Pablo Neruda's "Ode to Conger Chowder"
...and other Literary Soups
(e-SoupSong 8: December 1, 2000)
ONCE UPON A TIME, Chilean poet and Nobel prize winner Pablo Neruda sang a song about eel chowder...except that it was and wasn't about soup. "Oda al Caldillo de Congrio"--or "Ode to Conger Chowder"--is one of his Elementos Odas, Songs to Simple Things, written in 1954 just after he returned to Chile from exile on Italy's Isle of Capri (where you may have seen him represented in Director Michael Radford's 1994 film Il Postino, played by Philippe Noiret).
On the face of it, the poem is practically a recipe for a fine traditional Chilean soup. You skin the eel. You saute garlic and onion then add tomato pieces and cook them down. Steam some fat prawns in it. Then add the eel. Stir in some thick cream. Then gently cook the whole chowder til it's fragrant--and serve to some lucky guests.
But by the time Pablo Neruda wrote this poem, he had survived a tough childhood; starved in a poet's garret in Santiago; served lonely vigils as a Chilean consul in Burma, Sri Lanka, Java, Singapore, and Spain (where he was eyewitness to the brutal Spanish Civil War); been beaten up by Nazis in Cuernavaca; been elected Senator from a poor mining district to the Chilean parliament; embraced Communism; been excommunicated from the church; been exiled for outspokeness, barely escaping on horseback over the Andes; and survived to return to his homeland in 1952 and begin Elementos Odas.
This complex and deeply thoughtful man was not just versifying a soup recipe. He had an agenda. He had ideas that he wanted to make plain even to the most uneducated person--like Mario Ruoppolo, that postman in the movie. Neruda was making a poem about beauty, about love of country, about ecstacy in life, and about the role of the poet in society-all using a seemingly simple soup recipe. He was making a poem that could and should stir any person who just took the time to read the poem very carefully.
So, let's do it. Let's take a close look at the poem.
First of all, I'm sorry that a newsletter format doesn't let you see the shape of the poem, because it is shaped like the long, skinny country of Chile itself--a whopping 74 lines long...but a mere 27 characters wide at its widest--and sometimes only 4 characters wide. For example, "ajos" (garlic) is the complete 27th line. So, even though it's long, it doesn't take long to read. You can read and see the whole 74-line poem in Spanish and English at "Oda al Caldillo de Congrio". But for convenience, here it is (in English, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden), with slash marks to indicate the line breaks:
"ODE TO CONGER CHOWDER," or "ODA AL CALDILLO DE CONGRIO"
In the storm-tossed / Chilean / sea / lives the rosy conger,/ giant eel / of snowy flesh./ And in Chilean / stewpots,/ along the coast,/ was born the chowder,/ thick and succulent,/ a boon to man./ You bring the Conger, skinned,/ to the kitchen / (its mottled skin slips off / like a glove,/ leaving the / grape of the sea / exposed to the world),/ naked,/ the tender eel / glistens,/ prepared / to serve our appetites./ Now / you take / garlic,/ first, caress / that precious / ivory,/ smell / its irate fragrance,/ then / blend the minced garlic / with onion / and tomato / until the onion / is the color of gold./ Meanwhile / steam/ our regal / ocean prawns,/ and when / they are / tender,/ when the savor is / set in a sauce / combining the liquors / of the ocean / and the clear water / released from the light of the onion,/ then / you add the eel / that it may be immersed in glory,/ that it may steep in the oils / of the pot,/ shrink and be saturated./ Now all that remains is to / drop a dollop of cream / into the concoction,/ a heavy rose,/ then slowly / deliver / the treasure to the flame,/ until in the chowder / are warmed / the essences of Chile,/ and to the table / come, newly wed / the savors / of land and sea,/ that in this dish / you may know heaven.
So you can see that it is a very nice poem that anyone who likes to eat (and that's most of us) would enjoy very much.
But, gentle reader, don't be lulled here. What is all this about the nation of Chile, starting out storm-tossed, being gently blended and combined, then ending as heaven? And what is all this about nakedness and appetites and caresses and smelling and newly weds? It's suspicious, I think: a very snaky fish with snowy flesh has its skin slipped off, exposed and naked--there's some caressing and smelling--the eel prepares to serve our appetites--it immerses itself in glory to steep in the oils of the pot--it shrinks and is saturated--and ends up covered in cream in the pot. Take it or leave, there's no getting around this frank imagery.
WHAT ON EARTH IS HE TRYING TO SAY?
