You knew it would come to this — I hinted at it in my . But before I get to business, I’d like to amend that blog: I finished Room Temperature and ended up really enjoying it. It’s sweet, charmingly contemplative and the father-daughter relationship is a lovely thing. So okay, we’re square.
First things first, let’s address the only real problem: the poems weren’t written in English. You can’t change that, I can’t change that, Ken Krabbenhoff did a noble job translating them but he can’t change it either. Until they create a literary version of the Babel Fish, you cannot retain a book’s full beauty when you switch languages — something inevitably gets lost. Easy example: “Oda a la mesa” or “Ode to the Table.” I’m no polyglot, but faithful years in French class have taught me to recognize a few things about the Romance languages. So when the English translation ends with “let’s eat” and the original ends with “a la mesa” (or, “to the table”) … it makes a difference! Creative license or not, the poem has been changed: it used to have the subject of the ode in the final line, and now it has something else.
As such, what’s great about this edition is its bilingualism. Mercifully, my past Neruda readings (The Captain’s Verses, Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair) were also under the thoughtful design of bilingual editions — Twenty Love Poems even followed up on the idea of including visuals. Not that poetry needs illustrations to enhance an image (that’s what adjectives are for), but it’s a nice touch, preserving the poetry while positively shaping the overall book experience.
Which brings us to Ferris Cook’s drawings. They are simple and elegant, capturing the essence of each poem’s subject without obscuring it. Their shading and detail merit true appreciation, and in this indirect valuing they’re as effective and inspiring as the poems they accompany.
And what poetry! As far as Neruda’s poems go, Odes to Common Things isn’t exactly common fare, with few women and little mention of politics. Even so, it carries all of the passion, imagination and benevolence he brings to his writing. These odes to things (be they plant, animal, or household object) show specific love for the objects themselves and general love for their place in the world. Any given piece will include an object’s construction, appearance or purpose, but gradually unfurls into elaborate stories and fantastic asides wholly unrelated to the object itself.
Another word on the drawings: they’re placed on the first page of each poem — and since the edition is bilingual, we get two similar but distinct illustrations at the head of each similar but distinct poem. The pairings are nicely varied — some are completely different (opposing strains of the same gillyflower species, unique plate or spoon designs), while others are identical with changes in perspective (the same halved orange at different angles, a violin inside and outside of its case).
One personal criterion for poetry is the inclusion of narrative: something to follow, a sense of A to B to C, a change of story or setting or even just attitude. I admire Charles Simic and James Tate for this reason: their poems are like matchbook-sized novels, fun and fascinating. Neruda’s odes achieve this ideal fully: our celebration of common things leads us through colorful descriptions, captivating scenes, surprising realizations, and peaceful, transformative conclusions. Page after page, you find yourself suddenly in love with a tomato, a dog, a dictionary; or a pre-existing love is powerfully reawakened by the winning marriage of basic images and well-chosen words. Ultimately, the highest praise would be to write an ode to Odes to Common Things. Which I may yet do.