I have had a little obsession lately that has sprung up in my bones. It’s really been waiting for me for years, ever since I saw the first line in a Neruda poem. I don’t remember what that first line was. I do remember the feeling, though.
“Oh, hello. It’s so wonderful to see you again.”
As if I had written that line years and ages ago, and I was meeting it again after a long parting. The way we met was with a joyous pang, a breathless smile, a freefalling of surrender into the bonds that once held us close; that held us even still.
A few months ago, I got a huge book of Neruda poems in both English and Spanish. I read them as if I were in a trance. I fell into the ocean of words and wanted to drown. I lost myself among them…
“…little one, red grain
the struggle will be hard
life will be hard
but you will come with me.”
(Neruda – The Mountain and the River)
My mom sent me a card recently. We had met for coffee and I had broken some news to her, about going away. Depending upon this or that. Afterwards, she was sad. We live in the same town, but a few days later I got a card in the mail, with a flower on the front.
“You still stop and look at the flowers when you walk by,” she wrote.
I don’t remember everything from when I was two years old. But my parents tell me about this facet of my early personality. It’s one of the lovely times when I was young. They would walk along the Highline Canal in Denver, and I would stop. Because there was a flower to be looked at. They used to call me Ferdinand.
I have been rather unfamiliar with this story, but looking it up just now, I am moved to tears. Silly me.
“My love, to my life,
you came prepared
as a poppy and as a guerilla fighter…”
(Neruda – Ode and Burgeonings)
In life, there is fighting. And some things are worth the flaming chaos of battlefields. The point is to pick flowers in the middle of it all.
That was poetry for me, always. Since I began, it was a way for me to endure the ceaseless fighting. To find my own internal ceasefire despite the rain of grenades, bullets, and bombs all around. I was awkward with words at first. Trying to fit them together in ways that opened my soul to the light. It wasn’t until the deepest dark that I split myself open and scooped out all of those slimy little seeds buried in the red flesh.
Now I have vines growing everywhere. And flowers.
Even in the darkest of times, I only need look around and my soul is eased. The gift of Ferdinand, bequeathed on me from the start. This morning, I looked out of the windows at work and snow was dancing in the sun. The sparkling flakes reminded me of a quieter place, deep within yet high above myself. I caught my breath and was brought back to silence, again.
I love Neruda because words get me through things. And his words are like lassoes. When I am fighting, fighting, fighting, here they are suddenly. A beacon on the hill to keep my eye on, a lighthouse in a rocky sea, a handful of daisies with yellow suns in the middle.
I bemoan my lack of funds on a regular basis. I pinch pennies like a tax collector in Bible times. Poverty licks my feet like a stray dog.
“If you can’t pay the rent
go off to work with a proud step,
and remember, my love, that I am watching you
and together we are the greatest wealth
that was ever gathered upon the earth.”
(Neruda – Poverty)
I fell in, again, to this ocean of words. Words I could have written myself. I want to lose myself in them, because for a moment there if my eyes are on those words, I forget the battlefield.
My favorite collections are the ones that has both Spanish and English versions. Through the eyes of Neruda, Spanish has become like a coded language for me. Not only do his words trap me in English, they seduce me in Spanish. It’s like getting lost in someone’s eyes and completely forgetting yourself.
So I’ve been learning Spanish by learning his lines.
“Mi lucha es dura y vuelvo
con los ojos cansados
a veces de haber visto
la tierra que no cambia,
pero al entrar tu risa
sube al cielo buscandome
y abre para mi todas
las puertas de la vida.
Amor mio, en la hora
mas oscura desgrana
tu risa, y si de pronto
ves que mi sangre manche
las piedras de la calle,
rie, porque tu risa,
sera para mis manos,
como una espada fresca…”
(Neruda – Your Laughter)
With each line, I feel as if I am speaking rosebud petals. Wrapping words like chocolate around my tongue. Gathering in my hands, in this wild battlefield, a fresh sword.
“Because while life harasses us, love is
only a wave taller than the other waves:
but oh, when death comes knocking at the gate,
there is only your glance against so much emptiness,
only your light against extinction,
only your love to shut out the shadows.”
(Neruda – XC)
Neruda’s words are how I talk to myself. They are the way I am learning self-compassion. They are, for me, as Thich Nhat Hahn’s “Oh my darling, let’s talk on Friday.” When I say these words, I am saying, “I love you. I will never leave you. I will always take care of you.” (Elizabeth Gilbert) These words keep me from the edge of death. When I’m standing on the precipice, they give me the desire to walk backward. When I’m on the battlefield, they rouse my courage as Aragorn – “But it is not this day!”
These words are a way for me to keep the faith – they are the flowers.
With these words, I endure.
“Stand up with me.
No one would like
more than I to stay
on the pillow where your eyelids
try to shut out the world for me.
There too I would like
to let my blood sleep
surrounding your sweetness.
But stand up,
you, stand up,
but stand up with me
and let us go off together
to fight face to face
against the devil’s webs,
against the system that distributes hunger,
against organized misery.
and you, my star, next to me,
newborn from my own clay,
you will have found the hidden spring
and in the midst of the fire you will be
next to me,
with your wild eyes,
raising my flag.”
(Neruda – The Flag)