Back in 1974, May 23 to be exact, I translated Pablo Neruda’s “Bruselas,” or “Brussels.”
Of all that I’ve done, of all that I’ve lost,
Of all that I’ve gained through fright,
I can give a bit, in leaves, in bitter iron.
A frightened flavor, a river that the feathers
of burning eagles eventually cover, a sulphurous
retreat of petals.
I am no longer pardoned by the undivided salt
nor the constant bread, nor the tiny church eaten
by the ocean rain, nor the coal bitten
by the secret foam.
I have searched and found, heavily,
beneath the earth, among the frightening corpses,
a tooth of paled wood
limping below the harsh acid,
amid the substances
of agony, between moon and knives,
dying at night.
Now, in the midst
of this decay, beside
the threadless walls
in the depths of the infinite,
here I am with that which loses stars,
like a vegetable, alone.
I had been given a good head start by Robert Bly, if I recall correctly, and worked my own phrasing after that advantage. Neruda’s imagery, his surrealistic surges, often stunned me---the feathers of burning eagles covering a river is an all-time favorite image. And I appreciated the wisdom Neruda dropped in the poem: Let me school y’all about life and the loss of beauty and even about the eventual loss of life and ultimate aloneness, which are things I’m reflecting on in these war-torn times in a place where I’m not exactly finding joy.
You can’t ever reconstruct context precisely, but, because of the poem “Brussels,” I have long wondered what a Brussels feel would be like.
Not Neruda’s for sure. That I’m finding out. For one, he was not African American and never saw the African periphery arrive in the metropole, something that was bound to happen. He saw no district of Matongé, named after an area of Kinshasha. I had a taxi driver from Burundi direct me there. I passed a sign advertising a concert by the Sengalese vocalist Omar Pene, and another about the upcoming Afropolitan Festival featuring Fela Kuti and Saul Williams. I saw posters honoring the likes of Josephine Baker and Althea Gibson. I peeped into Black beauty parlors and barbershops. I ate in a spot called African Fast Food, but this was partly a misnomer. You can get the food fast because it is already cooked, but proper time was spent getting the greens, rice, and chicken just right. It went perfectly with the music bumping by Wizboyy Ofuasia and Daphne Njie Efundum.
None of this erases a legacy of slavery and colonialism. Matongé isn’t the opulent Grand-Place or the Royal Palace, where they don’t want to hear much about the progressivism of Princess Esméralda. The commerce is not that of nearby Avenue Louise. However, there is a strong pulse in Matongé. When I’m there, I’m not thinking much about the depths of the infinite. It’s in the back of my mind. We owe what we owe. But at least, in the meantime, my “Brussels” has expanded. It’s the poem that grows.