Cross-Examination with Pablo Neruda

Amazingly, when I wrote this post about the freedom I have experienced in my conversion from political person to poet and ended with a Neruda poem I had not known about Pablo’s  The Book of Questions. Completed just a few months before his death, Neruda embodies the celebrated role of the poet, to ask questions only, and not engage in a pretense of having answers. From the translator’s introduction:

 These poems remind us that living in a state of visionary surrender to the elemental questions, free of the quiet desperation of clinging too tightly to answers, may be our greatest act of faith.

I have been contemplating quietly what faith is, or rather, in which direction and at what object I am supposed to blast my laser beam of faith. But perhaps faith doesn’t need an object. Maybe it just means chilling the fuck out. And also, this:

The Book of Questions fulfills a traditional role of all the best poetry. Perhaps its greatest gift is to assist us in teaching ourselves how to perceive and sense by focusing the inner quest. When we sit or when we “run in place”…with images and sounds rather than flee farther into our rational minds, the imagination quietly reawakens to the possibilities of wonder and awe. In this state, we may ask our own unanswerable questions, and might come to find reflected in ourselves the world beyond mind and sight.

And so, as I lay in my cabin last night, reciting the couplets in Spanish and English, questioning the Olympics and the clear night sky, noting the queries that drove a nail into my solar plexus, my own questions slowly began to emerge.

“How many churches are there in heaven?”

“Tell  me, is the rose naked or is that her only dress?”

“Is there anything in the world sadder than a train standing in the rain?”

Particularly appropriate in the PNW for those who bemoan the rain and blanketed skies: “How do we think thank the clouds for their fleeting abundance?”

An innocently democratic, socialist vision in the question, “How do oranges divide up sunlight in the orange tree?”

“Why does spring once again offer its green clothes?” Is this the definition of insanity? Who wants to be sane, anyway? One of my teachers and friends, DK Brainard, said years ago and its stuck with me: You cannot walk around reasonable expecting other people to behave sanely. What he did not say is that this probably goes for myself as well.

“How did the abandoned bicycle win its freedom?” Hmm. I guess there is liberation in being left alone, especially if you have been taken for a ride.

At this moment, I stopped to reflect on how I have followed learning new languages just for poetry, beginning even with my upbringing in a Muslim family, learning to read Arabic to recite the Qu’ran, which is legitimately beautiful poetry. Later, I studied Urdu to understand qawwali, Sufi devotional music, I am re-learning Spanish for Neruda, picking up Farsi for Rumi and Hafiz and Rabia and French for Rimbaud. So I started cracking up when I read: “And why did cheese decide to perform heroic deeds in France?” Okay, in all honesty, I only wanted French so I can order wine and cheese without butchering the pronunciation. But isn’t wine and cheese its own poetry? When will wine and cheese win their own Pulitzer?

“Is it true that the meteor was a dove of amethyst?” You’re speaking my language here, Pablo. I’m massaging my eyeballs with my amethyst and my doves of cloth and wood and my small town night sky that’s got more stars than NYC’s got lights.

“Am I allowed to ask my book whether it’s true that I wrote it?” Oh no, are we questioning the right to question, Pablo? Is it like asking your child, “Am I your mother? Or did God birth you and deliver you by bird?”

“How many weeks are in a day and how many years are in a month?” I began to experience time this way when I was traveling, meaning that I lived in a perpetual state of no permanent address. When every place is new, so much is happening, time takes on this quality of timelessness. And yet I feel I’ve come home after 30 years of travel and… this timeless sensation persists. Is this what it’s like to live with beginner’s mind? To engage in life as a child does? 10,000 minutes in one hour?

“Do you have room for some thorns? They asked the rosebush.” The question really is, did they ask all the flowers the same question? And if so, why did they say no? The tulips, the daisies, the marigolds; why are they thornless?

“When can I ask what I came to make happen in this world?

“Why do I move without wanting to, why am I not able to stand still?

“Why do I go rolling without wheels, flying without wings or feathers,” and “Why did I decide to migrate if my bones live in Chile?” Am I allowed to not have to ask these questions anymore?

“Why do assemblies of umbrellas always occur in London?” Why does no one tell la americaine that Paris is just as foggy as London until she lands there on a dismal May day, having just left behind a clear sweet hot Seattle night? Will I be as funny about death as Pablo, when I am just two months from death? Will I appreciate his bitterness the way I do dark chocolate with cayenne?

“If the flies make honey, will they offend the bees?” Who gets offended anymore? If the bees do, I’ll call them drama queens.

“Does he who is always waiting suffer more than he who’s never waited for anyone?” Are we waiting? If we are, who or what for?

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