Okay, on one level, the very passionate cook inside the poem is deeply engaged with the process of cooking the chowder. And who is the cook? Us. Using imperative and present tense verbs, Neruda says: YOU bring the Conger to the kitchen...YOU take the garlic, smell it, blend it...YOU add the eel...YOU know heaven. As readers, there we are in the kitchen, surprised into creating this chowder. And it's nice; we like doing it. We can see the rosy, white, golden colors. We can feel the garlic clove with our hands. We can smell the vegetables cooking in oil. We can't wait to taste the soup. Earth (vegetables) + Sea (eel and prawns) = Heaven (heavenly taste, anyway). That's soup mathematics for you.
On another level, the very passionate poet outside the poem--Neruda--is deeply engaged with the process of making the poem. For him, the chowder perfectly represents his beloved country (74 lines long and skinny) and he is the eel, come back through the ocean from exile, to plunge himself back into Chile. He is so happy to be home. His love for Chile is earthy, sensual. It is like a woman to him. In his memoirs he said, " I can only live in my own country. I cannot live without having my feet and my hands on it and my ear against it, without feeling the movement of its waters and its shadows, without feeling my roots reach down into its soil for maternal nourishment." Returning home is like consummating an affair with a woman he loves.
On another level yet, it isn't just Neruda coming home. It is the Poet with a capital P--and he has no intention of resting on his laurels. He's got a vision, and he's on a mission. As Chile's revered High Priest/Poet, he will inseminate the land with his words--combine and cook up the essences of Chile through its alchemical Earth, Air, Fire, and Water; he will create heaven out of the current tyranny. With his socialist ideals, he is, truly, "a boon to [the working] man." And he returns ferociously--not as gentle Orpheus sweetly plucking lyre strings, but as a monstrous Conger eel to fight for the rights of the Chilean people. Remember Jacqueline Bisset's toothy monster in "The Deep"? Well, THAT'S a Conger eel, a ferocious thing that fights and eats giant octopi in the deeps of the ocean just for snacks.
Indeed, Neruda has pretty ferocious ideas about the role of the Poet in the modern world. The Poet is not a "little god" picked out by a mystical destiny. Not someone who writes impenetrably for other poets. Not a realist...not a surrealist. Neruda's Poet is one who wants the "darkness to blossom"--one who is concerned "that the millions of people who have learnt neither to read us poets nor to read at all, who still cannot write or write to us, are to feel at home in the area of dignity without which it is impossible for them to be complete human beings."
In his remarks to accept the Nobel prize in 1971, Neruda cites a line from the French poet Rimbaud: "In the dawn, armed with burning patience, we shall enter the splendid Cities." He goes on to say, "I believe in this prophesy of Rimbaud, the Visionary. I come from a dark region, from a land separated from all others by the steep contours of its geography. I was the most forlorn of poets and my poetry was provincial, oppressed, and rainy. But always I had put my trust in man. I never lost hope. It is perhaps because of this that I have reached as far as I now have with my poetry and also with my banner. Lastly I wish to say to the people of good will, to the workers, to the poets, that the whole future has been expressed in this line by Rimbaud: only with a burning patience can we conquer the splendid City that will give light, justice, and dignity to all mankind. In this way, the song will not have been sung in vain."
"Ode to Conger Chowder" is a simply expressed poem that resonates with joy, with undisguised sensuality and passion. It's addressed to the Chilean people at a particular and troubling point in their history--espousing in some ways a party line that was swept away at the end of the 20th century . But, Neruda is a poet, for heaven's sake; he can't be dated or pigeonholed. People everywhere who read this poem with its rich imagery and heartbreakingly human values will find their appetites sharpened--for soup...for poetry...for light, justice, and dignity. You can dial up the recipe at Conger (or Fish) Chowder.
AND THE "OTHER" LITERARY SOUPS?
Oh, there's a bunch of them...all with their own equally complex stories. Ivan Turgenev's "Cabbage Soup" will break your heart. William Makepeace Thackeray's "The Ballad of Bouillabaisse" will excite your salivary glands. Ditto for Joseph Mery's "Recipe for Bouillabaisse". Carolyn Kizer's "Mud Soup" will make you laugh, as will Berda Jozsef's outrageous "In Praise of Bouillon". A personal favorite: Alexander Pope's "Receipt to make Soup: for the Use of Dean Swift". Something very sweet about that waspish, sickly poet of the closed couplet composing a get well soup for the sardonic creator of Gulliver's Travels. And that's not all: many many more at SoupTales.
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NEXT MONTH: A WORD TO "TRUE" MILLENNIUM PARTY DUDES ON 1/01/2001--STEP RIGHT THIS WAY FOR SURE-CURE HANGOVER SOUPS.