981: Through a closed mouth the flies enter

20231020 SD

981: Through a closed mouth the flies enter

Today’s episode is guest hosted by Shira Erlichman.


I’m Shira Erlichman and this is The Slowdown.

At first, all the talk about Gratitude Journals seemed hokey. Then I learned research shows that those who keep a Gratitude Journal have better heart health, better sleep, and increased positive moods. So I gave it a try. What began as a one-year experiment, I maintained for six. It was an intensive, consistent training program in attuning to the good. Even on nights where I felt terrible, I returned to the act of highlighting abundance, of noticing what there is instead of isn’t.

I started to hone in on the fact that, for example, my train had started moving again, instead of the fact that it had been delayed for twenty minutes. I felt my perspective opening, and––I hope not too annoyingly––I became a proselytizer of the Gratitude Journal.

But then, this past May, I tried something different. Inspired by a student, I took up a Questions Journal. Now I was focusing not so much on abundance, but on that curious hook in a question mark, that cupped palm with nothing in it. All month, my questions sprouted as alternately goofy, philosophical, hyperspecific, and epic.

Did Jesus get annoyed? Will I ever go to bed before 3 AM? If a cloud is a sponge, is a sponge a cloud? If I love myself more, who loses? What kind of stillness is a spoon? Does a croissant ‘ampersand’? What is your home’s most unnoticed appliance? In what language is the word for ‘silence’ the longest?

Knowing is often heralded as more valuable than not knowing. So questions become an underground currency for those of us that appreciate a different way of being. Today’s poem understands that if a question is a jawbreaker you turn over and over, at its center is not an answer, but humility.

Through a closed mouth the flies enter
by Pablo Neruda

Why, with those red flames at hand, 
are rubies so ready to burn?

Why does the heart of the topaz 
reveal a yellow honeycomb?

Why does the rose amuse itself 
changing the colour of its dreams?

Why does the emerald shiver 
like a drowned submarine?

Why does the sky grow pale 
under the June stars?

Where does the lizard's tail 
get its fresh supply of paint?

Where is the underground fire 
that revives the carnations?

Where does the salt acquire 
the transparency of its glance?

Where did the coal sleep 
that it awoke so dark?

And where, where does the tiger buy
its stripes of mourning, its stripes of gold?

When did the jungle begin 
to breathe its own perfume?

When did the pine tree realize 
its own sweet-smelling consequence?

When did the lemons learn 
the same laws as the sun?

When did smoke learn to fly? 

When do roots converse?

What is water like in the stars?
Why is the scorpion poisonous, 
the elephant benign?

What is the tortoise brooding on? 
Where does shade withdraw to?
What song does the rain repeat? 
When are the birds going to die? 
And why should leaves be green?

What we know is so little,
and what we presume so much,
so slowly do we learn
that we ask questions, then die.
Better for us to keep our pride
for the city of the dead
on the day of the departed,
and there, when the wind blows through 
the holes in your skull,
it will unveil to you such mysteries, 
whispering the truth to you
through the spaces that were your ears.

"Through a closed mouth the flies enter" from EXTRAVAGARIA by Pablo Neruda, translated by Alastair Reid. Copyright © 1958 Pablo Neruda and Fundación Pablo Neruda. Translation copyright © 1974 by Alastair Reid. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux and Fundación Pablo Neruda.