Epistle to Neruda

by Yevgeny Yevtushenko

Like a seasoned lion,
Neruda buys bread in the shop.
He asks for it to be wrapped in paper
And solemly puts it under his arm:
"Let someone at least think
that at some time
I bought a book…"
Waving his hand in farewell,
like a Roman
rather dreamily royal,
in the air scented with mollusks,
he walks with the bread through Valparaiso.
He says:
" Eugenio, look!
You see--
over there, among the puddles and garbage,
standing up under the red lamps
stands Bilbao-with the soul
of a poet -- in bronze.
Bilbao was a tramp and a rebel.
they set up the monument, fenced off
by a chain, with due pomp, right in the center,
although the poet had lived in the slums.
Then there was some minor overthrow or other,
and the poet was thrown out, beyond the gates.
they removed
the pedestal
to a filthy little red-light district.
And the poet stood,
as the sailor's adopted brother,
against a background
you might call native to him.
Our Bilbao loved cracking jokes.
He would say:
'On this best of possible planets
there are prostitutes and politutes --
as I'm a poet,
I prefer the former.'"
And Neruda comments, with a hint of slyness:
"A poet is
beyond the rise and fall of values.
It's not hard to remove us from the center,
but the spot where they set us down
becomes the center!"
I remember that noon,
as I tune my transistor at night, ny the window,
when a wicked war with the people of Chile
brings back the smell of Spain.
Playing about at a new overthrow,
politutes in generals' uniforms
wanted, whichever way they could,
to hustle your poetry out of sight.
But today I see Neruda--
he's always right in the center
and, not faltering,
he carries his poetry to the people
as simply and calmly
as a loaf of bread.
Many poets follow false paths,
but if the poet is with the people to the bitter end,
like a conscience-
then nothing
can possibly overthrow poetry.

Translated by Arthur Boyars amd Simon Franklin

Last updated May 02, 2015