Tag Archives: Pablo Neruda

Neruda’s Timekeeper Revisited

4 May

Valparaiso 2

To Don Asterio Alarcón, timekeeper of Valparaíso

by Pablo Neruda

 

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 clockmaker don Asterio Alarcón.

The street boils and turns

burns and batters,

but behind the glass

the clockmaker,

the old curator of timepieces

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 sea clocks,

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

 

 Val BBC

 

 

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 agregaron

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.

A short walk in Valparaíso

7 Nov
Neruda's house, 'La Sebastiana'.

Neruda’s house, ‘La Sebastiana’.

I first came across the name Valparaíso via Neruda’s poem dedicated to Don Asterio Alarcón, the clockmaker of that city, many years ago. Neruda’s house is a fabulous creation, built on five stories, most of the rooms having large windows that look out over the bay. Not to be missed, whatever you think of the poet (or bis personal life).

val seaview

Valparaíso was the most important port on the Pacific seaboard of the Americas until the creation of the Panama canal. It lies on several hill, or cerros, cluttered with houses of every shape, many of them built from adobe covered with tin sheeting salvaged from ships, and painted in bright colours. I had the good fortune to be shown around town by the young poet Enrique Winter, and walking is the only way to see Valparaíso as it is a labyrinth of alleys and stairways – and also boasts a series of antique lift or elevators, some of them actually working.

Valaparaíso is still a working port, and the main base of the Chilean navy. In the early evening we visited a place where old sailors come to die, called Liberty. We had not been there long when a French TV film crew came in and wanted to film two gentlemen (depicted below) sing a couple of songs. They wanted us to move tables. ‘Why’, asked Enrique, ‘don’t we look Chilean enough for you?’ The French TV producer very kindly offered to pay our bill, so we acceded to his request and moved to another table. When the music ended there was a lot of hooting and rowdy behaviour from the local clientele, which included a 1970s football star from the town’s once glorious team (football was introduced to the city by British sailors).

val libert 2

After dinner, returning to Enrique’s house, I acquired an escort of four black dogs, of varying sizes. All I needed was a cape and I could have stepped straight out of an Iron Maiden song.

Val kennels

Valparaíso is a slice of paradise, however obvious the statement. Even the French TV crew could be forgiven. Later yesterday evening, back in Santiago, we were invited to a party in a swish part of town and I ended up having a long chat with the film director Miguel Littín, subject of the Gabriel García Márquez book Clandestine in Chile.  His opinion was different.French TV film crews’, he confided, ‘they are the worst.’

Val orgasmos

 

val brecon

 

val view

Fictions and Foreigners: Borges and Alastair Reid

19 Aug

borges in library

The first story I read by Borges, at the age of eighteen, was Tlön, Uqbar, Tertius Orbis. Although the name would have meant nothing to me at the time, the translation was by Alastair Reid. Forty years later, I get to meet the man, now 88 years of age, a little frayed around the edges, but alert and bright eyed as a moorland bird. He lives in New York but spends part of every summer in the Dumfries and Galloway region where he was born and raised. I have been advised that Alastair would prove an invaluable repository of experiences and anecdotes for my researches into Latin American literature, concerning, among others, Borges, Neruda and Gabriel García Márquez, all of whom he knew well – Borges, best of all. And so it was that one bright July morning I set out with my friend Tom Pow across the Dumfries countryside towards our rendezvous.

I have yet to transcribe the recording, but two things stood out in our conversation. Neither of them will be surprising to those who are familiar with the work of Borges, but they are fascinating to me nonetheless.

Alastair Reid

Alastair Reid, July 2014.

Translating Borges was, according to Alastair Reid, at times like re-translating something that had originally been written in English, and subsequently translated into Spanish. This, apparently, was due to Borges’ own familiarity and long use of the English language (he had an English grandmother, was brought up bilingual, and learned to read in English at an early age). The task of the translator, then, felt like rendering the story back into its original language, which Alastair described as a somewhat unsettling or daunting experience, and quite unlike translating other Spanish language writers.

