Here is an annotation from earlier this semester. I told J that I would post this one sometime, and 3am on a Thursday night is a good time, right?
But first, here is a picture of the Amtrak train in Rutland, getting ready to depart for NY city. I took this photo one morning while walking to Price Chopper to buy cookie ingredients back when we were baking for the farmer’s market. I rode on this same train, or one of its brethren (sistren? are trains female like boats?), when I visited L in Brooklyn. That was fun! Also, a much less happy detail: it was right near where I took this picture that the knife-death over $40 happened. I sort of furtively looked for bloodstains on the pavement when I walked by there yesterday, then felt silly and morbid. I bet they cleaned up thoroughly anyway.
Now, on to the annotation:
Two Poems by Pablo Neruda
Pablo Neruda’s collection of poetry Extravagaria (as translated by Alastair Reid) is a collection rich in the themes of travel and homecoming, landscape, reminiscence, and contemplation of the self as a poet. All of these interact and intersect in the poetry. I found that, taken as a whole, this collection creates a strong impression of the personality of its author. There is a playfulness about Neruda, an imaginativeness that allows him to write about inanimate objects with as much emotional detail as when he is writing about people. In fact, while reading the collection, I tended to connect more with the poems about inanimate objects than the ones about people. All of the poems are about Neruda’s thoughts on some level, of course, but the central objects in these poems gave me something concrete to connect to, something to ground the contemplation.
Two poems in particular spoke to me as a writer. In both cases, the poem explores a semi-forbidden space and encounters thoughts and emotions that people wouldn’t ordinarily have access to. In “A dream of trains,” the speaker in the poem accesses the accumulated feelings of everyone who has been a passenger on the parked trains waiting in a train station. In, “It happened in winter,” the speaker encounters the thoughts and longings of the broken-down furniture in an abandoned house. The poems are very similar in their movement—the act of entrance and the exploration of a space that is part real, part shadow-world. I believe that both poems are about a writer’s search for stories, wherever they can be found. I would like to explore that idea further in this annotation by focusing on the first of these two poems.
The first poem, “A dream of trains,” started by creating an interesting question for me about the act of translation. This is a little off my point, but I felt that it was worth mentioning because it affected my experience of the poem. I began thinking of the title because I can understand a little Spanish, although unfortunately not enough to read and appreciate the entire poem in its original language. However, it seemed to me that the Spanish title of the poem “Sueños de trenes” could have been translated as “Dreams of trains” (which is pleasingly ambiguous), or “Trains’ dreams,” or maybe “Dreaming of trains.” These titles would be literal translations, I think (with my limited Spanish), and it was interesting to me that Alastair Reid chose to expand into non-literal territory, changing the word “dream” from plural to singular. I know that it is necessary for a translator to weave in and out of the literal meanings of words in the original language in order to keep the soul of a poem intact. In this case, what really got me thinking is Reid’s choice to reject the possible ambiguity of the title in favor of a title that implies a single person dreaming of trains, and does not include the possible interpretation that it is the trains who are dreaming. This is especially interesting because, in the first line of the poem, the trains are dreaming. What Reid has done is to emphasize that there is a human dreamer behind all other dreams in the poem.
This brings me back to my original perception of the poem as a sort of Ars Poetica, a treatise on the experience of being a writer and poet. Neruda says in the second stanza, “I entered dubiously at dawn. /I went looking for secrets, /things left behind in the wagons, /in the leftover smell of the journey.” It seems to me that what the speaker is looking for here, in the secrets and things left behind, is inspiration. The trains then become symbolic of the writer/character’s source of inspiration. This idea is supported later in the poem when Neruda connects the trains with memory, a common source of inspiration: “I was in my seat and the train /was running through my body, /breaking down my frontiers— /suddenly, it was the train of my childhood, /smoke of the early morning, /bittersweet of summer.”
The poem also evokes the idea of a poet as a speaker for the people, a public figure able to take the place of others whose voices that have been silenced: “Women traveling from the south, laden /with bunches of flowers and chickens; /perhaps they were murdered, /perhaps they came back and wept…” This idea makes the last stanza of the poem, especially the last few lines, quite poignant: “I…burdened by so many deaths, /felt myself lost on a journey /in which nothing was moving /but my exhausted heart.” It is as if that one heart is struggling to encompass all of humanity. Pablo Neruda was a socialist politician as well as a poet, so this idea is not a surprise coming from him. And maybe this is the reason I found the poem powerful, because my own role as an idealistic poet in an imperfect world is something I think about frequently while I’m writing.
To go back to the trains as a symbol for inspiration, it seems a little twisted to say that murdered women are inspiring in the same way that a beautiful panorama or mountains, or an adored person, or a blissful memory of childhood, or a mysterious or musical combination of words are inspiring. But, of course, not all poetry is, or should be, bright. And sometimes there are stories, if we know of them, that just have to be told. This is a different kind of inspiration to write—really more like a command by the poet’s conscience to write. And I do see this as a responsibility for myself as a poet: to act the role of the storyteller and record keeper and not just the spinner of pretty fantasies.