Selected for the UCSF Memory and Aging Center by Hellman Visiting Artist Jane Hirshfield

Pablo Neruda

Pablo Neruda

The Chilean Pablo Neruda (1904–1973) is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest of 20th century poets, and also as one of the poets who has ranged most broadly in subject. His poems investigate the fundamental themes of any human life—love, always, and other emotions; childhood; places; history; justice—and also celebrate socks, stamp albums, onions, a dead fish in a market, criticism, bees, a movie theater in a village. He was so popular during his lifetime that when a train he was taking pulled into a station, the area’s miners gathered along the track, reciting his poems by heart. Here are three of his poems that center on aging. Neruda, always a poet of richly proliferating transformation, offers the gorgeousness of transformation itself as a way to face time’s transformation of our lives.
(All poems are from The Poetry of Pablo Neruda, edited by Ilan Stavans; NY: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2003)

Ode To Age

I don’t believe in age.

All old people
carry
in their eyes,
a child,
and children,
at times
observe us with the
eyes of wise ancients.

Shall we measure
life
in meters or kilometers
or months?
How far since you were born?
How long
must you wander
until
like all men
instead of walking on its surface
we rest below the earth?

To the man, to the woman
who utilized their
energies, goodness, strength,
anger, love, tenderness,
to those who truly
alive
flowered,
and in their sensuality matured,
let us not apply
the measure
of a time
that may be
something else, a mineral
mantle, a solar
bird, a flower,
something, maybe,
but not a measure.

Time, metal
or bird, long
petiolate flower,
stretch
through
man’s life,
shower him
with blossoms
and with
bright
water
or with hidden sun.
I proclaim you
road,
not shroud,
a pristine
ladder
with treads
of air,
a suit lovingly
renewed
through springtimes
around the world.

Now,
time, I roll you up,
I deposit you in my
bait box
and I am off to fish
with your long line
the fishes of the dawn!

Pablo Neruda
translated from the Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden

 

***

 

Ode to Time

Inside your body, your age
is growing,
inside my body, my age
places foot after wandering foot.
Time is unwavering
it never rings its bell for time out,
it increases, it journeys,
it shows up within us
like water that deepens
within our own watching,
until next to the chestnut burning
that is your eyes
a slender grass blade arrives,
and the trace of a tiny river,
and a small dry star
ascends to your lips.
Then times raises
its threads in your hair,
and still in my heart
your fragrance of honeysuckle
lives like a fire.
It is beautiful,
how, as we live,
we grow old in the living.
Each day was a transparent stone,
each night for us was a rose of blackness,
and this crease that has come to your face,
to mine,
is its stone or its flower,
the souvenir and memory of a bolt of lightning.
My eyes were consumed
by your loveliness,
but you have become my eyes.
I exhausted your twin breasts
under my kisses it seems,
but all have viewed in my joy
their secret splendor.
Love, it doesn’t matter
if time
(that same time that lifted
my body and your softness
as if they were two rising flames
or two stalks of wheat growing old side by side)
tomorrow keeps them aloft and living
or mills them away—
the same invisible fingers
erasing the very existence that kept us apart
will give us our victory,
of being a single being under the earth.

Pablo Neruda
translated from the Spanish by Jane Hirshfield

 

***

 

Winter Garden

Winter arrives. Shining dictation
the wet leaves give me,
dressed in silence and yellow.

I am a book of snow,
a spacious hand, an open meadow,
a circle that waits,
I belong to the earth and its winter.

Earth’s rumor grew in the leaves,
soon the wheat flared up
punctuated by red flowers like burns,
then autumn arrived to set down
the wine’s scripture:
everything passed, the goblet of summer
was a fleeting sky,
the navigating cloud burned out.

I stood on the balcony dark with mourning,
like yesterday with the ivies of my childhood,
hoping the earth would spread its wings
in my uninhabited love.

I knew the rose would fall
and the pit of the passing peach
would sleep and germinate once more,
and I got drunk on the air
until the whole sea became the night
and the red sky turned to ash.

Now the earth lives
numbing its oldest questions,
the skin of its silence stretched out.
Once more I am the silent one
who came out of the distance
wrapped in cold rain and bells:
I owe to earth’s pure death
the will to sprout.

Pablo Neruda
translated from the Spanish by William O’Daly