Neruda at Machu Picchu (and D. H. Lawrence below)

Hereafter, I use Neruda’s spelling, “Macchu Picchu.”
Translations part mine, part Nathanial Tarn.
Quotes identified by poem number (twelve poems in Neruda’s set).

As with other poems I’ve read by Neruda (Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, plus some miscellaneous bits and pieces), The Heights of Macchu Picchu (sic) is built of concrete blocks of imagery – mostly seasonal and nature imagery but with some metals and cosmic flashes too. The images are never remote from subjective coordinates, though, whether the subjective reverberations are those of love and intimacy (as predominate in Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair) or a longing for some lost primeval consciousness (as in The Heights of Macchu Picchu). In the latter case, Neruda stands close to D. H. Lawrence, the prolific English writer of both poetry and prose born one generation before Neruda. Lawrence, too, spent time immersed in the pre-Hispanic cultures of the Americas. He found both the ancient Mesoamerican and the pagan Mediterranean cultures more authentic, more fulfilling of our deepest human needs, than the anemic culture of Christianity and modernity. The longing for that lost authentic mode of being (living “breast-to-breast with the cosmos” Lawrence called it in Apocalypse) takes a theme running through many of Lawrence’s books and threads into this one by Neruda.

Beneath that shared vision, the sense of loss and the urgency of retrieval, I do see a few differences as I read The Heights of Macchu Picchu. Whether these differences point to the subjective registers of my personal response or to something objective in Neruda, you can decide, but they do help shape meaning in my reading of the poems. For one, there is a bit more native American nationalism in Neruda’s response to Macchu Picchu; he seems to feel it as a loss his people have experienced: “Ancient America, bride in the veil of sea … under the nuptial banners of light and reverence … buried America, were you in that great depth …” (X). Lawrence, for his part, seems more tuned to the loss of authentic human spirit in a more general, less nationalistic, way. But, even in Neruda, the nationalism is but a touch here and there, not a dominant idea in the set.

There is also a kind of death-wish that runs through Neruda’s collection, an element of abjection in the poet’s lament: “La poderosa Muerte me invitó muchas veces” (“powerful Death has beckoned me many times,” IV). Although Lawrence (e.g., in the non-fiction Apocalypse or Etruscan Places, or in the novel, The Plumed Serpent) laments the same loss of the primeval human spirit, the driving tone in Lawrence is a defiant celebration of what has been lost. Sure, there is a respect for the great cycles of life and death in both writers, but Neruda’s handling of death is tinged a bit more with melancholy, with a sense of personal abjection, as he feels an irresistible attraction toward “the true, the most consuming death” (VII).

In Lawrence, too, some element of abjection may be attributed to characters in The Plumed Serpent (e.g., modern Mexicans who lack the fullness of life of their pagan forebears and are thus “divided against [themselves]”), but abjection is peripheral, not in the central voice as we find in Neruda. In The Plumed Serpent (set in early 20th-century Mexico), some of the Mexican characters might be seen as working to restore that full pagan consciousness, some of the (modern) Mexican characters merely express the lost greatness of that pagan world as a form of abjection, and the European characters are too caught up in “mechanical dominance” and “mechanical connections” to get it at all, or they are just starting to perceive the big picture of spiritual loss and possible rejuvenation, but from the outside, as it were. To tentatively plot the voice of Neruda’s Macchu Picchu poems into this schema, Neruda feels the full pull of the old world view in his concrete vision of Inca life in Macchu Picchu but also feels the abjection of the modern Chilean, with a more visceral connection and more visceral sense of loss than was perhaps possible for the Englishman. In any event, the feeling you get in Neruda tacks a bit more to the personal whereas in Lawrence you feel more drawn toward the archetypal, despite the large overlap in their visions.

One other difference worth mentioning may be related to Neruda as a craftsman of poetry. If Poem VIII imagines the ancient pagan consciousness, as Lawrence might do, as “a long-dead kingdom” that paradoxically, dormantly “still lives on” but at a depth we cannot see (“El reino muerto vive todavia”), in Poem IX, the structure of the poem itself seems to suddenly emulate the pagan consciousness:

Aguila sideral, viña de bruma.                        Interstellar Eagle, vine-in-a-mist

Bastión perdido, cimitarra ciega.                    Forsaken bastion, blind scimitar.

Cinturón estrellado, pan solemne.                   Orion belt, ceremonial bread.

Escala torrencial, párpado inmenso.               Torrential stairway, immeasurable eyelid.

Túnica triangular, polen de Piedra.                Triangular tunic, pollen of stone.

