Thursday, April 24, 2014

Why Red Poppy

The first time I really connected to Pablo Neruda's poetry was the summer before my junior year of college. Reeling after a bad breakup, I was going through the Spanish section of the library when I came across a black book with gold lettering on the front - Residencia en la Tierra. At this point I was familiar with Neruda's poetry but just barely. The poems I knew were the ones that, if there was a billboard chart for poetry, would be considered Top 40 material, the types of poems that are anthologized in the intermediate level Spanish lit readers. Don't get me wrong, these are great poems, iconic poems like “Poema XX.” But they only show the side of Neruda that most people are familiar with - his romantic poems. And while, say, “Poema XX,” with its heart on its sleeve, with its “another’s. She will be another's,” may seem like the perfect break up elegy, I shortly found out that the poems in Residencia express a whole other level of anguish. For example. The heartbroken man in “Poema XX” can sing the saddest verses on this night. Whereas the man who is tired of being a man in “Walking Around” in Residencia finds the atomic film separating his skin from the horrible space around him melts away, leaving him wide open to the onslaught of reality. Poema XX is a lyrical sublimation of heartache. Walking Around is a howl at the moon. And sometimes a howl at the moon is what you need.

When I first looked over Red Poppy’s Neruda documentary footage something clicked when one of the interviewees said that Neruda himself was going through a break up when he wrote the Residencias, (as well as feeling estranged, depressed, lost in solitude). I didn't know this beforehand but it made perfect sense. While the poems are not overtly about a long gone lover, the undercurrent of loss is there, a loss of human contact, and what more is a break up than losing your closest human contact you have? Neruda gives voice to that loss. And that voice, that articulation, is exactly the answer I have started to give to my friends working as engineers and lab techs when they ask me, Why Poetry? or its sister question, that resilient New York Times Op-Ed impetus, Why the Humanities? Poetry can be a great many things and defies definition. It can be puzzle to unlock with another person. It can be an epic story. It can be a historical testament. But to me, most of all, poetry is just a human voice that refuses to fade away.

Red Poppy’s important work focuses on collecting these outspoken voices. At present the nonprofit is engaged with projects including a documentary on Pablo Neruda's poetic activism, and an anthology entitled Poetry in Resistance that challenges readers to consider art as a vehicle for demanding social justice. Every day we can read about the civil war in Syria, about turmoil in the Ukraine, about genocide in the Sudan, about Pussy Riot being shipped to the gulag, about mortgage holders illegally foreclosed upon and every single person oppressed by these forces needs a voice beyond the sterilized sentences of The News. That is where poetry comes into play. Poetry can bridge contexts and cultural divides because emotions are universal. Neruda's poem indicting the United Fruit Company, for example, is just as much an indictment of subprime lenders, because the cannibalistic effects of unregulated capitalism endure, and so does our outrage. Similarly, the poets featured in Poetry in Resistance voice dissent against oppressive and authoritarian forces which still persist to this day. And one day we hope to listen to the Syrians voice their own laments over the conflict. Because that should be the project of poetry. Understanding human conflict, and fighting for social justice. That's Why Poetry. And that's also Why Red Poppy.

by David Shames

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.

Sunday, June 13, 2010


Lawrence Ferlinghetti, legendary Beat poet, literary activist, artist, and dear friend of Red Poppy, recently celebrated his 90th birthday.

A prominent voice of the wide-open poetry movement that began in the 1950s, Lawrence has written poetry, translation, fiction, theater, art criticism, film narration, and essays. Often concerned with politics and social issues, Ferlinghetti’s poetry countered the literary elite's definition of art and the artist's role in the world.

In 1953, with Peter D. Martin, he founded City Lights Bookstore, the first all-paperback bookshop in the country, and by 1955 he had launched the City Lights publishing house.

The bookstore has served for half a century as a meeting place for writers, artists, and intellectuals. City Lights Publishers began with the Pocket Poets Series, through which Ferlinghetti aimed to create an international, dissident ferment. His publication of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl & Other Poems in 1956 led to his arrest on obscenity charges, and the trial that followed drew national attention to the San Francisco Renaissance and Beat movement writers. (He was overwhelmingly supported by prestigious literary and academic figures, and was acquitted.) This landmark First Amendment case established a legal precedent for the publication of controversial work with redeeming social importance. (taken from

In 2004, City Lights published The Essential Neruda: Selected Poems, which I edited, and includes translations from such great poets as Robert Hass and Forrest Gander. Lawrence wrote the preface.

From the groundbreaking (and bestselling) A Coney Island of the Mind in 1958 to the "personal epic" of Americus, Book I in 2003, Lawrence Ferlinghetti has, in more than thirty books, been the poetic conscience of America. Now in Poetry As Insurgent Art, he offers, in prose, his primer of what poetry is, could be, should be. The result is by turns tender and furious, personal and political. If you are a reader of poetry, find out what is missing from the usual fare you are served; if you are a poet, read at your own risk—you will never again look at your role in the same way.

Lawrence has given us permission to quote from his long title poem from the book, which is lyrical literary activism, using the power of poetry towards social change:

I am signaling you through the flames.

