William O’Daly‘s new poetry collection, The Road to Isla Negra takes the reader on a beautiful journey. This small collection, from Folded Word Press, with photographs by Galen Garwood, is visually stunning. The poems take the reader on a poetic trip to Pablo Neruda’s home in Chile, Isla Negra, but more importantly, the poems invite the reader into Neruda’s thoughts and ultimately the reader sees his or her own mortality.
The collection opens with the title poem. We learn right away of the two-layered journey we will take. We will be in O’Daly’s magical world and in our own real world.
We live twice on the road to Isla Negra–
once in our dreams and once in our shoes.
In these lines we’re invited into this journey that could not happen in the earthy material world. But we know too that journeys only matter if they delight or improve the earthy world in which we all live.
From this opening poem, we move to a two-part poem called “The Dreamers.” Then to a marvelous series of poems titled “Questions for Pablo.” Here we are given five poems, each with four questions. The questions could be posed to Neruda himself. The questions also function like Buddhist koans– questions meant to deepen one’s thinking, not meant to lead to an objective answer. These poems, these questions, live on both levels of the journey mentioned above: the journey lived in our “dreams” and our “shoes.”
We get questions like:
When crickets pack their bags,
for which planet do they depart?
Where does it reside,
the poem not written?
Does the rose greet you
with its mouth full of blood?
Do you fear what you love,
unlikely sea, conflicted star?
Was it a smile or a wound
that devoured you?
The fifth section asks a powerful question that might be the link between the “dreams” and the “shoes” —
This afternoon, who hammers
the distances into shape?
In the collection’s longest and final poem, we encounter Neruda himself. The poem “For Neruda” begins with our offer to
hide you (Neruda) in the flower garden
in the closet when the police
close in. Tomorrow you will lie
under a blanket in the back seat
of the sedan headed south…
This poem takes us through various Chilean geographies, we see Mothers of the Disappeared looking for the remains of their loved ones, we “listen for green rain” while politicians do what they do. We pour sparkling wine, eat, and listen to “a poem of friendship,” with “a bonfire and the guitar.” We celebrate Neruda’s “courageous poems,” until finally we
Return to Isla Negra
where Matilde (Neruda’s wife) warms a meal
in the splendor, where empty bottles
and poems like roots wash up on the shore,
returning all you have given.
The poem’s final stanza shows us, along with the speaker, reading Neruda’s biography:
Your face stares up at me
from the small wooden table
on which lies your biography–
The book’s most beautiful lines might be its final four:
We, who love the earth, cannot stay,
but we can live forever where the stone
and the beetle share the dream,
where the wind endlessly blows.
In some ways, this collection serves as an elegy to Neruda. Also as an anti-elegy. Neruda is not dead. He lives in his poems– he lives wherever “the wind endlessly blows.”
Thankfully, William O’Daly has taken us into that wind.