(1904 - 1973)
Que despierte el leñador
União Soviética, se juntássemos
Do aroma fragante dos pinheiros dos Urais
Em três aposentos do velho Kremlin
(Que despierte el leñador, sección VIII),
in Canto Geral, Pablo Neruda, Editora Campo das Letras, 1999, tradução de Albano Martins, ISBN: 9726101077, 660 pág.
Si tu me olvidas
Quiero que sepas
Tú sabes como es esto:
la luna de cristal, la rama roja
del lento otoño en mi ventana,
junto al fuego
la impalpable ceniza
o el arrugado cuerpo de la leña,
todo me lleva a ti,
como si todo lo que existe,
aromas, luz, metales,
fueran pequeños barcos que navegan
hacia la islas tuyas que me aguardan.
si poco a poco dejas de quererme
dejaré de quererte poco a poco.
Si de pronto
no me busques
que ya te habré olvidado.
Si consideras largo y loco
el viento de banderas
que pasa por mi vida
y te decides
a dejarme a la orilla
del corazón en que tengo raíces,
que en ese día,
a esa hora
levantaré los brazos
y saldrán mis raíces
a buscar otra tierra.
si cada día,
sientes que a mí estas destinada
con dulzura implacable.
Si cada día sube
una flor a tus labios a buscarme,
ay amor mío, ay mía,
en mi todo ese fuego se repite,
en mí nada se apaga ni se olvida,
mi amor se nutre de tu amor, amada,
y mientras vivas estará en tus brazos
sin salir de los míos.
Los versos del capitán
If You Forget Me
I want you to know one thing.
You know how this is:
if I look at the crystal moon,
at the red branch of the slow autumn at my window,
if I touch near the fire the impalpable ashor the wrinkled body of the log,
everything carries me to you,
as if everything that exists,
aromas, light, metals,
were little boatsthat sail toward those isles of yours that
wait for me.
if little by little you stop loving me I shall stop loving you little by little.
If suddenly you forget me do not look for me, for I shall already have forgotten you.
If you think it long and mad the wind of banners that passes through my life,
and you decide to leave me at the shore of the heart where I have roots,
remember that on that day,
at that hour I shall lift my arms and my roots will set off to seek another land.
But if each day each hour you feel that you are destined for me with implacable sweetness.
If each day a flower climbs up to your lips to seek me,
ah my love, ah my own,
in me all that fire is repeated,
in me nothing is extinguished or forgotten,
my love feeds on your love, beloved,
and as long as you live it will be in your arms without leaving mine.
Bad Poet, Bad Man
From the July 26, 2004 issue:
A hundred years of Pablo Neruda
by Stephen Schwartz
07/26/2004, Volume 009, Issue 43
THE CHILEAN WRITER Pablo Neruda is "the greatest poet of the twentieth century--in any language." Or so said Gabriel García Márquez, in a line recently repeated by the Washington Post and several other American publications. Readers in the United States seem destined to have Neruda thrust upon them every few years, much as the cicadas return to whine and roar up and down the East Coast. The excuse this time is the centennial of Neruda's birth on July 12, 1904.
There is probably no more chance of halting this current binge of Neruda worship than there is of banishing the cicadas, but, still, the truth does need to be said: Pablo Neruda was a bad writer and a bad man. His main public is located not in the Spanish-speaking nations but in the Anglo-European countries, and his reputation derives almost entirely from the iconic place he once occupied in politics--which is to say, he's "the greatest poet of the twentieth century" because he was a Stalinist at exactly the right moment, and not because of his poetry, which is doggerel.
Yes, his work is still plagiarized by teenage boys in Latin America, who see his Twenty Love Poems and a Desperate Song and figure there is nothing wrong with borrowing from it--just as one poem in the book is itself stolen from Rabindranath Tagore--and presenting its overwrought lines to their girlfriends. But if those boys grow up to be serious writers, they leave Neruda behind.
Nonetheless, the American progressive literary caste adores, adulates, and idolizes Neruda. He found the exact measure of his mediocrity in Robert Bly, beater of drums and perpetrator of vexingly atrocious verse, as translator. I admit to feeling a little sympathy for the dead Neruda once: When I discovered that his political poem Que despierte el leñador, in which Lincoln represents the Marxist element in the history of the United States, had been done into English by Bly. Awarded a Soviet "International Peace Prize" for 1950--and there's a phrase that should provoke considerable thought--the text was published in America by the Communist party with its title stirringly rendered as Let the Railsplitter Awake! Actually, Bly's title, I Wish the Woodcutter Would Wake Up, may be even more revealing.
