Poetry Friday: Tony Medina on Pablo Neruda’s “To Wash a Child”

Tony MedinaApril is National Poetry Month, and we’re celebrating by asking some of our own Lee & Low poets to share their favorite poems with us. Today, poet and Guest BloggerHoward University Professor Tony Medina (I and I Bob Marley, Love to Langston, DeShawn Days) shares:

A poem I keep going back to—and one I frequently share with my students—is Pablo Neruda’s “To Wash a Child.” It is the ultimate ode to what Neruda refers to as “the oldest love on the earth.” The poem is rich in nuance and specificity, bringing the seemingly mundane, daily task of bathing a child to such a heightened act of beauty, frustration and mischief.

Image from "Baby Born"As if sketched in charcoal (“First the hair was a torturous/snarl crisscrossed by charcoal,/sawdust and oil,/soot, wiring and crabs,/till love’s/patience/established its buckets and sponges”) from a cartoonist’s pencil, the child comes to life to rambunctiously resist being washed (“the child issued newer than ever before”), running out to take on the day, only to get messy and dirty again (“ran from the hands of its mother/to straddle its cyclone again,/Looking for mud, oil, urine, and ink”), the poor, helpless parent, left with wash bucket and a floor of splashed soapy sloppiness.

What Neruda does beyond elevating the mundane into a praise poem of everyday activity—bathing a toddler—is reveal to us the carefree, rebelliousness of childhood and youth—and how suddenly it can be washed away by the insistence on “practic[ing] a habit of cleanliness” only to “live lifelessly on.” What Neruda tells us about growing up and conforming here is as breathtaking as the rich details and imagery he issues forth in this timeless and beautiful ode.

Here it is in the original Spanish, via Spanish Poems (where you can also find an English translation, though not the same one quoted above):

Para lavar a un niño

Sólo el amor más viejo de la tierra
lava y peina la estatua de los niños,
endereza las piernas, las rodillas,
sube el agua, resbalan los jabones,
y el cuerpo puro sale a respirar
el aire de la flor y de la madre.

Oh vigilancia clara!
Oh dulce alevosía!
Oh tierna guerra!

Ya el pelo era tortuoso
pelaje entrecruzado por carbones,
por aserrín y aceite,
por hollines, alambres y cangrejos,
hasta que la paciencia
del amor
estableció los cubos, las esponjas,
los peines, las toallas,
y de fregar y de peinar y de ámbar,
de antigua parsimonia y de jazmines
quedó más nuevo el niño todavía
y corrió de las manos de la madre
a montarse de nuevo en su ciclón,
a buscar lodo, aceite, orines, tinta,
a herirse y revolcarse entre las piedras.
Y así recién lavado salta el niño a vivir
porque más tarde sólo tendrá tiempo
para andar limpio, pero ya sin vida.

Further Reading:

Marilyn Singer’s favorite poems

Lee Bennett Hopkins’ favorite poem