I want to write about softness, about how things can be soft and hard all at once, like your cock last night. And again this morning.

Also, I want to write about how the hardest things can bring softness. Like your world falling apart last year, and your eyes telling me about it last night.

I write all this wearing your shirt, the one you handed me, saying, “See, I have soft things too.” Apparently, you thought I didn’t think so. But that was your thought, not mine. You see,

I always was a sucker for soft, even when, once upon a time, I thought it was weak. Even then, I secretly loved it in the dark, underground, where truths live, truths like how the strongest things are soft.

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Translating Neruda (Agua Sexual)

I share my hometown (Temuco, Chile) with beloved Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda. Although Neruda died in 1973, when I was just a wee girl, still, I like to think that Neruda and I drank of the same water, breathed the same air. In my dreams we walk down Temuco streets together: I am 8 and he is old and always we are walking. He has the kindest, sparkliest eyes, and we play a game which only allows us to speak in metaphor.

Of late, I have been spending more and more time reading and wanting to translate his poems into English, which is now my main language. There are wonderful translations out there (Stephen Mitchell is a favorite), but invariably I find myself quibbling over some turn of phrase that’s not quite right, or some nuance that surely it helps to have come up in Chile to catch.

But mostly I like translating Neruda because it allows me to sink into his world and his words, and, what a world that is!

How do I pick which, among hundreds upon hundreds of fantastic poems, to translate? Hmm… It seems to come to this: The poem either, 1) lifts me off my feet and twirls me about, 2) chokes me up, or 3) makes me so horny I could fuck a tree. (And, by the way, “Agua Sexual” did all three.)

Sexual Water (Pablo Neruda)

Rolling in plump raindrops, alone,
in raindrops like teeth,
in thick raindrops of marmalade and blood,
rolling in fat raindrops
the water falls,
like a sword of drops,
like a tearing river of glass,
it falls biting,
knocking on the axis of symmetry, hitting on the seams of the soul,
breaking abandoned things, drenching what is dark.

It is only a whispered breath, moister than a cry,
liquid, sweat, some nameless oil,
a sharp movement,
forming itself, thickening,
the water falls
in slow big drops,
toward its sea, toward its dry ocean,
toward its waterless wave.

I see the vast summer, and a rasping breath as it leaves the barn,
warehouses, cicadas,
settlements, incentives,
bedrooms, girls
sleeping with hands on heart,
dreaming of bandits, of fires,
I see ships,
I see trees of marrow
bristling like enraged cats,
I see blood, daggers and women’s stockings,
and man’s hair,
I see beds, I see corridors where a virgin screams,
I see blankets and organs and hotels.

I see stealthy dreams,
I admit passage to the final days,
and also their origins, and also memories
like an eyelid forced open with dread
I am looking.

And then, this sound:
a red noise of bones,
a slapping of meat,
and yellow legs coming together like pegs.
I hear, between the firing of kisses,
I listen, tossed between breaths and sobs.

I am watching, listening,
with half my soul at sea and half my soul on land,
with both halves of my soul I look at the world.

And although I close my eyes and cover my heart entirely,
I watch deaf water fall,
in big, deaf raindrops.
It’s like a gelatinous hurricane,
like a waterfall of sperm and jellyfish.
I see a turbid rainbow run.
I see its waters flow across the bones.

Listen to me read Neruda’s “Agua Sexual” in Spanish:

Read Neruda’s original “Agua Sexual” here, in Spanish.

Translation copyright © 2013, Elisabeth Withaness. Don’t steal! But DO feel free to share, with attribution and link.

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I like you when you are quiet

This morning, apropos of nothing better to do —which is not to say there aren’t many things to do, just, no thing better than translating some favorite lines of verse— I bring you my translation of Pablo Neruda’s Sonnet 15 from “Veinte Poemas de Amor y una Canción Desesperada.”