The other thing that stood out for me in our talk was Alastair’s insistence that for Borges everything was a ficción, a fiction. As he puts it in his essay ‘Fictions’ (in the wonderful collection Outside In): ‘Borges referred to all his writings – essays, stories, poems, reviews – as fictions. He never propounded any particular theory of fictions, yet it is the key to his particular lucid, keen, and ironic view of existence.’ I was dimly aware of this, but not to the extent that this infiltrated his approach to literature and the world. In his essay, Alastair Reid elaborates:

A fiction is any construct of language – a story, an explanation, a plan, a theory, a dogma – that gives a certain shape to reality.

Reality, that which is beyond language, functions by mainly indecipherable laws, which we do not understand, and over which we have limited control. To give some form to reality, we bring into being a variety of fictions.

A fiction, it is understood, can never be true, since the nature of language is utterly different from the nature of reality.

And so on.

Alastair Reid’s essays contain so many observations and aperçus about the writers he has worked with (the 1976 essay ‘Basilisk’s Eggs’ is another gem) it would do them little justice to summarize. And that is only half the story: some of Reid’s most impressive writing concerns his own reflections on travel and identity: on the one side his Scottish beginnings, or ‘roots’ (a word he treats with caution), on the other the years of wandering. Perhaps my favourite is ‘Notes on being a Foreigner’ in which the author makes astute and (to my mind) accurate observations on that state or condition – one that a person is probably born to – as opposed to, say, a tourist or an expatriate.

‘Tourists are to foreigners as occasional tipplers are to alcoholics – they take strangeness and alienation in small, exciting doses, and besides, they are well fortified against loneliness . . .

. . . An expatriate shifts uncomfortably, because he still retains, at the back of his mind, the awareness that he has a true country, more real to him than any other he happens to have selected. Thus he is only at ease with other expatriates . . .

. . . The foreigner’s involvement is with where he is. He has no other home. There is no secret landscape claiming him, no roots tugging at him. He is, if you like, properly lost, and so in a position to rediscover the world, form outside in.’

As for being ‘properly lost’ – this is a theme to be continued ( if I make it back to Wales).

Nicanor Parra at ninety-seven

17 Dec

Two weeks ago the Cervantes prize, Spain’s loftiest literary honour, was bestowed on the Chilean poet Nicanor Parra.

Parra, at ninety-seven years of age, is without doubt the most influential of living South American poets. His career as an eminent physicist (he has been a visiting professor at Oxford and Yale) provided him with a livelihood and immunised him to some extent from the worst abuses of the Pinochet regime. A near-contemporary of Neruda, he considered his more famous compatriot’s poetry to be too flowery, too close for comfort to romantic egotism, and his own ‘antipoetry’ – a term that requires some unpacking – presents a “bleaker vision, prosier rhythms, and starker, surrealist deadpan humor”.  By the 1930s Parra was already asserting that what was needed was a vernacular poetry that related to ordinary life and which was accessible to the general public. These ideas, as manifested in Poesia y antipoesia (1954) had a huge impact on poets of a younger generation, especially those who were caught up in the politics of resistance. Parra began writing ‘antipoetry’ because, in his words “poetry wasn’t really working”; there was “a distance between poetry and life”. In a gracious twist, Neruda himself confessed to Parra’s influence on his own later work. It has been claimed, not unreasonably, that Parra’s method derived from his mathematical, relativist background, where he used minimal language and avoided metaphors and tropes in order to address his readers directly. However such assertions almost always sound reductive or cockeyed to me.

Parra’s later work is often a mesh of word association games, intentional cliché and spectacularly straightforward rants about the environment, inequality and corporate corruption. He is a ludic poet, while remaining a poet of intense seriousness. It may well be that his influence will be more lasting than either Neruda or his fellow Nobel laureate, the Mexican Octavio Paz.

Here are a few translations of his work:

 

 

 

 

OUR FATHER

Our father who art in heaven

Laden with problems of every kind

Your brow knotted

Like any common ordinary man

Don’t worry about us any more.

We understand that you suffer

Because you cannot set your house in order.

We know the Evil One doesn’t leave you in peace

Unmaking everything you make.

He laughs at you

But we weep with you:

Don’t be troubled by his diabolical laughter.

Our father who art where thou art

Surrounded by treacherous angels

Truly: do not suffer any more on our account

You must recognize

That the gods are not infallible.

And that we forgive everything.


