In my introduction to Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, I quoted his English translator Stephen Tapscott: “We don’t have much of a tradition of love poetry in North America, and these poems seem to introduce attitudes of sensual joy of a sort that we – Anglophones, at least – have never been very comfortable with, nor very adept at expressing.” To give you an example of this “sensual joy,” I will offer a close reading of a poem from Cien Sonetos de Amor, a collection that is organized according to periods of the day: Mañana, Mediodía, Tarde, and Noche. The poem below is from Mañana.
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.
Remembering that Cien Sonetos de Amor is dedicated to Neruda’s “beloved wife,” this poem tries to do what every lover tries to do: express an inexpressible love. A poet, of course, has a greater facility with words than the average man, but even here he reaches the limits of articulation, as evidenced by negation (“I do not love you as if…” ), ignorance (“I love you without knowing how, or when, or where”), and repeated simile.
For a love poem, the first stanza begins somewhat abruptly with negation (“I do not love you…”) before turning to affirmation (“I love you…”). This sequence has its own logic. Consider how a theologian might begin his treatise with negations about God (“God is not…”). It is often easier to say what an object is not rather than what an object is, especially when that object carries the metaphysical weight of God or love.
The negative simile juxtaposes the positive one, setting off a contrast between the light of salt-rose (a syntactical inversion of rose salt), topaz, and sparks of fire – all a rosy pink color – and the darkness of a non-blooming plant. Actually, the contrast is even more subtle. It is the difference between revealed light and concealed light. We infer that the poet’s love for his wife is not open and shared with everyone else, but secret and guarded for personal enrichment. There are some things in this world – so exquisite, so tender, and so particular – that should be reserved for the space “between the shadow and the soul.” A spouse is one of those things.
In the third stanza, the poet confesses that he does not know the mechanics (“how”), timing (“when”), or sources (“where”) of his love, and insists that he loves his wife “straightforwardly, without complexities or pride.” Here is man who knows enough to know that he should not know too much about the nature of his love, otherwise he jeopardizes its simplicity and humility. Following the Socratic dictum of self-knowledge (“Know thyself”) will lead inevitably to the Socratic doctrine of ignorance (“I know that I do not know”). The challenge is to accept our ignorance where knowledge is not possible. Self-expertise is a fool’s errand.
The final stanza is my favorite. After saying what his love is not, what is mysteriously intuited (“I love you as certain dark things are to be loved”), and what remains unknown, the poet reaches the end of his investigation with a clear and distinct truth that might even satisfy the epistemological requirements of Descartes: “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.” He has discovered the miraculous one-flesh union of the original romance in the Garden of Eden, in which “a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). The I-Thou relation between a man and wife is indivisible, indissoluble, and invisible except to the covenantal eye that watches over the union.