“Books I read at 3 a.m.: Pablo Neruda and Metta Sáma” by Jaqueline Johnson

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We are living in a time of profound change which has affected our day-to-day lives and the ways of working, creating, governing and teaching. Many people are experiencing high levels of sleeplessness. Whenever I cannot sleep or I wake up at some ungodly hour, I grab a book and read. Among my early morning favorites are Lao Tzu, Rumi, Colleen McElroy, Kamau Braithwaite, Ai and the list goes on. It is poetry that both grounds and saves me from the noise and darkness of the world. Poetry is one of the antidotes to despair, grief and sadness. It can function like the blues, where one does not avoid the “situation” but instead confronts it through repetition and the trying of a line to arrive at some level of triumph or resolution. And so it is with the practice of reading poetry. Writers have multiple and simultaneous forms of practice which can range from the act of writing, editing, critique, performance and a practice of reflection and reading. Here I will share observations of two poets and their poetry: Pablo Neruda and Metta Sáma.

Many years ago, when Gotham Books on 46th Street in Midtown Manhattan was still open, I gave myself a copy of Isla de la Negra by Pablo Neruda. This book is now well worn; one quarter of the front cover is missing, and the rest is held in place by tape. No matter what is going on, I never tire of reading Pablo Neruda. You can find me some mornings reading poems aloud in Spanish and then in English. For a brief span of time my desire to live in another language or place is partially realized. I relish Neruda’s poems of becoming and finding himself, and I enjoy many of his references and images of the sea and earth. Isla de la Negra can be considered Neruda’s poetic autobiography.

Isla Negra is not actually an island but one of the furthest most tips on the pacific coast of Chile, known for its isolation and proximity to the ocean. On Isla Negra, Neruda was devoted to his two loves, Mathilde Urrutia and the sea. It is also on Isla Negra that he wrote more than half of his collected works and poems.

Neruda was a great wanderer and traveler. His public life as a poet, diplomate, senator and cultural ambassador for Chile left him with few contemporaries. I think of Langston Hughes and his long years of global travel as one such figure, though he never served in a diplomatic capacity. The pursuit of a diplomatic career is a rare occupation among contemporary poets, but in Neruda’s time it was a common occurrence in Latin America and Mexico. Sri Lankan-American poet, essayist and translator Indran Amirthanayagam, who has served as a US diplomat in countries like Kenya, Mexico, Haiti and various others in Latin America, is among the rare few in these times. 

Neruda’s poetry has been translated in over twenty languages. I have a few English translations of his work by various translators, but I like Alastair Reeds’ translations best. He visited with Neruda on Isla Negra and was among his close friends, following Neruda’s mandate: “Don’t just translate my poems…I want you to improve them.” Many translators get to the essence of Neruda’s poems, but Reid manages to reveal their soul. Whether Neruda was at home or traveling in Asia, Europe or other parts of Latin America, his primary pursuit was to reveal our essential human condition. The poems are full of observations—the indifference he encountered in countries like China: “I suffered the gold pagoda with other men of clay. / There it was unseen, / so gilded and vertical, with so much light it was invisible.” Neruda is keenly aware of a culture that has created a false god whom the everyday people despise.

Neruda’s activism has its roots in Chile, but found expression during his time in Spain during the Spanish Civil war when he joined the communist party and his subsequent return to Chile in 1930’s. It is ironic that as Neruda’s life was ending, so was the Allende democratic era which imploded at the hands of the dictator Pinochet. I came of age during the era of the “missing” in Chile and Latin America. Younger poets may know that the leaders of the revolutions in Nicaragua and El Salvador were all poets. Neruda was to some degree a “state” poet and vulnerable to all the intrigue and power changes of the Chilean government. I think living on Isla Negra allowed him to turn away from the business of the world and write, though he never stopped his political activism.

Isla de la Negra is full of wonderful opening lines. In “October Fullness,” the poet tells us: “Little by little, and also in great leaps, / life happened to me.” In “Loves: Rosura II,” we are reminded that “Love for us, was the one thing that made us matter.” And in “Paris 1927,” I marvel at: “Paris magnetic rose, an ancient spider web, there it was, silvered.” But, one of my favorite poems is “Oh Earth Wait for Me,” for how it is filled with a deep longing for home and the poet’s cherished forest.  

