Ode to Maize (1952), Pablo Neruda

Chilean, Pulitzer winning poet Pablo Neruda.

Pulitzer winning, Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.

While Pulitzer-prize winning poet Pablo Neruda is well-known internationally for his love poems, he also wrote many odes which were celebrations of ordinary things–an artichoke, salt, a large tuna in the market, his socks. Some of the odes are dedicated to important influences in his life, such as the poet Walt Whitman, or the act of aging.

Throughout this song “to the simple maize in the kitchen,” Neruda stresses the connection between food, place, and memory. At times, this relationship is social or historical: “Not to the terrible stone,/ the bloody triangle of Mexican death,” or “at times/ only your radiance/ reaches the empty/ table of the miners.” At other moments, however, the relationship is more intimate, bringing the reader into the homes of all those who “worked and patted” to make the nutritious cornmeal. Here, we get a sense of the importance of food and memory, those flavors and practices that are intimately tied to our lives. In the final stanza, Neruda manages to deftly merge these themes by using the shucking of maize as a metaphor for growing up, for history, and, unmistakably, for globalization.

From Elemental Odes.

Ode to Maize 

America, from a grain
of maize you grew
to crown
with spacious lands
the ocean
foam.
A grain of maize was your geography.
From the grain
a green lance rose,
was covered with gold,
to grace the heights
of Peru with its yellow tassels.

But, poet, let
history rest in its shroud;
praise with your lyre
the grain in its granaries:
sing to the simple maize in the kitchen.

BettyRogersKnoxBotanicalArtist

Maize, by botanical illustrator Betsy Rogers-Knox.

First, a fine bread
fluttered in the field
above the tender teeth
of the young ear.
Then the husks parted
and fruitfulness burst its veil
of pale papyrus
that grains of laughter
might fall upon the earth.

To the stone,
in your journey, you returned.
Not to the terrible stone,
the bloody
triangle of Mexican death,
but to the grinding stone,
sacred
stone of our kitchens.
There, milk and matter,
strength-giving, nutritious
cornmeal pulp,
you were worked and patted
by the wondrous hands
of dark-skinned women.

Whenever you fall, maize,
whether into the
splendid pot of partridge, or among
country beans, you light up
the meal and lend it
your virginal flavor.

Oh, to bite into
the steaming ear beside the sea
of distant song and deepest waltz.
To boil you
as your aroma
spreads through
blue sierras.

But is there
no end
to your treasure?

In chalky, barren lands
bordered
by the sea, along
the rocky Chilean coast,
at times
only your radiance
reaches the empty
table of the miner.

Your light, your cornmeal, your hope
pervades America’s solitudes,
and to hunger
your lances
are enemy legions.

Within your husks,
like gentle kernels,
our sober provincial
children’s hearts were nurtured,
until life began
to shuck us from the ear.

(Translated by Margaret Sayers Peden.)

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