Pablo Neruda

Odes to Common Things

“I have a crazy, crazy love of things.”

Pablo Neruda (1904 – 1973), Chilean poet and politician, wrote poetry about simple things. He urged us to notice the inconsequential. Odes to Common Things includes Spanish and English odes to quotidian items like salt, a chair, a table, socks, and soap.

‘Ode to a Bar of Soap’

Do I detect
your pungent
odor
in cut-rate
dry goods and unforgettable
cologne, in barbershops
and the clean countryside,
in sweet water?

odes to common things
“Everyday Luxury,” porcelain pieces made by Australian artist Honor Freeman, 2019. Freeman’s work casting everyday, familiar items in clay connects the viewer in commonality of use, need, and daily routines. We immediately recognize her objects and can probably place them in our lives. Photograph by Craig Arnold.

The poignancy of things, perhaps not physically small but consequentially meaningless, reminds me of Polish poet Wislawa Syzborska’s poem about the importance of microcosmos, the tiny things that we cannot even see but that determine our life.

Is it a poetic right of passage to see the universe in the small?

‘Ode to a Pair of Socks’

My feet were
two woolen fish
in those outrageous socks,
two gangly,
navy-blue sharks
impaled
on a golden thread.

But, of course, it is these things that comprise life itself. The things we cannot abandon, the things essayist E.B. White tried to dismantle from his life and self when he moved, only to find himself easily defeated.

The things that we keep close and, thus, make special, like wondrous pets.

‘Ode to the Cat’

Nothing hangs together quite like a cat
neither flowers nor the moon have
such consistency
It is a thing by itself
like the sun or a topaz

Odes to common things
“Soap scale” by Honor Freeman, 2019. Freeman’s porcelain work elevates everyday objects to our notice, care, and attention, suggesting a measure of permanence to otherwise disposable items. Learn more. Photograph by Craig Arnold.

“Neruda was a genius,” said former U.S. Poet Laureate Mark Strand, “but in whose writing beauty and banality are inextricably mixed. […] Mundane items, modified by adjectives denoting the rare or celestial, are elevated to a realm of exceptional value.”

I love
all things,
not because they are
passionate
or sweet-smelling
but because,
I don’t know,
because this ocean is yours,
and mine:
and these buttons
and wheels
and little
forgotten
treasures, fans upon
whose feathers
love has scattered
its blossoms,
glasses, knives and
scissors-
all bear
the trace
of someone’s fingers
on their handle or surface,
the trace of a distant hand
lost
in the depths of forgetfulness.

From Ode to Things

Spending time on the “small”—and, of course, by small I mean things that pass beneath our immediate observation—we connect to something grand. My first post on The Examined Life was about the power of small. From the repetition of shapes to the blocks that build into something greater, there is something comforting about objects.

Neruda’s “Ode to the Plate” begins “Plate, the world’s most vital disk…,” and it is, no? The commonality of objects, despite language, delivers us the human connection across time and geography.1

‘Ode to the Bed’

We go from one bed to the next
in this journey,
life’s journey.
The newborn, the afflicted,
the dying,
the lover and the dreamer alike
they arrived and they will depart by the bed.

Others share this exceedingly important gift of elevating the commonplace to the celestial. Ralph Waldo Emerson defined wisdom as seeing “miracles in the commonplace.” Read Marianne Moore’s heroic efforts to notice and care and Oliver Sacks’ collection of adored things.