Reading Pablo Neruda’s Still Another Day right after watching Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” reminds me of how hopeful in his lament for nature Neruda can be, how much his passion for a nation can root itself in a call to remember the spirit. Both of these could be lessons for contemporary Americans to take note of if we weren’t on our own peculiar spiritual trip of consumer satisfaction. Imagine this. A twenty-eight section poem and not one brand name is mentioned.
I have always been fascinated by how Neruda is able to cast his mystical spell over a reader by invoking a spray of disparate objects in his catalogs. Neruda at his best seems to intuitively understand the quality possessed by each object he invokes. He expertly picks each object for its right weight and sound. The disparate nature of the items he invokes establishes the breadth of his eye and mind, and I think this is what is most contagious for me in Neruda’s work. Perhaps this expansiveness might seem alienating to an American reader for whom the poem is a well-heeled display that never wanders from its frame, the way a contemporary American grade school student never wanders off his/her task and drill.
In this rather slim volume of twenty-eight short poems that Neruda wrote just before his death in 1973, William O’ Daly tends a very spare and taut line as one might expect in these poems that serve as guides and meditations. O’ Daly describes this long poem in twenty eight parts in this way:
The reader might experience this long poem as a sequence of distillates or perhaps crystallizations, clarified visions of recurrent themes, charged with the poet’s urgent need to consider them one last time
Like Gore, Neruda is concerned with his country’s land and soil as the essence of the nation, that element to which all humanity and history returns and is reborn. In the introduction O’ Daly describes the influence of the Araucanian indians’ resistance on Neruda and how their resistance, resulting in La Frontera, a borderland wilderness on the edge of civilization, makes itself present in the early poems of this sequence. O’ Daly also comments on how Neruda’s ear for the Mapuche language (of the Araucanian) as a child manifests itself in Neruda’s line, using hard vowel sounds that stand in contrast to the melodic runs.
Mostly Still Another Day is the story of Neruda’s attachment to his homeland. He tells us this in section VI
Pardon me, if when I want
to tell the story of my life
it’s the land I talk about.
This is the land.
It grows in your blood
and you grow.
If it dies in your blood
you die out.
Clearly, Al Gore must have been channeling Neruda. Each one of Neruda’s spree of things named is like Gore with another one of his gleaming graphs of data. The cumulative effect is of a world perilously hanging on the edge, waiting for some breath from the south to breathe life back into it.
Neruda writes short poems that address Yumbel, Angol, Temuco, Clear Boroa, Harp of Osorno, Pedro and then Neruda turns to his own relationship with the land, acknowledging his uselessness in the face of it.
Each in the most hidden sack kept
the lost jewels of memory,
intense love, secret nights and permanent kisses,
the fragment of public or private happiness.
A few, the wolves, collected thighs,
other men loved the dawn scratching
mountain ranges or ice floes, locomotives, numbers.
For me happiness was to share singing,
praising, cursing, crying with a thousand eyes.
I ask forgiveness for my bad ways:
my life had no use on earth.
Through the days, the months, the personages, the land, and the oceans, the glue that holds Still Another Day together is Neruda himself. At times the O’ Daly renders him, he sounds almost confessional, as in XVII when he writes:
I was that distant being
sickened by the carbon fumes
of the locomotive.
I didn’t exist, yet.
I had something to discover.
My poetry isolated me
and joined me to everyone.
That night I would
have declared Spring.
These sentences are very declarative, not the usual lilt one ascribes to Neruda. However, to my elemental Spanish (informed mostly by my knowledge of Portuguese), the translation appears to be right on. Is this unusually flat Neruda? I think so. One wonders if there isn’t an imperative as a translator to take liberties in order to bring the music back into the language. The strictest translator would stand aghast at such a suggestion. A translator like Bly would not be so ready to dismiss such a project. These are the two schools of translation as they have been passed down forever and ever.
Neruda reminisces about other items in his past, his grandfather Don José Angel Reyes, a kingdom the color of amaranth, how he once stopped in nothingness near Antofagasta. It is there Neruda seeks the purpose of a land (which parallels his own purposelessness in section XVI). He finds it in the sands of Isla Negra and at the whaling town of Quintay and eventually in the day itself and its rhythms, particularly those of the wave. It is that wave, the wave of humanity tied to a specific place, that does not die at the end — of course, it could be made uninhabitable due its being underwater as a result of global warming. I guess Neruda didn’t quite foresee that.
O’ Daly has made it his task for the last thirty years to translate the work of Neruda that was published after 1962. Still Another Day was the first book from this era of Neruda’s life that O’ Daly discovered back in 1975 in Modesto, and since then he has published five other volumes of Neruda’s work on Copper Canyon Press — Winter Garden, The Separate Rose, The Sea and the Bells, The Yellow Heart, and the Book of Questions. O’ Daly will have two more volumes out on Copper Canyon later this year. But with Still Another Day there is a range of styles and themes that will reward the impatient newcomer and satisfy those who have long been acquainted with his work.
What can be said of the poet who toils and lives with a single foreign poet through most of his/her life? This is dedication that cannot be easily dismissed. It speaks of an obsession that runs in the opposite direction of what most American poets, particularly young American poets are about — dedication to the self and one’s own work, especially the selling and promoting of it. O “Daly, like his poetic counterpart Neruda, has entered into the polis of poetry and we, as readers, are made richer for his efforts. Long may they continue.