25 October 2009

The Book of Questions

by Pablo Neruda 
(William O'Daly, translator)
This is a small book--5 1/2 x 7 1/2 x 3/8 inches and only 70-some pages. You'll likely read it in one sitting, since half its bulk comes from the poems printed as Neruda, a Chilean, wrote them, in Spanish, and half is the English translation. They are simple poems, all questions as the title denotes, yet you'll find yourself reading them again and again--perhaps dreaming up answers. They are fun to read in Spanish, too, even if--like me--you only have a few years of high school instruction to lead you on.

Why is this a book I recommend for writers? Because it has the wonderful effect of making you look at the world in a different way--through Pablo's glasses--and ask the questions of a child. From there, you may go on to write poems with the clear, bright insight of a child. And after that, who knows?

I have selected favorites--so hard to choose!!--from this book on several occasions and used in my workshops for the opening reading, from which we draw our first writing prompt. Always everyone is charmed not only by Neruda's questions, but by the ones they write in response and those of their fellow writers. They leave thinking about the world, and responding to it, in a different way--as if it had life, and cheek, and a sense of humor. They discover a sense of humor in themselves they had forgotten, or lost.

Most of the poems are whimsical and upbeat. For instance, the book opens with:

     Why don't the immense airplanes
     fly around with their children?

     Which yellow bird
     fills its nest with lemons?

     Why don't they train helicopters
     to suck honey from the sunlight?

     Where did the full moon leave
     its sack of flour tonight?

But many are also philosophical, and a few are openly political--for instance the series on Adolf Hitler, which begins with these lines (number LXX):

     What forced labor
     does Hitler do in hell?

The first time I used a smattering of these poems as a workshop prompt, the results were so breathtaking I gathered everyone's offerings together into an illustrated e-book I posted on my website. Reading them I felt like this (number XLIV):

     Where is the child I was,
     still inside me or gone?

     Does he know that I never loved him
     and that he never loved me?

     Why did we spend so much time
     growing up only to separate?

     Why did we both not die
     when my childhood died?

     And why does my skeleton pursue me
     if my world has fallen away?

Why, indeed! This is one of those little books you will cherish--as if there was any other way to feel about Pablo. May he rest in the peace his words conjure.


Our tapenade is full
of oil & olives & capers
& clouds drunk on magic.
Our chowder runs thick
with cream & clams,
dreams & calm and mystery.
Your meals drizzle & dazzle
and I long to drown in
the gift that is dinner--
fevered tomatoes, 
onions loud with moon,
fennel drenched in lust
and wine that lingers lazy & wild in the mouth--
I am a mesclun muse always chanting "More!"
for I know your cooking never lies.

PROMPT: Magnetic word tiles selected on the basis of what appealed to me that day. (I have LOTS!)

The Summer I Was Ten

The summer I was ten
I rounded up the neighborhood kids 
to put on a play: 
Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney rolled into one.

I wrote the script,
designed the program and sets,
assigned the parts,
directed rehearsals and even
canceled the cookies my mother promised to bake
when everyone grew tired of playing my game.

Sure was a relief for all concerned when
partway through July 
I turned 11.

PROMPT: The summer I was 10, of course. There's a great May Swenson poem called "The Centaur" that is about this same subject. Follow the link to print off a copy and share as a way to introduce the prompt.