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Pablo Neruda: The Hands Of Day Review Translated By William O’Daly

Pablo Neruda The Hands Of Day From Copper Canyon Press

The people’s poet. Pablo Neruda was a venerated poet throughout Latin America and across the world. A one-time candidate for the Chilean Presidency, Neruda was sensitive about his advantages in life. His evocative verse never finds ends to his political potency, romanticism and often antipodean points of view. He was a master salonnière for the people.

The Hands Of Day, published by Copper Canyon Press, contains sixty-seven of Neruda’s poems. Despite his 1941 Nobel Prize in Literature, these poems are expressions of grief about how the poet felt his hands had created nothing useful. All poems in The Hands Of Day are presented in both English, and the original Spanish. This represents the seventh translation of this master poet’s work for William O’Daly, and comes forty-years after its original publication in Spanish as Las Manos del Dia (1967-1968).

Q&A with William O’Daly on Neruda’s The Hands Of Day

MAJ: Pablo Neruda was heavily criticized for his economic position and how he lived, which seemed to translate for him into guilt about not making things with his hands as the labor force did. Wasn’t the criticism of Neruda more about his Communist beliefs than about his lifestyle and economic position?

BILL: Neruda was criticized for belonging to the Communist Party of Chile, an allegiance whose groundwork was formed after he witnessed extreme poverty, not only in his own country but in places such as Ceylon, Burma, Sri Lanka and Singapore where he served as consul as a young man. The tragedy of the Spanish civil War, losing close friends to the Falangists and Franco’s prisons, also sent him to the left. He was dirt poor himself in his early adult years, but as his work grew in popularity and was translated into dozens of languages, he lived more comfortably. But he was never what we might call “wealthy.” And yes, there were some who criticized him for belonging to the Communist Party and yet owning more than one house, and so on. But his guilt regarding not having made things with his hands, particularly in The Hands Of Day, comes less from that kind of criticism and more from having represented as a Senator those who scrape by, making a minimal living with their calloused hands, who make the world comfortable by the fruits of their underpaid labor. Of course, Neruda made poems almost every day with his hands, with green ink and paper, and he acknowledges that in the book. He was a hard worker, a dedicated representative of his constituency and a daily literary toiler.

MAJ: Why and when did he choose to change his name to Pablo Neruda?

BILL: He published his poetry under the pseudonym Pablo Neruda so that his father, a rather stern ballast train engineer, wouldn’t know that he was publishing poems. His father couldn’t stand that his son, Ricardo Eliecer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto, was writing poetry, a frivolous pastime, one for sissies. José del Carmen even burned some of his son’s poems. In 1921, Neftali published six poems in a university magazine, Claridad, which I believe was the first time he signed his work with the “Pablo Neruda.”

MAJ: It is said Neruda was denied entry into many countries. Why?

BILL: I’m not sure that he was denied entry into many countries. In fact he was one of the most traveled poets or writers of the twentieth century, visiting many of the countries that might have been opposed to his politics. His Visa application was denied by the U.S. in 1966, probably because of his membership in the Chilean Communist Party. Arthur Miller intervened on his behalf and managed to get him a waiver of inadmissibility. So, Neruda was able to attend the International PEN Conference in New York after all. Let’s see, he was arrested in Buenos Aires in 1957 and released a day or two later; he was almost expelled from Italy once, but a huge crowd in Rome essentially took him from his police guard, showering him with flowers, and the expulsion order was rescinded.

MAJ: What is the significance to Neruda of Jorge Sanhueza, the object of J.S., a poem in this translation?

BILL: Jorge Sanhueza was Neruda’s archivist at the University of Chile, and he was writing a biography of Neruda when he died. Sr. Sanhueza, by all accounts, was a quiet, unobtrusive presence in Neruda’s life, a shy man. Apparently he was seeking little more than the satisfaction of preserving Neruda’s work and life.

MAJ: Didn’t you recently make a trip to Chile?

BILL: Yes, I spent a month in Chile and on Easter Island, from late February to late March. It was my first visit, delayed for many years due to the dictatorship, other projects on my plate and the requirements of employment. I wanted to spend time in Chile before finishing the Neruda series, thus the timing. The main purpose was to visit Neruda sites, his three homes, now museums, in Santiago, Isla Negra and Valparaíso. I also went south to Neruda country, starting in Valdivia on the coast and traveling inland to Pucón in the Lake District, the Andean foothills and to Temuco, where he was raised. It made for a good balance between Neruda’s built environment, and the landscape that nourished his love of nature, which was enhanced by a huge amount of specific knowledge.

The journey had a human rights component and an archeological component. I’ve written about poetry and torture and about human rights, both in the context of Neruda and Chile, as well as more generally. The Chilean musician and artist Felipe Moreno took me to many of the coup-related sites in Santiago, the Palacio de La Moneda, which is the presidential palace, the General Cemetery, and the Villa Grimaldi, which was General Pinochet’s main torture center, among other sites. It was one of the most wrenching and inspiring days of my life. I visited the old prison in Valparaíso on my own.

The second Neruda book I translated, The Separate Rise, is set on Easter Island, or Rapa Nui, the island’s indigenous name. Ever since I began researching the island to inform the translation and my writing of the introduction, I’ve been fascinated by the ethnography, archaeology and history. Neruda and his third wife, Matilde, visited the island in 1971 with his main documentarian, Hugo Arévalo, just before Neruda was appointed ambassador to France. Older Rapa Nui people still fondly remember his visit, and the documentary is still shown on Chilean television. I was on the island for eight days and nights. A couple of highlights were watching the full moon set and sun rise from atop the Northeastern rim of the volcanic crater, Rano Raraku, the main quarry for the maoi, or stone statues, and an archeological horseback tour of the west and north coasts. Spending a day and a half with the granddaughter of William Mulloy, one of the first archaeologists to accomplish significant restoration, and visiting various sites was amazing. It was an extraordinary experience, the whole journey, one that will continue to breathe in my imagination for a long time.

MAJ: So may critics have tried to classify Neruda’s immense volume of work. Rather than categorize this master’s poetic art into pat classifications, what about Neruda’s work moves you so deeply that you have been motivated to create so many volumes of translations?

BILL: When World’s End is published late next autumn or early winter, it will be my eighth Neruda translation. I intend for it to be my last. I suppose I would say that his sensibility and mine rhyme, in poetry, in certain ways and terms that defy expression. Isn’t that something of what love is? Neruda is one of my favorite poets, he and Kenneth Rexroth, and okay a few others. Still, I am enamored of his breadth, his gift for revealing who he is as he addresses the world and its processes, with self-possession but without loss of scope. His intuitive sense of material world and his passion attract me, as does his orientation toward the role of a poet in society. His investiture as a poeta del pueblo, poet of the people, was very real, not self-ordained, not conceit, and he was both humbled and inspired by their trust and belief in him. As he tells the reader in one of the late books I’ve translated, Winter Garden, Neruda says, “I always call myself by your name.” It’s that level of commitment I admire, where one’s commitment to oneself cannot be fulfilled without fulfilling one’s commitment to others.

This historic master poet concluded his Nobel banquet speech stating he would “return to my work, to the blank page which every day awaits us poets so that we shall fill it with our blood and our darkness, for with blood and darkness poetry is written, poetry should be written.”

The Hands Of Day is available for purchase at Copper Canyon Press $17 https://www.coppercanyonpress.org/pages/browse/book.asp?bg={0A026AD8-E1E5-43EF-8552-8CAA77D1F041}

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