Showing posts with label Canto General. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Canto General. Show all posts

Sunday, June 30, 2013

For the Futaleufú: Neruda's "The Rivers Emerge, Los Ríos Acuden"

The Futaleufú river, at the top of Chile's Patagonia, is one of the most captivating in the world. The valley it runs through is stunning and majestic, a special, sacred place, surrounded by snow-capped mountains, dense forests, glaciated lakes and other roaring rivers. However, as is so often the case in pristine areas such as this, the watershed faces many threats, from hydroelectric interests wanting to dam the wild rivers to the potential construction of contaminating mines, as well as unsustainable development and the entrance of invasive species. 

Fortunately, many locals and concerned individuals and groups from Chile and around the world are working to defend it. The Fundación Futaleufú Riverkeeper is a Chilean foundation leading the fight to protect the watershed and its communities. For their inaugural digital newsletter, they asked me to translate parts of Pablo Neruda's poem, "The Rivers Emerge". It is from Canto General, his epic reinterpretation of the history of the Americas. As a construction worker told me once in Chile, as I was interviewing him for our Neruda documentary,  "The importance of Canto General is that it shows us the history of the Americas from a different point of view, from the point of view of the people themselves, not the history told by the conquerors. Yes, we could call it the “history told by the conquered.” (For more on the documentary featuring that worker please see He, the poem, and much more on Canto General and all that is discussed here in Mark Eisner's new biography, Neruda: The Poet's Calling

The poem "The Rivers Emerge" comes at the beginning of the book, part of Neruda's pre-Colombian Genesis tale, where all is pure and man himself is the earth. Following his mythological vision of the creation of North and South America, this poem tells how the rivers emerged onto the surface of the earth, how intrinsically they and the land are bound together....

Coming of the Rivers

Beloved of rivers, assailed by

blue water and transparent drops,

apparition like a tree of veins,

a dark goddess biting into apples:

then, when you awoke naked,

you were tattooed by rivers,

and on the wet summits your head

filled the world with new-found dew.

Water trembled about your waist.

You were fashioned out of streams

and lakes shimmered on your forehead.

From your dense mists, Mother, you

gathered water as if it were vital tears,

and dragged sources to the sands

across the planetary night,

traversing sharp massive rocks,

crushing in your pathway

all the salt of geology,

felling compact walls of forest,

splitting the muscles of quartz.

Los ríos acuden

Amada de los ríos, combatida

por agua azul y gotas transparentes,

como un árbol de venas es tu espectro

de diosa oscura que muerde manzanas:

al despertar desnuda entonces,

eras tatuada por los ríos,

y en la altura mojada tu cabeza

llenaba el mundo con nuevos rocíos.

Te trepidaba el agua en la cintura

y te brillaban lagos en la frente.

De tu espesura madre recogías

el agua como láfrimas vitales,

y arrastrabas los cuaces a la arena

a través de la noche planetaria,

cruzando ásperas piedras dilitadas,

rompiendo en el camino

todo la sal de la geología,

cortando bosques de compactos muros,

apartando los músculos del cuarzo.      

Translation from the Spanish by Waldeen, as published in Asymptoe Journal's blog

**New decade Jan 5, 2020 edit/update: the original 2013 post featured a translation I rendered somewhat on the fly to get it out for Futaleufú Riverkeepers and others after Leonardo DiCaprio's social media post about the 2016 victories in  Patagonia's wild rivers. I believe I conveyed the meaning well enough, but I did it in haste. Recently, though, I read Jonathan Cohen's excellent piece on the writer and dancer Waldeen von Falkenstein, one of Neruda's first important English language translators. Published in Asymptote, not only does he feature her translation of the poem above, but points out the flaws in my rushed rendition.

Jonathan is a poet-translator and scholar I respect greatly. I also cherish his New Directions collection of William Carlos Williams' translations of Spanish and Latin American verse.

Unfortunately, the translation of mine that he read was hastily written and posted on the blog we had (maybe will still have going at) and in this graphic by Futaleufú Riverkeeper as we were trying to quickly build on Leonardo DiCaprio's shout out about the 2016 victories defending Patagonia's wild rivers. I believe I conveyed the meaning well enough, but by not having the time, and failing more so to go back later to correct it--forgetting how what's posted on the web can stay forever. 
He was correct, and so I have replaced it, with the link to his article in Asymptote Journal with her translation that he has recovered. 
He is correct in writing that, "Unlike Waldeen’s translation, the other translations, though close to the literal meaning of Neruda, are less than faithful to his work’s poetic quality, becoming prosaic." So I've replaced it, and hope you'll follow this link to Asymptote's exclusive first-ever publication of Waldeen's translation, recovered by Mr. Cohen, along with his rich essay about Waldeen's life and translation work, here.

