Down into the endless blue wine
I’ll open my head and let out
All my time.
I’d love to go drowning
And to stay and to stay
But the ocean doesn’t want me today.
— Tom Waits, “The Ocean Doesn’t Want Me Today
You can almost throw a rock in a bookstore and hit a volume of Pablo Neruda poems, but it’s doubtful you’d hit one as aesthetically attractive as On the Blue Shore of Silence, which collects twelve of his poems on the sea. Accompanying Neruda’s original Spanish versions and Alastair Reid’s English translations are paintings by Mary Heebner. Here, she describes her process: “I saturated large sheets of fibrous Japanese paper with puddles of bluish-gray pigment. Hidden shapes emerged from these little seas of color. I used paint and strands of tapa cloth to suggest elements of human form.”
While the paintings make a nice compliment to the poems, one has a much tougher time engaging with them on their own. Their color is lush, and at times has a kind of penetrating darkness, all emblematic of the sea, but it seems a wobbly balance between suggestions of the human form and more abstract evocations of water. While I’m not one for artists making all the decisions for a thoughtful audience, my instinct wants the paintings to make a choice, to be either more intently representational or more unabashedly abstract. But I have to say, the work on her website (www.maryheebner.com), particularly the collages, looks great, has a more autonomous beauty, and feels much more like an assertion than an accompaniment.
In his foreword, translator Alastair Reid tells us that “Neruda wrote most of these poems at a time in his life he referred to as his ‘autumn’… after a long public life as diplomat, as senator, as cultural ambassador as well as poet” and that “the sea had been for him always a central metaphor for his comings and goings, a shifting source of awe and fear, of beauty and terror.” In his afterword, Antonio Skarmeta reminds us of “Chile’s most unusual outline-a narrow landmass running for thousands of miles from Peru to Antarctica, from the most barren desert on earth to its southernmost glaciers … between high altitudes and the ocean’s vastness.”
Between these extreme poles of geography, politics, and art, it seems almost comic for the jacket to read “the poems chosen for this collection … are meant to offer readers the experience of what it would have been like to sit with Neruda at Isla Negra [his famous home on the Pacific coast, 90 miles south of Santiago], the view of the sea endless, the pulse of the waves, eternal.” This, like most jacket remarks, is shallow, picturesque advertising, as if reading (and thinking) were a passive, tourist activity.
I’m also a bit disappointed by some of the poems. The first of the dozen, “The Sea,” is an unbelievably obvious choice with its opening “I need the sea because it teaches me” and the unfortunately shallow metaphor “the university of the waves.” “The First Sea” is also a skipper, a straightforward, unsurprising extended metaphor (the sea=your mind, your country, your existence). For a thesis statement, it makes perfect sense, but it tends to clash with the subtle depth and image-driven drama of a poem like “It Is Born”:
Here I came to the very edge
where nothing at all needs saying,
everything is absorbed through weather and the sea,
and the moon swam back,
its rays all silvered,
and time and again the darkness would be broken
by the crash of a wave,
and every day on the balcony of the sea,
wings open, fire is born,
and everything is blue again like morning.
This is the book, right here — this ten-line sentence on a threshold, acknowledging the uselessness of human language through human language. The speaker simply meets the edge in the first line, and for the rest of the poem describes that edge, through pairing of sensual compliments (rather than easy opposites): the darkness is broken not by light, but the sea’s sound. Also remarkable is how the poem simultaneously traces the observations of a speaker who has stayed up all night waiting for sunrise, and suggests a transitional state of being. It’s a compelling merge of nature’s on-go and the voice of the human mind, which knows that its language is unnecessary, just as it knows the restraint of that language, like the tide, is impossible.
There is something in the less logical, more associative poems that is appropriate, and has the most enduring, mystic resonance. While poems like “The First Sea” and “The Sea” are almost so accessible they’re merely decorative, “Soliloquy in the Waves” has to do with the compelling charm and transformative power of enigma. It starts in the middle of a reply:
Yes, but here I am alone.
perhaps it says its name, I don’t understand,
it mutters, humps in its load
of movement and foam
and withdraws. Who
can I ask what it said to me?
Who among the waves.
can I name?
The speaker poses something central to this book and our lives: how “to respond to what the world/was obviously offering me,” how we communicate with and through our circumstances. While biographical and historical readings of the poems — after reading Skarmeta’s afterword — might easily lead us to more exclusive, though plausible, author-based interpretations, what this reader begins to contemplate through the best of these is the relationships human beings carry on, not only with nature, but just as importantly, the relationship we have with our own minds, the fact of our own existence. When Neruda urges, “you soon must realize/what a feeble thing you are,” it isn’t exclusively the naturalist perspective of humanity facing a vast and emotionless natural force (although that does work), but a confrontation, an acknowledgement of the terror and wonder of simply being alive.