Pablo Neruda: “Fable of the Mermaid and the Drunks”

Seems an appropriate cleansing gift on the day of gnashing teeth and accusations.

Paul Weinfield: Translations

Fable of the Mermaid and the Drunks

All those men were there inside
When she came in, completely naked
They had been drinking and began to spit
But having come from the river, she understood nothing
She was a mermaid and was lost
Their insults flowed down her perfect, smooth flesh
Their filth enveloped her golden breasts
But not knowing tears, she did not weep tears
Not knowing clothes, she didn’t put on clothes
They tattooed her with cigarettes and burnt corks
They laughed till they fell to the floor of the bar
But not knowing words, she didn’t say a word
Her eyes were the color of distant love
Her arms were like two topaz twins
Her lips were cut by the coral light
And then, suddenly, she just walked out the door
She entered the river and was clean again
She shone like a white stone lying in…

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Author: philipparees

A writer ( mostly narrative poetry) of fiction and non-fiction. Self publisher of fiction and Involution-An Odyssey Reconciling Science to God (Runner-up Book of the Year (2013), One time builder ( Arts centre) Mother of four daughters: Companion of old man and old dog: One time gardener, lecturer, wannabe cellist, mostly enquirer of 'what's it all about', blogger and things as yet undiscovered.

3 thoughts on “Pablo Neruda: “Fable of the Mermaid and the Drunks””

  1. Interesting reading this, Philippa. One wonders what the personal appeal is to you, though I have my guess. I fished out an excerpt of a short email I sent a young woman with whom I was in correspondence for a short time in 2008. She was a wonderfully quirky oddball, sensitive and high-strung like myself – thin and fair-skinned with shortish black hair – with diverse interests, a curiosity which plunged and ranged all over, with unexpected twists and turns in her intelligence. It’s always a delight to me when I come across such individuals who contain unexpected surprises quite outside the mainstream. She and I corresponded for around a half a year, saw each other in person occasionally, and then she moved and we lost touch.

    In something she wrote to me she used this beautiful phrase “footholds in the ocean”, and suddenly I couldn’t help but to think how rich the mermaid might be to her to explore for helping understand her own condition.

    I wrote: “Half woman, half fish, a mermaid is a freak of nature from the point of view of humankind: humankind at large tends to exploit unusual and rare creatures, would capture a mermaid and transport her to a circus, put her in a giant tank specially lit, an aquarium, making her into a sideshow act, where for a fee most would enter the tent to gawk at her, some would ridicule and laugh at her, few would have genuine sympathy for her. The mermaid suffers in her captivity. She longs to return to the ocean, to inhabit its deeps once again, but her heart is deeply torn, she has a split or duel personality, because she also desires to be accepted by humankind, being partly human too.”

    In this poem by Neruda, the mermaid seems even further removed from the human, though she resembles one in beautiful features, not speaking “because she couldn’t speak”, not quite a goddess, not quite an alien being, but somewhere in between. Her innocence is remarkable. No filth of the world can stain it. There’s no hook into the human: all identification with her is denied, and she remains solitary and alone. The last image is incredible. I’m not sure she’s doomed or if death is actually her lover. That profound purity she has may be the obverse or trailing shadow of death and the carnage he leaves in his wake. She swims into death’s ribcage and takes a nap there. If death could be said to have a heart, she acts as it. When she awakes she swims up, and sits as the crown on his head, and surveys the human world. Then she dives back into the water and swims to shore, entering human habitation without covering herself. This would be hard for any man to resist, and women too. In the presence of such purity and power, human weakness has no place to hide. It’s summoned even against one’s will, and she becomes a target, a spittoon, a toilet, hate and envy normally kept hidden finally exposed, and directed at her, dumped on her, emptied onto her. She’s not killed by death but assists him by preparing humans for awareness of their fate, carrying their filth down to the water.

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  2. A most sensitive re-working of the many strands suggested by the poem. I have long been fascinated by the mermaid, as the alluring female beauty devoid of sexuality, that undivided tail that makes the limitless ocean our true home. It connects man and mankind to the deeper union summoned by both love and beauty. The lorelei (in another context) that draws men to their death, a willing drowning death.

    It struck me so forcibly yesterday when surrounded by so much spitting hatred ( at the result of the UK referendum) plus a personal attack connected to it. I wanted to leap for something redemptive! As usual you weave so much, and see so deeply, where she could not speak- not knowing words! Thanks John.

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