Progress and Stasis in Mourning

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I was overjoyed about the inauguration of our 44th President on Tuesday, but couldn’t help feeling a little sad, too. People like to say that time heals all wounds. I don’t believe that, not least because one of the things that is hardest for me is seeing how time is moving me away from my mother. Every day she is farther from me, and while it’s nice to not have the grief be so raw, it’s more than a little horrifying to think that we’re almost five months away from her death now.eema_fountain.jpg

Yesterday on the way to work I was reading Pablo Neruda’s Captain’s Verses on the subway (note: reading Neruda on the subway is a great way to get picked up by emo Hispanic guys, in case you were wondering) and came across a poem that I’d read many times before, and never liked. The poem is called The Dead Woman (La Muerta) and is basically a promise from a man that he will go on living when his lover dies, even though he will be in deepest despair.

In the past, when I read it, it felt distinctly unsexy. I usually pick up Neruda because I want to read something sensual and stark, and this poem never felt that way to me. It was kind of depressing. A downer. Not what I look for in Neruda.

And then yesterday I read the poem differently for the first time. It wasn’t about a lover dying so much as a mission towards good that continues despite generations of despair. In the middle of the poem, Neruda writes:
I do not dare,
I do not dare to write it,
if you die.
I shall live on.

For where a man has no voice,
there, my voice.

Where blacks are beaten,
I cannot be dead.
When my brothers go to prison
I shall go with them.
When victory,
not my victory,
but the great victory comes,
even though I am mute I must speak;
I shall see it come even
though I am blind.

It’s a poem about civil rights. I don’t think I ever saw that before, though I knew Neruda was an activist, in my mind he was all passion and tenderness. But here he is in a poem saying that even when he is grieving for someone he loves he feels obligated to continue the journey towards justice.

Posted on January 22, 2009

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