Maria Popova’s “Brain Pickings” Column on
Pablo Neruda’s “Keeping Quiet”


Keeping Quiet

Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.

For once on the face of the earth,
let’s not speak in any language;
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.

It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.

Fisherman in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would look at his hurt hands.

Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victories with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.

What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about;
I want no truck with death.

If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.

Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.


From Extravagaria : A Bilingual Edition by Pablo Neruda, Alastair Reid (Translator)
(Noonday Press 2001)


Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Poetry Sunday’s mission is to feature poetry written by women poets over the age of 40, but Neruda’s poem feels uncannily suited for our current shelter-at-home restrictions and also gives me the chance to highlight the important and inspiring work of a writer, Maria Popova, I’ve been wanting to feature for some time. I found Neruda’s poem in one of her Brain Pickings columns, “Keeping Quiet: Sylvia Boorstein Reads Pablo Neruda’s Beautiful Ode to Silence,” and you can listen to Jewish-Buddhist teacher and author Boorstein reading it here.

Brain Pickings is Popova’s blog featuring elegant writing on books and ideas from the arts, philosophy, culture, and current events. Popova has been posting these smart, polymathic columns weekly for more than thirteen years, and you can follow them on Twitter @brainpicker. They often feature poetry, and each one I’ve read has been a delight. Popova has served as an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow and has written for The AtlanticWired UK, and other publications. Her work has received a number of awards, from Forbes, Time, The New York Times, and others. Popova is also the author of two books, Figuring (Pantheon 2019) and A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader (Enchanted Lion Books 2018). [Sources: here and here] Those books are available for order here and here.

Popova calls Brain Pickings “my one-woman labor of love exploring what it means to live a decent, substantive, rewarding life.” What began in 2006 as a weekly email to friends is now a popular blog included in the Library of Congress permanent web archives. Popova calls it “a record of my own becoming as a person—intellectually, creatively, spiritually, poetically—drawn from my extended marginalia on the search for meaning across literature, science, art, philosophy, and the various other tentacles of human thought and feeling.” [Source here]

If you dip into any Brain Pickings column, you’ll enter a world of art, literature, music, and culture that will lead you back to previous columns and through a wide array of books, music, paintings, and other repositories of beauty and human passion. Popova’s strength is her ability to make connections among and across disciplines. One recent column, for example, includes a video that pairs a fragment about trees from Herman Hesse’s journals with a video tour of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, and then links up with other writing about trees by Pablo Neruda, Mary Oliver, and John Muir. (The video was filmed for an episode of Wander—a series featuring “walks through beautiful spaces accompanied by the world’s favorite voices” created by filmmaker Beau Kerouac to allow quarantined people to virtually tour the world’s parks and cultural institutions. (Visit here)

I also want to recommend another Popova column, “Rebecca Solnit on Hope in Dark Times, Resisting the Defeatism of Easy Despair, and What Victory Really Means for Movements of Social Change” (visit here). I found Solnit’s book Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities (Haymarket Books 2016) a source of solace following the 2016 election and have returned to it since the pandemic began.

In some ways, Neruda’s poem almost seems to anticipate the situation the world finds itself in now—a time of worldwide quiet and keeping-still that is unprecedented in modern times for our species. These lines really resonate:

we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.

That’s more or less where we are now, right? Our enforced separation is something we are all in together; in a way, people have never been so collectively aligned before. In Neruda’s vision, the great silence is restorative, and the men who normally foment “green wars” instead spend their time hanging out in the shade. Extrapolating to our situation, war has not been occupying the headlines as much recently—one silver lining—and maybe we are also learning to slow down and allow silence to disrupt the entrenched cycle of busyness and anxiety that defined our lives before COVID. In Neruda’s poem, some disruptions—especially when they are disruptions of a disruptive way of living—can be positive, breaking the vicious cycle of “this sadness / of never understanding ourselves / and of threatening ourselves with death.” Sometimes silence is a good thing then. Instead of representing death, it can represent an opportunity for reflection, rest, and regeneration the way winter presages and actually creates the conditions for spring. Maybe it’s wishful thinking to suggest that anything good can come out of the pandemic, but I sometimes hope this global “pause” might end up teaching us a few things about the value of family and friends and interpersonal kindness, and about just—slowing down. Learning to live with less efficiency. With less, period. Even if you don’t believe that, I hope that reading Neruda’s poem and Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings columns will give you some comfort during this oddly quiet, challenging time.

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