In celebration of National Poetry Month I have two things happening this April: 1. A new collection of poems being released this month by New Orphic Publishers of Nelson, BC, titled The Price of Transcendence. Some of the poems from this book have been published on this blog site. And, 2. A new essay, posted here, titled The Power of Questions. This was inspired by an invitation to perform a ‘favourite poem’ at the Nakusp Library poetry event happening April 23rd. Organizer Barb McPherson reminded me that I’d already done Rilke’s timeless poem from The Book of Hours at a previous Nakusp Library event, so I have her to thank for prompting this new essay. Amazing what last minute desperation combined with inspiration can do sometimes!
THE POWER OF QUESTIONS: ‘THE BOOK OF QUESTIONS’ BY PABLO NERUDA
Why don’t they train helicopters
to suck honey from the sunlight?
—Pablo Neruda, The Book of Questions (I)
If the color yellow runs out
with what will we make bread?
—Pablo Neruda, The Book of Questions (II), Copper Canyon Press, Port Townsend, WA, 1991, Translated by William O’Daly
Pablo Neruda, often considered the greatest poet of the 20th century. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
1. Early in my childhood I learned one important lesson: the value of questions. It probably helped that I’ve had an inborn curiosity as far back as I can remember. It’s the kind of curiosity that pushes one on, deeper and deeper. Questions are the software to curiosity’s hardware. Questions can never be loners. Yet they don’t so much come in pairs as march in algorithms toward infinity. One leads to the next, which leads to the next…etc. Like crows turning over leaves in spring searching for last fall’s cache of secrets. Turning the pages that eventually reveal the story. Without questions, reality would be flat, one-dimensional. With questions, the outlines of a hologram gradually come shimmering into form. I suppose it was a slam-dunk I’d become a journalist, a writer, a poet.
And then there’s that lovely variant of the straightforward question, the rhetorical question. A poem to the blatantly obvious—to all but a few. The syntactical equivalent of an upward lift of the laugh lines. “Could this government be any more transparently corporate-owned and run?” Tribute to the unspoken. Cousin of dangerous thoughts. The long memory of history, all too easily forgotten, again and again. Yet alive in us as blood cells.
The Book of Questions, Copper Canyon Press edition of 1991.
Now thanks to Neruda there is also the Poetical Question. Though the question has been used historically in poetry, none have done so with such bravado and abandon as Pablo Neruda, the great Master of the Art. Not only was he prolific but his every book is a keeper—a gem for the ages. No matter what style he set his hand to, his poetry sparkled with newness. As a critic once wrote of guitarist Roy Buchanan: “More than any one person should be able to do with just two hands.” I challenge anyone to find a single line of Neruda’s that sounds remotely like any other line of poetry you’ve ever heard. The combinations of words are so startling they stamp themselves into your consciousness. That is what a poem should do. It should not be disposable, like Handi-wipes, or forgettable. This takes not only a lifetime apprenticeship but a great gift.
Neruda had that gift. Whether writing as an earnest young lover in 20 Love Poems or the anguished Chilean patriot of Protest Songs, his lines glitter like glass in a beach. In The Book of Questions he turns his sabre-edged poetic eye to the poetry of conundrum, the ancient love of riddles. Only these riddles aren’t meant to be answered, they’re meant to be savoured like a truffle on the tongue. “Tell me, is the rose naked, / or is that her only dress?” (III) I can hear the inrush of breath now. “Is it true that in an anthill / dreams are a duty?” (XVI) Ooh. “Who shouted with glee / when the colour blue was born?” (XIV) Aah. “Is it true our desires / must be watered with dew?” (IV) Ooh. What else need be said?
Yet his keen eye for social justice remains sharp. But the blade here is subtle. “Why does the professor teach / the geography of death?” (VII) “Why wasn’t Christopher Columbus / able to discover Spain?” (VIII) “Why do the fleas and literary sergeants bite me?” (XII) “Is it true that a black condor / flies at night over my country?” (XIII) It’s much quieter than the open-throated rage of Protest Songs. Still precise as a laser but not without a little black humour:
It is bad to live without a hell:
Aren’t we able to reconstruct it?
And to position sad Nixon
With his buttocks over the brazier?
Roasting him on low
With North American napalm? (XVIII)
But most of all, Neruda’s renowned joie de vivre comes through. This is not a Mary Poppins joie de vivre, a Hollywood Yank in Paris. This is a man who had to flee his beloved country for his life. Who had to ride out under cover of darkness across a mountain pass. This is a man who—in the autumn of his life—had to endure seeing Chile’s democratically elected government violently ousted by CIA-sponsored thugs. A man who may even have been poisoned to death for his political views. Certainly he’d been metaphorically poisoned many times for those beliefs, whatever we may think of them now.
And somehow, he manages to sing the sweet, keening strains of verse born of such pain. Here is a poet who does not ‘rise above’ pain, he descends with the rhizomes into the soil, he drives down deep to life’s motherlode—simultaneously the death cave and the green spark, without which nothing could live. “How old is November anyway?” he asks the Earth, plaintively. No mere caprice, this is the poet driving deep, his questions the pistons in his heart that keep him from dying of grief, keep him moving. Questions that share the mystery of the genome itself, the cusp of the instant a black hole collapses into a brand new star. Questions the key in the lock of awareness, the primordial song itself, about to bring a being to birth. “Am I allowed to ask my book / whether it’s true I wrote it?” (XXI) “Is the sun the same as yesterday’s / or is this fire different from that fire?” (IX)
No, this is no glib joie de vivre. This is a lust for life paid for in blood, nourished in Chilean soil, celebrated in fire and salt water. This is The Book of Questions.
2. In my own development as a poet, The Book of Questions is one of those Books That Change Your Life. Like the Tao de Ching, it opened my mind to an entirely different way of thinking. In the Tao, one learns to hold oppositional concepts not only in tandem but in harmony. It helps one deprogram from Western dualism, with all its repression of the Shadow. In that respect Taoism shares a spiritual link with quantum physics—the awareness of not only the perceived but the perceiver. Neruda’s technique of Poetic Questioning expanded my own poetic lexicon, offering me a new tool for shaping language. The great thing about the Nerudian Poetic Question is that it requires no answer. Like Mt. Everest or a lemon, it simply is. It needs no reason for being. This is a far cry from the word soup of the ‘language poets,’ who applied a kind of scientific precision to the excision of meaning from language but lost the soul. I’ve always believed the primary goal of writing is to communicate, not obfuscate. Maybe it all comes down to intent: is the poet doing it to be clever? Or to open a laneway to transcendence, through the mouth of Hell if necessary? Fortunately Neruda had both the skill and the soul to make his poetic questions resound with a proverbial ring—the tone of a Zen koan. “The high clear bell of morning,” to borrow the lovely poetic title of Ann Eriksson’s recent novel. Paul, on the road to Damascus, granted a sudden piercing awareness into the nature of existence.
We end up where we begin. The question is circular, or rather—spiral. The spiral—poetic motif of the universe. God’s great doodle, falling from his fingertip from fiddlehead to DNA to galaxy. Open The Book of Questions as you would a holy book. Feel reverence spiral off the page. Feel its resonance in your bones, driving onward, deeper, deeper…
 Neruda’s remains were exhumed on April 9, 2013 to see if DNA analysis could reveal foul play in his death. The results were inconclusive due to the badly deteriorated condition of the remains.
 High Clear Bell of Morning, Ann Eriksson, Douglas & McIntyre, 2014.