There are lone cemeteries
tombs full of soundless bones
the heart threading a tunnel
a dark, dark tunnel:
like a wreck we die to the very core,
as if drowning at the heart
or collapsing inwards from skin to soul.
There are corpses,
clammy slabs for feet,
there is death in the bones,
like a pure sound,
a bark without its dog,
out of certain bells, certain tombs
swelling in this humidity like lament or rain.
I see, when alone at times,
coffins under sail
setting out with the pale dead, women in their dead braids,
bakers as white as angels,
thoughtful girls married to notaries,
coffins ascending the vertical river of the dead,
the wine-dark river to its source,
with their sails swollen with the sound of death,
filled with the silent noise of death.
Death is drawn to sound
like a slipper without a foot, a suit without its wearer,
comes to knock with a ring, stoneless and fingerless,
comes to shout without a mouth, a tongue, without a throat.
Nevertheless its footsteps sound
and its clothes echo, hushed like a tree.
I do not know, I am ignorant, I hardly see
but it seems to me that its song has the colour of wet violets,
violets well used to the earth,
since the face of death is green,
and the gaze of death green
with the etched moisture of a violet's leaf
and its grave colour of exasperated winter.
But death goes about the earth also, riding a broom
lapping the ground in search of the dead--
death is in the broom,
it is the tongue of death looking for the dead,
the needle of death looking for thread.
Death lies in our cots:
in the lazy matresses, the black blankets,
lives at full stretch and then suddenly blows,
blows sound unknown filling out the sheets
and there are beds sailing into a harbour
where death is waiting, dressed as an admiral.
--Death Alone by Pablo Neruda, translated by Nathaniel Tarn, from Residencia en la tierra, II, 1935
Pablo Neruda, Selected Poems, Penguin Books, 1975
Edited by Nathaniel Tarn, translated by Anthony Kerrigan, W.S. Merwin, Alastair Reid, and Nathaniel Tarn, with an Introduction by Jean Franco.
In 1927, the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda was appointed to a diplomatic post in Rangoon. He lived in the Far East for five years, and for most of that time he heard no Spanish spoken. For a poet of Neruda's sublime sensitivity to the sound of language, this was intolerable, and at one point, he admitted in a letter to a friend, he was reduced to picking up stray dogs for companionship.
Late in his life, in 1967, he wrote a poem called The Watersong Ends wherein he describes what it was like to visit Vietnam and to find himself stranded in the jungle at this time: 'twenty years old, waiting for death, shrinking into my language'.
The collected poems of his stay in the East were published in Spain as Residencia en la tierra (Residence on Earth) in three volumes.
More than anything else Neruda wrote, these poems speak to the modern perception that man is really a very small part of the universe, destined, ultimately, to be dust in the wind; and that if there are laws to be found in nature, they are not the laws of man, nor are they subject to any human signification.
As the American Infantrymen in Vietnam--great poets, every one of them--would put it, with similar youthful acumen: "there it is."