Hunger, man’s coral reef: An Encounter with The Heights of Macchu Picchu
The Heights of Macchu Picchu
by Pablo Neruda
Translated by Tomás Q. Morín
Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon, 2014.
64 pages. $15 (paperback)
In his preface, Tomás Q. Morín is very clear about his goal in translating Pablo Neruda’s Las Alturas de Macchu Picchu. He describes how he revisited Nathanial Tarn’s translation of the twelve-poem canto, the second in Cantos General and the section most widely translated into English. “Out of curiosity,” he writes, “I went back and forth between the Spanish and the English and found that sometimes Neruda’s ambiguities or his music hadn’t been transferred over into English” (XIV).
For the record, he’s very generous about his predecessors’ work and makes a point to say that he’s “honored to join the conversation.” I find it curious, though, that Morín introduces his approach to the difficult translator’s decision-making process by mourning, in particular, the ambiguities lost in a previous edition. Isn’t that what a translator fights most sternly against — ambiguity? One might argue that a translator’s very job — even a translator of poetry, which should be multifaceted — is to transfer over; not to blur, leave out.
But the traveler of The Heights of Macchu Picchu (and, for that matter, the hero of Las Alturas) is a man saved, ultimately, by contradictions — the contradictions of self that send him on his journey to begin with, the contradiction of a landscape at once so full of life and jarringly rid of it, and the experience of time via human breath as it collides with the knowledge that time is ultimately exterior of that experience. Often, the ambiguity Morín has worked to bring over into English is what allows these paradoxes to collide and spark rather than collapse in on themselves.
In the opening lines, for instance, we meet the traveler: “Cast and cast, like an empty net through air, / I went through the streets and the atmosphere, arriving and / departing” (1-3). Morín maintains an important moment of possibility in that first line. For that short space, “Cast and cast” functions potentially as a directive (Cast and cast … / yourself to the wind!) and as an adjective, modifying a subject we’ve yet to encounter (Cast and cast … I’ve been by the wind!). When we do arrive at the second line, we realize, of course, that the first works rather straightforwardly as an introductory clause; we still aren’t allowed the entire picture, however. Cast — as if by an external force, an ambiguous fisher; went — as if the traveler himself is in charge of his on goings-on.
I looked up the Tarn translation, and here he also maintains the uncertainty for a moment, following the Spanish original closely: “From air to air, like an empty net, / …” But he proceeds to connect the dots for us a bit more clearly than Neruda does: “like an empty net, dredging through the streets and the atmosphere, I came” (1-2). In Tarn’s version, the “I” is indeed delayed, but he arrives more assuredly; this, my friends, is a traveler that can dredge. It’s a lovely image. It turns that empty net of the traveler’s self into one that has a purpose, even if an anxiety-ridden one: Tarn’s traveler scours, is trying to collect. But I’m not sure if the traveler of Las Alturas has that purpose quite yet in poem “I.”
Here’s that poem, in its entirety (Morín’s translation):
Cast and cast, like an empty net through air,
I went through the streets and the atmosphere, arriving and
the crowning of autumn brought the free coins
of its leaves, and between spring and its spears of wheat,
there waits, like a heavy moon inside a glove
that falls, what the greatest love grants us all.
(On radiant days, I live in the elements
of bodies: steel backbones are converted
to the silence of acid:
nights are ground down to their last grain:
unraveled threads of the nuptial land.)
Someone who waited for me among the violins
encountered a world like a buried tower
winding its spire even lower than all
the leaves the color of hoarse sulfur:
farther down, in the geologic womb,
like a sword wrapped in meteors,
I sunk my muddy and gentle hand
into the precious treasure of the earth.
I dipped my forehead between the deep waves,
I ran like a single drop in peaceful sulfur,
and, like a blind man, returned to the jasmine
of our depleted human spring.
The first stanza continues the mystery and the anxiety set up by Morín’s depiction of the net: the traveler flicks us back and forth between the natural human worlds — the crowning of autumn in the most imperial of metaphors, autumn’s leaves as coins (though as in nature, free). We finally land “between spring and its spears of wheat,” which is where, exactly? Between a season and our symbol for that stretch of time — rising crops, here associated with a weapon, an implement for the desire of control? This is the disconnected, in-between state the speaker finds himself in at the beginning of his journey: At his supposed happiest, he lives in the science of the body.
