Monday, April 15, 2013

Friday, April 12, 2013

Tonight I've decided to use this space for personal reasons, to assist my memory. I remembered reading in an essay by Robert Bly in his book American Poetry about Neruda's poem "The Dictators." How he decided to spend so much time on Neruda in a book titled American Poetry, I don't know, but he did. The book is a collection of essays he wrote in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, some of which he revised in the late 1980s before the book was published in 1990. Anyway, here's a translation of the poem (don't know whether this is Bly's translation or not):

An odor has remained among the sugar cane:
A mixture of blood and body, a penetrating
Petal that brings nausea.
Between the coconut palms the graves are full
Of ruined bones, of speechless death-rattles.
A delicate underling converses
With glasses, braid collars, and cords of gold.
The tiny palace gleams like a watch
And the rapid laughs with gloves on
Cross the corridors at times
And join the dead voices
And the blue mouths freshly buried.
The weeping is hidden like a water-plant
Whose seeds fall constantly on the earth
And without light make the great blind leaves to grow.
Hatred has grown scale upon scale,
Blow on blow, in the ghastly water of the swamp,
With a snout full of ooze and silence.

 Bly shares his opinion of this poem: "It seems to me a masterpiece of the political poem." He goes on to say

Neruda's task is to entangle in the language the psychic substance of a South American country under a dictator. The Spanish original, of course, is much more resonant. But even in the translation it is clear that Neruda is bringing in unexpected images: "The tiny palace gleams like a watch" - images one would expect in an entirely different sort of poem: "rapid laughs with gloves on." Suddenly a blind plant appears, that reproduces itself by dropping seeds constantly on the ground, shaded by its own huge leaves. This image is complicated, created by a part of the mind inaccessible to hatred, and yet it carries the reality of hatred radiating from dictators into the consciousness with a kind of massive intelligence.

Okay, the reason I remember this poem is because of that complicated image of the leaves and the seeds and the shade and the plant growth in the dark. In my memory, though, I had somehow associated this image with another poem, possibly one by Lorca, which describes a house that isn't exactly haunted but has the scent of oranges in it, and the people living there remember their ancestors who also lived there. And over the house there sits a cloud of inaction. One day I'll understand why I remember these things the way I do. And hopefully I'll find that poem with the orange-scented home (Pretty sure it isn't in Bly's American Poetry).

I would like to know why Bly regards this as a masterpiece of political poetry. Perhaps he thinks this verse could apply to any society which has endured a visiting oppression. Early in his American Poetry book, Bly comments on "our recent poetry" by American poets. He says that, with them, "the poem is considered to be a construction independent of the poet. It is imagined that when the poet says 'I' in a poem he does not mean himself, but rather some other person - 'the poet' - a dramatic hero...". However, "The great poets of this century have written their poems in exactly the opposite way. In the poems of Neruda, Vallejo, Jimenez, Machado, and Rilke, the poem is an extension of the substance of the man, no different from his skin or his hands...". Okay, so then, where is the "I" in Neruda's poem "The Dictators"? Hm, in this poem, we know of humanity by the odor that inspires nausea and by the weeping, but the description is just that, description, and not an expression of an "I". Perhaps that is the source of the power of this particular poem. The oppression imposed has silenced the "I", as indicated by the "speechless death rattles." Then again, silence in the snout of the oppressor is a show of power because there's no need to engage in dialogue when you rule over people who have been beaten into submission.