Poems for staying at home (Day 11)

 

Valpo

Wrecked building and street art, Valparaíso

 

I have known this poem since my teens, but returned to it in 2015 after a visit to Neruda’s house in Valparaíso, and decided to try my hand at translating it.

When I first read the poem in its English version, the translator defined Don Asterio as the ‘clocksmith’ of Valparíso. This is not strictly accurate, and Neruda has chosen ‘cronometrista’ in the title (rather than, say, relojero = clockmaker, which he also uses) for a reason. Although the subject of the poem does make and repair clocks and watches, his function within the poem (and within the city) is of a more ontological nature. Don Asterio is, effectively, transformed from ‘artisan’ to ‘wise man’ – or from ‘clockmaker’ to ‘timekeeper’. His gentleness and humility are characteristics of a man ‘stopped in time’, while around him ‘men and women flowed by / up the shabby hills or down to the sea’. My main concern in the translation was to capture the crucial paradox of Neruda’s verse, at once virtuosic and simple: an onslaught of vivid imagery and a skilled, tranquil protagonist.

If you prefer to listen, a recording of the English version only can he found here

 

To Don Asterio Alarcón, timekeeper of Valparaíso

Valparaíso has the smell
of a crazy port,
the smell of a shadow, of a star,
of moon-scale
and fish-tail.
The heart shudders
on the harrowing stairways
of the bristling hills:
grave poverty and black eyes
dance there in the fog
and the flags of the kingdom
hang from windows:
patched sheets,
old shirts,
long undershorts
and the sea sun salutes the banners
while the white clothes wave
the sailors a poor farewell.

Sea streets, windy streets
of the hard day wrapped in air and waves,
alleys that sing upward
in a spiral like snails:
the commercial afternoon is transparent,
the sun visits the merchandise
in order to sell the warehouse smiles,
showing windows and sets of teeth,
shoes and thermometers, bottles
that hold a green night,
unreachable suits, golden clothes,
awful socks, mild cheeses,
and so I come to the point
of this ode.

There is a shop window
with its glass
and inside,
between timepieces,
the timekeeper don Asterio Alarcón.
The street boils and turns
burns and batters,
but behind the glass
the clockmaker,
the old curator of clocks
stands immobile, with a protruding eye,
an extravagant eye
which guesses the enigma,
the cardiac arrest of the clocks
and scrutinizes with one eye
until the obscure butterfly
of timekeeping
alights on his brow
and the hands of the clock move.

Don Asterio Alarcón is the ancient
hero of minutes
and the boat sails on the wave
measured by his hands
that add
responsibility to the minute hand,
neatness to the beat:
Don Asterio in his aquarium
watched over the marine chronometers,
oiled with patience
the blue heart of the seascape.
For fifty years,
or eighteen thousand days,
the river of children and men and women
flowed by
up the shabby hills or down to the sea,
while the clockmaker,
amidst clocks,
stopped in time,
softened like a pure vessel
against the eternity of the current,
his timbers appeased,
and little by little the wise man
emerged from the artisan
working
with magnifying glass and oil
cleansed of envy, fear discarded,
fulfilled his job and destiny,
until time itself
in its fearsome passage
made a pact with him, with don Asterio,
and he awaits his hour.

So when I pass by
the frantic street,
the black river of Valparaíso,
I only hear one sound
among the sounds,
among so many clocks one only:
the exhausted, gentle, murmuring
and ancient movement
of a great pure heart:
the distinguished and humble
tick-tock of Don Asterio.

(Translation by Richard Gwyn)

 

A Don Asterio Alarcón, cronometrista de Valparaíso

Olor a puerto loco
tiene Valparaíso,
olor a sombra, a estrella,
a escama de la luna
y a cola de pescado.
El corazón recibe escalofríos
en las desgarradoras escaleras
de los hirsutos cerros:
allí grave miseria y negros ojos
bailan en la neblina
y cuelgan las banderas
del reino en las ventanas:
las sábanas zurcidas,
las viejas camisetas,
los largos calzoncillos,
y el sol del mar saluda los emblemas
mientras la ropa blanca balancea
un pobre adiós a la marinería.

Calles del mar, del viento,
del día duro envuelto en aire y ola,
callejones que cantan hacia arriba
en espiral como las caracolas:
la tarde comercial es transparente,
el sol visita las mercaderías,
para vender sonríe el almacén
abriendo escaparate y dentadura,
zapatos y termómetros, botellas
que encierran noche verde,
trajes inalcanzables, ropa de oro,
funestos calcetines, suaves quesos,
y entonces llego al tema
de esta oda.

Hay un escaparate
con su vidrio
y adentro,
entre cronómetros,
don Asterio Alarcón, cronometrista.
La calle hierve y sigue,
arde y golpea,
pero detrás del vidrio
el relojero,
el viejo ordenador de los relojes,
está inmovilizado
con un ojo hacia afuera,
un ojo extravagante
que adivina el enigma,
el cardíaco fin de los relojes,
y escruta con un ojo
hasta que la impalpable mariposa
de la cronometría
se detiene en su frente
y se mueven las alas del reloj.
Don Asterio Alarcón es el antiguo
héroe de los minutos
y el barco va en la ola
medido por sus manos
que agregaro
responsabilidad al minutero,
pulcritud al latido:
Don Asterio en su acuario
vigiló los cronómetros del mar,
aceitó con paciencia
el corazón azul de la marina.
Durante cincuenta años,
o dieciocho mil días,
allí pasaba el río
de niños y varones y mujeres
hacia harapientos cerros o hacia el mar,
mientras el relojero,
entre relojes,
detenido en el tiempo,
se suavizó como la nave pura
contra la eternidad de la corriente,
serenó su madera,
y poco a poco el sabio
salió del artesano,
trabajando
con lupa y con aceite
limpió la envidia, descartó el temor,
cumplió su ocupación y su destino,
hasta que ahora el tiempo,
el transcurrir temible,
hizo pacto con él, con don Asterio,
y él espera su hora de reloj.

Por eso cuando paso
la trepidante calle,
el río negro de Valparaíso,
sólo escucho un sonido entre sonidos,
entre tantos relojes uno solo:
el fatigado, suave, susurrante
y antiguo movimiento
de un gran corazón puro:
el insigne y humilde
tic tac de don Asterio.

 

From Plenos Poderes, first published by Losada, Buenos Aires.

 

Pablo Neruda, original name Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto, (born July 12, 1904, Parral, Chile—died September 23, 1973, Santiago), Chilean poet, diplomat, and politician who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971. He was perhaps the most important Latin American poet of the 20th century. (Britannica). A controversial figure in his lifetime, Neruda has been the subject of considerable polemic since his death, both with regard to his political and personal life. A biography of the poet in English, Pablo Neruda: A Passion for Life, by Adam Feinstein, was published in 2004.

3 Comments on “Poems for staying at home (Day 11)

  1. Dear Richard
    I have several books by Neruda, but had never come across this poem. My father, long gone now, was a watchmaker, and so this encounter with Don Asterio dug deep into me. Your choice of words, the music of your translation is a marvel. Thank you.
    Warm regards from Sant Pere de Ribes.

    Like

    • Hi Alan, how nice of you to comment, and what sweet synchronicity! I have enjoyed your own site for a while now, and am missing the Alt Empordà!

      Like

      • Vaya, no només confinat, sinó fet fora de casa. I’ve been dreaming these days of Cap de Creus. Perhaps in a month. Stay well, and safe return.

        Like

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