In 1938, two singular men sat down to compose a statement about the situation of the global intellect as they then saw it. They wrote, among other things, "The totalitarian regime of the U.S.S.R., working through the so-called 'cultural' organizations it controls in other countries, has spread over the entire world a deep twilight hostile to every sort of spiritual value. A twilight of filth and blood in which, disguised as intellectuals and artists, those men steep themselves who have made servility a career, of lying for pay a custom, and of excuses for crime a source of pleasure." Nobody more embodied the phenomenon described in these lines than Pablo Neruda. The description was written by the surrealist André Breton and the exiled Leon Trotsky.
Whatever may be said of the Trotskyists, neither their leader nor they themselves ever promoted bad art. And the essayists, authors, and critics who cleaved to Trotsky, including James T. Farrell, Sidney Hook, Mary McCarthy, Saul Bellow, Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, and a considerable number of others, were inspired by the words of Breton and Trotsky when, in 1939, some among them helped found the Committee for Cultural Freedom. Trotsky and his followers rejected the childish argument that leftist politics makes good writers and that authors of the right are necessarily heartless and mercenary.
THE RISE of Pablo Neruda may be the definitive example of the Soviet influence on art around the world. Late nineteenth-century poetry in Spanish was dominated by the inflated rhetoric of Rubén Darío, on whom Whitman and the French Parnassiens exercised a baleful influence. Then came the "Generation of '98," the group of extraordinary writers in Spain who, in the aftermath of that country's defeat in the Spanish-American war, carried out something comparable to the Imagist revolution of Pound and his contemporaries--clearing the exaggerated, gassy vocabulary of Rubén out of the idiom, replacing it by a clean, spare style as well as a harsh recognition of the realities that had befallen Spanish society and culture. They included some of the great modern classics of the language: Unamuno, Azorín, Ortega y Gasset, Pío Baroja, and Valle-Inclán.
Above all, Antonio Machado exemplified this new poetic diction in Spanish. The Generation of '98 had major echoes in Latin America, but also paved the way for the "Generation of 1927," which comprised a yet more brilliant constellation of poets, known for an even less cluttered modernist style: Pedro Salinas, Jorge Guillén, Gerardo Diego, Dámaso Alonso, Vicente Aleixandre, Federico García Lorca, Luis Cernuda, Rafael Alberti, Manuel Altolaguirre.
To move from the lucid achievement of these extraordinary men to the pseudo-Whitmanese of Neruda represented an immense step backward for Spanish poetry; it meant a return to the lazy, overwrought excesses employed by imitators of Rubén Darío, without the solid Catholic values and connection to the Nicaraguan landscape found in Rubén and his better disciples (most of them known only among his fellow Nicaraguans). Everybody who knows Spanish literature recognizes this fact--everybody except a few academic demagogues and a large number of American newspaper reviewers, who are still responding to the reputation built for Neruda by the Soviet machine. The admirers of Neruda are tourists in their approach to Hispanic literature, like people who attend a flamenco dance performance and think they have seen Spain--but with a politically correct edge.
Neruda was a figure promoted to global literary stardom by the creators and bestowers of the Stalin Peace Prize, which he received in 1953. He was joined in this role with a group of writers, some of them once very gifted, whose talents faded when they sold themselves to Moscow. The best among them as writers, and therefore the worst morally, were the French ex-surrealist Louis Aragon, who before his communization was unquestionably the finest young prose stylist in his language, but who turned into a leaden pedant, authoring poems in praise of the Soviet secret police, along with his compatriot Paul luard, who followed the same path, endorsing the last Stalinist purges.
The Czech novelist Milan Kundera wrote, "I was shocked when, in 1950, the great French Communist poet Paul luard publicly approved the hanging of his friend, the Prague writer Zavis Kalandra. . . . When a great poet praises an execution, it is a blow that shatters our whole image of the world." Neruda, however, was not a great poet, even though he praised many executions and even participated in an assassination plot, while also helping consign anti-Communist leftists to the tender mercies of Adolf Hitler.
NATURALLY, these details are not to be found in the hagiographic articles that have poured forth in recent weeks on the occasion of the Neruda centenary. A few weeks ago, the London Guardian dramatically evoked Neruda's labors to relocate refugees from the defeated Spanish Republic. Officiating as a Chilean diplomat in Paris, Neruda assisted in hiring a ship, the Winnipeg, to convey 2,000 Spanish leftist exiles to Chile.
