100 Love Sonnets/Cien Sonetos de Amor
by Pablo Neruda
(translated from the Spanish by Stephen Tapscott)
I don’t remember how I stumbled across it, but Pablo Neruda’s soneto XVII is what made me want to read him. I’d heard of the Chilean poet, of course, but he was yet another gap in my literary reading history. Perhaps it’s more suiting for my personality to first approach him from a place of love, rather than his political work. I don’t know. What I do know is that soneto XVII is the one for me:
No te amo como si fueras rosa de sal, topacio
o flecha de clavelas que propagan el fuego:
te amo como se aman ciertas cosas oscuras,
secretamente, entre la sombra y el alma.
Te amo como la planta que no florece y lleva
dentro de sí, escondida, la luz de aquellas flores,
y gracias a tu amor vive oscuro en mi cuerpo
el apretado aroma que ascendió de la tierra.
Te amo sin saber cómo, ni cuándo, ni de dónde,
te amo directamente sin problemas ni orgullo:
así te amo porque no sé amar de otra manera,
sino así de este modo en que no soy ni eres,
tan cerca que tu mano sobre mi pecho es mía,
tan cerca que se cierran tus ojos con mi sueño.
I do not love you as if you were salt-rose, or topaz,
or the arrow of carnations the fire shoots off,
I love you as certain dark things are to be loved,
in secret, between the shadow and the soul.
I love you as the plant that never blooms
but carries in itself the light of hidden flowers;
thanks to your love a certain solid fragrance,
risen from the earth, lives darkly in my body.
I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where,
I love you straightforwardly, without complexities or pride;
so I love you because I know no other way
than this: where I does not exist, nor you,
so close that your hand on my chest is my hand,
so close that your eyes close as I fall asleep.
Each poem is laid out en face, Spanish and English. My rusty Spanish skills suddenly became more functional from being able to read both versions and by training my mind to once again get the gist of what I read en español before reading the translation. These poems, dedicated to his wife Maltilde, are often meditative and lovely, but also quite grounded. He is in love with all of her, especially her skin and her demeanor. “No one can reckon what I owe you, Love,” he writes in LXIV.
I like that this is a very simple collection. Very little attempt is made at dissecting the meaning behind each poem, apart from a few notes at the back that have mainly to do with geography. We are left to interpret for ourselves.
The only strange thing about this edition is that each sonnet has a drop cap letter of a different font, as though whoever was responsible for the layout wanted one example of each type of lettering. Drop caps that are a different font from the main piece are fine, but they should be consistent. If nothing else, Futura has no business being involved with a Neruda soneto.
Reading the whole book at once, I started to notice Neruda’s pet expressions. References to earth and bread and wood appear frequently, and while they are effective images in the poems themselves, seeing them repeated one after the other can start to feel stale. Maybe that’s unfair, but sometimes I found myself studying the Spanish-to-English translation less intently as the book went on. I didn’t slow down, which perhaps I would have done more completely had I dipped in and out of the book over time.
Though there are many great lines and a handful of true favorites I could continue to quote, instead I’ll leave you with XCVII en inglés. It reminds me of a certain madman in a blue box.
These days, one must fly — but where to?
Without wings, without an airplane, fly — without a doubt:
the footsteps have passed on, to no avail;
they didn’t move the feet of the traveler along.
At every instant, one must fly — like
eagles, like houseflies, like days:
must conquer the rings of Saturn
and build new carillons there.
Shoes and pathways are no longer enough,
the earth is no use anymore to the wanderer:
the roots have already crossed through the night,
and you will appear on another planet,
transformed in the end into poppies.
(This review originally appeared on Glorified Love Letters.)