Every year I read Neruda odes with my eighth graders during Thanksgiving week, and encourage them to write their own. I've written posts about this several times in the past: here
in 2010, here in 2011
, here in 2012
, here in 2013
, here in 2014
, here in 2015
, here in 2016
, and here last year
This year was a little different, because we had a touch of rioting here in Haiti. (Here's
an article from the Miami Herald to get you caught up on the situation.) We did have school on Monday, but only four seventh graders and four eighth graders were there. Tuesday we had a delayed start which turned into a day off, and Wednesday we were off again. Yesterday and today were regularly scheduled days off for the Thanksgiving holiday (not a local holiday but we're an American school). So I didn't get to share odes this year, except with the few who were there on Monday; we read "Ode to Scissors," one of my favorites. I'm planning on squeezing a bit more on this into next week's lessons, so we'll see how that goes.
In the meantime, I found a new-to-me ode to share with you for Poetry Friday today.
Ode to Bird Watching
by Pablo Neruda
translated by Jodey Bateman
Let's look for birds!
The tall iron branches
in the forest,
fertility on the ground.
in the mud,
jump over rivulets.
bites me and a gust
of air like a crystal
splits up inside my chest.
are the birds?
Maybe it was
rustling in the foliage
or that fleeting pellet
of brown velvet
or that displaced
leaf that let loose cinnamon smell
- was that a bird? That dust
from an irritated magnolia
or that fruit
which fell with a thump -
was that a flight?
Oh, invisible little
birds of the devil
with their ringing
with their useless feathers.
I want to touch their gloves
of real hide
which they never forget in
and to converse with
sitting on my shoulders
although they may leave
me like certain statues
You can read the whole thing here.
What struck and amused me about this poem is that it isn't an ode to birds; Neruda seems a little vague on the birds themselves. We never get a single concrete bird detail in this poem, and this from a guy who is heavily into concrete details. The subject of the poem is, instead, the experience of bird watching, which appears to be largely frustrating. He's tracking sounds and even smells, asking "Was that a bird?" and anticipating getting pooped on. "Where are the birds?" he wants to know.
I can very much relate to this poem because my own bird knowledge is rudimentary at best (although I'm trying), and my efforts to take pictures of birds result mostly in lovely views of empty branches. And I can relate to it too because I find when I write an ode, or really just about anything at all, it's often as much about me as it is about the topic of my attention.
Neruda wrote about this tendency elsewhere in a poem called "Siempre Yo," or as Ben Belitt translates it, "Me Again."
translated by Ben Belitt
I who wanted to talk
of a century inside the web
that is always my poem-in-progress,
have found only myself wherever I looked
and missed the real happening.
With wary good faith
I opened myself to the wind: the lockers,
the calendar months of the year,
and in every opening crevice
my face looked back at me.
The more bored I became
with my unacceptable person,
the more I returned to the theme of my person;
worst of all,
I kept painting myself to myself
in the midst of a happening.
What an idiot (I said to myself
a thousand times over) to perfect all that craft
of description and describe only myself,
as though I had nothing to show but my head,
nothing better to tell than the mistakes of a lifetime.
Tell me, good brothers,
I said at the Fishermen's Union,
do you love yourselves as I do?
The plain truth of it is:
we fishermen stick to our fishing,
while you fish for yourself (said
the fishermen): you fish over and over again
for yourself, then throw yourself back in the sea.
I've been thinking a lot lately about self-portraits and selfies, and about the idea that we writers are so often our own subject. We're stuck with ourselves, no matter how bored we get. We fish and fish and fish, and throw ourselves back in the sea, and then fish some more. Or we go bird watching and end up focusing on our own experience and missing the birds.
An eighth grader started an ode on Monday, and she passed it to me to look at. It was about her friends, the ones who were there with her at school that day; they were bonding and loving being such a small group. It was an ode to her friends, and an ode to herself with them, the tight little group they formed. I smiled and passed it back to her, telling her she was on exactly the right track.
Irene has this week's roundup.