The North Pole is not where it used to be.

Manifest Destiny is no longer manifest.

Civilization self-destructs.

Nemesis is knocking at the door.

What are poets for, in such an age?
What is the use of poetry?

The state of the world calls out for poetry to save it.

If you would be a poet, create works capable of answering the challenge of apocalyptic times, even if this means sounding apocalyptic.

You are Whitman, you are Poe, you are Mark Twain, you are Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay, you are Neruda and Mayakovsky and Pasolini, you are an American or a non-American, you can conquer the conquerors with words.

If you would be a poet, write living newspapers. Be a reporter from outerspace, filing dispatches to some supreme managing editor who believes in full disclosure and has a low tolerance for bullshit.

If you would be a poet, experiment with all manner of poetics, erotic broken grammers, ecstatic religions, heathen outpourings speaking in tongues, bombast public speech, automatic scribblings, surrealist sensings, streams of consciousness, found sounds, rants and raves--to create your own underlying voice, your ur voice.

If you call yourself a poet, don't just sit there. Poetry is not a sedentary occupation, not a "take your seat" practice. Stand up and let them have it.

Have wide-angle vision, each look a world glance. Express the vast clarity of the outside world, the sun that sees us all, the moon that stews its shadows on us, quiet garden ponds, willows where the hidden thrush sings, dusk falling along the riverrun, and the great spaces that open out upon the sea . . .high tide and the heron's call. . . . And the people, the people, yes, all around the earth, speaking Babel tongues. Give voice to them all.

You must decide if bird cries are cries of ecstasy or cries of despair, by which you will know if you are a tragic or a lyric poet.

If you would be a poet, discover a new way for mortals to inhabit the earth.

If you would be a poet, invent a new language anyone can understand.

If you would be a poet, speak new truths the world can't deny.

If you would be a great poet, strive to transcribe the consciousness of the race.

Through art, create order out of the chaos of living.

Make it new news.

Write beyond time.

Reinvent the idea of truth.

Reinvent the idea of beauty.

In the first light, wax poetic. In the night, wax tragic.

Listen to the lisp of leaves and the ripple of rain.

(C) Lawrence Ferlinghetti

For the rest of the poem, and the whole book, buy it at Lawrence's City Lights Books. There's also a podcast there of Lawrence reading a series of his thoughts on the book.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

An Homage to Mario Benedetti

In the hour of his death

The most to which one can aspire
is to leave two or three phrases in orbit.
As far as I know, Don Mario left at least one:
“death and other surprises.”
My God, what a phrase!

--poem composed by Chilean antipoet Nicanor Parra commemorating Mario Benedetti

This Sunday, the Uruguayan poet, essayist, playwright, novelist, and journalist Mario Benedetti died in Montevideo at the age of 88. He wrote more than 80 works, many of which reflect his political convictions. Benedetti was an avid supporter of the Cuban Revolution and in 1971 joined the leadership of the Movimiento 26 de Marzo, an organization linked to the leftwing Frente Amplio (Broad Front) party.

After a military coup in 1973, the front was outlawed and Benedetti’s magazine, Marcha, was shut down. This began a long period of exile. He first lived in Buenos Aires, Argentina, but threats from right-wing death squads forced him to escape to Lima, Peru, where he was later detained and deported. He moved to Havana, Cuba, and then to Madrid, where he lived for 12 years before returning to Uruguay.

According to Uruguayan poet Cristina Peri Rossi, “Benedetti became the loudspeaker of the Revolution, for better or for worse.” His unquestioning support for the Castro regime provoked conflict with other intellectuals, especially during his residence in Spain. At the same time, he “managed to connect with a public that wanted political and social changes in Latin America, and he did so through literature.”

For instance, his 1971 novel in verse El cumpleaños de Juan Ángel (Juan Ángel's Birthday) was dedicated to Uruguayan guerrilla leader Raúl Sendic.

Many of his other works reveal his political beliefs, albeit more subtly. Many are set in offices, where life is humdrum, duty-bound and grim, at times even Kafkaesque. Benedetti himself held a series of office jobs as he worked to establish himself as a writer.

His first significant book, published in 1956, was Poemas de la oficina (Office Poems), a handful of texts in which he portrayed the existential drama of an urban middle class trapped in bureaucratic routines.

Another work that expresses his leftist inclinations is the 1965 novel Gracias por el fuego (Thanks for the Light). The main character, Ramón Budiño, is the son of a powerful magnate with business and media interests and strong connections in the political world. Ramón refuses to take part in the family's dirty dealing and plots the murder of his father, but finally throws himself from the roof of a building.

Regardless of Benedetti’s failures or accomplishments in the actual political arena, he experienced global success as a literary activist. As the author himself states in one of his last books, Songs of Someone Who Doesn’t Sing, what kept him going were the causes that he believed in. “Thanks to them,” he says, “I can sleep tranquilly.” Similarly, in another poem, he asks the reader, "When they bury me / please don't forget / about my pen." In this sense, Mario Benedetti truly believed in the power of literature to teach, reveal, and transcend time and space.