HOW MUCH DOES A MAN LIVE by Pablo Neruda
“How much does a man live, after all?
Does he live a thousand days, or one only?
For a week, or for several centuries?
How long does a man spend dying?
What does it mean to say ‘for ever’? ”
Lost in these preoccupations,
I set myself to clear things up.
I sought out knowledgeable priests,
I waited for them after their rituals,
I watched them went they went their ways
to visit God and the Devil.
They wearied of my questions.
They on their part knew very little;
they were no more than administrators.
Medical men received me
in between consultations,
a scalpel in each hand,
saturated in aureomycin,
busier each day.
As far as I could tell from their talk,
the problem was as follows:
it was not so much the death of a microbe –
they went down by the ton –
but the few which survived
showed signs of perversity.
They left me so startled
that I sought out the grave-diggers.
I went to the rivers where they burn
enormous painted corpses,
emperors with an aura
of terrible curses,
women snuffed out at a stroke
by a wave of cholera.
There were whole beaches of dead
and ashy specialists.
When I got the chance
I asked them a slew of questions.
They offered to burn me;
it was the only thing they knew.
In my own country the undertakers
answered me, in between drinks:
“Get yourself a good woman
and give up this nonsense.”
I never saw people so happy.
Raising their glasses they sang,
toasting health and death.
They were huge fornicators.
I returned home, much older
after crossing the world.
Now I question nobody.
But I know less every day.