. The only sign of a gendered body is the breast (“seno”) in line 23. Similarly, the only sign of race is the whiteness of the head in line 3. Surely something should be made of these markings, but the fact remains that we still have in view a body that “resembles no one” in particular.

The cumulative affect of the pronoun system on Neruda’s expression of otherness is to pare it down to the most abstract version possible – that is, not the otherness of a particular other person; more abstract than the other of Said’s Orientalism; more akin to Sartre’s “other,” which is to say, any otherness, the empty otherness of another being in the world (dasein) for whom the world is also a world. The version of otherness expressed in this poem approaches – and this is brought out in Joe’s reading – the abstract equivalence of the subject, the reduction of specific differences to the abstraction of “difference as such” which may in turn provide the grounds for identity or exchange between two radically different entities. Difference is commodified, made to fit into the neat little economy of universally understandable love relationship. In other words, in order to be a philosophical poem about the (universal) nature of love, the poem must cover over the specific identities and differences of the speaker and the addressee which are essential to its own philosophical definition of love, and must make them instead into empty signifiers for the generic “difference” which separates and unites all people as “unique just like everyone else.” This explains the divergence in readings between Joe and uncomplicatedly – uncomplicatedly is right to read this poem as one which expresses a desire to preserve the specificity of difference, but Joe is right to insist on what uncomplicatedly calls “the forgetting of [love’s] darker, abyssal nature” because the poem itself performs such a forgetting, in a sense in spite of itself.

Put another way, the subjects of this poem have no names because they are already named generically as “human” (“humano”), the only name which can literally be written in the letters of “humo” (smoke). The poem’s expression of the humanist concept of the subject is at odds with its philosophical (i.e., essentially, inhuman) mode of expression, which treats difference as a universal problem and thus as a form of sameness.

The abstract equivalence of the subject also helps explain the strange symmetry or reciprocality between the speaker and the addressee in the poem which allows both Joe and uncomplicatedly to speak interchangeably about the lover and the beloved, who really both face the same problem (the radical otherness of the other) from both sides simultaneously, as knowing subject and known object. As Joe quite insightfully observes, Neruda sets up the romance as a reciprocal exchange : “Neruda writes, ‘you bring me honeysuckle,’ and, in return, ‘I will bring you happy flowers from the mountains.” In the poem, the speaker takes on the position of knowing subject who remembers, names, defines etc. the addressee as a knowable (or, ultimately, unknowable) object, but only provisionally, since as Joe points out, “For Neruda, love finds its way as a negotiation between savage, solitary souls” – that is, between two subjects both of which are “more than” their bodies, both of which are knowable only only up to a certain limit, and, conversely, both of which struggle to exceed the limits of their own selves through the attempt to know another soul.

III. Allegories of Differánce

If this is the case, then in order to maintain the universality and reciprocality of the address, in order to read it as a poem about love in general which can be addressed, therefore, from anyone to anyone, we have to see the two halfs of the opposition male/female//speaker/addressee//knowing subject/known object distinctions as provisional or allegorical. Rather than treat this opposition as an opposition between two distinct characters (a man and a woman in love) we have to understand it an opposition between two perspectives or positions (knowing subject and known object) which are occupied simultaneously by man and woman, speaker and addressee.

As soon as we detach the opposing positions in this poem from actual bodies, however, there is no longer a single reliable way to attach them. For example, we have to consider the possibility that the speaker and addressee are not figures for people at all, but rather personifications of abstract concepts. I won’t pursue this very far, but suffice it to say that we lack any reliable way of deciding whether these are poems about love that use flowers and rain as metaphors to signify human relations, or poems about flowers and rain that use love as a metaphor to signify natural processes. Merely titling the volume “20 loves songs…” does not guarantee that the love song is not really just an allegory for a poem on/addressed to “time” or “beauty” or “poetry.” Love in a “love poem” may be signified content, or it may be merely the domain of the signifier, the realm from which metaphors are drawn.

More interestingly, the abstractness of the pronoun even admits the possibility that the poem is (rather than the erotic play between two lovers) playing with itself: the auto-erotic implications of “esta blanca cabecita que aprieto /
como un racimo entre mis manos cada día” (“this white little head that I squeeze / like a cluster of fruit, every day, between my hands”) are hard to dispell, and the fact that Merwin finds it necessary to cover over this possibility by mistranslating “aprieto” as “hold tighly” only serves to further suspicions (“apretar” is ultimately closest in English, etymologically and definitionally, to “press,” in that it implies the application of pressure, as in “to press a button,” rather than the mere maintance of pressure as in Merwin’s “hold tightly”)

If the same individual, the same body, the same speaker or poet or addressee is capable of taking both positions in the poem simultaneously, then it becomes impossible to dismiss the possibility that the poem is, in a sense, talking to itself, an auto-address in which tú=yo, you=I. The addressee, the “suble visitor,” who sneaks in in a variety of ways – flowers, water, light – finds its way into the dwelling place of the I as well, into the position of the speaker, talking to him or herself. The masculine/feminine rhetoric, rather than signifying an actual erotic relationship, allows a bifurcation of the self into the positions of knowing subject and known object. The poem thus reads not as an encounter with the radical otherness of the other, but rather as an allegorization of the radical otherness of the self to itself.

