The Hands of Day

by Pablo Neruda
Copper Canyon Press 2008
Reviewed by Michael Rymer


Take a Look at These Hands

neruda hands coverWhen this book was first published, in 1968, Pablo Neruda was 64-years old and very famous. His Veinte poemas de amor y una cancion Desperado (Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair) had sold a million copies. He had received honorary doctoral degrees from Yale and Oxford and read his poems to a crowd of 100,000 at Pacaembú Stadium in Sao Paolo, Brazil. So the book’s central conceit – that the poet regretted how he’d spent his life, that he should have devoted his time to manual labor – must have been a hard sell. Neruda himself often seems unconvinced in these poems.

In the best ones – there are a few extraordinarily good poems here – Neruda’s regret is eclipsed by soaring fantasies of what he could have made with his hands. The fantasy of “The Guilty One,” the first poem in the book, is making a broom. In the fifth line, Neruda asks what sounds like a desperate question: “Why was I given hands at all?” But in the next few lines, he interrupts his lament:

What purpose did they serve
if I saw only the rumor of the grain,
if I had ears only for the wind
and did not gather the thread
of the broom,
still green on the earth,
and did not lay the tender stalks out to dry
and was not able to unite them
in a golden bundle
or attach a wooden cane
to the yellow skirt
so I had a broom to sweep the paths.

Here, a poem of tribute – a sort of ode – has bloomed in dirge. By the end of these lines, we are holding onto our image of the broom. We’re admiring its simplicity. We’ve forgotten the poet’s somber mood.

In “The Sovereigns,” Neruda’s regret engenders more modest, but still satisfying, imaginative riffs. Here, he contemplates the productive life of a snail:

The snail’s shell can be made
only by the creature
inside it, in its silence,

And later, he unfavorably compares himself to this animal he admires:

But the man who leaves with his hands
as with dead gloves
moving the air until they unravel
is not worthy of
the tenderness
I show the tiny ocean creature

But these morsels are only available to the reader who trudges beyond the poem’s first lines, in which Neruda nods to the Catholic ritual of confession in phrasing his lament:

Yes, I am guilty
of what I did not do,
of what I did not sow, did not cut, did not measure,
of never having rallied myself to populate lands,

This is not necessarily a bad way to begin a poem, but “The Sovereigns” is the twenty-third poem in the collection, and most of the previous twenty-two also contained catalogue’s of the poets regrets, many without this poem’s compensations. By the fourth or fifth laundry of regrets, the lists come to feel rote. And there are repetitions. The reader braces herself for the next time the poet will mention that he never made a clock.

Perhaps we only really believe that Neruda had these regrets when he stops discussing them – when he loses himself in a fantasy of manual production that blots them out. In “Sitting Down,” Neruda’s regret activates a fantasy of making a chair. In the beginning of the poem, he envisions:

The whole world sitting
at the table,
on the throne,
at the assembly,
in the train car,
in the chapel,
on the ocean,
in the plane, in the school, in the stadium
the whole world being seated or seating themselves:
but they will have no memory
of any chair
made by my hands.

As in “The Guilty One,” Neruda’s regret here is salvaged – and consumed – by his imagination, not to mention his sense of humor. And once again we have a sort of ode – an ode to the chair as a servant of humanity. For never having made a chair, Neruda provides this completely implausible and poetically logical explanation:

The circular saw
like a planet
descended the night
until it reached the earth.
It rolled through the mountains
of my country,
it passed, without seeing, through my door of larvae,
it became lost in its own sound,
and that was how I walked
in the fragrance of the sacred forest
without taking a hatchet to the thicket of small trees.

This is a good excuse for never having made a chair – a lot better than a lack of interest in carpentry or manual clumsiness.

I wonder why Neruda’s regrets in these poems are so often earthbound, why so few launched him, as this one did, above the forest. Couldn’t he have written equally inventive odes to other things he’d never made with his hands – a basket, a piñata, a cheescake? Why couldn’t he sustain his pose?

Perhaps Neruda’s problem was his refusal to acknowledge the physical labor involved in his own art. This was the poet’s 30th book, and it is a big one. It just doesn’t ring true to pound out a whole volume about not using one’s hands without at least mentioning the strain on one’s fingers. (Neruda used a typewriter.) Neruda’s hands, instead, just serve as a device, a prop that helps the poet start talking about his failings. The more we read about his hands, the more difficult it becomes to see them. And the more we begin to long to read “Oda a los Calcetines,” (“Ode to My Socks”), that memorable earlier poem about the poet’s feet:

Mara Mori brought me
a pair of socks
which she knitted herself
with her sheepherder’s hands,
two socks as soft as rabbits.
I slipped my feet into them
as if they were two cases
knitted with threads of twilight and goatskin,
Violent socks,
my feet were two fish made of wool,
two long sharks
sea blue, shot through
by one golden thread,
two immense blackbirds,
two cannons,
my feet were honored in this way
by these heavenly socks.
They were so handsome for the first time
my feet seemed to me unacceptable
like two decrepit firemen,
firemen unworthy of that woven fire,
of those glowing socks.

Nevertheless, I resisted the sharp temptation
to save them somewhere as schoolboys
keep fireflies,
as learned men collect
sacred texts,
I resisted the mad impulse to put them
in a golden cage and each day give them
birdseed and pieces of pink melon.
Like explorers in the jungle
who hand over the very rare green deer
to the spit and eat it with remorse,
I stretched out my feet and pulled on
the magnificent socks and then my shoes.

The moral of my ode is this:
beauty is twice beauty
and what is good is doubly good
when it is a matter of two socks
made of wool in winter.