I recall that man and not two centuries
have passed since I saw him,
he went neither by horse nor by carriage:
purely on foot
and carried no sword or armour,
only nets on his shoulder,
axe or hammer or spade,
never fighting the rest of his species:
his exploits were with water and earth,
with wheat so that it turned into bread,
with giant trees to render them wood,
with walls to open up doors,
with sand to construct the walls,
and with ocean for it to bear.
I knew him and he is still not cancelled in me.
The carriages fell to pieces,
war destroyed doors and walls,
the city was a handful of ashes,
all the clothes turned to dust,
and he remains to me,
he survives in the sand,
when everything before
seemed imperishable but him.
In the going and coming of families
at times he was my father or kinsman
or perhaps it was scarcely him or not
the one who did not return to his house
because water or earth swallowed him up
or a tree or an engine killed him,
or he was the saddened carpenter
who went behind the coffin, without tears,
someone in the end who had no name,
except those that metal or timber have,
and on whom others gazed from on high
without seeing the ant
for the anthill
and so that when his feet did not stir,
because the poor exhausted one had died,
they never saw what they had not seen:
already there were other feet where he’d been.
The other feet were still his,
and the other hands,
the man remained:
when it seemed that now he was done for
he was the same once more,
there he was digging again at the earth,
cutting cloth, minus a shirt,
there he was and was not, like before,
he had gone down and was once more,
and since he never owned graveyards,
or tombs, nor was his name carved
on the stone he sweated to quarry,
no one knew he had come
and no one knew when he died,
so that only when the poor man could
he returned to life once more, without it being noted.
He was the man, no doubt of it, without heritage,
without cattle, without a flag,
and he was not distinguished from others,
the others who were him,
from the heights he was grey like the subsoil,
tanned like the leather,
he was yellow reaping the wheat,
he was black down in the mine,
he was the colour of stone on the fortress,
in the fishing boat the colour of tuna,
and the colour of horses in the meadow:
how could anyone distinguish him
if he was inseparable, elemental,
earth, coal or sea vested in man?
Where he lived whatever
a man touched grew:
the hostile stones,
by his hands,
took on order
and one by one formed
the right clarity of a building,
he made bread with his hands,
moved the engines,
the distances peopled themselves with towns,
other men grew,
and by man’s creating and breeding
spring walked the market squares
between bakeries and doves.
The maker of loaves was forgotten,
he who quarried and journeyed, beating down
and opening furrows, transporting sand,
when everything existed he no longer existed,
he gave his existence, that’s all.
He went elsewhere to labour, and at last
he was dead, rolling
like a stone in the river:
death carried him downstream.
I, who knew him, saw him descend
till he was no longer except what he left:
roads he could scarcely know,
houses he never ever would live in.
I turn to see him, and I await him
I see him in his grave and resurrected.
I distinguish him among all
who are his equals
and it seems to me it cannot be,
that like this we go nowhere,
that to survive like this holds no glory.
I believe that this man
must be enthroned, rightly shod and crowned.
I believe that those who made such things
must be the masters of all these things.
And that those who made bread should eat!
And those in the mines must have light!
Enough now of grey men enslaved!
Enough of the pale ‘missing ones’!
Not another man passes except as a king.
Not a single woman without her crown.
Golden gauntlets for every hand.
Fruits of the sun for all the unknowns!
I knew that man and when I could,
when he still had eyes in his head,
when he still had a voice in his mouth
I searched for him among tombs, and I said
grasping his arm that was not yet dust:
‘All will be gone, you will live on,
You ignite life.
You made what is yours.’
So let no one trouble themselves when
I seem to be alone and am not alone,
I am with no one and speak for them all:
Some listen to me, without knowing,
but those I sing, those who do know
go on being born, and will fill up the Earth.
Pablo Neruda, 1904–1973
© 1962 Pablo Neruda
from Fully Empowered
Photo by Ignacio Amenábar on Unsplash