Love Song to a Stranger

February 6, 2007 at 12:49 pm | Posted in love, metaphor, personal, poetry | 4 Comments

“All of your history has little to do with your face
You’re mainly a mystery with violins filling in space”
— Joan Baez

Every day as I bike home I commit the pathetic fallacy. I look up at the mountain and read it like an omen; when it’s hazy I feel bogged down and confused, when it’s standing forward clearly and boldly I feel as though I could do the same. This afternoon it was swathed in pink mist, which I’ve never seen it be before.

Kugelmass has recently written a great post over at The Valve about Pablo Neruda’s “Love Poem XIV: ‘Every day you play…'”. I’m not going to reproduce the poem here, so click to his post if you want to re-familiarize yourself with it. Joe reads the poem as an encounter between “savage, solitary souls;” he seems to see it as an attempt to take seriously the otherness of another person and to allow that otherness to be a source of (violent, natural) beauty instead of something that needs to be rejected, patched over, or denied. I think he’s right on target, and I intend to expand on these ideas by meditating first on beauty, and then on otherness, in an effort to say something hopefully a little bit useful about love.

What probably sticks out in your mind if you’ve ever read this particular Neruda poem before are its final lines: “I want / to do with you what the spring does with the cherry trees.” When I encountered this poem for the first time as a fourteen-year-old girl, I nearly perished on the spot; the beauty of those lines was more overwhelming than words had ever been before. Joe reads the flower imagery throughout the poem this way:

Blossoms are Neruda’s symbol for love at the moment when it is achieved. They are suitable because of their naïve, sufficient externality, which reminds us of the inter-subjectivity of the love affair. Flowers appear on the outside of dark branches, or cover the ground after a rain. Neruda writes, “you bring me honeysuckle,” and, in return, “I will bring you happy flowers from the mountains,” in contrast to the devastations of the “sad wind.” The implicit sunshine of the “yellow garlands” returns in the “sunned” body of the beloved, and in the blue of the bluebells. There is only a whisper of their origins in the “dark hazels,” which bring back the “whirl of dark leaves” from the storm.

In other words, if the stormy encounter with the beloved’s otherness can be weathered, the reward is the sensuous beauty of all these flowers. Implicit in Joe’s reading, signaled by his use of the word “naïve,” seems to be the idea that the sensuous joys of love depend on a forgetting of its darker, abyssal nature even though these joys depend vitally on this abyss. This is a place where I wish to explore a different angle, because I think beauty in this poem is a whole lot more than “sufficient externality.” Joe indicates in this passage that the dark origins of these flowers still “whisper” to us, but to me these whispers are extremely important. For evidence, the traditional thing to do would be to point to the language of the poem itself, but I would prefer, instead, to cite the reaction of my fourteen-year-old self.

As I mentioned a moment ago, the beauty of the final image nearly killed me. What I mean by that is: I felt a visceral pain, it was overwhelming, those words were more than I could bear. Ten years before Neruda wrote Twenty Love Songs and a Song of Despair, H.D. wrote a poem called “Orchard” which describes the humbling effects of natural beauty in terms that are eerily relevant. The first stanza goes like this:

I saw the first pear
as it fell —
the honey-seeking, golden-banded,
the yellow swarm
was not more fleet than I,
(spare us from loveliness)
and I fell prostrate
you have flayed us
with your blossoms,
spare us the beauty
of fruit-trees.

Generations of Neruda readers have perhaps cried similar things upon finishing “Love Poem XIV.” Why is it, I demand, that natural beauty “flays” us? And why do Neruda’s mere descriptions of it tear us apart?

To follow Joe’s line of thinking, one answer might have to do with the idea of radical otherness. No matter how much we might desire to merge completely with the object of our affections, that is simply not possible; no matter how well we might come to know her, she will remain utterly unknowable. It seems to me that nature imagery, and particularly the ecstatic comparisons to nature that one often finds in love poetry, emphasize this otherness rather than sublimate it or otherwise patch it over. When you compare your beloved to a tree, you deny her even a tongue to speak with; she becomes something wholly alien to you that you can only engage with by analogy and — yes — the pathetic fallacy. This is not to say that such comparisons are not often extraordinarily beautiful, nor to deny the tender generosity of Neruda’s cherry-tree wish. Rather, it is to point out that behind all this beauty is something awfully tragic, and to suggest that this tragic thing may be what we respond to when we respond to beauty.

Once upon a time, I dated a very strange boy who brought this point home to me in quite a literal way. It’s one thing to angst about the unknowability of your beloved when your beloved is a relatively normal human being, but E. was incurably obscure. At one point during our courtship, he sent me the following string of words in a letter:

where from or, when or, how knowing without you love I
pride or complexities without, straightforwardly you love I
way other no know I because you love I so

you nor, exist not does I where: this than
hand my is chest my on hand your that close so
asleep fall I as close eyes your that close so

I was always arguing with E. about how little sense he made. I would ask him a simple question such as, “how are you today?” and I would frequently receive an answer such as, “I feel like a laugh falling out of a tree.” It made me want to tear my hair out; it made me demand, unkindly, that he stop being a poet for five seconds in order to be a goddamned human being. It often made me feel as though he were deliberately shutting me out. But in moments like the above lines, quite the opposite was the case. At first, they appear to be little but suggestive nonsense. But with a little persistence, it dawned on me that they were backwards, and that furthermore they were the closing lines to Neruda’s “Sonnet XVII.”

To say, encrypted in backwards-code, “I love you straightforwardly, without complexities or pride,” is a pretty astounding thing to do. On his end, it might have seemed like a crossing-out, but he must have also known that on my end it would be a revelation. And even in backwards form, the sense of the last two lines comes through almost entirely. Though I railed at E. for always seeming to hold himself at a distance from me, those final lines express the very desire I thought he lacked.

The moral of this story, as I see it, is that the very words which can seem to interpose distance — be they poetic imagery or outright code — can also be a route to a new kind of immediacy. I don’t mean to repeat facilely that metaphors help us understand things; rather, I want to underline the strangeness that is metaphor’s engine. In Derrida’s “White Mythology,” an essay that begins with a consideration of flowers, he argues that every metaphor is a catachresis, an error, whether we recognize them as such or not. The ones we are least likely to recognize are what he calls “dead metaphors,” metaphors we’ve heard so many times that they have lost their power. He’s referring to phrases like “table leg” and “clock face” in which we are practically unable to hear the anatomical comparison. This is a terrible shame: if we could only see the surging chaos of comparison that underlies our language, if we could only see that all language is only comparison, we’d have a much more vital understanding of our world.

This, then, is why I valorize the “dark” hidden in Neruda’s “dark hazels.” Flowers in poetry always threaten to turn into dead metaphors, but their naïevete is only feigned. In their very externality they point to the internal chaos of love, and this is why they flay us. And a skillful writer who can surprise us with a couplet like “I want / to do with you what the spring does with the cherry trees” reminds us of the strange, wild abyss that is man’s encounter with the world and everyone in it.


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  1. uncomplicatedly,

    This was a beautiful reflection on the poem. I particularly like the way that you begin with the specific literary term “pathetic fallacy,” in a fashion apparently unrelated to the rest of the post, and then bring back “fallacy” as catachresis and pathos as love.

  2. I like your insightful posts.

    Thanks for sharing them!

    Press on!

  3. Thanks, Joe, and I’m glad you get the drift of what I’m doing.

    CS, cheers & thanks for reading!

  4. […] Rupert is suspicious of love for essentially the reasons that Kugelmass laid out and that I responded to a few months ago in our posts on Neruda. Rupert says, “There is a final me which is stark and […]

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