(In my Neruda: The Biography of a Poet, I actually used Waldeen's translation of Neruda's seminal “Let the Rail-Splitter Awake” as it first appeared in English, in an awesome 1950 Masses & Mainstream volume)

-and alas, hopefully needing no translation, my gratitude again to people like Mr. Cohen selflessly working to recover and defend the richness of the legacy of the verse we have all inherited, along with those working to recover, preserve the wild living poetic powers of the rivers that Neruda sung about, Futaleufú Riverkeeper, Patagonia Sin Represas, Bernardo Reyes (and the NRDC) Patrick J. Lynch, Rocio Gonzalez, among, of course, so many others, and for that resonating shout-out and everything else he does for the earth, Leonardo DiCaprio.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A Little More on Pablo

Pablo Neruda is celebrated by Chileans--as a poet—to a degree that is truly rare on this planet. We in the North are not used to poets being such celebrities. Our great poets are revered and respected, but really only a small fraction of our society have read their poems. In Chile, though, everybody knows Neruda, everybody has read Neruda: miners, housewives, bakers, maids, school children. To his beloved Chilean people, to so many Latin Americans, Neruda is still the source of tremendous pride, regardless of one’s political orientation.

And Neruda was such a Chilean, such a Latin American, in how much he cared for his country, continent and its people. They were his cause, his pride and the most important audience for his poetry. Though he constantly traveled, he would always return to Chile (only living abroad while serving diplomatic positions).

Neruda's masterpiece, Canto General, is emblematic of his passion for his continent. The epic poem-- Canto, as in song-- is a class-based Marxist and humanistic interpretation of the history of the Americas, written as Neruda was developing his burgeoning pan-American consciousness and perspective.

“I live, I still live, and I think many of us live inside the world Neruda discovered,” Ariel Dorfman told me on a warm spring day on the Duke campus, where he is a Distinguished Professor of Literature, Latin American Studies and Theater. We had been discussing Canto General, in which, as Dorfman put it, “He basically named Latin America in a new way, and he claimed for Latin America the possibility of being lyrically and epically in a story of resistance. And what was very special about that for me was that he managed to understand that the struggle of the people for their liberation, for their full humanity, was parallel to the struggle of the nature of Latin America to be expressed, to be freed. . . to be shown.”

“From the political aesthetic point of view, Canto General has no equal,” Dorfman, who was exiled from Chile after Pinochet's 1973 coup, continued, “There's not one bad verse in Residencia en la tierra, but Canto General is full of verses I would sort of say, well hey, ‘they’re too propagandistic, bombastic.’ But when he hit the target in the Canto General, what he did was he redefined what America meant. América. Even North America, but particularly Latin America.”

Awesome in scope and simultaneously deeply probing, Canto General is considered by many to be one of the more important books in the whole cannon of the world’s poetry. And it extends well beyond the world of well-versed lovers of literature and academic scholars. In 2003, I went to a construction site on a new line of Santiago’s metro in order to interview workers about their thoughts on Neruda. There, José Corriel told me that Canto General was his favorite book by Neruda because it’s “la parte combativa de Neruda,” the combative side. “The importance of Canto General,” he said, “is that it shows us the Américas’ history from a different point of view.” Canto General, he explained, is told from “the point of view of the people themselves, not the history told by the conquerors. Yes, we could call it the ‘history told by the conquered.’"

The Canto's opening poem is appropriately titled, “Amor América (1400)”

Before the powdered wig and the dress coat,

were the rivers, arterial rivers,

were the cordilleras, on whose worn ripple

the condor or the snow seemed immobile:

there was humidity and thickness, the thunder

still without name, the planetary pampas.

Man was earth, earthen pot, eyelid

of tremulous mud, shape of clay—

he was Caribbean pitcher, chibchan stone,

imperial cup or Araucanian silica.

Tender and bloody he was, but in the hilt

of his moistened crystal weapon

the earth’s initials were


No one could

remember them later: the wind

forgot them, the language of water

was buried, the keys were lost

or inundated by silence or blood.

Life was not lost, pastoral brothers.