Oh Earth Wait for Me

Return me, oh sun
to my country destiny,
rain of the ancient woods.
Bring me back its aroma, and the swords
falling from the sky,
the solitary peace of pasture and rock,
the damp at the rivers margins,
the smell of the larch tree,
the wind alive like a heart
beating in the crowded remoteness
of the towering araucaria.

Earth, give me back your pristine gifts,
towers of silence which rose from
the solemnity of their roots.
I want to go back to being what I haven’t been,
to learn to return
from such depths
That among all natural things
I may live or not live. I don’t mind
being one stone more, the dark stone
the pure stone that the river bears away.

In this moment of the Covid-19 pandemic, civil unrest and anti-police marches, what can Neruda teach us about the poet as activist? What are the many ways one can cultivate a life-long practice and devotion to poetry?   

Another of my early morning reads is Swing at Your Own Risk, by Metta Sáma. One of the things I love about the book is its design. This book and her chapbooks, such as le animal and other creatures, are so beautifully produced and are true collector’s items. In Swing at Your Own Risk, the first thing one will view is a montage of language that forms the opening title pages.  The rhythmic display of black epigram pages throughout the text are a visual homage to the late Monica Hands’ me and Nina, which was among the first contemporary poetry books to offer singular black pages as part of the text and design. No need to interpret the blackness of the Black pages. So, when one views Michaela Pilar Brown’s The Cut as the cover image of Sáma’s Swing at Your Own Risk, one knows from the get-go this is a take-no-prisoners book.

Within Swing at Your Own Risk, there is a great deal of mischief and irony with shades of Bob Kaufman’s “beat” aesthetics. I delight in the fact that every chapter is named “Swing,” it describes perfectly how I don’t read the book in sequential order, but jump in and out at various places each time I revisit it. Sáma is adept at experimental form and language. Initially, my hands found “Silence: A Retreat a Meditation,” located in the center of the book. It is a long poem that contains many forms, including a letter to Trayvon Martin. It is a narrative, chant blues, critiquing intimate feelings of race and class between a mother and daughter against the disquiet of centuries of violence:

“We have all been hunted at least once held against our will held down our freedoms blocked our rights to walk down a street at night in the rain taken away from us….

We all have been hunted at some point in our lives pointed at feared….”

This poem resonates across time to our current historical moment in this country where Black lives, Black bodies are caught in a cyclical replay of death by police. Many of the poems in this book are entwined with American and colonial history. A poem such as “& on the fifth day God created,” is agile and full of layered allusions to the tale of Jonah and the Whale that signify history and erasure: “one story begins and ends with brown people.” Another short prose poem, “The closed field: Montreal, Quebec,” starts with two Black women browsing in an antique shop. Through the use of historical objects, Sáma manages to detail the social and class violence hurled at them. These poems are political, funny, dark, sensual and much needed during this time of change we’re experiencing. The poems in Swing at Your Own Risk are not easy poems, they are necessary poems.

The wee hours of the morning are the perfect time to cultivate your own relationship with various texts. You might like to look at the tradition of the ecstatic poets such as Rumi or Hafiz, or the Japanese court poets such as Izumi Shikibu, masters of Haiku and Tanka forms. Some of you may need more contemporary poets. I like following a poet across five or six books to see their evolution and what themes and voices manifest in the work. The practice of reading can become obsessive or addictive, so I caution you, not to end up like I do some nights with eight to ten books strewn across my bed as I follow the winding path of words and meaning.

Next up on the 3 a.m. list:

Too Much Midnight, Krista Franklin
Postcolonial Love Poem, Natalie Diaz
Come See About Me, Brian Gilmore
Gut Botany, Petra Kuppers



Jacqueline Johnson is a multi-disciplined artist creating in poetry, fiction writing and fiber arts. She is the author of A Woman’s Season and A Gathering of Mother Tongues, winner of the Third Annual White Pine Press Poetry Award. Her work has appeared in Revisiting the Elegy in the Black Lives Matter Era (edited by Tiffany Austin), Pank’s Health and Healing Folio, and on American Public Media’s podcast, The Slow Down. She is a Cave Canem fellow and is currently working on a volume of poetry and a short story collection. Jacqueline is a graduate of New York University and the City University of New York. A native of Philadelphia, she resides in Brooklyn, New York.