Thursday, June 11, 2009

My Favorite Poem: Autumn Testament by Pablo Neruda (W.S. Merwin, trans.)

I was asked by the Festival of Arts & Ideas in New Haven to write a brief essay on my favorite poem. This is what I wrote:

The question is, of course, impossible to answer, so I asked myself, “what poem do I go back to most often?” & Autumn Testament by Pablo Neruda, the late Chilean Nobel Laureate, quickly returned in answer. Ask me again three months from now & some other poem might nominate itself, but for now, Autumn Testament is the clear winner. This is because lately I have been opening it during those famine times when months have passed since I last made a satisfying poem, when my senses have sent no pregnant images to my mind, when every stanza that I lay down reads sterile & off-key. Usually in such times this, & other poems of Neruda’s, will set my imagination into a productive energy that will yield promising drafts.

This is not to say that Autumn Testament is his greatest poem; most critics think that honor belongs to The Heights Of Macchu Picchu, a magnificent epic that was based on his ascension to that Incan city in the Andes. Many South American readers are partial to the early, lusty love poems, which thousands have committed to memory.  Residence In The Earth, published in two volumes in 1933 & 1935, also has its advocates. & who could dispute with anyone who adduced these brilliant lines from an early autumn poem? 

From Autumn Returns


A day dressed in mourning falls from the bells

like a fluttering veil of a roving widow.

it is a color, a dream

of cherries sunk in the earth

a tail of smoke restlessly arriving

to change the color of water and of kisses.

So if you prefer some other poem of his to Autumn Testament I certainly won’t argue the point; in fact, I will waste neither time nor thought trying to adjudicate the work of a poet as prolific & brilliant as Neruda. I write here to say that Autumn Testament has a particular personal resonance for me. Perhaps this is because it is a poem of reflection & bequest by an old guy who enjoys the hell out of his remaining days, but is preparing himself for their end. I’m in that place too, & I appreciate how Pablo Neruda renders it with such exuberance. (Let me pause to write that I don’t claim to be a Neruda scholar; in fact, I have no Spanish & thus know, at best, half of the poet: his eye, but not his ear.)

He originates a very clever device: each section is introduced with an explanatory note in the margin. For example, he begins:

Autumn Testament


THE POET                   To die or not to die.

BEGINS TO                 I came out for the guitar

ACCOUNT FOR           and in that fierce profession

HIS CONDITION       my heart knows little peace –

AND                            for where they least expect me

HIS PREFERENCES     I’ll turn up with my gear

                                   to reap the early wine

                                   in the stetsons of Autumn…

“wine / in the stetsons of Autumn.”? That kind of incongruous juxtaposition is emblematic of Neruda in the way that he situated both his nouns & his modifiers. Though he was not a Surrealist, he often employed Surrealist devices such as free association & the placement of adjectives & adverbs next to nouns & verbs that they could never modify. Yet he does it with such skill & ease that the reader’s intuition cops to it. 

He continues: “I’ll enter if they shut me out: / if they receive me, I’m off again.” &, having received him, having accepted that this will be a journey of paradoxes, we know that we’re off on a trek to literally amazing places:

and if I rest up anywhere

I’ll choose the kernel of the fire

choose whatever throbs and crackles

and travels on without a goal.

In the section that he names HE DISCUSSES / HIS ENEMIES / AND SHARES / OUT HIS / INHERITANCE (I’ll just place these margin titles in  the line from here on) he is generous, sort of, to his adversaries:

So I leave to those who barked

my hiker’s eyelashes,

my preference for salt,

the address of my smile,

so that they can steal it all…

& then he girds himself against canonization by the hypocritically devout: “Let them not wear my clothes / and not appear on Sundays with slices of my corpse…” 

This man whose virulence is clarion in hundreds of poems treats the fundamental old guy issue in HE SHARES / OUT HIS / SUFFERINGS

To whom was destined so much joy

brimming in my veins,

this being and not being fertile

that Nature helped me to?

I’ve been a river wide and filled

with hard stones ringing

clear night-time noises

and dark day song:

to whom can I then leave so much –

so much to leave, so little left,

a happiness without an object,

a horse alone among the waves,

a loom weaving the wind?

Another paradox: he’s wielded the fluid dynamism of the river in his day; now, after a lifetime of joyous stud work, he is the old horse standing in impotent irrelevance off shore, waves of the power that he once deployed crashing at his knees. Old guys will recognize the feeling. 

