Pablo Neruda by Mark Eisner

Poet’s Obligation

To whoever is not listening to the sea
this Friday morning, to whoever is cooped up
in house or office, factory or woman
or street or mine or harsh prison cell;
to him I come, and, without speaking or looking,
I arrive and open the door of his prison,
and a vibration starts up, vague and insistent,
a great fragment of thunder sets in motion
the rumble of the planet and the foam,
the raucous rivers of the ocean flood,
the star vibrates swiftly in its corona,
and the sea is beating, dying and continuing.

So, drawn on by my destiny,
I ceaselessly must listen to and keep
the sea’s lamenting in my awareness,
I must feel the crash of the hard water
and gather it up in a perpetual cup
so that, wherever those in prison may be,
wherever they suffer the autumn’s castigation,
I may be there with an errant wave,
I may move, passing through windows,
and hearing me, eyes will glance upward
saying “How can I reach the sea?”
And I shall broadcast, saying nothing,
the starry echoes of the wave,
a breaking up of foam and quicksand,
a rustling of salt withdrawing,
the grey cry of the sea-birds on the coast.

So, through me, freedom and the sea
will make their answer to the shuttered heart.

-Pablo Neruda

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eisner reaches back to the Mapuche people, the native inhabitants of the part of Chile where Neruda lived, tracing the poet’s literary DNA:

…the culture and oral traditions of the indigenous Mapuche people were steeped in lyric verse through their unwritten language, Mapudungun. the manner in which they elected their leaders exemplifies this. For the position of strategic leader, a candidate must prove he is a sage: that he is wise, prudent, and patient. He also must demonstrate his command of the language. Toward this end, one of the tests was a trial of rhetoric in a ritual exercised through poetry. The candidates recited, they sang, they engaged their audience with poems they created spontaneously, odes to everything that surrounded them…Through language they had to connect the tribe to its ancestors… p. 518

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