Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Reader's Diary #244- Pablo Neruda: The Captain's Verses (up to "The Earth")

With my frequent condemnations of overly sentimental poems, I may have given the impression that I'm not a romantic. Wrong. I'm just not a sentimental romantic.

Pablo Neruda's love poems walk that fine line. While the poems in The Captain's Verses were written for his wife-to-be, the poems say as much about love in a philosophical sense as they do in a intimate, specific sense. It is probably the case that the philosophical stuff was a by-product but that's what saves the poems from sliding into Hallmark territory.

On an intimate level, Neruda's love poems are very physical. He practically maps every inch of his lover's body as he continuously references her waist, her hips, her breasts, her eyes, and so forth. They are also very personal. Each poem is directly addressed to "you". It feels almost like I've dug out a shoebox of someone's mementos, almost like I'm invading their privacy.

Getting into the more philosophical side of things, I've noticed that a lot of these poems talk of journeys; "they travel the distance of your legs", "I crossed the roads", and others. Quite a step up from directly saying, "Love is like a journey..." As a true poet, Neruda is able to express the same sentiment without falling into cliche territory and also adding to the idea with more inventive and specific examples.

Like Margo Button's The Elders' Palace, The Captain's Verses is written in two languages. The original Spanish poems are placed side by side with Donald S. Walsh's translations. According to Walsh in his introduction, Neruda's poetic ideas were expressed "very simply and directly [so it was] possible to translate him quite literally with no loss of validity." I'd like to be able to read both versions to decide for myself, but it certainly doesn't seem like I'm reading a translation. I don't feel like I'm missing the better version (as I did when I read Gabrielle Roy's Children Of My Heart). Still, I do find myself glancing over to the Spanish side and trying it out in my head. I admit, Spanish normally sounds more romantic to me than English. It is either a compliment to Neruda, Walsh, or both that the English versions are still filled with the beautiful language of love.


Barbara Bruederlin said...

Placing the Spanish and the English poems side by each is a great concept. I guess, as you say, it is quite a bit more meaningful if you actually read both languages, but that might even be a good way to reach yourself Spanish (as long as you don't mind talking about someone's legs).
Who knew Bart Simpson was a fan?

John Mutford said...

I don't need any more senoritas falling for me, thanks.

Yeah, good old Simpsons. Some of the references in that show still astound me.

Anonymous said...

I've always loved Neruda's poems. They have this tone to them that you feel as if you're in a surrealist painting yet well grounded in reality. And I especially love it when they print it with the Spanish on one side and the English on one side because you can experience the fullest.

John Mutford said...

Dave, there are a couple or so poems in here that see the woman of his affections as a landscape of sorts, with Neruda walking over her hills and valleys. In the hands of a less capable poet this could create quite a humorous, cheesy image- like that Lit video with the giant Pam Anderson, but instead Neruda is able to do as you said, create a surrealist image. I can almost picture the painted version in which you can't tell where the body begins and the landscape ends.

Do you speak Spanish?