But like a wild rose

a red drop fell on the thickness,

and a lamp on earth was extinguished.

I am here to tell the history.

From the peace of the buffalo

to the beaten sands

of the land’s end, in the accumulated

foam of the Antarctic light


My land without name, without América,

equinoctial stamen, purple lance,

your aroma climbed to me through my roots

into the goblet that I drank, into the thinnest

word still unborn in my mouth.

He indeed drank deeply from that cup, as Latin America's poetic essence flowed through the book's two hundred and thirty more poems, in which he named so much of both America's integrities and its external evils.

Canto General's literary roots are the lyrics of his hero Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Dante’s Divine Comedy, the Mayan’s Popul Vuh and, as seen in “Amor América (1400),” the literature of the Bible. “Amor América (1400)” lays out Neruda’s idea of the American Genesis, a pre-Columbian Eden, before the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadores and the subsequent “imperialistic” foreign powers' injustices. In this Eden, as Neruda described it, all was pure, so natural that “Man was earth, earthen vase.”

The Europeans extinguished the ancient "lamp on earth," according to Neruda's thinking. He portrays the Spanish Conquest as a tragic injustice forced on “his” people, despite his European heritage. The Europeans, to him, were barbarous and ruthless. “Like a wild rose, a red drop fell on the thickness”--so ended America’s Edenic first phase of history. (The poet doesn't mention, though, the barberry that many pre-Columbian societies had ruthlessly enacted on others within the continent: the blood let by the Inca’s imperialism, the Aztec love of war, the Mayans` human sacrifices, the violence of Apache warriors. . . For he is not just invoking the peaceful indigenous of his land which would be called Chile, he is talking all of the Americas, “from the peace of the buffalo / to the beaten sands of the land’s end.”)

Neruda identifies himself with the indigenous people. “I searched for you, my father, young warrior of darkness and copper,” he writes in “Amor América (1400)”. In the poem, all indigenous people, peaceful and belligerent alike, are his “fathers”; he is their son. Pablo Neruda, though, was actually born Ricardo Eliecer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto, with no native names in his lineage, but rather Spanish family names, with Neftalí, from his mother, suggesting some Semitic roots.

In Canto General, the “pastoral hermanos” are his brothers, presented as the land itself:

My Araucanian fathers had no

crests of luminous plumes,

they did not rest on nuptial flowers,

they did not spin gold for the priest:

they were stone and tree, roots

"Earth and Man Unite"

Neruda is here to tell their story, to give name to that which was “without name, without América,” before the Spanish came.

Canto General attempts to find "the earth's initials," to uncover and display the lost keys to the conquered, to open new doors to justice. He is making a literary effort to give people back their lost voice.

* * *

When the bestselling Chilean novelist Isabel Allende fled her country after Pinochet's coup, she couldn't take much with her, "some clothes, family pictures, a small bag with dirt from my garden, and two books: Eduardo Galleano’s seminal Open Veins of Latin America, and an old edition of Pablo Neruda’s poetry. Like the bag of earth, with Neruda’s words I was taking a part of Chile with me, for Neruda was such a part of my country, such a part of the political dreams destroyed that day."

Neruda is one of history’s greatest examples of a soul rebel who used his pen as his sword in his constant fight for a better world. At his political core was a populism based on his fundamental belief that the common man, the worker, the poor, deserved a seat at the table as much as anybody else:

…Let us sit down soon to eat

with all those who haven’t eaten;

let us spread great tablecloths,

put salt in the lakes of the world,

set up planetary bakeries,

tables with strawberries in snow,

and a plate like the moon itself

from which we can all eat.

For now I ask no more

than the justice of eating.

(translated by and (C) the late great Alastair Reid, from "Extravagario", Farrar, Strauss & Giroux)

Neruda's communism was not based on egalitarianism, but rather the equality of possibility.

Even as a teenager, witnessing the injustices against the indigenous and working class to which he was exposed, Neruda felt the poet’s calling-- el deber del poeta: an obligation, a duty, a debt he owed to give voice to the people through his poetry. He promised a commitment to humanitarianism, using literature to enrich, empower and engage in the pursuit of progressive social change.

To dive deep into Neruda's life and poetry, may we suggest Mark Eisner's award-winning Neruda: The Biography of a Poet

"Reads like a beautifully written novel: attentive to scene, momentum, and rich with evocative details.”
— Cristina García, Dreaming in Cuban