Consciousness here takes the form of concrete images, discrete, without all the rational connectors that Neruda (and Lawrence) might associate with modern consciousness. The flow is not one of a causal nexus but of a throbbing heartbeat, uncluttered by the need to reduce everything to rational sequences.

Rejuvenating that primeval heartbeat remains a central theme beyond the structural experiment of Poem IX:

“Through a confusion of splendor,
through a night made of stone let me plunge my hand
and move to beat in me a bird held for a thousand years,
the old and unremembered human heart!” (XI)

And on to Neruda’s invocation in Poem XII, and back to an attitude he fully shares with Lawrence:

“Look at me from the depths of the earth
. . .
bring to the cup of this new life
your ancient buried sorrows.
Show me your blood and your furrow

Strike the old flints

Speak through my speech, and through my blood.”

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Gabriela Marie Milton’s poems

Gabriela Marie Milton, Woman: Splendor and Sorrow: Love Poems and Poetic Prose
Reviewed by Gary Gautier

The title and subheadings of this poetry collection — “Woman: Splendor and Sorrow” (Love Poems/Poetic Prose) might mislead you into thinking that the focus is narrower in content than it is. If the focus is love, it is love in the broadest sense, a love that encompasses narrative and lyrical and archetypal forms, a fantastic array of imagery, a panorama of human and divine experience.

Imagery always comes first in poetry for me, which bodes well for Milton. Imagery, rather than something rational or polemical, drives the structure and flow (although the polemical does rear its head in the “poetic prose” near the end).

peaches will grow on one side of the moon
injured lambs will scream on the other
taste of strawberries
my hair freshly cut

your hands nailed in white marble

my love
it’s spring
it’s me
free your hands from the marble*

(The Easter of Roses)

Two points worth noting: one is the reliance upon concatenated imagery to drive the flow; the other is the little conceptual hook at the end, where the field of imagery blossoms into some nugget drenched with philosophical or emotional value.

The imagery can be beautiful (“the marble net of rustling stars”), startling (“bones cracking with love,” “with pins in his heart the pigeon still flies”), or archetypal (“moon” and “stars” and “purple seas”; from “cotton candy sunsets” to “the arms of Morpheus”), but it makes every poem concrete.

To be sure, there are other laws of motion in Milton’s poetic universe – the narrative (“I fast for nine mornings. On the tenth, I walk barefoot toward the water … I love for nine nights. On the tenth, I look for …), the anecdotal and darkly humorous (“I keep a coffin adorned with lilies in my bedroom. I sleep besides death like Sarah Bernhardt”). But the dominant movement is the free association of images, images with personal and emotional power, but most importantly (for me) with archetypal power – whether the archetypal landscape associated with a religious mythos (““resurrection” and “prophets,” “sacrifice” and “creation”) or a landscape perhaps deeper in the collective unconscious, powerful images that predate religion as we know it. Milton is fairly straightforward about the ties to the collective unconscious in the “poetic prose” section.

“My poetry is that which comes from the realm of the unfulfilled. It is the echo of the waves that you can guess but cannot see.”

Thus, toward the end of the collection, she gathers her “wounds . . . in a large wicker basket” and recounts an apparent choice she made regarding which archetypal orientation would be her final resting place.

“I did not want to go to heaven. I wanted to go to the sea.”

She does not equivocate. She makes a choice. All agency goes back to the poet. In a collection based on imagery and suggestiveness, this moment of decisiveness is a nice hook, I think, for how the collection speaks to the splendor and sorrow of women, and in a larger sense, to all of us.

Click cover for link.

P.S. Last day to get Goodbye, Maggie for 99c: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1724881876/

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Damien Donnelly’s “Stickleback” chapbook

The five poems (or “considerations,” as Donnelly calls them) in this short chapbook focus on five paintings (by Dali, Van Gogh, Kandinsky, O’Keeffe, and Chagall, respectively). Opening on Dali’s “Young Woman in the Window,” Donnelly makes it clear that the operative principle in this collection is a fusion of imagery and reflection. Dali’s painting shows a woman at a window “looking out from shadow to sea.” Outside the window is “distance … space … water.” It is the quintessential image to use as an objective marker of the subjective state of reflection.

There is something holographic about these poems, each like an index to the whole, or each like a pebble dropped whose waves ripple through the other four. I’ll take as my pebble just the first stanza of the second poem (keyed to Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers”):

Sometimes
I stopped by, to sit and wonder how you didn’t change
while I clung to the edge of the seat to keep myself
within the skin I was shedding like those petals hanging
onto your brush strokes, though they never met the finality
of their fate.