Sonnet 15 (Pablo Neruda)

I like you when you are quiet because you are as if absent,
and you hear me from afar, and my voice doesn’t touch you.
It seems as if your eyes had flown away
and it seems as if a kiss were closing your mouth.

Since all things are full of my soul
you emerge from among things filled with my soul.
Butterfly of dreams, you look like my soul
and you look like the word ‘melancolía.’

I like you when you are quiet and you’re as if distant.
It’s as if you were moaning, lullabied butterfly.
And you hear me from afar, and my voice doesn’t reach you:
let me become quiet with your silence.

Allow me also to speak to you with your silence
clear as a lamp, simple as a ring.
You are like the nighttime, quiet and constellated.
Your silence is of a star, so far away and simple.

I like you when you are quiet because you are as if absent.
Distant and sorrowful as if you had died.
One word, then, one smile is enough.
And I am happy, happy that it not be true.

[Pablo Neruda’s original here.]

Copyright © 2012 – 2013, Elisabeth Withaness. Don’t steal! But DO feel free to share, with attribution and link.

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skirt basket

I carried the yard in you —pebble stick bone moss cone feather string and stone— and what I could carry in you was nothing less than the world to me

up and up and up the mountain bend and bend and are-we-there-yet-bend in road till finally yes the water of you out and out and out forever lake of joy I can’t wait to be in you

dark the woods the earth the sky the field of you my mud-drenched world outside I watch you nose pressed to glass drops dripping down and down and down

oh heart of mine I’ve turned my back on bits and bits and bits of you

oh heart of me can there be room for all of you in the world of me?

before the thought of happy there was happy

before periods and commas and hard returns there were only things and things and things not good not bad just thisses and thats in baskets made of skirts

and then flesh became word and thought among us

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Variations on a theme: Away

Quite possibly we came together, he and I, not just for Leonard Cohen, not just for assumption-shattering sex, not just for conversations, hands on the back, and whispers in the dark, all of which have made me magnificently bigger. Quite possibly we also came together so that he could bring me face to face with an old, still smarting, thing.

I wrote Away several years ago, but it came to mind so strongly yesterday that I went and dug it up again. I didn’t originally write it about him. What makes it powerful now is that, in many ways, I could have. Which tells me that, whoever else it might be about, it is fully about me. Of course.

Knowledge is cheap, understanding is rare. Things in us that keep repeating, those variations on life-themes, must be wanting for something. They won’t give up! Clearly there is something about this theme of Away which I have not yet met with understanding.

I could see this thing, my Away Thing, as a tiresome bore to be gotten rid of. Or as something like what other composers did when they wrote variations on Paganini’s theme: gorgeous, and somehow, someway, always new.

Oh, my Love, by which I mean I, by which I mean he, by which I mean any lover with whom I’ve been or am yet to be, I draw a blanket around this thing and pray for understanding.

Um, Elisabeth? But you don’t believe in God–

Um, You? That don’t mean I can’t pray!

It’s been said that prayer is simply the sincerest cry of a heart. Here’s mine.



To have and to hold
are, to be sure,
quite different from
to hope and to dream
which are, also to be sure,
away — maybe somewhere with you
but away nonetheless
which is where I sense you
on your own.

I would not bind you to me (if even I could)
nor force anything ahead nor outside its time, and yet:

this little pigeon longs for you and for home
in one and the very same breath.

(Some blessing. Some curse. Who can say?)

Who am I to take where you are away from you?
It’s not wrong, it’s just not here.

In the beginning was away,
and away was with God
and away was God —

I long for a place to come home to,
a mat to stomp my dream-worn feet upon:
“This. Is Where. I belong.”
A hook for my coat,
a body to roll over into,
a “Pinch me, I am here,” to say,
a wide-eyed, “It’s you, really you!” to be cried out loud,
to which you might reply,
all bleary-eyed, all flesh and bones,

“Yes, now sleep, my little homing pigeon.”

