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I'm Explaining a Few Things

Harold Pinter, in his Nobel lecture in 2005, read out some lines from Pablo Neruda's famous poem 'I'm Explaining a Few Things'. "I quote Neruda," he said, having angrily condemned the invasion of Iraq, "because nowhere in contemporary poetry have I read such a powerful visceral description of the bombing of civilians."

Neruda's poem echoes Picasso's Guernica- ­ both responses by politically committed artists to fascist barbarism during the Spanish civil war.  It is a furious dismissal of the bourgeois demand that poetry be simply beautiful and spiritual ­ and apolitical.  It seethes with hatred, and its opening implicates us, forcing us to pay attention and to think about our own expectations of art.

You are going to ask: and where are the lilacs?
and the poppy-petalled metaphysics?
and the rain repeatedly spattering
its words and drilling them full
of apertures and birds?


The phrase "Poppy-petalled" suggests dulling opium ­ a critique, perhaps, of the poet's own discarded aesthetics.  The rain, the conventional poetic outpouring, is described using violent words and sounds which mimic gunfire: "spattering its words" and "drilling them full of/apertures", the implication being that the very process of image-making, of patterning ­ if it ignores history ­ becomes warlike, even poetry a weapon of the enemy.

Then suddenly the poem switches tone:  "I'll tell you all the news", and we realise that we are in for the narrator's explanation, as in the title, his argument.  This poem is a polemic.

I lived in a suburb,
a suburb of Madrid, with bells,
and clocks, and trees.


The simplicity of these words reminds us that a life of ordinary things- ­ bells, clocks, trees- ­ has been destroyed, is over.
 

From there you could look out
over Castille's dry face:
a leather ocean.
My house was called
the house of flowers, because in every cranny
geraniums burst: it was
a good-looking house
with its dogs and children.


Plainness prevails.  The poetic phrase,  "My house was called/the house of flowers", is explained prosaically:  "because in every cranny/geraniums burst".  The metaphor:  "Castille's dry face:/a leather ocean" is of a harsh and arid landscape.

Then, invoking friends like Communist poet Rafel Alberti and poet/dramatist Federico Garcia Lorca- ­ the latter killed by the fascists- ­ Neruda seems actively to re-enter the past; the address becomes insistent, like waking the dead.

                Remember, Raul?
Eh, Rafel?
               Federico, do you remember
from under the ground
my balconies on which
the light of June drowned flowers in your mouth?
                                                                             Brother, my brother


The haunting lines "Federico, do you remember/from under the ground" pull us up sharply and makes us feel the bitterness of his grief.  Everything from then on is charged with it.  While the expansive image of the June light, so bright it drowns out even the brightest colours, is beautiful, the "flowers in your mouth" suggest the grave.  And now that old life, the volume turned up, overwhelms him.

Everything
loud with big voices, the salt of merchandises,
pile-ups of palpitating bread,
the stalls of my suburb of Arguelles with its statue
like a drained inkwell in a swirl of hake:
oil flowed into spoons,
a deep baying
of feet and hands swelled in the streets,
metres, litres, the sharp
measure of life,
                        stacked-up fish,
the texture of roofs with a cold sun in which
the weather vane falters,
the fine, frenzied ivory of potatoes,
wave on wave of tomatoes rolling down to the sea.

 
Here is the market at Arguelles, in all its vibrant richness, where the foods that sustain life are almost alive themselves.  The bread is "palpitating", the hake swirls, the oil flows, the tomatoes are "rolling down to the sea."   Such exaggeration is the "wild pandemonium/ all the avid/ quintessence of living"  (to quote from an alternative translation by Ben Belitt) of peacetime.

Yet this imagery is ambiguous.  For now, we have tomatoes.  Later we'll have blood.

And one morning all that was burning,
one morning the bonfires
leapt out of the earth
devouring human beings -
and from then on fire,
gunpowder from then on,
and from then on blood.
Bandits with planes and Moors,
bandits with finger-rings and duchesses,
bandits with black friars spattering blessings
came through the sky to kill children
and the blood of children ran through the streets
without fuss, like children's blood.

