Topanga Journal conducted a Q&A with O’Daly on his translation of Pablo Neruda Book Of Twilight (Crepusculario). In this session with O’Daly we find out more about Neruda’s love affairs, his ability to use poetry to his advantage in love and the fleetingness of love in Neruda’s life.
TJ: You mention in the introduction, Neruda sold his poet’s suit and cape and nearly all his possessions to publish Twilight. Can you tell us more about this story, and his first effort to publish his poetry?
BILL: In 1920, at age 16, Neruda rode by train to Santiago from what was then the “frontier” town of Temuco. Already having published individual poems, he arrived in black pants, black shirt, and black cape and hat. He called it his “poet’s suit.” Very dramatic. In that sense, he played the role of poet. Baudelaire was a big influence. He was already writing some of the poems that would become Book of Twilight. Claridad, a journal he wrote for and the publishing house of the University of Chile, accepted the book. At that time it was common for a young poet to pay for printing. There was no money for first books, and the printer insisted Neruda pay for the entire print run before he would release any copies to him. So the young Neruda sold his poet’s suit, his father’s watch, which he had received as a parting gift, and sold much of the little furniture he had acquired. He was studying to be a teacher of French and existed largely on the allowance his father sent. Once that stopped, because his father didn’t think he was applying himself toward his studies, which was true, he would hit up relatives or friends for money. He wrote articles and picked up a little money in other ways. It was hand to mouth, but often there was red wine, passionate literary discussion with friends, the reading to one another of favorite poems and passages and political camaraderie.
TJ: Can you tell us more about Neruda’s relationship with his poetic mentor, the rising star Gabriela Mistral?
BILL: What I’ve always found fascinating is Gabriela Mistral was the first Nobel Prize winning poet of Chile. Many years later Neruda was the second. In addition to being a marvelous, emotional, darkly lyrical poet, Mistral was a dedicated educator and would make a lasting mark in Latin American education. She also was an advocate for the poor and especially for women, and worked against social injustice, most notably as wreaked on the Mapuche people. Beginning in 1918, she spent two years teaching in the small town of Punta Arenas. Then, before Neruda left for Santiago, she was transferred to serve as principal of the Liceo de Niñas in Temuco. Neruda was in his final year at the Liceo de Hombres. When they met, he asked if she would mentor him. Neruda would visit her after school, and she would steer him toward certain poets and writers whose work she felt would be helpful to him. She encouraged and advised him to meet other poets. He needed a cultural milieu, which at that time in Chile meant Santiago. The teenage Neruda shared Mistral’s concern for the plight of the Mapuche, and he himself had been raised by a railroad worker and stepmother. They had little money, but I think Mistral, at least by osmosis, opened his eyes more widely to social injustice, as well as to the breadth and scope of poetry.
TJ: Can you tell us a bit more about how the execution by Falangists of his good friend Federico Garcia Lorca influenced his thinking and poetry?
BILL: After Neruda first arrived in Santiago and started studying at the Pedagogical Institute, he spent a lot of time listening to anarchist speeches instead of going to class. There had recently been strikes and protests by workers and students against the oligarchy, and he was thinking about those issues. He wrote political articles for Claridad, as well as published his poems there. Then, as Chilean consul in Ceylon, Burma, and elsewhere, he was quite lonely and witnessed devastating poverty on a mass scale.
Jumping ahead, he was living with his first wife and his daughter in Madrid before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Lorca became a great friend, and he championed Neruda’s work among the Spanish poets. When Lorca, against nearly all better judgment, decided to return to his family’s summer home in Granada as the war was breaking out, it seems Neruda respected his decision, even as he feared for him. After Lorca was assassinated near Alfacar, Neruda felt he had lost a brother. There’s nothing like losing a close friend or family member to brutal political violence to clarify one’s commitments. Neruda would publish the third Residencia about 10 years later, with its poem about the civil war: Come and see the blood in the streets. / Come and see / The blood in the streets. / Come and see the blood / In the streets. Politics isn’t ever present in Neruda’s middle work, but it imbues Canto General. In the late work, you’ll find laments and invective about colonization and war, the inhumanity and smallness of politicos and the vulnerability of humankind. In his poetry book World’s End, he apologizes for his support of Stalin, which took him too long to renounce. So profound was his hope that he chalked up news of the atrocities to Western disinformation, fake news. He didn’t want to believe it.