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From now on, only music you like

On Friday I saw Harold. He will be 80 in March. He’s a physicist and an emeritus professor and that’s not his real name or field. (Other than those 2 details, what follows is true). Harold had gotten my postcard about my new office and called to schedule a session. In his voice mail he spelled out his name as if I might have forgotten him since the last time I saw him in February. As if!

I seem to have a flair for hitting it off with clients who are old and smart and creative, and, for some reason, men in particular. Psychoanalysts have labels for these things and I think their word for a therapist’s feelings for a client is “countertransference.” My plain old English take on that? Although no one is supposed to admit to favorites —favorite children, favorite nieces, favorite clients— when I look at a day’s schedule and an old man’s name is on it, I am happy. There, I admitted it.

Harold was referred to me by Lou, my anatomy teacher in massage school and now-colleague, and, incidentally, another favorite person of mine in the world. (I am, in actuality, an equal opportunity favorite-er). When Lou made the referral we’d spoken, briefly, and I’d asked, “Anything I should know?” She said, “Not really.” And then, as if an afterthought, she added, “Don’t play new age music. Just classical.” I laughed. That wouldn’t be a problem.

Harold isn’t as talkative as some of my older clients but over the course of 4 or so sessions we’d had several interesting conversations and he had commented on my music almost instantly. I passed the good music test, apparently. At the end of this past Friday’s session he asked what had just been playing and I said, thinking he’d meant the last pieces, “That was Yo-Yo Ma playing Bach.”

“Was it all Yo-Yo?” he asked. He said Yo-Yo as if he knew him personally, and for all I know, he does. One never knows. Especially around here.

“No,” I replied, “various. I can show you the playlist if you want.” Then Harold reminded me that he can’t stand that new age music they play. I laughed and said I understood, that it drives me crazy too. To which he said, “You know, that’s what they play in loony bins.” I said, “Really? As if that’d help!” I didn’t ask him how he knew that. And I didn’t tell him it’d been so long, going on 20 years now, that I no longer remember the music they played. What I did tell him, though, is that I haven’t played new age music since last spring.

Harold nodded.

I’m not sure why but new age music makes me want to jump out of my skin and scream. This is, of course, not a good thing for anyone to feel, but certainly not a massage therapist who is supposed to be, if anything, helping her client feel calm and comfortable in their own skin. One day last spring I decided never to play music I don’t like again. It was high time and my decision came, quite easily, thanks to another smart, older gentleman client, whom I’ll call, Edward. I hadn’t seen him for a couple of months and, quickly, he asked me, “What’s new?”  “Oh not too much,” I replied, trying to keep the focus on him. But he wasn’t satisfied. “C’mon, what’s new?” And then, realizing that by answering openly I was indeed keeping the focus on him, I told him of my most recent crush, a Norwegian girl-band named Katzenjammer. “Want to hear them?” I added, on a whim. Of course he did.

During that session we listened to Katzenjammer and Leonard Cohen and I also played some tango, knowing how much Edward loves his tango classes. At some point I thanked him for the wonderful music, to which he said, “it’s yours!” We laughed and then I admitted to him that I just couldn’t stand that new age stuff and that if I heard the sound of another fake waterfall, I’d surely have to jump out the window or kill myself. To which he replied with the most obvious question of all time, “So, why do you play it?”

As Edward walked out the door that day he turned around, looked me in the eyes, and said, “From now on, only music you like.” And then, in case I hadn’t heard him the first time, he said it again, raising his hand and, as I recall —though this bit may be an embellishment of my memory for effect— shaking his finger emphatically: “Only music you like.”  That was the day I went home and made three playlists: (1) classical, the one Harold heard. (2) Tibetan singing bowls and Buddhist monks chanting. (3) Jazz, folk and world music. Not one of my playlists included fake waterfalls.