 
The burning and bonfires, the fire and gunpowder, evoke hell on earth; the repetition of "one morning" and "from then on" conveys the shock of the inescapable onslaught.  The fascist bandits come reinforced by German and Italian-supplied bombers and by North African colonial soldiers, their allies the monarchist aristocracy and the Catholic church.  The word "Bandits" opens three consecutive lines to hammer the point, while ­ in the Spanish original ­ the softer-sounding "ninos" ("children") closes the following three lines, the children's vulnerability and innocence given in the one understated phrase "without fuss".

The rhetoric works cumulatively, like a series of curses:

Jackals that the jackals would despise,
stones that the dry thistle would bite on and spit out,
vipers that the vipers would abominate!

 
Images from peacetime recur, but inverted: drowning ­ in blood, not the June sunlight; the house, once the house of flowers, dead, representing the whole of Spain.  But Spain itself will rise once more out of itself.  The voice is defiant, vengeful as a Greek tragic chorus, condemning the "Treacherous/generals" to face the consequences of their violence.  Out of the negation a force will arise to destroy the destroyers:

Face to face with you I have seen the blood
of Spain tower like a tide
to drown you in one wave
of pride and knives!

Treacherous
generals:
see my dead house,
look at broken Spain :
from every house burning metal flows
instead of flowers,
from every socket of Spain
Spain emerges
and from every dead child a rifle with eyes,
and from every crime bullets are born
which will one day find
the bull's eye of your hearts.

And you will ask: why doesn't his poetry
speak of dreams and leaves
and the great volcanoes of his native land?

 
The final lines, below, are justly famous.  The modern Italian composer Berio included them in one of his most famous works, whispered without melody by a choir.  This is the end of Neruda's argument, the summing-up of his evidence as to why he can no longer write a poetry of "dreams and leaves."  We can feel the wrench, having seen how metaphor and image-making and music come naturally to him.  We've been given these things in profusion earlier on.  Yet he's shut down his peacetime praise of the "the great volcanoes" (a reference to his Latin American origins) because of the horror.

The repetition makes a kind of mad, gasping sound when read aloud, a sobbing effect, and the plain words, all monosyllables, affect us far more than a purple passage:

Come and see the blood in the streets.
Come and see
the blood in the streets.
Come and see the blood
in the streets!


The repetitive drumbeat of the Spanish original is even more insistent, with it repeated "v" and "s" sounds:

Venid a ver la sangre por las calles,
venid a ver
la sangre por las calles,
venid a ver la sangre
por las calles!


We are being asked to bear witness.  The poem's casual title is, of course, ironic when the things he's explaining are what matter most in the world. 

Pablo Neruda (right) with Chile's socialist President Salvador Allende. Allende was murdered in the US-backed military coup in September 1973.



This is Nathaniel Tarn's translation of Neruda's poem; it is followed by the Spanish original.

 

I'm Explaining a Few Things

You are going to ask: and where are the lilacs?
and the poppy-petalled metaphysics?
and the rain repeatedly spattering
its words and drilling them full
of apertures and birds?

I'll tell you all the news.

I lived in a suburb,
a suburb of Madrid, with bells,
and clocks, and trees.

From there you could look out
over Castille's dry face:
a leather ocean.
                          My house was called
the house of flowers, because in every cranny
geraniums burst: it was
a good-looking house
with its dogs and children
                                        Remember, Raul?
Eh, Rafel?
               Federico, do you remember
from under the ground
my balconies on which
the light of June drowned flowers in your mouth?
                                                                             Brother, my brother

Everything
loud with big voices, the salt of merchandises,
pile-ups of palpitating bread,
the stalls of my suburb of Arguelles with its statue
like a drained inkwell in a swirl of hake:
oil flowed into spoons,
a deep baying
of feet and hands swelled in the streets,
metres, litres, the sharp
measure of life,
                        stacked-up fish,
the texture of roofs with a cold sun in which
the weather vane falters,
the fine, frenzied ivory of potatoes,
wave on wave of tomatoes rolling down to the sea.

