22 April 2009

Next to Nothing, Close to Everything

It so happens that it's my birthday.

It so happens that I've been away from this blog for nearly nine months, long enough to get through nearly a whole year of my life, to get through a grim cold fall and a grim cold winter into what finally feels like, today, a new spring. Long enough, if I were into that kind of thing, to grow a small person. I would apologize for being gone so long from the blog, but that seems both misleading and ridiculous -- I needed to be gone, a little more invisible, to go underground ("the mothering earth is dark,/and deep inside me, I am dark"), to winter -- that kind of stillness -- huddled, protected -- so active it's a verb. And ridiculous because, well, no one is suffering painfully from a lack of things to read on the internets.

(Also, it's my birthday, and I never apologize for anything on my birthday. It's the one day of the year this happens, so be grateful -- otherwise, I apologize for opening doors for you -- too late, for making you breakfast -- burned, for bringing you coffee -- sloshed over the cup, and knitting you socks -- a bit mismatched.)

And it so happens that, in thinking about the strange year it's been -- so many huge leaps into despair, so many fabulous sparkly moments of joy, so many quieter moments of friendship and some of loneliness -- I've found a poem that captures, for me, just now, what it means to live a life that's abundant and full of absence. The paradoxes in this poem seem more articulate about my life than I am just now. This poem is spilling over with abundance, with full whole life -- summer, winter, love, fall, watermelons, crops, kisses, bees, sleep. But also, here is solitude, silence, closed eyes, darkness. Here also is loss; here is absence.

I think it's these paradoxes that keep the engines of Neruda running -- they create questions (which, occasionally, he answers -- "don't think I am going to die," and "It's a question of having lived so much/that I want to live that much more"), which create tension. The tension comes from the fact that these two things cannot live together, should not be able to live together, are questioned (sometimes) about living together, and continue to exist, just lines apart from one another. (In another poem from this same book, Neruda writes, "No doubt everything's fine/and everything's bad, no doubt." There, there it is, exactly. All the time, we live under the weight of these paradoxes. All the time we are deciding how to frame the question, how to think about the answers.) And the tension in these contradictions gives the poem momentum, which keeps us spinning through, spinning toward the next line, and the next.

And somewhere, always, in Neruda's poems, you take a breath and a step back from these tumbling opposites and are given, so vividly and clearly, the perfect mystery of an image: "The light is a swarm of bees." "A well in the water of which/the night leaves stars behind/and goes on alone across fields." A deep breath, there, and a sigh. A moment to rest between the paradoxes.

And that is the kind of day today is: a silent moment to rest in the middle of contradictions. And a silent moment to celebrate everything that comes with those contradictions.

I Ask For Silence

~ Pablo Neruda

Now they can leave me in peace,
and grow used to my absence.

I am going to close my eyes.

I only want five things,
five chosen roots.

One is an endless love.

Two is to see the autumn.
I cannot exist without leaves
flying and falling to earth.

The third is the solemn winter,
the rain I loved, the caress
of fire in the rough cold.

My fourth is the summer,
plump as a watermelon.

And fifthly, your eyes.
Matilde, my dear love,
I will not sleep without your eyes,
I will not exist but in your gaze.
I adjust the spring
for you to follow me with your eyes.

That, friends, is all I want.
Next to nothing, close to everything.

Now they can go if they wish.

I have lived so much that some day
they will have to forget me forcibly,
rubbing me off the blackboard.
My heart was inexhaustible.

But because I ask for silence,
don't think I'm going to die.
The opposite is true;
it happens I'm going to live.

To be, and to go on being.

I will not be, however, if, inside me,
the crop does not keep sprouting,
the shoots first, breaking through the earth
to reach the light;
but the mothering earth is dark,
and, deep inside me, I am dark.
I am a well in the water of which
the night leaves stars behind
and goes on alone across fields.

It's a question of having lived so much
that I want to live that much more.

I never felt my voice so clear,
never have been so rich in kisses.

Now, as always, it is early.
The light is a swarm of bees.

Let me alone with the day.
I ask leave to be born.

(published in Extravagaria by Pablo Neruda, trans. by Alastair Reid. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975).


Katia Shtefan said...

Wow. What a beautiful poem. I agree--it's the contradictions that make it beautiful. I wonder if the birth that Neruda seeks is directed toward the present, future, or past. A little bit of all three, I suppose.

If you really like Neruda, check out Red Poppy at www.redpoppy.net/pablo_neruda.php. It's a non-profit set up to create a documentary about Neruda, publish his biography, and translate his works into English. To see our blog on Neruda’s literary activism, go to http://www.redpoppy.net/journal/Pablo_Neruda_Presente.html.

sallylynn said...

Thank you, Katia -- I will definitely be looking into those websites you've offered. They sound amazing!

Katie K said...

Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, Sally. I collect poems about birth and this is going to be a WONDERFUL addition. Thank you so much.

Jessica said...

oh sally. thank you.

and happy birthday.

SBCatMan said...

I am very late coming to this, having arrived on a whim spawned by an empty moment at work and a bittersweet memory of the night before, but here I am, nonetheless, and both your post and the poem are truly beautiful.