One more socialist poetry bath piece (see here for a previous one), this one a short autobio-critique of an untitled poem by Pablo Neruda published in 1973, the year he died and saw everything he believed in destroyed by CIA-led fascist murderers. He wrote it as an old arthritic man as part of his existential The Sea and the Bells collection (tr. William O’Daly, Copper Canyon Press, 1988).
Gradually over two decades El mar y las campanas has done for me what “that kindness … we are afflicted with” did for Neruda. It gives me solace and helps to keep me fighting for the loving open world Neruda believed in.
First there was the time around twenty years ago when I picked up the collection to read on the long bus trip my wife and I were taking as volunteer youth counselors to Appalachia. The kids of our church in the southern city where we then lived were traveling across the south to repair houses in a depressed Virginia mining town. To say the town was depressed is really an understatement, as is the word mining a euphemism in this case.
The pool on the outskirts had long been closed because the town had a high AA population, and the racist county big shots felt the coloreds didn’t really need the opportunity to learn to swim after all, what with the budget problems and such. The only entertainment for the lucky masses we were supposedly helping was hanging out in the dusty parking lot of a knock-off Dairy Queen and watching us out-of-towners stand in a long line inside buying things they couldn’t afford.
The first house my crew worked on was down the road from a mountaintop mining operation. The great innovation in mining had somehow not revived the local economy, but it did leave a bleak tinge in the air and make continual loud noise that shook the house of the poor white widow whom we were helping and detract from her ability to enjoy socialist poetry, the King James Version, or whatever she otherwise might have been reading those days.
The roof went up in a couple of days, and she was very nice and grateful. Perhaps we should have been monkey-wrenching the mining equipment at night instead of singing kumbaya and playing basketball in the gym of the forlorn schoolhouse where we were staying. But she did need a new roof and got one, so that’s good. At night, before going to sleep on the floor in a hot room of the schoolhouse, I’d read a little more Neruda, wondering if this was all we could do to be in solidarity.
The second house was a shack literally next to the railroad tracks and across a two track gravel path from the single-wide trailer where an aging white prostitute, a skinny white man, and a skinny AA man lived their shattered lives. The shack we were fixing housed two sweet pre-teen AA twins whose dad had been out of work a long time and had messed-up kidneys (don’t know what happened to their mother). A dog chained to the front porch was their home security system.
We patched the sides of the house, fixed the hole in the bathroom floor, and made it so the tub didn’t constantly drip. I can’t imagine them ever having been able to have a comfortable bath before we did those humble repairs.
The two girls were not allowed to come hang out with our youth group as they wanted to when we left each night. I’m sure they felt excluded that they could not come with us and go inside the faux Dairy Queen to purchase actual faux Dairy Queen consumables. We didn’t want to be tourists but in the end we were, with our fellow Americans left behind to remember us and enjoy all of their freedom, having been graced by our presence and the home repairs their own out-of-work workers would have been glad to do if paid or at least supplied.
A decade later I would need my bathroom repair experience in my own project. By then we’d moved back to my wife’s hometown. Our kids were tiny and the wood stuff in their own bathroom was rotting (but thank goodness we had a concrete foundation so the wind did not blow up on their feet when they read children’s books while learning how to use the toilet).
I felt that I should be able to do the work myself. The “local” transnational chain home repair store had cheap sink combos, so that part was easy. But replacement of the rotting custom-sized counter would prove to be challenging. When I pulled out the old stuff a large gaping hole in the tile and plaster was revealed. It was an odd size, and there was no off-the-store-shelf solution, so I bought some two-by-fours and sort of did it myself. Working non-stop over the course of a couple of days, I built the ugliest, most uneven, but quite solid new counter and towel storage thingie ever seen, complete with steps for the kids to stand on when they brushed their baby teeth.
I thought it was potentially charming but lacking. Then the unwavering light inside me suggested that I paint excerpts from El mar y las campanas in the original Spanish, lapis lazuli paint on bright white. I envisioned our children growing up soaking in the tub looking over at the strange writings their father had painted in unwavering light and internalizing Neruda as the friend he has been for me.
Turns out they mostly took showers over the next decade. Still worse, after a few years, mi esposa was so embarrassed about my bathroom repairs she had a real carpenter rip it out and build a professional levelled fixture. It pains me to say that my one-of-a-kind painted Neruda poetry panels now prostrate painfully in a putrid landfill, forgotten by all but me—and you, tender comrades.
Her aesthetic preference is different than mine sometimes. You should also know that she went to see, ahem, Jim Carville speak the other night and took our 13-year-old son for the experience. I fear she may cancel out my vote. She wasn’t pleased with what for us was a large contribution to the candidate of my choice. We don’t talk about my radical views. They were incipient inside me long before we met, but I didn’t know how to grow or express them, and she didn’t fully realize I was an actual budding socialist and not just a liberal Democrat. Surprise Honey!
I am campaigning the best I can for the first major publicly self-identifying democratic socialist to run for the Democratic Party nomination. Like the great Debs before him if I’d been around a century ago, Sanders is a brilliant and brave leader I am incredibly proud of. But the path is difficult, to say the least, full of pits and boulders slid down from the now flat mountaintop of a corrupt U.S. political system.
My candidate is dependent upon repressed workers like me. Debs got his postal service privileges taken and was frequently incarcerated. The winter is strangely summer-like, and global climate change is not even being raised by questioners in debates, but what the hell can I do about it? I put on my Bernie magnet in the belly of the Republican beast for goodness sake!
We happened to move across town recently. I’m once again doing a lot of amateur home repair. I sometimes doubt there is unwavering light as I’m trying to fix a door or patch walls. But late last night, after I’d done all I could, on the way to the new tub I grabbed that old paperback of Neruda. As my sore back and muscles began to relax, I thought of the forgotten, unwanted, dirty unwashed of our world, the common people Neruda loved, often living under grim or worse conditions. And I got that sense of existential solidarity he wrote about.
I flipped around and settled in with page 73.
Never an illness, nor the absence
of grandeur, no,
nothing is able to kill the best in us,
that kindness, dear sir, we are afflicted with:
beautiful is the flower of man, his conduct and every door opens on the beautiful truth
and never hides treacherous whispers.
I always gained something from making myself better,
better than I am, better than I was,
that most subtle citation:
to recover some lost petal of the sadness I inherited:
to search once more for the light that sings inside of me, the unwavering light.
May we keep on fighting for justice with the singing light of kind unwavering solidarity to show the way.