Ode to Odes

May 18, 2009

Lately, since home demands respect for the common things in life, I’ve taken to reading Neruda’s, “The Odes of Common Thangs.” (Except, he didn’t say it like that. Or maybe he did–it was Spanish, after all, and as the translator of just the title, I was doing my thang…)

I picked this one because one thing I think about a lot from middle school literature is that part in Summer of my German Soldier where she describes how every day, she reads the dictionary in order, and every word she stumbles upon that she doesn’t know, she writes down the definition 10 times until she learns the word. Fascinating, I think, and a habit I would love to pick up if I kicked torpor out the window.

This is my favorite in the collection:

Ode to the Dictionary

Back like an ox, beast of
burden, orderly
thick book:
as a youth
I ignored you,
wrapped in my smugness,
I thought I knew it all,
and as puffed up as a
melancholy toad
I proclaimed: “I receive
my words
in a loud, clear voice
directly from Mt. Sinai.
I shall convert
forms to alchemy.
I am the Magus”

The Great Magus said nothing.

The Dictionary,
old and heavy in its scruffy
leather jacket
sat in silence,
its resources unrevealed

But one day,
after I’d used it
and abused it,
I’d called it
useless, an anachronistic camel,
when for months, without protest
it had served me as a chair
and a pillow,
it rebelled and planting its feet
firmly in my doorway,
expanded, shook its leaves
and nests,
and spread its foliage:
it was
a tree,
a natural,
apple blossom, apple orchard, apple tree,
and words
glittered in its infinite branches,
opaque or sonorous,
fertile in the fronds of language,
charged with truth and sound.

what a marvel
to pronounce these plosive
and further on,
unfilled, awaiting ambrosia or oil
and others,
capsicum, caption, capture,
comparison, capricorn,
as slippery as smooth grapes,
words exploding in the light
like dormant seeds waiting
in the vaults of vocabulary,
alive again, and giving life:
once again the heart distills them.

Dictionary, you are not a
tomb, sepulcher, grave,
tumulus, mausoleum,
but guard and keeper,
hidden fire,
groves of rubies,
living eternity
of essence,
depository of language.
How wonderful
to read in your columns
the severe and 
daughter of Spain,
as a plow blade,
as limited in use
as an antiquated tool,
but preserved
in the precise beauty and
immutability of a medallion.
Or another
we find hiding
between the lines
that suddenly seems
as delicious and smooth on the tongue
as an almond
or tender as a fig.

Dictionary, let one hand
of your thousand hands, one
of your thousand emeralds,
of your virginal springs,
one grain
magnanimous granaries,
at the perfect moment
upon my lips,
onto the tip of my pen,
into my inkwell.
From the depths of your
dense and reverberating jungle
grant me,
at the moment it is needed,
a single birdsong, the luxury
of one bee,
one splinter
of your ancient wood perfumed
by an eternity of jasmine,
one tremor, one sound,
one seed:
I am of the earth and with words I sing.


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