On My Bookshelf: The Book of Questions

I received The Book of Questions by Pablo Neruda (Copper Canyon Press, 2001) for Christmas and started reading this slim volume right away.  Here is the summary from the publisher:

In The Book of Questions, Neruda refuses to be corralled by the rational mind. Composed of 316 unanswerable questions, these poems integrate the wonder of a child with the experiences of an adult. By turns Orphic, comic, surreal, and poignant, Neruda’s questions lead the reader beyond reason into realms of intuition and pure imagination. Completed only months before his death in 1973, The Book of Questions is the seventh and concluding volume in the Copper Canyon Press Neruda series. Bilingual edition.

I was curious about this collection, how the questions could be framed into a cohesive series of narrative following a poetic form. Neruda is a poet I have long admired. I’ve been tempted to revive my many years of study in Spanish to have the pleasure of reading his work in its original tongue. This nice part about this volume is that each poem is presented in English and the original Spanish, so I can speak the Spanish aloud, let the words roll across my tongue, marvel in them even if I don’t understand all the meaning. There is cadence, a different kind of life in the original.  

I am not a poet and my study of it is limited to a few English Literature classes I took in college. So, I’m not going to try and break down technical elements here, get into a long discussion of themes and motifs. All I can do is attempt to tell you how I felt reading it. The questions in this collection dig under your skin, root down in your mind. I dreamed in yellow for days. Neruda is able to crack open a layer of the world and show it to you new, from a previously unexposed angle.  Consider these questions (from page 68):

When does the butterfly read
what flies written on its wings?

So it can understand its itinerary,
which letters does the bee know?

Even if you didn’t know these poems were written just before Neruda’s death, it would be obvious in the text itself. There is something mournful here, reflective of life’s journey and a touch ominous. That makes it sound too heavy. But there is humor buried in too. A series of questions ponder what Hitler is assigned to do in hell. Will his horrors be revisited upon him? I like the idea of the devil being so clever and imaginative.  This book strikes me as deeply personal, as the gathering together of thoughts collected over a lifetime. The observations of the soul. Consider this question (page 32):

Is there anything sillier in life
than to be called Pablo Neruda?

Don’t we all ask that question of ourselves, our hope and dreams?  Yet we keep digging down, returning to the well of what drives us forward. This book is a great reflection on that force. It has a place in my writing bag now, in that cluttered space of empty notebooks, too many pens and occasional pieces of chocolate. It is there to help me refocus on the task at hand, to give a snippet of perspective, inspiration.


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