Craig Jones Columnist
In Tangled up in Blues, Bob Dylan sang about being given a book of poems by an Italian poet of the 15th Century:
And every one of them words rang true
And glowed like burning coal
Pouring off of every page
Like it was written in my soul from me to you
That’s the way I felt just now reading lines from Pablo Neruda, definitely not an Italian poet from the 15th Century. I got out my Neruda “Collected Poems” and just opened it at random, the way people do. Count me among the Chilean poet’s worldwide fans, but there are still many more poems that I have not yet seen than those I have. I tripped over these heretofore unmet lines:
So be it, but my business was the fullness of the spirit: a cry of pleasure choking you, a sigh from an uprooted plant, the sum of all action.
I could have just closed the book right there and whispered “Thank you, Pablo” and “Thanks be for Pablo” and it could have been enough for the day. I pondered what “fullness of the spirit” means and felt a “cry of pleasure choking” me with the new day in all its July green fullness, a month when America takes a day off and celebrates itself and takes a deep breath and kicks its shoes off. It could have been enough.
But, Neruda beckoned me on, when he said:
It pleased me to grow with the morning, to bathe in the sun, in the great joy of sun, salt, sea, light, and wave, and in that unwinding of the foam, my heart began to move, growing in that essential spasm, and dying away as it seeped into the sand.
I found those lines because I was looking for help, like looking to the bench for a pinch hitter specialist against lefties. Circling round and round how to say something not trivial about freedom as a man. And then, I look down the bench and find Pablo and he says “my business was the fullness of the spirit,” and that glowed like a burning Dylan coal.
I found it today, just opening a book at random. Maybe that’s part of creating the conditions for flow, whether in martial arts or writing. I have the habit, I have the Neruda collection, I have the intention, I have opened up space for it to happen.
Mary Oliver said in her poem The Summer Day that she didn’t know exactly what a prayer was, but she did know how to pay attention. Well, I’m no clearer than she is about what constitutes prayer, but those lines from Pablo Neruda are as close to it as anything I could have read or spoken today. How do you find the right way to express what’s in the fullness of your spirit, the pleasure that’s choking you, your own cri de couer?
The faith tradition in which I grew up allowed for the possibility of actively communicating with the God of the whole universe. There’s a story about Gideon in the Old Testament that we used as one model.
In Judges chapter six, Gideon says to God, “If you will save Israel by my hand as you have promised, look, I will place a wool fleece on the threshing floor. If there is dew only on the fleece and all the ground is dry, then I know that you will save Israel by my hand as you said.” The account says that is what happened. Gideon squeezed out a bowlful of dew the next morning. Still not sure, he asked the Almighty to reverse the process and keep the fleece dry while all the ground was wet with dew. Don’t you know, that’s what happened next in the story.
Well, among my fellow earnestly-seeking teens in youth group, that morphed into just open the Bible somewhere and God will tell you what you should do next, the 20 Century version of putting a fleece on the floor.
There have been many such attempts to somehow set the antenna just right and thus create the conditions to divine His intentions. That was a long time ago, for me, but putting my finger on those lines from Pablo Neruda took me back there, like Proust’s madeleine.
Here’s Pablo Neruda again:
Little by little and also in great leaps, life happened to me, and how insignificant this business is. These veins carried my blood, which I scarcely ever saw, I breathed the air of so many places without keeping a sample of any. In the end everyone is aware of this: nobody keeps any of what he has, and life is only a borrowing of bones. The best thing was learning not to have too much either of sorrow or of joy, to hope for the chance of a last drop, to ask more from honey and from twilight.
In his great poem Ulysses, Tennyson writes, speaking of aging and the diminution of powers, “some work of noble note may yet be done” and, later, “tho’ much is taken, much remains.” My gratitude this day is for having a chance to embrace my whole path, as a callow, know-it-all high school senior all the way to now and to just let myself love my story the way it is and has been.
It also made me think about the one rule Norman Mailer had about writing.
If you tell yourself you are going to be at your desk tomorrow, you are by that declaration asking your subconscious to prepare the material. You are, in effect, contracting to pick up such valuables at a given time. Count on me, you are saying to a few forces below, I will be there to write.
I guess that’s the takeaway on this 66th July of my life. Whether it’s ineffable or not, something happens when you have intention. You see a wet fleece or you just happen to find the right Neruda poem that says what you feel in that moment when you are attempting, with TS Eliot, a raid on the inarticulate.
For today, my path and my intention and my business is fullness of the spirit. That way lies freedom as a man.