A couple of years ago, I culled my books--a collection of over 500 wiped out to almost nothing. At first, I found it horrible to pick off the books one by one, and pack them off to the charity book sale. I loved my books and what I thought they said about me, this collection of mainly 20th century novels, with a handful of travel, historiography, philosophy and wine books evening it out. But it had to be done--it took up a lot of real estate in a very small living space--and once I started sorting through, I realized most of the books I owned didn't say that much about me. (Also, who were my bookshelves talking to, anyway? Ninety-five percent of the people that come over know me pretty well already, and it's not like I want or expect the guy who tests the fire alarm twice a year to be looking through the bookshelf for insight about me.) So, after the first twenty tough decisions were made, the process got easier, fun actually, when I imagined people reading these books again. Solomon Gursky Was Here... You might not think so, but you will suspend all disbelief. Fall on Your Knees... I hope you've got nothing to do for the next 8 hours. Ulysses? Ahahaha. Pity the fool.
Anyway, all of this long-winded ramble is meant to illustrate a point. Now, I own less than 30 books. Mostly, the books I kept say something to me, instead of about me. But this book does both.
You Might Have Missed ... Being Still with Pablo Neruda
Author: Pablo Neruda, Translated by Alastair Reid
Pub. Details: FSG Adult; Bilingual Edition ed., Jan 2001
note: because I am not a Spanish speaker, I will be quoting the poems as translated by Alastair Reid, but if you prefer the original, the Spanish is printed opposite in this text.
So, in terms of introducing some unknown talent to you today, this is a gigantic fail. I realize that Pablo Neruda is one of the very few recognize-by-name poets in the vast canon of literature. Still, I would venture that most people who have read Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, or The Captain's Verses have not read what I think is his most reflective collection of poems, Extravagaria.
The original Spanish publication, Estravagario, appeared in 1958, after Neruda had travelled the world as a diplomat (later an exile), and returned to his native Chile. There is an obvious theme to these poems, one of stillness and being at peace, one of having silence enough to think about the big questions of life. For once on the face of the earth, / let's not speak in any language; / let's stop for one second, / and not move our arms so much.
There are also the mundane things that we see anew because he shows us their simple beauty--describing fog as "...waves [that] roll on in the air, / like invisible horses" or things washed up on shore "...violet claws of crabs, / little skulls of dead fish, / smooth syllables of wood, / small countries of mother-of-pearl..." For a writer, his poems are little injections of inspiration.
Of course, there is love--it's Neruda, after all--but this love is deeper and more mature, a testament to the sacred act of building life together rather than making love. "Now we need each other, / not only for the carnations' sake, / not only to look for honey-- / we need our hands to wash with, to make fire."
And don't worry--most of the poetry is tremendously accessible. You don't need to 'get' poetry to enjoy this book. You need no qualifications save for that you are alive and know how to read. No matter who you are, there is at least one thing in this book that will make you think about the life that you have lived so far, or about the life you want to live.
Extravagaria survived my book cull, and would survive again if some crazy anti-book person told me I could only keep one book for the rest of my life. The pages of my ten-year old copy are dog-eared, the spine is beginning to split. It is a book I turn to all the time, like my own personal bible, when I need to remember what I'm supposed to be doing with life, when I need to be reminded of a bigger picture. Reading this book is as close as I will ever get to prayer.
Erin Bedford, writer.