February 26, 2016

Roses, Violets, and Cherry Trees

Thus far, we’ve dedicated this blog to the going ons and history of the Tufts poetry awards. But as the finalist judges are narrowing the remaining titles to pick the winners for the Kingsley and Kate Tufts awards, and as we await with breath that is bated, let us take this brief moment of Tufts downtime to discuss what brought us all here to begin with: poetry. And being the season that it is, let us fine tune that perspective to one germane to the month of February, and allow ourselves the sinful indulgence of a love poem.

The mere mention of love poetry is often met with eye rolls and groans. Sure, maybe roses are red and violets are, indeed blue, but the oozing pathos of this genre of verse is for many, simply too much to abide. And yet, is not nearly every song on the radio a love poem set to music? And do these songs not move us to dance, to cry . . . to get married?

Some may call my tastes prosaic; they may be right. But one poem that has always resonated with me is “Every Day You Play” by Pablo Neruda, love poet par excellence. For while the worst love poetry is hackneyed or saccharine, the best puts to novel language universal and timeless emotions; taking the quotidian and raising it to the cosmic.

Every day you play with the light of the universe.
Subtle visitor, you arrive in the flower and the water.
You are more than this white head that I hold tightly
as a cluster of fruit, every day, between my hands.

You are like nobody since I love you.
Let me spread you out among yellow garlands.
Who writes your name in letters of smoke among the stars of the south?
Oh let me remember you as you were before you existed.

Suddenly the wind howls and bangs at my shut window.
The sky is a net crammed with shadowy fish.
Here all the winds let go sooner or later, all of them.
The rain takes off her clothes.

The birds go by, fleeing.
The wind. The wind.
I can contend only against the power of men.
The storm whirls dark leaves
and turns loose all the boats that were moored last night to the sky.

You are here. Oh, you do not run away.
You will answer me to the last cry.
Cling to me as though you were frightened.
Even so, at one time a strange shadow ran through your eyes.

Now, now too, little one, you bring me honeysuckle,
and even your breasts smell of it.
While the sad wind goes slaughtering butterflies
I love you, and my happiness bites the plum of your mouth.

How you must have suffered getting accustomed to me,
my savage, solitary soul, my name that sends them all running.
So many times we have seen the morning star burn, kissing our eyes,
and over our heads the gray light unwind in turning fans.

My words rained over you, stroking you.
A long time I have loved the sunned mother-of-pearl of your body.
I go so far as to think that you own the universe.
I will bring you happy flowers from the mountains, bluebells,
dark hazels, and rustic baskets of kisses.

I want
to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees.

According to Robert Clemens in the Saturday Review, Neruda’s poetry “established him at the outset as a frank, sensuous spokesman for love.” And love does need a spokesman. In a time when relationships are cemented not by deep and private emotional attachment but by the couple’s Facebook statuses, and modern dating is largely defined by the withholding—rather than the free expression—of emotion, it bears remembering that love, in its emotive, carnal, transcendent, and ineffable qualities, should be raised to art every now and then.

“Every Day You Play,” as with numerous other of Neruda’s poems, roots love in the corporeal, giving it both earthly body and Brobdingnagian force. Who is the “you” in “Every Day”? One initially thinks she is the sun: “Every day . . . / . . . you arrive in the flower and the water,” but later, the “mother-of-pearl of [her] body” is “sunned,” and both the speaker and the lover “have seen the morning star burn.” Indeed, the generative force is the speaker himself: he promises to bring her “happy flowers from the mountains,” and wants to make her bloom as “The spring does to the cherry trees.”

“Traditionally,” stated Rene de Costa in The Poetry of Pablo Neruda, “love poetry has equated woman with nature. Neruda took this established mode of comparison and raised it to a cosmic level, making woman into a veritable force of the universe.”

Here, both the speaker—presumably a man—and the beloved—presumably a woman—are co-creators of both nature and love. She, the receptive potential of fecundity; he, a generative force but no less dependent upon her powers for it (“I go so far as to think you own the universe”). It is this complementarity, the symbiosis between two bodies, that gives this poem its force. And does not—or should not—love, even in our jaded age, be infused with same vitality of mutual adoration? I think so. But then again, I’ve always had a thing for roses and violets.

—Rachel Tie Morrison