 

(From ‘Bío Bío’)

XXII

 

CAPITALISM AND SOCIALISM

 

Nineteenth-century economicrapology

Years before the Principle of Finitude

Neither capitalist nor socialist

But quite the contrary Mr Director:

Intransigent ecologist

We understand by ecology

A socioeconomic movement

Based on the idea of harmony

Of the human species with its environment

Which fights for a ludic life

Creative

egalitarian

                          pluralist

free of exploitation

And based on communication

And collaboration

Between the big guys & the little guys

 

 

 

MEMORIES OF YOUTH

What’s certain is that I kept going to and fro,

Sometimes bumping into trees,

Bumping into beggars,

I found my way through a forest of chairs and tables,

With my soul on a thread I watched big leaves fall.

But it was all in vain,

I gradually sank deeper into a kind of jelly;

People laughed at my rages,

They started in their armchairs like seaweed carried by the waves

And women looked at me with loathing

Dragging me up, dragging me down,

Making me cry and laugh against my will.

All this provoked in me a feeling of disgust,

Provoked a tempest of incoherent sentences,

Threats, insults, inconsequential curses,

Provoked some exhausting hip movements,

Those funereal dances

That left me breathless

And unable to raise my head for days

For nights.

I was going to and fro, it’s true,

My soul drifted through the streets

Begging for help, begging for a little tenderness;

With a sheet of paper and a pencil I went into cemeteries

Determined not to be tricked.

I kept on at the same matter, around and around

I observed everything close up

Or in an attack of fury I tore out my hair.

In this fashion I began my career as a teacher.

Like a man with a bullet wound I dragged myself around literary events.

I crossed the threshold of private houses,

With my razor tongue I tried to communicate with the audience;

They went on reading their newspapers

Or disappeared behind a taxi.

Where was I to go?

At that hour the shops were shut;

I thought of a slice of onion I had seen during dinner

And of the abyss that separates us from the other abysses.

 

 

 

THE CHRIST OF ELQUI RANTS AT SHAMELESS BOSSES

The bosses don’t have a clue

they want us all to work for nothing

they never put themselves in the shoes of a worker

chop me some wood kiddo

when are you going to kill those rats?

last night I couldn’t sleep again

make water gush from that rock for me

the wife has to go to the gala dance

go find me a handful of pearls

from the bottom of the sea

if you please

then there are others who are

even bigger wankers

iron me this shirt shitface

go find me a tree from the forest fuckwit

on your knees asshole

. . . go check those fuses

and what if I get electrocuted?

and what if a stone lands on my head?

and what if I meet a lion in the forest?

aw hell!

that is of no concern to us

that doesn’t matter in the least

the really important thing

is that the gentleman can read his newspaper in peace

can yawn just when he pleases

can listen to his classical music to his heart’s content

who gives a shit if the worker cracks his skull

if he takes a tumble

while soldering a steel girder

nothing to get worked up about

these half-breeds are a waste of space

let him go fuck himself

and afterwards it’s

I don’t know what happened

you can’t imagine how bad I feel Señora

give her a couple of pats on the back

and the life of a widow and her seven chicks ruined

 

 

FROM ‘NEW SERMONS AND TEACHINGS OF THE CHRIST OF ELQUI’

 

XXXII

 

Those who are my friends

the sick

the weak

the dispirited

those who don’t have a place to lie down and die

the old

the children

the single mothers

– the students, not because they are troublemakers –

the peasants because they are humble

the fishermen

because they remind me

of the holy apostles of Christ

those who did not know their father

those who, like me, lost their mother

those condemned to a perpetual queue

in so-called public offices

those humiliated by their own children

those abused by their own spouses

the Araucanian Indians

those who have been overlooked at some time or other

those who can’t even sign their names

the bakers

the gravediggers

my friends are

the dreamers, the idealists who

like Him

surrendered their lives

to the holocaust

for a better world

 

 

ROLLER COASTER

For half a century

Poetry was the paradise

Of the solemn fool.

Until I came along

And set up my roller coaster.

Go on up, if you want.

It’s not my fault if you come down

Bleeding from your mouth and nose.

 

 

Translations by Richard Gwyn, first published in Poetry Wales, Vol 46, No 3 Winter 2010-11.