Toward a poetry of the Americas (8): Pablo Neruda, 'Ode to Walt Whitman'

Translation from Spanish by Martín Espada

 

I don’t know

at what age,

or where,

in the great wet South

or on the fearsome coast

beneath the brief

scream of the seagulls,

I touched a hand and it was

the hand of Walt Whitman:

I stepped on the earth

with bare feet

and walked across the grasslands,

across the firm dew

of Walt Whitman.

 

Through

all my early

years

that hand came with me,

that dew,

his solid fatherly pine,

his expanse of prairie,

his mission of circulating peace.

 

Without

disdain

for the gifts

of the earth,

the capital’s

abundant curves,

or the purple

initial

of wisdom,

you

taught me

to be an American,

you lifted my eyes

to books,

toward

the treasure

of the grain:

broad poet,

across the

clarity

of the plains,

you made me see

the high mountain

as my guardian.

Out of the subterranean

echo

you collected

everything

for me,

everything that grew,

you gathered the harvest

galloping through the alfalfa,

cut the poppies for me,

followed the rivers

to arrive in the kitchen

by afternoon.

 

But your shovel

brought more

than earth

to light;

you unearthed

humanity,

and the humiliated

slave

walked

with you, balancing

the black dignity of his stature,

conquering

joy.

 

You sent

a basket

of strawberries

to the stoker

down

in the boiler,

your verse

paid a visit

to every corner of your city

and that verse

was like a fragment

of your clean body,

like your own fisherman’s beard

or your legs of acacia in solemn stride.

 

Your shadow

of bard and nurse

moved among the soldiers,

the nocturnal caretaker

who knew

the sound

of dying breath

and waited with the dawn

for the absolutely silent

return

of life.

 

Good baker!

Elder first cousin

of my roots,

turret

of Chilean pine,

for

a

hundred

years

the wind has passed

over your growing grasslands

without

eroding your eyes.

 

These are new

and cruel years in your land:

persecution,

tears,

prison,

venomous weapons

and wrathful wars

have not crushed

the grass of your book,

the pulsing spring

of your fresh waters.

And oh!

those

who murdered

Lincoln

now

lie in his bed,

toppling

his chair

of fragrant wood                                                                                                                                        

to raise a throne                                                                                                                           

spattered with blood and misfortune

But

your voice

sings

in the train stations

on the edge of town,

your words

splash

like

dark water

across

the

loading docks

at night,

and your people,

white

and black,

poor

people,

simple

as all people

are simple,

do not forget

your bell:

they congregate singing

beneath

the magnitude

of your spacious life:

they walk among people

with your love

nurturing the pure evolution

of fraternidad across the earth.

 

[NOTE. As part of the transnational anthology that Heriberto Yépez and I are now composing, I’m posting on today’s Poems and Poetics Neruda’s “Ode to Whitman,” a masterful bringing together of the two (and more) Americas by one of the Americas’ greatest poets.  In this translation, Martín Espada, himself a poet of considerable force & means, gets all of the stops right, and his version, built with sharp, short words, takes up the work, lest we forget, of linking arms & minds across the barriers of languages & borders.  So, when Neruda writes from his different place in the Americas: “you / taught me / to be an American,” it redeems the idea of America as such from its long-held northern dominance & stands as a directive for our project as a whole & for the troubled days through which we’re living now. More to be said of course but this as a beginning. (J.R.)]