Adam Feinstein writes, "The Winnipeg left Pauillac, the port of Bordeaux, on August 4, 1939. Neruda stood on the dock, in his white hat, alongside his second-wife-to-be Delia del Carril, to wave the boat off. In the key poem, 'Explico algunas cosas' ('Let Me Explain a Few Things'), Neruda reveals that he has disowned his previous, inward-looking self, together with any romantic, unworldly lyricism, and is now fully committed to his new role of truth-teller and exposer of the world's injustices."
A charming legend, but one hiding historical truths known in rather different terms to scholars. Neruda played the role of a reverse Schindler. Using his status as a diplomat, Neruda made sure that passports to board the Winnipeg went to refugees who shared his politics and beliefs, which were those of Joseph Stalin. Rejected refugees were then condemned to internment or death in France, which fell within a year into the hands of Hitler's rapidly advancing armies.
IN HIS DISTINGUISHED WORK Beyond Death and Exile, Louis Stein notes that the anarchists and anti-Communists "were given a disproportionately small share of the available places." A leading Spanish anti-Communist leftist, Federico Solano Palacio, went further, declaring that some 86 percent of the applications for transportation by anarchists were thrown out. Solano Palacio specifically cited the example of the Winnipeg. The Catalan labor historian Josep Peirats wrote in 1993: "Before World War II stopped all departures, [three ships] sailed to Veracruz, Mexico. Later on, the Winnipeg sailed to Chile. . . . These trips were administered by the Communists. . . . They granted or denied passports [and] strictly screened passengers at points of embarkation. The same procedure applied to transport to Chile, where Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet . . . did the screening."
Neruda's services to Stalin did not end with this sorry episode. In May 1940, the Mexican Communist muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros, in a preview of a successful assassination three months later, led an armed attack on the Mexican residence of Trotsky, in which an American guard was kidnapped and murdered. Siqueiros, facing nine separate criminal charges, was released on bail. But soon after, Neruda helped arrange for him to get a Chilean passport. Siqueiros immediately fled Mexico, thus squelching a major part of the Mexican government's investigation of the anti-Trotsky conspiracy. For the rest of his life, Neruda expressed his undiluted pride in this action, which had led to his suspension from the Chilean diplomatic service.
Neruda never bothered to hide his great enthusiasm for Stalin. Upon the dictator's death in 1953, he wrote a threnody declaring:
Ser hombres! Es
y hay que
aprender de Stalin
Stalin es el
En sus últimos
años la paloma,
En su muerte
To be men! That is the Stalinist law! . . .
We must learn from Stalin
Stalin is the noon,
Stalinists, Let us bear this title with pride.
Stalinist workers, clerks, women take care of this day!
In recent years the dove,
A wave beats against the stones of the shore.
This poem remains in print in Neruda's Spanish-language collected writings. It does not often appear in anthologies of his work in English.
In 1971, Neruda got the Nobel Prize, which he had sought for years and the denial of which he complains about in Il Postino, the 1994 Italian film based on his later life. The award of his Nobel came much to the disgust of certain members of the selection committee, who could not forget his actions in behalf of the Soviet dictatorship. But his Swedish translator, Artur Lundkvist, from the moment he was elected to the Nobel Academy in 1968, made it his business to get the Chilean the prize.
When Il Postino came out, it was said that Bill Clinton and Al Gore were among its most enthusiastic fans, and that Clinton even went so far as to buy, as a birthday present for Hillary, a copy of Love: Ten Poems by Pablo Neruda. But what serious reason can justify allowing the continued transformation of this loathsome figure, vain and selfish, ambitious and unctuous in his service to a totalitarian regime, into a champion of Spanish literature?
And yet, here is Carolyn Curiel in the New York Times this July 6: "That Pablo Neruda was the greatest poet of the last century is beyond argument in much of South America." In fact, the more honest of his fellow Chileans express great resentment that Neruda's Nobel overshadows that awarded in 1945 to another Chilean poet, Gabriela Mistral, unknown north of the Rio Grande today, and many of them argue that yet another Chilean modernist, Vicente Huidobro, was a thousand times better and more important to world literature than Neruda. Huidobro compared Neruda, unfavorably, to a tango dancer.
THIS SUMMER the Chronicle of Higher Education gave space to Ilan Stavans, a Mexican-born professor at Amherst, to make a new anointing of Neruda as the savior of Hispanic literature. Along the way, Stavans had the nerve to proclaim that Neruda's adherence to the Communist party made him "the spokesman for the enslaved." Is this not, perhaps, a misprint, overlooked by the proofreaders at the Chronicle of Higher Education? The Communists were enslavers, as the whole world, except perhaps Professor Stavans, now admits. We must ask, can one really consider Neruda a finer poet than Paul Celan, who survived a fascist concentration camp, or Osip Mandelstam, who died in the Gulag?