Note how quickly Donnelly gets to the meat of things. “Consideration” of art and artist absorbs the poet into its own ambiguity in a way that puts this poem in relief against the others. Take for example the second-person pronoun. “You” in the first poem variously references the painting or the figure within the painting, but not the painter himself (Dali). In the third poem (Kandinsky) it references the painting only, and it does not appear in poems 4 and 5. Here, though, in #2 (Van Gogh), the antecedent of “you” is ambiguous. Is it Van Gogh who didn’t change or the sunflowers? Do the petals hang from Van Gogh’s brush strokes or from the brush strokes of the painting itself?

The ambiguity is not just a curiosity. It opens a tension between the ephemeral and the eternal that operates at the core of the poem and perhaps less directly at the core of the collection. On the one hand, the image of a drop of paint hanging, awaiting the finality of the next moment, is as ephemeral an image as we can get. On the other hand, the image fixes the hand of the artist eternally on the canvas. Anyone who has seen Van Gogh’s paintings live will note the visceral presence of the artist in the topography of the paint, where you can see, for example, grooves where he pushed the paint around with the handle of the brush. To see the hand of the artist here, over a century later, to see that ephemeral movement of his hand frozen in time, conjures a sense, or a hope, that art can freeze the ephemeral into something eternal.

The tension between the ephemeral and the eternal is the same tension that animates Keats’s more famous “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” The young lovers depicted on the marble urn will remain “forever young,” and therein lies their beauty. But the truth is that they will never feel the warmth of the kiss, their lips forever an inch apart. Thus, in the final lines, Keats’s poem translates that tension between the ephemeral and the eternal into an ambivalence about the relation of truth to beauty.

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Note that the quotation marks are Keats’s, not mine. The lines are attributed within the poem not to the poet but to the urn itself, and they express the urn’s point of view. But the poem is haunted by a sense that maybe beauty is NOT truth. The figures are beautiful but the truth is they will never kiss. Moreover, a kind of melancholy hangs over the poem, as the immortality of the figures contrasts with the mortality of the poet, and Keats may have already felt at the writing of the poem the tuberculosis that would kill him barely a year later. The urn’s beauty lasts forever, but the truth the poet must face is death – and very soon, in Keats’s case.

Turning back to Donnelly’s poem, ekphrastic in the same way as Keats’s, “those petals hanging onto your brush strokes” give us at once an eternal marker of the hand of the artist and reminder that he (Van Gogh), like Keats, was already suffering at the time of “Sunflowers” and that he too would die in a year’s time.

The remaining poems in the collection of five are each their own thing, but this spotlight on the Van Gogh poem hopefully illuminates one path toward them. I will just add – don’t overlook the playful imagination (as in #3, the Kandinsky poem, where Donnelly’s irreverent comparison of “La Ludwigskirche in München” to “a burst bag of skittles scurrying along the wall” rings amusingly true for those who have seen the painting – and, as usual in Donnelly, the irreverent humor is recaptured by something more deeply reflective by the end) and sensuality (as in #4, the O’Keeffe image “spread out, like sex, like sweet sugar / dropped into the milk and up comes the wave … white tongue tingles with emerald envy”).

Back to my keynote. These poems are compressions of imagery and reflection. Let yourself linger. Know that there are always more layers to them, like the “eager green stems” in the Van Gogh painting/poem, “holding hundreds of seeds,” like the “strokes of paint / radiating like halos to fill in the hole left after all the lights / went out.”

Disclosure. This book was a gift. I haven’t met Damien live, but he is in my extended circle, we have swapped poems and thoughts about poems, and I have been on his excellent podcast, which you should all link to below.

Damien’s “Eat the Storms” podcast site linked here.

Stickleback is a chapbooks series by Hedgehog Press. Damien’s chapbook (“Considering Canvases with Boys”) is number XX in the series, linked here.

My Amazon review of Damien’s other chapbook (the “Eat the Storms” chapbook) is here.

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In nine days

Another author roundtable chat online, Jan. 27, 7 pm US central time. Please spread the word.

This month’s author chat is with Michael Tusa on his historical novel, “And Trouble Followed” (4.6 stars in 54 Amazon ratings). If you haven’t read the book, no problem, just bring your curiosity. Michael is happy to discuss.

If you want to read about or buy the book, link here.
To join the free book club for prompts per monthly author chats, link here.

The Jan. 27 Zoom info is as follows:
https://us02web.zoom.us/j/81983291243
Meeting ID: 819 8329 1243

Make sure to get your bookish friends to join the Facebook group for the prompts. It’s free, it’s easy, no spam. Great author chats coming up in the next couple months include Chris Thomas King in February (The Blues: The Authentic Narrative of My Music and Culture) and Elizabeth Brina in March (Speak, Okinawa).

