Friday, October 7, 2016

Pablo Neruda: El perezoso/ The Layabout

Continuarán viajando cosas
de metal entre las estrellas,
subirán hombres extenuados,
violentarán la suave luna
y allí fundarán sus farmacias.

En este tiempo de uva llena
el vino comienza su vida
entre el mar y las cordilleras.

En Chile bailan las cerezas,
cantan las muchachas oscuras
y en las guitarras brilla el agua.

El sol toca todas las puertas
y hace milagros con el trigo.

El primer vino es rosado,
es dulce como un niño tierno,
el segundo vino es robusto
como la voz de un marinero
y el tercer vino es un topacio,
una amapola y un incendio.

Mi casa tiene mar y tierra,
mi mujer tiene grandes ojos
color de avellana silvestre,
cuando viene la noche el mar
se viste de blanco y de verde
y luego la luna en la espuma
sueña como novia marina.

No quiero cambiar de planeta.

Pablo Neruda 

The Layabout

These metal thingamajigs will
continue to voyage among the stars,
undernourished men will continue to ascend,
will violate the soft and gentle moon,
and thereon will plant their drugstores.

At this moment of grapes
full to bursting, wine is born
between sea and cordilleras.

In Chile the cherries are dancing,
dark-complexioned girls sing,
and water is glistening in guitars.

The sun knocks on every door
and works miracles with wheat.

The first wine is rosé
and it is sweet like a tender child;
the second is robust,
like a sailor's chest register,
and the third is topaz,
poppy and wildfire.

My house is replete with sea and earth,
my woman has the grandest eyes,
the color of wild hazelnut,
and when night arrives the sea
dresses in white and green
and then the moon in the foam
dreams as if my mermaid bride.

I haven't the slightest desire to change planets.

tr. EAC

E. A. Costa          October 7,  2016        Granada,  Nicaragua
N.B.: (1)“chest register”--vox pectoris (Latin), Voz de pecho (Spanish); (2) As one has seen
no one notice, the collection in which “El perezoso” appears, Estravagario (1958), which marks
new departures of style for Neruda, has many echos of the French Libertine poet, Marc-Antoine
Girard de Sant Amant (1594 – 1661), the inventor of burlesque poetry in French. Indeed, the
title of the poem clearly refers to Girard's “Le paresseux”, in which the poet, lazy and
melancholy, cannot rise from bed, a theme which Neruda, reversing the tone, here changes to
the poet, completely content with the bed that is his earth, especially in Chile, has not the
slightest inclination to rise into space. The contemporary context is the so-called “Space Race”
between the United States and the Soviet Union, which had already seen by 1958 three satellites
put into orbit, Sputnik, Sputnik II or Muttnik by the Soviets and the anticlimactic Explorer
1 by the United States. In an excellent essay, “The Spacecraft of Pablo Neruda and W. H.
Auden,” by L. A. Cheever and D. Ketterer (Contributions to the study of science fiction
and fantasy, ed. D. Ketterer, vol. 107, 2004, pp.239-246), the authors point out that Neruda
was certainly not against space travel. He did, however, as chronicled in his autobiography,
adopt the same sardonic attitude as in this poem when in the 1960's on a visit to the USSR
he met the cosmonaut Titov. "Commander, did you see Chile when you were flying through
space, looking down on our planet?", Neruda asked. Titov answered: "The most important
thing was to have seen Chile from above, do you understand? I saw yellow mountains in
South America. They seemed to be very high. Maybe that was Chile?" Neruda replied,
"Of course, that was Chile." The obvious connection of El perezoso to Le paresseux,
of which Cheever and Ketterer are not aware, and thus the context of burlesque, helps
put Neruda's attitude in context, which is, simply, space travel yes, but a sensual earth
and Chile from the ground first and last; (3) The contrast between the United States
“drugstore” and the traditional farmacia (“pharmacy”) and apothecary's (botica)
was a subject of mirth and wonder in Spain and in most of the Spanish-speaking world
by the 1950's, and still is. By the 1920's, the U.S. “drugstore”, as also seen in U.S. films,
had become a general retail outlet with a pharmacy attached, with an almost mandatory
soda jerk and his phosphates and other drinks, and all sorts of goods ranging from tobacco
through newspapers, magazines, cosmetics, clothes, toys, and so forth. The Spanish
farmacia or botica, on the hand, dispenses mainly or exclusively prescription and
non-prescription drugs. In Latin America droguería may also be used but it is important
to note that in Spain a droguería dispenses cleaning products, paints, and so forth,
not pharmaceuticals. Eventually the US hybrid got its own Spanish word, el drugstore.
The US Explorer I was launched on January 31, 1958 and Neruda's unavoidably
burlesque play with farmacia clearly alludes to the US participation in the Space Race,
since the Soviets were not known for “drugstores.” It also confirms the connection with
Le paresseux, whose bedridden libertine simply has no time or interest in the news of
the day, which in 1957-58 through most of the world included the first steps into Outer
Space by the Soviets and later the US; (4) “en las guitarras brilla el agua” (water is
glistening in guitars): This is a supremely subtle visual metaphor, not recognized by
Cheever and Ketterer above, nor anyone else in English or Spanish one knows of. Hidden
under the surface of a figure suggesting “the guitars are playing fluidly like water”,
while cherries in the trees dance in the breeze and dark girls sing, is an image of
Chile--the long string of space between sea and cordilleras—as the neck of a guitar
pointing south with the body being the Andes to the north. The "neck" of a guitar
in Spanish is, moreover, el mastil, "pole or mast", clinching the nautical
reference. Thus el agua or the sea is marked as both the guitar's music and its string(s).
The image is obvious in any colored satellite map, not available to Neruda in 1958, 
but brilliantly intuited from the geography. This is also clearly what Neruda was getting 
at with Titov, who seems not to have got the play, but whose answer confirms 
Neruda's Chile as the neck of a guitar. Titov  indeed saw Chile from above,
but failed to see the subtle visual metaphor in his poem, which, importantly,
is a dual image of Chile from space and on the ground. The combination of
marvellous prosody fit to the brilliantly executed double visual perspective,
all in the context of revolutionary technological events in the news—and still news--
makes this particular poem one of the most striking and underestimated poems in
Neruda's corpus, which in a way Neruda himself devilishly footnotes in his
autobiography's mention of the conversation with Titov. The old science fiction
saw about the so-called Great Wall of China being visible from outer space was never
accurate. For one thing, as all scholars of China's history and geography always
knew, there is not, and never was, one “Great Wall”, nor were the different sections
“great” in size, so no parts are more visible than any other large earthly
fortifications. Here, as an added bonus, Neruda replaces that fictional Great Wall
with the great and actually visible shoestring of Chile, as much a terrestrial feature
as a space on a map. Considering the lame effort at poetic metaphor that the US
astronaut made in the first moon landing--”That's one small step for (a) man, one
giant leap for mankind.”--one might argue that Neruda's El perezoso is the first
great poem of actual, as opposed to fictional, space exploration, and not without
its own warning irony.

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