A message for desolate hearts

For today’s post I mostly want to share a poem I learned today, by Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet. First, a quick backstory. (Skip the story and scroll straight to the poem if you like—I don’t mind!)

Last semester I had in my Creative Writing class an exchange student from Chile—for the sake of this blog, we’ll call him “Nico”—the sweetest, kindest kid you could hope to teach. It was a one-semester deal. His summer just started with the new year, and Friday he goes home; this week he unenrolled from our school. He stopped by today to say goodbye.

It’s one thing when a great kid graduates; you’ll still probably see that kid around, or at least you know it’s a possibility. But when that kid disappears to another hemisphere—that’s a real bummer. It was an emotional goodbye.

My other students are as brokenhearted about it as I am. Once last semester Nico was absent for just one day, and a student insisted we couldn’t go on without him. “He’s the backbone of this class!” she cried. I laughed but demurred. “You’re all the backbone of this class,” I said lamely, and I repeated it and hoped it sounded sincere: “This class has twenty backbones!” I did mean it, mostly. It really is a great group of students, and it’s an appealing metaphor, too—the class as a single freakish organism, made up of many backbones. But we all knew she was right. The day just wasn’t the same.

As it turned out, Nico and I got each other parting gifts. I gave him a copy of Ziggy Stardust; he was really into Bowie’s Blackstar album this year but hadn’t yet heard the stuff that made Bowie famous.

He gave me a Pablo Neruda book, one he had his mom send up from Chile. We’d read some Neruda in class last semester and watched the Italian movie about him, Il Postino. I’d shared with the class, among other things, Neruda’s poem, “Tonight I can write the saddest lines…,” and it made the whole room wonderfully miserable—a triumph for poetry. (I challenged the class to find a better break-up poem or break-up song than that one, anywhere. So far no one has.) We read Neruda’s “Ode to the Tomato” and wrote our own giddy odes to ordinary things. Whenever we’d read Neruda poems in class I’d asked Nico, since he was game, to read the originals out loud in Spanish, and the whole class would sit in attention; then someone would read a translation. I teach Neruda in Creative Writing most years. This year we did more than usual.

The book Nico gave me today was a Chilean edition of a book I’ve never heard of, 20 Poemas al Arbol y un Cactus de la Costa (20 Poems to Trees and a Cactus of the Coast). The poems are printed in Spanish and English, with beautiful illustrations opening each poem, every poem a different tree.

“Those who do not know the Chilean woods,” Neruda writes in a sort of preface, “do not know the planet. From those lands, from that soil and that mud, from that stillness, I have come out to walk, to sing throughout the world.”

*

After Nico left today I skipped to the last poem in the book, the “Ode to the Cactus of the Coast.” This is why I’m writing this post, to share a chunk of that poem.

It’s a good poem for any January—and, I think, for this January especially. The year opens not just with a sense of uncertainty but for a lot of us with anxiety and despair and, perhaps, a dangerous sense of depletion. At any rate, I know it was helpful for me to read these lines today. Maybe you’ll find help in them too, for reasons of your own. I plan to reread these words often, whenever I can use them.

The translation is by Mónica Cumar. The poem is a few pages longer than this, but this is how it ends, and how the book ends:

… Thus is the story,

and this

is the moral

of my poem:

wherever

you are, wherever you live,

in the last

solitude in this world,

in the scourge

of the earth’s fury,

in the corner

of humiliations,

brother,

sister,

wait, work

hard

with your little being and your roots.

 

One day

for you,

for all of us

from

your heart a red ray will burst forth,

you’ll also bloom one morning; the Spring

has not forgotten you, brother,

sister,

no,

it has not forgotten you:

I say it to you

I assure you of that,

because the terrible cactus,

the bristly

son of the sands,

conversing

with me

entrusted me with this message

for your desolate heart.

 

And now

I tell you

and I tell myself:

brother, sister,

wait,

I am certain:

Spring shall not forget us.

neruda-cover

6 thoughts on “A message for desolate hearts

  1. Speaking of depletion, this poem by Alice Walker also comes to mind. I consider it a spring poem, too. It’s called “Loss of Vitality.” Walker centers her poems on the page, but that format’s not an option here in the comments:

    Loss of vitality
    Is a sign
    That
    Things have gone
    Wrong.

    It is like
    Sitting on
    A sunny pier
    Wondering whether
    To swing
    Your feet.

    A time of dullness
    Deadness
    Sodden enthusiasm
    When
    This exists
    At all.
    Decay.

    You wonder:
    Was I ever “on”
    Bright with life
    My thoughts
    Spinning out
    Confident
    As
    Sunflowers?

    Did I wiggle
    My ears
    & jiggle my toes
    From sheer
    Delight?

    Is the girl
    Grinning fiercely
    In the old photo
    Really me?

    Loss of vitality
    Signals emptiness
    But let
    Me tell you:
    Depletion can be
    Just the thing.

    You are using
    Have used
    Up
    The old life
    The old way.

    Now will rush in
    The energetic,
    The flexible,
    The unmistakable
    Knowing
    That life is life
    Not mood.

    Like

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