When I first came back from Peru, I would wake in the middle of the night and not know where I was. I would stare and stare into the darkness of the bedroom and swear that the walls were made of adobe and the doorway to the bathroom was really a stone hallway leading somewhere.
This morning when I woke, I wondered what day it was, and realized that it was two weeks ago today that I rose at 4 am to wonder the ruins of Machu Picchu, the evil mosquito bites on my calves still slightly itchy and healing.
In the misty light of that beautiful early morning, we walked up and down and down and up the steep, stone staircases of this ancient city. For awhile, I wondered by myself in and out of labyrinth like rooms and hallways, and I imagined fabric, gold, silver, tables, chairs, dishes, pottery, people, children, and the thatch roofs now returned to the earth. I wondered what it was like to be a peasant here, to be carving and placing these giant stones, harvesting the grain, weaving the textiles, and shepherding the animals. I imagined the wind and lightning and torrential rain and the demand to donate three months labor each year to the Emperor.
When we returned to the retreat center in Pisac, the place we’d first landed and the place from which we’d depart, from all these impressions and experiences, all I wanted was to read poetry. It seemed the only appropriate thing to do, and I craved it like I do a piece of chocolate at times. I wondered Pisac looking for a bookstore and could find none. What I most wanted for some curious reason was Pablo Neruda. I settled on a book left abandoned at the retreat center called, The Dogs of Babel, that was strangely satisfying: me, at a loss for words, seeking the words of a dead poet to fill my heart, and finding instead a story of a linguist trying to teach his dog to speak.
Tonight, as the snow falls and the smell of soup and fresh baked bread fills the house, I climb into a hot bath with The Essential Neruda and turn pages randomly until I find, to my surprise, Neruda’s canon on Machu Picchu. Ah! This is what I had craved in Pisac. Pablo Neruda climbing Machu Picchu, writing of love, the lives of long dead peasants, the power of the Urubamba River and storms and lightning, of bloodshed, and these rarefied heights.
The editor of the book carried a selection of translations of Neruda’s throughout his South American travels and even up to the silver stones of Machu Picchu, finally landing in Chile where he conceived the idea with a young Chilean woman to create a new set of translations in honor of Neruda’s 100 year birthday (in 2004).
The quote at the beginning of the book is:
“On our earth, before writing was invented, before the printing press was invented, poetry flourished. That is why we know that poetry is like bread; it should be shared by all, by scholars and by peasants, by all our vast, incredible, extraordinary family of humanity.” — Pablo Neruda
Only a few poems from the Machu Picchu canon are in these selections, and a later book was written about the craft of translation based on this one translator’s experience with the Machu Picchu canon. That will be next on my Amazon wishlist. For now, I’d like to share with a few passages that took my breath away and one full poem. If you’d like Spanish original, let me know. They, of course, should be read in their original Spanish:
From Heights of Machu Picchu: I
“From air to air, like an empty net,
I went wondering between the streets and the
atmosphere, arriving and saying goodbye,
leaving behind in autumn’s advent the coin extended
from the leaves, and between Spring and the what,
that which the greatest love, as within a falling glove,
hands over to us like a large moon.”
Heights of Machu Picchu: VI
And then on the ladder of the earth I climbed
through the atrocious thicket of the lost jungles
up to you, Machu Picchu.
High city of scaled stones,
at last a dwelling where the terrestrial
did not hide in its sleeping clothes.
In you, like two parallel lines,
the cradle of the lightning-bolt and man
rocked together in a thorny wind.
Mother of stone, spume of the condors.
High reef of the human dawn.
Shovel lost in the first sand.
This was the dwelling, this is the place:
here the wide kernels of maize rose up
and fell again like red hail.
Here the gold thread was fleeced off the vicuña
to clothe the love affairs, the tombs, the mothers,
the king, the prayers, the warriors.
Here in the high carnivorous lairs the feet of man
rested at night next to the feet of the eagle,
and at dawn
tread with thunderous feet through the rarefied fog,
and touched the soil and the stones
until they could recognize them at night or in death.
I stare at the clothes and the hands,
the trace of water in the echoing hollow,
the wall worn smooth by the touch of a face
that with my eyes stared at the terrestrial lamps,
that with my hands oiled the vanished
timbers: because everything, clothing, skin, jars,
words, wine, bread,
was gone, fallen to the earth.
And the air came in with orange-blossom fingers
over all those asleep:
a thousand years of air, months, weeks of air,
of blue wind, of iron cordillera,
that were like soft hurricanes of footsteps
polishing the lonely boundary of the stone.
From Heights of Machu Picchu: X
“Macchu Picchu, did you place
stone upon stone, and at the base, rags?
Coal above coal, and at the bottom, the teardrop?
Fire into gold, and within it, trembling, the heavy
red raindrop of blood?
“Give me back the slave that you buried!
Shake the hard bread of the wretched poor
out from the ground, show me the servant’s
clothes and his window.
Tell me how he slept when he lived.”
[This poem should be read in its entirety. It is so Neruda – his deep compassion and activism for the poor, and he could feel the lives of the poor that were used to build this “great” civilization.]