In fact, the first being to actually encounter the world in the poem is not him but rather ambiguously “someone.” Which makes, as may have become obvious by now, the parsing of even the first poem quite a dizzying experience. Morín’s translation puts us on the same scary balance beam the traveler totters on. I am drawn to the idea that this is the same balance beam Morín must have tottered on, arriving and departing between languages. He is right to privilege these uncertainties: If our traveler is ridden with doubt (Is possible without self-interest? Is there love in nature, in the human desire to control it?), then ambiguity is a tool he must use if he’s to speak at all.
As others have eloquently noted, Neruda’s traveler’s own crippling doubt sends him up toward the lost Incan architecture and majestic natural beauty of Macchu Picchu.1 By poem “II,” he admits he has failed to connect to life in the human world:
How many times on a city’s winter streets or on
a bus or a boat at twilight, or in the deepest
loneliness of a festive night …
… in the very cave of human pleasure,
did I almost stop and look for the endless eternal vein
I once felt in a stone or in the lightning of a kiss. (22-27)
It’s an astute translation here, too: working from the Spanish subjunctive of want, Morín qualifies the action stop and look to the degree that he nearly negates that action.
If the traveler never actually looked, it’s no wonder he didn’t find anything. That is the slyest of poetic moments, really: just one word working against the traveler’s usual exclamatory tone. Because regardless of the self-doubt or existential crisis he finds himself in, the hero of The Heights of Macchu Picchu is a man of declarative explanations. He’s the kind of man who will tell death just exactly what its own nature is: “O death!, you don’t come in waves / but rather like clear twilight galloping / or like the infinite host of the night” (“IV,” 10-11).
Ambiguity plays a roll in the verse narrative that unfolds, since our hero himself does not apologize for his own contradictions, but rather sings persistently and loudly about what he seeks and what he is trying to escape, in turn — peace for a more realistic tragedy, perhaps; solitude for love; nature for civilization. And throughout the canto, these points of arrivals and departures are in a state of constant exchange.
The traveler’s constant upheaval over where to look as he weaves his way toward the top of the ancient city holds a peculiar relationship to the poet/translator’s work. Morín writes that, for Neruda, “While the city’s architecture stands as a testament to the genius of the Incas, its stones are a monument to the workers who built it. In the face of this great suffering, the poet finds the kinship he has been seeking” (XIV). If Neruda were to have looked too exclusively at the stunning vista from Macchu Picchu, he would have committed a tremendous wrong. And if he were to make music exclusively out of the land’s many tragedies, each of those voices might be lost in his song. If, as Morín asserts, the poem is “ultimately … a blueprint for empathy,” you find it in the speaker’s constant questioning of his own quest and voice, what place or right he has or can have speaking for the vast lands of America, its people.
At the midway point, in poem “VI,” there’s a moment when you think the quest will turn into one for pure awe:
And the air came with its fingers
of orange blossom over all of the sleepers:
a thousand years of air, months, weeks of air,
of a blue wind, of an iron mountain ridge,
that was like a soft hurricane of footfalls
polishing the solitary site of stone (33-38)
But when he reaches the top of the great Incan city, he does not erase those myriad footfalls with the quaint hurricane, nor does he lose each voice in a single blossom. What the traveler finds, as Morín notes in the preface, is hunger — even there. And it’s man’s hunger with which he, finally and actively attempts to connect — “tell me if his sleep was / raucous, agape, like a black hole / made by fatigue on the wall,” he insists. And though he has come to speak through the “dead mouths,” he insists against puppeteering, asks that we “stick the bodies” to him “like magnets.”
That, for me, is the probing question of the canto, that “eternal vein” the traveler seeks: How can a poet speak through a dead man’s mouth, without losing the dead man’s voice in his own? Must he wear the corpse like a magnet? It’s an image I will hold onto, like a surreal refrigerator, for when I’m in my own empty net, cast and cast, arriving, and departing. I’m not sure about the answer, but I suspect it’s a question Morín must have grappled with; I also suspect that the very act of translation might have organically highlighted it in these Heights. I am certain that it’s a question worth visiting — and re-visiting.
As Morín notes, Macchu Picchu is the spelling Neruda uses consistently in the book and in his autobiography. While not consistent with the Spanish spelling, it doesn’t necessarily conflict with the original term — which was, of course, a Quetchua term, and unwritten. Also, here: a nod to Robert Pring-Hill’s introduction to the poem in the Nathaniel Tarn translation (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux 1967).↵