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The Inspiration of Ordinary Things

by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

September 2009

"Neruda brings the drama and excitement to the observation of ordinary things."

  Most of us are trying to thing of something dramatic and world-shaking to write about: a failed love affair, the war in Iraq or Afghanistan, a car accident or some kind of miracle like being saved from doom at the last second. But Neruda brings the drama and excitement to the observation of ordinary things.

“It is good at certain hours of the day and night to look at objects at rest,” Pablo Neruda wrote in Toward an Impure Poetry.

“Let that be the poetry we search for: worn with the hand’s obligations, as by acids, steeped in sweat and smoke, smelling of lilies and urine, spatter diversely by the trades we live by…”

“A poetry as impure as the clothing we wear, or our bodies, soup-stained, soiled with our shameful behavior, our wrinkles and vigils and dreams, observations and prophecies, declarations of loathing and love…”

And that’s what Neruda sets out to achieve, writing about something as ordinary as an artichoke.



The artichoke
of delicate heart
in its battledress, builds
its minimal cupola;
in its scallop of
Around it,
demonic vegetables
bristle their thicknesses,
tendrils and belfries,
the bulb’s agitations;
while under the subsoil
sleeps around in its
rusty mustaches.
Runner and filaments
bleach in the vineyards,
whereon rise the vines.
The sedulous cabbage
arranges its petticoats;
oregano sweetens a world;
and the artichoke,
dulcetly there in a garden plot,
armed for the skirmish
goes round
in its pomegranate burnishes.

Till on a day,
each by the other,
the artichoke moves
to its dream of a marketplace
in the big willow
A battle formation.
Most warlike
of defilades—
with men
in the market stalls,
white shirts
in the soup greens,
field marshals,
close-order conclaves,
commands, detonations,
and voices,
a crashing of crate staves.

with her hamper
make trial
of an artichoke:
she reflects, she examines,
she candles them up to the light like an egg,
never flinching;
she bargains,
she tumbles her prize
in a market bag
among shoes and a
cabbage head,
a bottle
of vinegar; is back
in her kitchen.
The artichoke drowns in a pot.

So you have it;
a vegetable armed,
a profession,
(call it an artichoke)
whose end
is millennial.
We taste of that
scale after scale.
We eat of the artichoke paste.
It is green at the artichoke heart.

"Notice how Neruda describes the artichoke as having a delicate heart…"

Notice how Neruda describes the artichoke as having a delicate heart, but also being in battle dress with its scallop of scales and minimal cupola, and pomegranate burnishes. There are bellicose words of violence and war: armed for the skirmish, a crashing of crate staves, a battle formation, most warlike, dismembering contrasted with the homey, everyday nature of the artichoke with its sweetness and delicate heart.

To describe the artichoke and the other vegetable, Neruda uses personification, giving human traits (qualities, feelings, action, or characteristics) to non-living objects (things, colors, qualities, or ideas). Personification is largely out of favor today, but in the hands of a master, it will always work. Here’s some examples: “demonic vegetables, the sedulous cabbage arranges its petticoats, oregano sweetens a world, the artichoke moves to its dream of a marketplace.”

But notice how, after all the personification of the vegetable, the poem really comes alive when a genuine person, Anna comes onto the scene, examining the artichokes the way one would candle eggs

Neruda works the same magic with a lemon:


Out of lemon flowers
on the moonlight, love’s
lashed and insatiable
sodden with fragrance,
the lemon tree’s yellow
the lemons
move down
from the tree’s planetarium.
Delicate merchandise!
the harbors are big with it—
for the light and the
barbarous gold.
We open
the halves
of a miracle,
and a clotting of acids
into the starry
original juices,
irreducible, changeless,
so the freshness lives on
in a lemon,
in the sweet-smelling house of the rind,
the proportions arcane and acerb.

Cutting the lemon
the knife leaves
a little cathedral:
alcoves unguessed by the eye
that open acidulous glass
to the light; topazes
riding the droplets,
aromatic facades.

So, while the hand
holds the cut of the lemon,
half a world on a trencher,
the gold of the universe
to your touch:
a cup yellow
with miracles,
a breast and a nipple
perfuming the earth;
a flashing made fruitage,
the diminutive fire of a planet.

"Neruda takes the common lemon and makes it into a celestial body…"

Neruda takes the common lemon and makes it into a celestial body, moving down from the “tree’s planetarium, the diminutive fire of a planet, starry divisions, the gold of the universe.” The lemon becomes holy—“cutting it with a knife leaves a cathedral,” “we open the halves of a miracle,” “creation.” And yet, the description is exacting–how perfect the metaphor of a lemon cut in half to a breast and a nipple.

In Ode to my Socks, Neruda applies his same brand of magical observation of something ordinary to his socks:

Ode to my Socks

Mara Mori brought me
a pair of socks
which she knitted herself
with her sheepherder's hands,
two socks as soft as rabbits.
I slipped my feet into them
as if they were two cases
knitted with threads of twilight and goatskin,
Violent socks,
my feet were two fish made of wool,
two long sharks
sea blue, shot through
by one golden thread,
two immense blackbirds,
two cannons,
my feet were honored in this way
by these heavenly socks.
They were so handsome for the first time
my feet seemed to me unacceptable
like two decrepit firemen,
firemen unworthy of that woven fire,
of those glowing socks.

Nevertheless, I resisted the sharp temptation
to save them somewhere as schoolboys
keep fireflies,
as learned men collect
sacred texts,
I resisted the mad impulse to put them
in a golden cage and each day give them
birdseed and pieces of pink melon.
Like explorers in the jungle
who hand over the very rare green deer
to the spit and eat it with remorse,
I stretched out my feet and pulled on
the magnificent socks and then my shoes.

The moral of my ode is this:
beauty is twice beauty
and what is good is doubly good
when it is a matter of two socks
made of wool in winter

"This is an elegant celebration of a pair of woolen socks "

This is an elegant celebration of a pair of woolen socks written to pay homage to the ordinary materials of daily life. Without affectation or intellectualizing, the poem uses a series of startling images, a paean to a useful object. Odes were originally elaborate and stately compositions sung in public in honor of a great person, event, or season. The form dates back to ancient Greece. Since an ode is such a formal structure, having one to a pair of socks is hilarious, but also makes the point that socks deserve that sort of acclaim.

So next time you are looking for something to write about, you may not need to go further than your own feet.

Rochelle Jewel Shapiro





Rochelle Jewel Shapiro is author of Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster) and has published essays in NYT (Lives), Newsweek (My Turn), et. al. Her essay, ESS, ESS, is just out in FEED ME: WRITERS DISH ABOUT FOOD, EATING, WEIGHT, AND BODY IMAGE, ed. by Harriet Brown (Random House, 2009). She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in poetry. She teaches Writing the Personal Essay at UCLA extension.