This Friday, before he’d even taken his coat off, Harold asked me if I’ve been writing. (Ever since I sent “Leonard Cohen, please don’t ever die,” to my mailing list last winter, he asks me about my writing). I replied, “Yes, I have, certainly more than the last time I saw you.” He smiled, then told me that as he gets older, and especially lately, more prose-y bits are making their way into his physics papers. (Yes, he said “prose-y.”) He went on: “I think I’m trying to say goodbye.”

Ah. That’s when I bowed: I nodded my head slowly and replied with the only thing that rose up in my heart, silence. Later, about half way through the session, seemingly out of the blue but not really since I’d been thinking of his words pretty much the whole time my hands moved over his body, I asked him: “Would someone who does not understand physics at your level understand the prose-y bits in your papers?” “I think so,” he replied.

He’s coming back in 2 weeks. I hope he brings me prose-y bits.

~ * ~

P.S. Here’s Katzenjammer in a live version of a favorite song which includes a favorite line: “She’s a lonely young girl, she’s the sister of the moon / her heart is like November though she wants it to be June / Larger than life she’s standing there so tall / There’s a note with her name and it’s hanging on the wall… : Play, my darling, play! (The video quality isn’t the greatest, but I hope you’ll enjoy it anyway. Notice how those girls never rely on anything fake, and certainly not fake waterfalls.)

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Sometimes gazing out into the universe —at a night sky, say— takes me in and in and in, just as looking in on the world of dreams and thoughts, takes me infinitely out.

Oh Longing, my life feels too tight for the bigness that is you, my outlets inadequate for what wants expression, and sometimes it feels like you will break me.

I wake in the night, my leg still convulsing, the pillow beside me warm, your taste —so bitter, so sweet at once— still on my lips. The air is still thick with you. I reach for you but only barely touch your fringes as you slip out the door.

Always you leave. And I am left with a vast… um… (words, don’t fail me now!) lonesomeness?

I don’t know. I’ve always called what you leave me with lonesome, but really, I don’t know.

Could you be the stallion trapped in my chest?

Sometimes you get out. It’s as if you’ve broken the confines of my chest, galloped up ahead, then stopped to call back to me:  “Come, come, come! That place right there? That place so tight and small and careful where you are? That’s no place for you, for me, for us. Come, my darling, come!”

There you are bucking wildly as if to say, “Here, here, here!” You seem so far away but never so far that the ground can’t carry back to me the sound of your stomping hooves. Because it does. And I feel you, pounding in my chest.

Oh Longing, you are the longest word, so forever forward and back, in and out, ancient and infinite at once.

I want so much. It’s like the barefoot lady with wild hair said the other day: “Darlin’, you’re driving a mac truck down a bike path there!” And even though she was talking specifically of a certain lover, the metaphor fits for you, too. (And anyway, wasn’t he just you made flesh?)

Oh Longing. You are an odd, faraway country to me, and yet I am from you. When I hear your language it is familiar in the way of a mother tongue I once sang, laughed and spoke in with ease. I move my mouth to make a sound in you. The sound that comes makes no sense, but you throw back your head wildly and gallop ahead again.

You slay me. Even while I beg for more.


The big Maple in front of the church has lost every leaf but three which hang there as if to remind us that in another season, it was, and it will be again, thickly clothed.

November is so suddenly dark, so cold then warm but always, somehow, getting colder. The trees are going in and in and in, even while their branches reach so bravely, still, out.

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Writing out loud

You latch the door. It’s your first time in the office of your new house on the floor. Leonard Cohen’s Jukebox Playlist is playing: Joni Mitchell could drink a case of you, Fats Domino found his thrill on Blueberry Hill, and the sexiest hands are riding up and down the keyboard of you to Chopin’s Etude Opus 10 Number 1. You’re not supposed to write this out loud. But you are.

There’s a world inside. Sometimes it wakes you up in the night pounding on your chest from the inside: Let! Me! Out!

Who are you? you ask.

I am writing out loud, it replies.


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