When Poetry Arrives – Neruda and Urrea

Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda


And it was at that age . . . poetry arrived
in search of me. I don’t know, I don’t know where
it came from, from winter or a river.
I don’t know how or when,
no, they were not voices, they were not
words, not silence,
but from a street it called me,
from the branches of night,
abruptly from the others,
among raging fires
or returning alone,
there it was, without a face,
and it touched me.
I didn’t know what to say, my mouth
had no way
with names,
my eyes were blind.
Something knocked in my soul,
fever or forgotten wings,
and I made my own way,
that fire,
and I wrote the first, faint line,
faint, without substance, pure
pure wisdom
of someone who knows nothing;
and suddenly I saw
the heavens
and open,
palpitating plantations,
the darkness perforated,
with arrows, fire, and flowers,
the overpowering night, the universe.
And I, tiny being,
drunk with the great starry
likeness, image of
felt myself a pure part
of the abyss.
I wheeled with the stars.
My heart broke loose with the wind.

Pablo Neruda from Neruda – Selected Poems, Houghton Mifflin, 1990

The great Chilean and Nobel-prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda is celebrated as one of the premier poetic voices of the 20th Century.  His love poems and his Odes feel as if they are so well known as if to be, somehow, in the air we breathe. But his poem Poetry is the poem of his that brought him home to me. Made him an easy guest in my house of poetry. His poem, his ambassador. His poem that defines the creative chaos at the heart of poetry, a chaos as large as the universe. A chaos that’s transformed my life.

After reading Mexican-American Luis Urrea’s homage to Neruda’s poem a few weeks ago I could only respond with a poem. Written on the spot and now with some first edits. A risk I take: sandwiched between two outstanding poets! But the truest way I can enter into what is for me the great conversation: the what and how and why of poetry?!

After Urrea, After Neruda

Oh, if poetry…or…when poetry comes to us.
(I pray
it comes to us.)
I pray (if it does)
my ears learn the urgency of animals, mimic
the ears of the stag I saw this morning
in the field behind my house. Those ears – these flags,
taut and extended – weathering
a wild wind.

Did poetry arrive, in the photos of J35
wild Orca mother, her dead calf
carried on her nose, brought back from sinking, again
and again
for weeks?

Or in the photos
of the dead racoon on a Toronto street
as if lying in state – these cards, flowers,
to its dead body?

By all that’s holy, truly God, by all
that’s sacred,
I pray you arrive
as poetry.

Richard Osler, unpublished

I am grateful to Neruda for his poem! And now, I want to feature Urrea’s response to Neruda’s poem. But first a quick introduction to Urrea.

What a force! The writer and man of singular compassion and generosity – Luis Urrea. When he walked up to the podium at Centrum in Port Townsend at a writer’s conference a few weeks ago to give a reading from his most recent book,  he was empty handed. But not empty voiced. He cast a story- telling spell over the audience and  when he began to recite, from memory, a passage from his book, it was a seamless transition. Urrea, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and winner of countless awards for his novels and non-fiction was unknown to me before this singular performance. He is better known to me now not only as a novelist and non-fiction writer but as an accomplished poet. Here is his poem modeled after Neruda’s:

Mexican-American writer Luis Alberto Urrea. Photo Credit: UIC


Ay, mi Viejo…

We were the men who worked the machines
each anointed with oil on his knees—

when our families dreamed, machines came awake
to search us out. I didn’t know, I didn’t know where
poetry entered. The thousand smashed windows
that watched empty alleys, did the virus of verse
blow in them with the tubercular wind?
Or the poisonous voices of wet oleanders
on interstate 5, were they calling my name?

The electrical smell, the machinery smell,
the cannery smell, the armpit smell,
the shoe polish smell, the bakery smell,
the gas station smell, the gunpowder smell,
The thunderbird smell, the V-8 smell,
the dirt street small after rain,
the bare belly smell, the open sex smell,
the hair tonic smell, the wood varnish smell,
the tortilla smell, the ashtray smell,
the Catholic smell, the Tijuana smell,
the refinery smell never hinted at poems.

The first poem I read
was the ragged V scrawled
in a brown sky by gulls
escaping the garbage dump at sunset
cutting under clouds
over the apartment blocks
going to a sea I knew
was there across the city
but never saw.

And then dear darkness.

Our lullabies were the inexhaustible keen
of overhot gears beseeching grease. Our fathers’ nightlights,
40 watt blubs strung up on orange power cords: lynched stars
that swung over their heads, their shadows flapped
like wings of the machines, Old angels squinting
at nude magazines they couldn’t read—
coffee break black and white braille—the smudge of hard fingers on thighs,
Pall Mall ash specking sad night nipples— a touch of paper skin
deader than snow.

How did the word ever hunt down our hearing?
The engines of hunger drove us deeper to silence.
What was it that urged us to sing? What handle
disengaged the gears, by what chains were we dragged/
from the brink? We lost singers every day:
one lost to pistols, one lost to flames, one lost to
coughing night sweats, one erased by the highway. Each one
wore black shoes,
workingman soles as rippled as waves with no shore.

The ironwrack pounded unceasing around us,
the glass crash, the tire burn, the shotgun,
the shouting. Blue exhalations signed from our cars –
were the vowels of my song gasping into the air?
Was the rachet of pistons this consonance drumming?
Why did poetry come forth from cables, from coils,
punctuated by nails in veils of rust
to the beat of border patrol helicopters
from words as simple as hemano, hijo, companero,
ezperanza, amante, dolor –

how did you come to me to lay mothwings of song to burn on my tongue?

Luis Alberta Urrea from The Tijuana Book of the Dead, Soft Skull Press, 2015

This poem, alone, feels like a master class in writing a poem while under the influence of another poet’s poem! Ilya Kaminsky, the Ukrainian-American poet and teacher who encourages such poetic mimicry says the key to this type of poem is to take the original and build on it. Truly, make it your own. And how Urrea does that with his poem. How he ups the power of language and imagery in his version. The blood and guts he adds. And the particular details. The grittiness. Neruda talks of winter, a river, fires and wind. Urrea gives us tubuculear wind and the poisonous voices of wet oleanders. He gives us the poetry so close to us we miss it: all the smells that made up his early life and in particular: the refinery smell never hinted at in poems. Well now it is there directly. No mere hint!

What a knock-out punch of a poem. And the power of the last line with its wonderful echo of the lines from Isaiah in the Bible: Then I said, “Woe is me, for I am ruined, because I am a man of unclean lips dwelling among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of Hosts.” 6Then one of the seraphim flew to me, and in his hand was a glowing coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7And with it he touched my mouth…

Urrea’s Line: how did you come to me to lay mothwings of song to burn on my tongue? The surprise of mothwings burning his tongue. This, his evocation of the essentiqal nature of poetry made even more powerful by its biblical echo. Poetry: its lightness and its delicacy and yet also, its indelible, life-changing power. Its fire! Poetry’s double nature. Thank you Luis for updating Neruda. And, for me, eclipsing him! Perhaps the greatest compliment Urrea can give Neruda: mi Viejo.

One Comment

  1. Posted August 12, 2018 at 3:42 am | Permalink

    Richard, Truly an inspirational posting. What is it about Latin poetry that burns your skin like a piece of paper?

Post a Comment

Your email is never shared. Required fields are marked *