And one morning all that was burning,
one morning the bonfires
leapt out of the earth
devouring human beings -
and from then on fire,
gunpowder from then on,
and from then on blood.
Bandits with planes and Moors,
bandits with finger-rings and duchesses,
bandits with black friars spattering blessings
came through the sky to kill children
and the blood of children ran through the streets
without fuss, like children's blood.

Jackals that the jackals would despise,
stones that the dry thistle would bite on and spit out,
vipers that the vipers would abominate!

Face to face with you I have seen the blood
of Spain tower like a tide
to drown you in one wave
of pride and knives!

Treacherous
generals:
see my dead house,
look at broken Spain :
from every house burning metal flows
instead of flowers,
from every socket of Spain
Spain emerges
and from every dead child a rifle with eyes,
and from every crime bullets are born
which will one day find
the bull's eye of your hearts.

And you will ask: why doesn't his poetry
speak of dreams and leaves
and the great volcanoes of his native land?

Come and see the blood in the streets.
Come and see
the blood in the streets.
Come and see the blood
in the streets!

 

Explico algunas cosas

Preguntaréis: Y dónde están las lilas?
Y la metafísica cubierta de amapolas?
Y la lluvia que a menudo golpeaba
sus palabras llenándolas
de agujeros y pájaros?

Os voy a contar todo lo que me pasa.

Yo vivía en un barrio
de Madrid, con campanas,
con relojes, con árboles.

Desde allí se veía
el rostro seco de Castilla
como un océano de cuero.
                                          Mi casa era llamada
la casa de las flores, porque por todas partes
estallaban geranios: era
una bella casa
con perros y chiquillos.
                                    Raúl, te acuerdas?
Te acuerdas, Rafael?
                                 Federico, te acuerdas
debajo de la tierra,
te acuerdas de mi casa con balcones en donde
la luz de junio ahogaba flores en tu boca?
                                                                  Hermano, hermano!

Todo
eran grandes voces, sal de mercaderías,
aglomeraciones de pan palpitante,
mercados de mi barrio de Argüelles con su estatua
como un tintero pálido entre las merluzas:
el aceite llegaba a las cucharas,
un profundo latido
de pies y manos llenaba las calles,
metros, litros, esencia
aguda de la vida,
                           pescados hacinados,
contextura de techos con sol frío en el cual
la flecha se fatiga,
delirante marfil fino de las patatas,
tomates repetidos hasta el mar.

Y una mañana todo estaba ardiendo
y una mañana las hogueras
salían de la tierra
devorando seres,
y desde entonces fuego,
pólvora desde entonces,
y desde entonces sangre.
Bandidos con aviones y con moros,
bandidos con sortijas y duquesas,
bandidos con frailes negros bendiciendo
venían por el cielo a matar niños,
y por las calles la sangre de los niños
corría simplemente, como sangre de niños.

Chacales que el chacal rechazaría,
piedras que el cardo seco mordería escupiendo,
víboras que las víboras odiaran!

Frente a vosotros he visto la sangre
de España levantarse
para ahogaros en una sola ola
de orgullo y de cuchillos!

Generales
traidores:
mirad mi casa muerta,
mirad España rota:
pero de cada casa muerta sale metal ardiendo
en vez de flores,
pero de cada hueco de España
sale España,
pero de cada niño muerto sale un fusil con ojos,
pero de cada crimen nacen balas
que os hallarán un día el sitio
del corazón.

Preguntaréis por qué su poesía
no nos habla del sueño, de las hojas,
de los grandes volcanes de su país natal?

Venid a ver la sangre por las calles,
venid a ver
la sangre por las calles,
venid a ver la sangre
por las calles!


Pablo Neruda, Selected Poems: A Bilingual Edition
Edited by Nathaniel Tarn, Translated by Anthony Kerrigan, W.S. Merwin, Alastair Reid and Nathaniel Tarn, Penguin Books

Five Decades: Poems 1925-1970 Pablo Neruda
Edited and translated by Ben Belitt, Grove Press