Ode to the Odes of Neruda
by Susan Gubernat

How to keep passion alive until the end, on fire—
I can’t find the flint, the matches,
so it’s back to Neruda again, Pablo Neruda
who loves the world so fiercely he frightens
the oranges, the gulls. One needs the armor
of his artichoke to face the world, its shards
and tatters: Graying curtain blown across
the window ledge like a ghostly wedding train,
bald-headed darning egg gleaming under
a floor lamp, the cracked porcelain sink
where we children bathed in summer
until our limbs lengthened and we ran off.

Neruda. He kept things from getting lost.
But I can’t find the thick fountain pen
my grandfather gave me when he learned
I was writing cursive. I can only recall
his brutality and the fussy doll his wife
loaned us briefly then bundled away
into a cardboard box, and their brass
ashtray in the shape of a naked woman,
and the rubbery discs of the hard-boiled
eggs they sliced into their murky soup.

Neruda would have loved all of these.
And what’s the matter with me that
I cannot hold up to the light
the world’s simple things? Cannot
be content with the smell of soap lingering
on my lover’s skin? Where’s the feast
I take my place in? I am deranged
in both city and forest, petulant
with the young, impatient with age.
If I were to take to the road
I couldn’t fill a backpack with what I treasure.

Somewhere there’s an old missal
with pages thinner than tissue paper
carrying the smell of fingertips,
and the crystal beads of a rosary I sucked
as if they were shards of rock candy,

and a brown wool scapular that scratched
at my chest, as discomfiting as faith.
In childhood I learned to trade the things
of the world for these, learning to despise
what Neruda loved. Faithless for years,
I’m turning to Neruda, back to the pair
of beloved clogs I once abandoned
on a beach as I tried to pretend
to the man I loved that I needed nothing,
not even him, that I could comb the beach
barefoot, unharmed. Little black sabots,
hard-backed shells of a crustacean
or skate cases some call a mermaid’s,
some call the devil’s, purses.
Lost to me now, they must have
made good harbor for someone else’s feet.


Published in Cider Press Review, Volume 23, Issue 3.

Susan Gubernat’s most recent poetry collection, The Zoo at Night, won the Prairie Schooner book award and was published by the University of Nebraska Press. An opera librettist as well as a poet, she is Professor Emerita of English at California State University, East Bay. Born and raised in Newark, New Jersey, she now lives in San Francisco.

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