One time, investigating in the backyard of our house in Temuco the tiny objects and minuscule beings of my world, I came upon a hole in one of the boards of the fence. I looked through the hole and saw a landscape like that behind our house, uncared for, and wild. I moved back a few steps, because I sensed vaguely that something was about to happen. All of a sudden a hand appeared–a tiny hand of a boy about my own age. By the time I came close again, the hand was gone, and in its place there was a marvelous white sheep.

The sheep’s wool was faded. Its wheels had escaped. All of this only made it more authentic. I had never seen such a wonderful sheep. I looked back through the hole but the boy had disappeared. I went into the house and brought out a treasure of my own: a pinecone, opened, full of odor and resin, which I adored. I set it down in the same spot and went off with the sheep.

I never saw either the hand or the boy again. And I have never again seen a sheep like that either. The toy I lost finally in a fire. But even now, in 1954, almost fifty years old, whenever I pass a toy shop, I look furtively into the window, but it’s no use. They don’t make sheep like that anymore.

I have been a lucky man. To feel the intimacy of brothers is a marvelous thing in life. To feel the love of people whom we love is a fire that feeds our life. But to feel the affection that comes from those whom we do not know, from those unknown to us, who are watching over our sleep and solitude, over our dangers and our weaknesses–that is something still greater and more beautiful because it widens out the boundaries of our being, and unites all living things.

That exchange brought home to me for the first time a precious idea: that all of humanity is somehow together. That experience came to me again much later; this time it stood out strikingly against a background of trouble and persecution.

It won’t surprise you then that I attempted to give something resiny, earthlike, and fragrant in exchange for human brotherhood. Just as I once left the pinecone by the fence, I have since left my words on the door of so many people who were unknown to me, people in prison, or hunted, or alone.

That is the great lesson I learned in my childhood, in the backyard of a lonely house. Maybe it was nothing but a game two boys played who didn’t know each other and wanted to pass to the other some good things of life. Yet maybe this small and mysterious exchange of gifts remained inside me also, deep and indestructible, giving my poetry light.

From “Childhood and Poetry,” by Pablo Neruda

I find this passage cited in an edition of Neruda and Vallejo: Selected Poems, edited by Robert Bly (p 12-13). Fittingly the book was a gift from Don Teodoro of the Spanish tertulia, formerly meeting at Lindaman’s in Spokane, Friday afternoons. I should have given a pinecone in return, but I took some time getting around to reading it and the restaurant has changed hands, and the group no longer meets regularly, so far as I know. So instead I pass the gift on; as for a pinecone, how about this one by Vi Hart, Doodling in Math Class.

Though this lovely passage from Neruda, presumably in Bly’s own translation, gets cited here and there online, I haven’t found a full English version of the text from which it is taken. Perhaps for this reason, his echoers, of whom I am one, do not bother to give the full citation. But the almighty algorithm and the Chilean Proyecto Patrimonial 2020 have us covered.

Mi infancia y mi poesia

Pablo Neruda

Conferencia pronunciada en la Universidad de Chile.
Publicado en revista Capricornio N°6. Buenos Aires, junio – julio de 1954

A pdf can also be found at AmericaLee. Muchas gracias, amigos!

Little by little I’ll work on a full translation (or search harder, the old-fashioned way, including books). Either way, whatever I come up with, I’ll link it here. Update: Another version of the story appears in Confieso que he vivido (1974), translated as The Complete Memoirs.

Meanwhile, with due respect for the great service he has done bringing Neruda’s words to a wider audience, I have to diverge a bit from Bly’s reading of this passage. Sandwiching the text, he adverts, “In ‘Childhood and Poetry,’ Neruda speculates on the origin of his poetry”; “This curious and beautiful story, which Neruda carefully links to the origins of his own poetry, is a conscious rejection of the connection between poetry and sickness, so often insisted on by Europeans.”

Leaving aside the contrast posed there, which seems more rhetorical than accurate, I don’t think any sort of “conscious rejection” or even the “origin of his poetry” is Neruda’s main concern. Rather, the essential thing here seems to me to be this “game,” as Neruda puts it, of gift-giving between strangers. This is what goes to the roots, not just of Neruda’s poetry, but of all poetry as it is given to us in the tradition from Homer and the Bible on. And not just poetic inspiration is at stake for Neruda: it is his “precious idea: that all of humanity is somehow together.” As a glance at Neruda’s life will show, he sought to unite the poetic with the political, the ideal with the practical. Understandably, the poet-translator might seize upon the poetry side of things; for the student of games, though, and of their significance, the passage in its fuller context becomes intriguing for what light it might shed on our playful and serious subject. What is poetry, politics, or language itself but a kind of “game of two kids who don’t know one another and who want to communicate the gifts of life”? (My translation and italics, because I don’t know a better way than the literal cognate for this phrase, “comunicarse los dones de la vida.” Cf. NT on gifts; St-Ex on sheep; Ana Maria Matute, Shaun Tan, and Shakespeare on looking through holes; bell hooks on belonging; Robin Wall Kimmerer on reciprocity).

The Inner Courtyard of “No Other Country” – Tales from Outer Suburbia, by Shaun Tan

Then, concluding Bly’s June 12, 1966 interview with Neruda as transcribed at the end of the selected poems, there is this exchange:

[Bly:] In one of your essays you described something that happened to you as a boy which you thought has had a great influence on your poetry. There was a fence in your backyard. Through a hole in it one day a small hand passed through to you a gift–a toy lamb. And you went into the house and came back and handed back through the hole the thing you loved most–a pinecone.

[Neruda:] Yes, that boy passed me a lamb, a woolen lamb. It was beautiful.

You said that somehow this helped you to understand that if you give something to humanity you’ll get something else back even more beautiful.

Your memory is wonderful, and this is exactly right. I learned much from that in my childhood. This exchange of gifts–mysterious–settled deep inside me like a sedimentary deposit.

(163-4)

Neruda’s poetry reading on this occasion, or rather the day before, is available online, but I can’t find a recording of this interview. Perhaps it will turn up, like this. I’m mainly curious whether it was conducted in English or Spanish, or both… In any case, Bly insists this time on the reciprocity of giving. In the intro he does also remark, along the same lines, “it was clear from that reading that his poetry is intended as a gift” (14). That I would certainly agree with, and I’d add that entering into a dialogue with it can be as playful as any game, earnest as any gratitude.

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