Lest we take this as pure rhetorical posturing, sneaking in on the back of some word play that we might be want to call accidental or inessential to “the point” of the poem (as if we could decide this by some means other than by looking at the word play), let me emphasize that this conclusion is already implicit in the original erotic version of the poem as Joe and uncomplicatedly interpret it. In Joe’s reading, in particular, it seems as if the speaker encounters the wildness and savageness of (his) own soul only through the encounter with the otherness of the other. If the radical otherness of the “you” provides the shared property of the “you” and the “I” as the founding condition for love, this is possible only because the “I” is also radically other. The achievement of love thus confirms simultaneously the radical otherness of the self and the possibility of a breach. The other is the occassion through which the self discovers its own otherness, the limits to its own self-knowledge; perhaps, then, there never was an other, except as a figure enabling this discovery.

As we have seen, this process of discovering the limits of self-knowledge is exactly what happens in the poem, what is performed in the poem itself (nevermind in its readings) by the very fact that the ostensible intention of the author, the I who writes, to express a particular love in a universal form trips over itself (which is not to say that it fails, but only that while walking in a certain direction, it suddenly finds “itself” inconveniently in its path) and discovers, or at least reveals unwittingly, certain truths about its own activity of writing instead. Rather than coming to any conclusion about the nature of love, the interpretation of which is hopelessly vexed in this poem (though in a complex and quite productive way), Neruda’s poem XIV in Veinte poemas de amor… reveals the process of internal division that divides each subject, and each expression in writing, from itself.


~ by Matt on February 10, 2007.

3 Responses to “One good Neruda deserves anuder”

  1. sur (can I call you that for short?),

    A couple of thoughts on this marvelous new contribution to the Neruda conversation.

    First of all, I am non-hierarchical in my understanding of homology (this also came up under the heading of irony). In other words, rain and flowers are love as Neruda understands it, including between people, and vice versa. That is what it means for him to think of human beings as part of nature — flowers are not there to help us signify things about ourselves and others. Rather, they are fundamentally like us.

    Of course, if that goes a little too far in the direction of marmalade skies, it’s because we’re talking about Neruda — non-hierarchical homologies in Angela Carter’s stories or Kafka’s novels (or in Schlegel) would look very different.

    It’s very useful to remind us, as you do, that poetry is not a process of reaching the other person directly. It is, as Derrida has written, a poste-la (“Post-It”) or what he calls elsewhere “le poste de la voix” (“the voicemail”).

    …But seriously, I do agree, and I think of that process of self-division as a way of postulating the other through a divided self, in the absence of real knowability.

    Of course, this does amount to “abstract equivalence,” but the fact that it is a formal rather than descriptive equivalence makes a great difference. If I assert, as the property of the Other, a formal quality like “unpredictability,” then I am in a position to love them in spite of, and in fact because of, the shocks their behavior may occasion. This is a different model of love from the model of reproving someone on the grounds that they are like you, and they have done something against your nature. That is the truly tyrannical model of equivalence and “love” against which my post (and Neruda’s poem) is written.


    At times your posts (as well as uncomplicatedly’s) are more personal than mine, and that’s a reminder to me to share what I can, despite the odd feelings that accompany not being anonymous.

    I too used to put a lot of stock in quoting beautiful things to lovers and friends (to some extent, that is preserved in my habit of using epigraphs), and I too would feel embarrassed to keep that up. (Though apparently not too embarrassed, since a few years back I sent my Valentine a remixed version of Iron and Wine where I sang lead.)

    I don’t think embarrassment over being secondhand should equate to embarrassment over poetry and original writing period, though it often does, especially for PhD candidates who would like their writing to be as good as they stuff they read. Otherwise, one of the great pleasures of reading and sharing authors, which is the development of one’s own sensibility and creative powers, is lost to a bashful and silent compromise of mere consumption.

  2. Thank you for this post! I love this poem dearly and it’s interesting to read other people’s thoughts on it…

  3. […] May 6, 2007 by Patrick Foley Every day you play […]

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