Thursday is Poem in Your Pocket Day. Part of Poetry Month, this is a day when you are meant to choose a poem, stick it in your pocket and bring it out to share with the people around you. I thought about what poem would be good for this purpose – short, yet powerful was what I thought. So I chose a poem I found some years ago and set in letterpress to print for my annual Christmas card. Pablo Neruda has had a special place in literature for me since I was a child. Reciting his poetry bought me peace and belonging, and the music of his language, which at the time I couldn’t fully translate, taught me that language should have cadence and beauty in order to fully express its meaning.
The year I was nine, turning ten, I lived in Santiago, Chile. My dad was on sabbatical from the University of California at Berkeley, and some Chilean friends had arranged for a position at the University of Chile where he was helping to set up a computing center. We went in January, the end of summer for the school year. The girls of school age in the family started at Santiago College, at that time a Catholic all-girl’s school. Everything was different from any school we had known. Uniforms. English, but with most students speaking Spanish when not in class. We weren’t rich and weren’t Embassy either; we lived in the wrong part of town – not poor but not wealthy. No access to the PX but no privilege to make up for it. I was shy but resolute. I saw around me a Catholic country where everyone was religious and the churches were lined in gold, the sumptuous interiors smelling of incense and must, with the doors locked at night. Children my age came to the gate, begging for food. I thought that this country’s God was not doing his job. And so after awhile, when we all stood behind our desks to begin the day with the Lord’s prayer, I stopped saying it. I thought: how can I pray in good faith when what I see makes of this prayer a mockery?
My teacher noticed. It became a war of wills and, naturally, I lost the battle. I was made to wait outside the classroom door until everyone entered, the roll was taken, the prayer said. Only then could I cross in front of the class to take my seat. Things did not go well for me in class. I had relief in two places only, chorus, where a beautiful widow taught us voice, and Spanish. Because I had no Spanish I was tutored twice a week.
I don’t remember the teacher’s name, only that she was kind and had red hair that I thought was probably dyed. Usually we had our sessions in a small study room a few doors down from my classroom, but on nice days we went through black iron gates to the courtyard in the upper school, where there was a fountain and trees and shade and where, if I was clever, I could work in a reference to Pablo Neruda and we would abandon our lesson and talk about poetry.
Pablo Neruda was, and is, a national hero. In my own country there was no idea of a writer or a poet or an artist having the respect of the nation. This was a huge idea to me, and aside from the release from the classroom and its pressures that our discussions meant, this concept captivated me. My tutor would recite, and have me recite, the poems in Spanish and tell me about Neruda’s life in exile and his return, and how much his poems meant to the people. I could take off my shoes and socks and my wool blazer with its embroidered insignia, and sit on the lip of the fountain with my feet in the cool water, goldfish tickling my skin with their mouths and their fins. When I returned to the States I would read aloud in Spanish from the grammar books with their writing samples and conversations, letting go the meaning of the words and thinking of the music of Pablo Neruda and the shelter his poetry had given me during that long, curious year.
This poem is from The Sea and the Bells
Si cada día, cae
Si cada día, cae
dentro de cada noche
hay un pozo
donde la claridad está encerrada.
Hay que sentarse a la orilla
del pozo de la sombra y
pescar luz caída con paciencia.
If each day falls
If each day falls
Inside each night,
There exists a well
Where clarity is imprisoned.
We need to sit on the rim
Of the well of darkness
And fish for fallen light