But this is not a mopey or bitter poem. In the AND DISPOSES / OF HIS JOYS section he wrote:


My sadness I intend for

those who caused me to suffer

but I forgot what they were

and I don’t know where I left them:

if I see them in mid-forest

they are climbing vines

rising up with their leaves

and they end where you end,

in your head or in the air;

if they’re not to rise again

you must change to another spring.

Here is another facet of Neruda’s incredible poetic imagination: it possesses a projectile momentum that puts the reader in flight. That stanza, which is one compound sentence, contains a single idea: that he has forgotten the face of his sadness. Most poets would have stopped with “…I forgot what they were…” & gone on to the next thought. Neruda stares into his metaphors to find more metaphors beneath them. This not only deepens the poem, it pours motion into it, gives it impetus, life.

After two sections that dismiss hatred we arrive at the gorgeous FINALLY HE / ADDRESSES / HIMSELF / ECSTATICALLY / TO HIS / BELOVED in

which he leaves his treasured paradoxes to his last wife:

Matilde Urrutia, I leave you here

what I had and did not have,

what I am and what I’m not…


You are the one most beautiful,

the wind has most tattooed…


You are red and you are hot,

you are white and very salty…

you are a piano laughing

with all the notes your soul

your eyelids and your hair

consent to shed on me,

I bathe in your golden shadow

and your ears delight me

as if I had found them

in the pools of coral reefs:

for your fingernails I fought

with terrifying fish…

It is difficult to present images like this without making them read sappy, insincere, like a pickup line. That’s why love poems are so hard to write: yes. you publish them and you hope that the reader will find empathic sentiments among their lines; but most of all you want the lover who called those lines into being to believe that they are true, & be moved. This requires that you convey a natural honesty in your hyperboles. As I said, this is not easy.

This Matilde Urrutia is strong enough to make a myth of; according to Neruda’s love, she was born of ancient magic & heroic struggle:

Body and face arrived

like me from angry regions

from rainy rituals,

old earths and martyrdoms,

the Bio-Bio sings

along our blood soaked clay

but you brought out of jungles

every secret aroma

and that manner of shining,

the profile of lost arrows,

a warrior’s medallions…

What can he bequeath the woman who has everything? “…if in your touch you own / that perfume of burned leaves,…” Perhaps he should just pay his debt:

I owe you this silent valley

in which sorrows are lost

and only joy’s corollas

rise to the forehead…


Or perhaps he should just let time take care of it:

Some time if we’re not yet,

if we’re not gone, if we’re not coming,

under seven layers of dust…

we’ll be together, love,

strangely confused together…

No, that won’t get it: .”but what will be the use / of graveyard unity? Let life not part us / and to hell with death!” My sentiments exactly.

In FINAL / INSTRUCTIONS Neruda lays out his testament to his friends:

…as I leave you nothing

you should all have something:

the most inclement thing I owned,

the most insane, the most intense,

sinks back to earth and into being –

petals of generosity

falling like peals of bells

into the green mouth of the wind.


And then, THE POET ENDS / BY TALKING ABOUT / HIS VARIED METAMORPHOSES AND / BY / CONFIRMING / HIS FAITH IN / POETRY, which has some of the most honest lines of verse on the subject of impending death that I’ve experienced:

I’ve had a good experience

of all the times I have been born

like creatures of the sea

who’ve known sky-changes

and earthly destinations.

And thus I go, and cannot know

to which earth I shall return

or if I’ll go on living.

While things make up their minds for me,

I leave my will and testament,

my shipshape box of tricks,

in order that, with many readings,

no one can ever learn too much

if not the never-ending motion

of a man clear and confused,

a man of rain and happiness,

energetic and autumn-bound.


And now behind this very page

I go and do not disappear:

I’ll jump into transparency

like a swimmer in the sky

and then I’ll get back to growing

till I’m so small one day

that the wind will take me up

and I won’t know my own name

and I won’t be anymore when he wakes:


and then I’ll sing in silence.


Autumn Testament speaks of every aspect of what I once called in a poem my summary years, when the poet looks at the great distance behind & the shorter distance before him & wonders at, if not the meaning, at least the implications of his life, celebrates the miracle that his great love is still reciprocated, & prepares for the inevitable ascendance of his bones. With all that he has learned, he knows that he is not wise, & wonders if that admission is all that wisdom is. He hopes that he has affected the world at least a little, but knows that the world has a greater volition of its own that rolls within the scope of his touch but not his grasp. He writes poems about all of this in the spirit of generous offering, but knows that these probably are his most selfish works, for he has written them to himself.

Man, I wish that I had written this one.

- A. B. Spellman, Washington, D. C. 6/09