Love Poem XIV: Neruda’s Sublime

(x-posted to The Valve)

ATTENTION ALL READERS: The web now has a bad case of Pablo Neruda. The Anti-Essentialist Conundrum was affected first; among other notables to catch the fever was Petitpoussin at Truly Outrageous, and she has links to a number of sites getting in on the game (actually, this post is coming quite late).

For most people, everything you need can be found right around your house, since Neruda is the kind of writer whose readership extends far beyond avid consumers of poetry. (He has this in common with other writers of sexy, elemental verse, including Rainer Maria Rilke and Mary Oliver. Every copy of Rilke you find in used bookstores has been inscribed to someone.) 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.

The poem I’m discussing below is Poem #14 from 20 Love Poems and a Song of Despair. Who knows how many times I’ve read it over the years. This is nonetheless my first attempt to articulate its passions, and make it speak.

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Here it is, as translated by W. S. Merwin:

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

You are like nobody since I love you.
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.

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 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 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.

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,
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.

The play of love in the poem is not just with “light,” but between light and darkness in both persons. 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 apparent disconnection between the descriptions of love, and the descriptions of the tempest, at first conceal the fact that for Neruda, love is the only means by which two people “weather” each other. They are in fact brought to life by their encounter, instead of being destroyed, through an alchemy of sentiment that transmutes the storm.

Neruda writes, “you arrive in the flower and the water.” These tropes define the divide between new life on the one hand, and chaos on the other. The first flower imagery is suggested by the line, “Let me spread you out among yellow garlands.” This is a plea for happiness, and a gallant seduction, modes which return at the end of the poem. But first Neruda turns to the night sky: “Who writes your name in smoke among the stars of the south?” It is an image of the sublime overwritten with the beautiful – the sublime of the starry sky that becomes the backdrop for the more manageable name of the beloved. The ambivalence of this image of the sky gives way to the absolute sublimity of the inchoate beloved: “Oh let me remember you as you were before you existed.”

This incantation sets loose the storm. The violence of his beloved’s difference, which a dialectician might call her “negative capability,” tears open the poet himself: “Suddenly the wind howls and bangs at my shut window. / The sky is a net crammed with shadowy fish.” Still, the eroticism of “The rain takes off her clothes” makes it clear that this apparent digression is still the encounter between the poet and his lover. The rain, like the sky, is ambivalent, both violent and vital.

The wind is the purer image of chaos, and it drives the poet to echolalia: “The wind. The wind.” It is something that can only be survived, unlike the “power of men,” against which the speaker can wage war. The suffering he endures is like that which he discovers in her: “How you must have suffered getting accustomed to me, / my savage, solitary soul, my name that sends them all running.” Only this sort of experience can disturb the hermetic enclosure of the poet’s own self. Through becoming accustomed to the difficult object of affection, the lover finally regains peace: “Here all the winds let go sooner or later, all of them.”

There is a part of the beloved that runs, and a part that does not. Neruda writes, “You are here. Oh, you do not run away….Even so, at one time a strange shadow ran through your eyes.” This strange shadow, mentioned almost reproachfully, recalls the “shadowy fish” of the storm. The depth of shadow in the Other yields to the reflective pearl of the body, and to the interposed fan of morning light, itself softened from a “burn” to the image of a kiss.

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: “You are more than this white head that I hold tightly / as a cluster of fruit, every day, between my hands.” The physical details of the body, and the homely rituals of days and nights together – these survive the storm, and in fact stake their claim to the truth upon the ravages they manage to contain. In the phrase “You are more than this,” we hear both humility, and despair.

Blossoms are Neruda’s symbol for love at the moment when it is achieved. They are suitable because of their naïve, sufficient externality, which reminds us of the inter-subjectivity of the love affair. Flowers appear on the outside of dark branches, or cover the ground after a rain. Neruda writes, “you bring me honeysuckle,” and, in return, “I will bring you happy flowers from the mountains,” in contrast to the devastations of the “sad wind.” The implicit sunshine of the “yellow garlands” returns in the “sunned” body of the beloved, and in the blue of the bluebells. There is only a whisper of their origins in the “dark hazels,” which bring back the “whirl of dark leaves” from the storm.

For Neruda, love finds its way as a negotiation between savage, solitary souls. Each braves the other, and breaks its seals in the process. In the space of familiarity created between them, both lovers emerge from remoteness and shadow, manifest. The rain, the storm, take their places among the signs of the spring.

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