TJ: How did Neruda’s poetry skill affect his love life?
BILL: It helped immensely. The young poet friends he made after arriving in Santiago told themselves, and each other, that the only reason the tall consumptive-looking poet did so well with the young ladies was because of his poetry. What else could it be? And I don’t think they were deluding themselves. But he was a good-looking guy, not unhandsome. I’ve heard from reliable sources that, at times, he was capable of tenderness beyond his age. He was described by some women later in his life as timid. He was high maintenance at times, in fact, often in his marriages. He was a romantic, and young women loved him.
TJ: What do you see in the poem Bridges? What is its intent?
BILL: In a way, when Neruda talks about the loneliness of bridges, he’s talking about himself. The poet depends on them, creates them, and yet many take them for granted. They welcome us with open arms. We pass over them. Trains pass over them. We say good-bye before departing over them. The birds fly over them. We are indifferent to them, coming and going without so much as a wave. In their slight movements they are forever stationary, always there. They exist purely to connect us to one another, to the surfaces of the earth, and the earth to itself. They’re fascinating structures. When they connect person to person, they are constructs of the heart. Jumping to the opposite end of his career, in The Hands of Day he calls himself a “poet of bridges.” Both Bridges and The Curved Bridge of the Maldonado Bar in Uruguay, in Hands, serve loosely as ars poeticas (the art of poetry). The poet is a bridge.
TJ: The poem The Head of Hair seems to have themes about the cycles of creation and destruction, built on the mythic characters Melisanda and Pelleas. But knowing Neruda, what was going on around him during the time he wrote this poem?
BILL: Among other things, he was developing a tragic sense of love, set against an ideal of love. I’m not sure of the exact timing of the composition of Melisanda and Pelleas, but as Twilight was being readied for print, he was still mourning the loss of his relationships with two women whom he loved intensely, among his many girlfriends and sexual encounters.
I was returning to him as a different poet and human being than when I had started translating him. Though much older, I was somehow younger than I had been, more agile in some ways. Many have pegged me as an “old soul.” The Actor’s Studio, teaching, some hard knocks and a whole bunch else taught my inner life how to be young. It’s how I responded to those karmic lessons. I couldn’t pass up the marvelous symmetry and was finally ready to translate Neruda’s first book. At the end of the day, the translation turned out to be the most challenging of them all.
TJ: In Book of Twilight, you acknowledge the poet and Spanish-language editor Paco Márquez for assisting your translation. How did you work with Paco to complete the translation?
BILL: I have always had a Spanish-language editor review my translations of Neruda. It’s best practice and honors the quality of Neruda’s work, as well as the difficulty of translating it accurately, particularly the music, the tone, the spirit. Paco is a wonderful poet and a careful reader. Paco had been a student in a poetry and translation workshop I’d taught at UC Davis. I had a strong sense of what he was capable of. He would walk with me to my car after class, just as I had done with Philip Levine when I studied with him many years before. Our poetries are quite different, but we share many values in our approaches to poetry and translation. We became friends. I asked him to be my Spanish-language editor on a manuscript of Neruda’s work that, as it turned out, was not published. But in working together on that manuscript, we established a process that worked beautifully for Twilight. I would send Paco a section of the book in an advanced draft. He would comment and make suggestions. His judgment is balanced, and given the difficulty of some of the passages in Twilight, with its aspects of Latin American modernismo, even Paco would say, “well, it could be this or could be that, but I think your translation nails it or misses it in this way.” He made some excellent suggestions, but even he, whose first language is Spanish, was initially mystified by a few of the passages. I was really grateful for his participation, his good spirit, for how fully he invested himself in the work. That was no less true when we interpreted things differently. We had a great time, and in the end I made the choices I believed in. I did my best to inhabit young Neruda’s world and to reinvent the music of the original.
O’Daly presents the English translations en face with the original Spanish.
Pablo Neruda Book Of Twilight is available for purchase from Copper Canyon Press:
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