“Melancholy Inside Families” by Pablo Neruda

Few poets, few people, deserve popularity as much as Pablo Neruda. He’s back again with more brilliant imagery, dozens of lines that I wish that I had written.

As you read these lines, & dammit, you’d better, just relax your reason & see the images that he’s drawn for us. I can think of no poet who had a batter eye, a better gift for putting seemingly disparate if not conflicting elements into a sentence or a phrase: “when the hoarse cherry tree / rips out its lips and makes menacing gestures / with rinds which the ocean perforates…“ These are lines from beyond reason, from that kingdom imagination that governs the surreal, & yet they are more lucid than any dream. I wish that I had Spanish so that I could know his ear.

The first stanza is basically noodling, the blue poet in search of a poem. He finds it with, “It is only the passage from one day to another” & the lines that follow, a sequence of death images from Neruda’s bottle now floating  “over the seas” (life? death? time?) to a “dining room deserted / as a fish bone”. I mean, is there anything more deserted than a fish bone? Caravagio might have painted that image. Here is Neruda’s incredible talent for extending an image:  the detritus of a “terrifying” rose-garnished  dining room which soon has a river flowing through it, appropriate for a “house / set on the foundations of the rain… “ It features “one ray of moonlight tied down”.

We have read Neruda in every registration: As political revolutionary, tender lover, artistic & cultural lion. Here he is in a blue funk, walking through abandoned buildings & wallowing, as we all have done more than once.


Melancholy Inside Families
by Pablo Neruda
Paris Review Issue no. 39 (Fall 1966)

I keep a blue bottle.
Inside it an ear and a portrait.
When the night dominates
the feathers of the owl,
when the hoarse cherry tree
rips out its lips and makes menacing gestures
with rinds which the ocean wind often perforates—
then I know that there are immense expanses hidden from us,
quartz in slugs,
blue waters for a battle,
much silence, many ore-veins
of withdrawals and camphor,
fallen things, medallions, kindnesses,
parachutes, kisses.

It is only the passage from one day to another,
a single bottle moving over the seas,
and a dining room where roses arrive,
a dining room deserted
as a fish-bone: I am speaking of
a smashed cup, a curtain, at the end
of a deserted room through which a river passes
dragging along the stones. It is a house
set on the foundations of the rain,
a house of two floors with the required number of windows,
and climbing vines faithful in every particular.

I walk through afternoons, I arrive
full of mud and death,
dragging along the earth and its roots,
and its indistinct stomach in which corpses
are sleeping with wheat,
metals, and pushed-over elephants.

But above all there is a terrifying,
a terrifying deserted dining room,
with its broken olive oil cruets,
and vinegar running under its chairs,
one ray of moonlight tied down,
something dark, and I look
for a comparison inside myself:
perhaps it is a grocery store surrounded by the sea
and torn clothing from which sea water is dripping.
It is only a deserted dining room,
and around it there are expanses,
sunken factories, pieces of timber
which I alone know
because I am sad, and because I travel,
and I know the earth, and I am sad.

        —Translated by James Wright and Robert Bly

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