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Sub Rosa and Other Stories

Sub Rosa and Other Stories. James Lambert. Balboa Press, 2021.

A variety of tales – mainly regional (Louisiana and the South), some historical (1950-60s, Jim Crow and Civil Rights era) – all told in a voice that is direct, engaging, part of the landscape itself and easy to connect with. Within the regional setting, Lambert digs out all the threads — nature vs. culture stories, escape vs. quest stories, chaos vs. order stories, and sometimes stories that turn over the stones of, e.g., a rewritten racial past to show the underside. The voice is steady but the style varies — sometimes “like a bull ride — rough, fast, and bloody” (as in the Angola Prison story, “Blood in My Hair”), sometimes finely senstive to small epiphanies (as in “Hobby Shop” and others). In the latter case, it’s like James Joyce’s Dubliners for the (mostly) rural South. All in all, a good range of well-told tales.

Gary Gautier

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Love’s Ragged Claws for free this week

My short novella, Love’s Ragged Claws, is free for instant Kindle download this week (Amazon US, still cheap on Amazon international 🙂 )

Pass it on.

rgg cov kdp wisdom png sm.png
#1 Bestseller on Amazon’s 90-minute reads (free) list.
Shortlisted for the Faulkner-Wisdom Prize

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08RSNTR2B/
NOW FREE

Gabriel enters confession for the first time in 50 years and tells the priest he has only three sins, all sins of the flesh. The confession doesn’t end as the priest might wish, but it opens up the byways of human identity and human connection as it weaves the tale of of the three relationships that ended up defining Gabriel’s life. Adult language.

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Hippies won’t stop

More news on Hippies (which is still at 99c for a few more days).

Here’s a link to my latest radio interview: WRBH interview on Hippies

Feel free to share 🙂

Gary

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99c Hippies

HIPPIES 99c this week (US). Download and sink in for under a buck.

  • 4.1 stars on 73 Amazon ratings.
  • Selected for radio interviews on KSKQ Oregon (May 2020) and WRBH New Orleans (July 2021).
  • Author is a Faulkner-Wisdom Prize finalist.
  • Featured here in Book Reader Magazine.

Go ahead. Click it. Release your inner hippie.

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Read it. Share it. Drop a rating on Amazon.

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Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (Part 2)

SPOILERS
I was discussing my blog entry on Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (Part 1) with a Chinese physicist friend, and she pushed me a little on how I would rewrite the ending, which seemed to twist me into such a knot. (This is per the novel, not the film, which I haven’t seen and which I’ve heard tweaks the ending somewhat.) For anyone interested, here is my response. (If this sounds quite critical, note from my first review that I loved the book but felt a little deflated at the end in a way that the conventional interpretation could not explain; hence, this follow-up.)

To clarify, I have no problem with the ending per se. My problem is with the conventional interpretation of the ending – that the little seamstress makes a good, wholesome decision. My reading (let’s call it the Romantic reading) may be no better than the conventional one (let’s call it the political reading), but here are my thoughts about why I feel this way.

First if I wanted the ending to look “good” for her decision, I’d give her a little more ambivalence about leaving her lover and friend. This is, on one level, a coming-of-age novel, and these kids learn much about love and friendship and loyalty along the way. She seems too ready to throw all that in the garbage at her first chance at the city. So I’d like to see a bit more emotion, sadness, mixed feelings about dumping them so quickly. They, after all, also have something at stake per what they are learning about love and friendship and loyalty.

Second, I’d drop the “blue Mao jacket” from her city slicker wardrobe. The cultural revolution has been negatively portrayed throughout the novel, and it’s hard not to see her putting on the Mao jacket as a symbolic gesture of putting on the (inauthentic) identity of the cultural revolution simply because it will help her leverage her interest in the city.

Third, I’d drop the last line, which equates female beauty with $$ value (to be gained in the city by dumping your friends and assuming the correct ideological self-presentation). I would have her learn something more complicated from Balzac, something more bittersweet about love, friendship, and doing what you need to do.

If we leave the ending the way it is, I can’t give up my Romantic interpretation (which sees her final act, as it is presented, as a sign of depleted values). I can SEE the other side that favors her decision as a cold political calculation that makes sense, but I can’t feel it in my heart.

So in order for me to feel the justice of the conventional interpretation, the ending would have to be modified to (a) be consistent with previous attitudes about the cultural revolution, (b) suggest that she really does care about Luo and her friend and at least has mixed feelings about discarding them without notice, and (c) the last line about Balzac would probably have to change into something a bit more emotionally complicated.

Maybe I’m wrong and all those conventional readers are right, but I have to be true to my heart 😊

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