The Poet’s Duty

by Pablo Neruda

To all those who hear not the crashing of waves
this Friday morning, who being bound
to a home or office, factory or mineshaft,
romance or roadway or dry prison cell: to them
unspeaking and blind the poet attends,
opening the door that has shut them in
where endlessness can be heard vaguely insisting,

a long fragmented thunder adding its weight
to the planet and the foam
hoarse rivers emerging from the ocean
a star breakneck vibrating amid thorns
while the sea pulses and dies and goes on.

And so, driven by destiny, living no truce
one must listen to and hold in mind the sea’s lament
one must feel the crush of hard water
then coax from it a cupful of immortality
so that, wherever the imprisoned are held,
wherever they suffer the torments of autumn
one can be there in the borderless wave
in dialogue with any window
so they can hear and lift their gaze and ask
how will I get to the ocean?

Without saying anything, the poet must
transmit the star-strewn echoes of the wave,
the breaking up of foam in the undertow,
whispers of salt retreating,
and the gray squall of gulls at the edge.

All this so that with freedom the sea
can answer the heart caught in darkness.

Translator’s note:

In 2004, I had the privilege of visiting Pablo Neruda’s home in Santiago de Chile, La Chascona. Having written about his work, I was invited by the director of the historic site to donate a copy of my first book for the poet’s library.

A view of the poet’s private garden at La Chascona. Under the vines, a window features ocean waves and the letters P and M, for Pablo and Matilde, his wife. Photo credit: Joseph Robertson, 2004.

We talked about his way of making poetry—how he pushed always at far edges to call forth something luminous in the beating heart of everything. We talked about his love of Walt Whitman, and the way he fashioned his translations of the great New Jersey poet.

This poem struck me as a perfect expression of the prophetic artisan handiwork Neruda believed should thrive in both poetry and its translations. Neruda felt a poet should translate another poet’s work with absolute respect for what lives and is sacred in the work—both the authentic meaning and also the intangible unspoken luminous coherence of what makes a piece of writing into poetry. He believed a translation falls short if it does not do the poet’s work of carving out and consolidating of new ground for language and meaning.

In the spirit of that encounter, and in service of the poet’s vision of how his work might operate in the world, I have taken the kind of careful liberties with this poem that Neruda himself took with Whitman—to preserve the spirit, kinetics, and illumination value of the work.

I dedicate this rendering of Neruda to Carlos Trujillo, a poet of earth and water, deep weather and wisdom, whose friendship and guidance have revealed to me a loving way of working with words that brings me constant reward and replenishment.

Joseph Robertson
December 19, 2016
Brooklyn, NY

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