Such comparisons are worse than distasteful; they border on the obscene. Federico García Lorca said of Neruda, "he is closer to blood than to ink;" it was an insight of great depth, far beyond its author's knowing--and today, unbelievably enough, the reputation of García Lorca has been annexed to, and overshadowed by, that of Neruda. It is time to treat Pablo Neruda as the French surrealists once recommended dealing with another Nobel laureate, Anatole France: Let us box up his memory with his books and throw the whole thing away. As Breton wrote, "There is no reason that, once dead, this man should create any more dust."
Stephen Schwartz, a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard, also writes for leading periodicals in Spain and Latin America.
Pablo Neruda at 100
By Edward Hirsch
Sunday, July 11, 2004; Page BW08
Pablo Neruda, a magnificent poet of Chile, of Latin America and, finally, of the Americas, well may be, in the words of Gabriel García Márquez, "the greatest poet of the twentieth century -- in any language." Beloved by Chileans of all classes, he is known throughout the world -- an iconic figure comparable to, say, Pablo Picasso or Charlie Chaplin. He is one of the most widely read and cherished poets in history. Tomorrow is the 100th anniversary of Neruda's birth, and no celebration would be more fitting than to go down to the shore and read aloud his poems. He loved the playful anarchy of the sea -- creative, destructive, ceaselessly moving. He loved the marriage of wind, water and sand, and found inspiration in the crashing fury and freedom of the waves, the seabirds on the coast, the endlessness of blue sky. "I need the sea because it teaches me," he wrote. "I move in the university of the waves." He loved how the sea forever renewed itself, a renewal echoed in his work as well as in his life. He felt that creating poetry was like constantly being born. So let us head for the sea to recite his poems -- "Let us uncork all our bottled up happiness," as he put it in "Celebration" -- and come back refreshed, deepened and enlarged.
Neruda was born Neftalí Ricardo Reyes y Basualto in 1904 in Parral, central Chile. His father was a railroad worker, his mother a primary school teacher. The first heartbreak of his life was that he never knew his mother, who died less than two months after he was born. As he wrote in "The Birth":
Y de allí soy,
de aquel Parral
(Memorial de la Isla Negra)
And that's where I'm from, that
Parral of the trembling earth,
a land laden with grapes
which came to life
out of my dead mother.
(tr. Alastair Reid)
All his life, Neruda linked womanhood to the regeneration of earth and the cyclical processes of nature. It was one of his most emotionally motivated, earnestly held associations.
The family moved to the frontier town of Temuco in southern Chile, where Neruda was raised in a land of powerful solitude, luxuriant nature and endless rain. "My father is buried in one of the rainiest cemeteries in the world," he wrote sadly. He adored his stepmother, whom he called la mamadre (the more-mother), and when he was 14 wrote his first lyric for her. "And it was at that age," he wrote later, "poetry arrived in search of me." As a teenager, he took the pseudonym "Pablo Neruda" to conceal the publication of his first poems from his disapproving father, and later adopted the name legally. But he quickly found approval elsewhere. He brought his work to the new principal of the local girls' school, the famed poet Gabriela Mistral, who told him: "I was sick, but I began to read your poems and I've gotten better, because I am sure that here there is indeed a true poet."
Neruda's professional life began early. He moved to the capital city of Santiago and published his first collection, Book of Twilight, in 1923. He followed it a year later with the astounding Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, which instantly catapulted him to fame and is still loved throughout Latin America. It is the first poetry in Spanish that unabashedly celebrates erotic love in sensuous, earthly terms. "Love poems were breaking out all over my body," he later recalled.
I read these poems in W.S. Merwin's stimulating translation when I was 19 and immediately recognized the adolescent lover, at once a child and an adult, being schooled in the art of longing and obsession. "Tonight I can write the saddest lines," he declared in the 20th love poem. "I no longer love her, that's certain, but maybe I love her./ Love is so short, forgetting is so long." I still think of the first poem in this collection as an initiation, an introductory text to the poetry of desire:
Cuerpo de Mujer
mujer, blancas colinas, muslos blancos
Fui solo como
De mi huian
Pero cae la
hora de la venganza, y te amo.
mujer mia, persistire en tu gracia.
De Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada, 1924.
Body of a woman, white hills, white thighs,
you look like a world, lying in surrender.
My rough peasant's body digs in you
and makes the son leap from the depth of the earth.
I was alone like a tunnel. The birds fled from me,
and night swamped me with its crushing invasion.
To survive myself I forged you like a weapon,
like an arrow in my bow, a stone in my sling.
But the hour of vengeance falls, and I love you.
Body of skin, of moss, of eager and firm milk.
Oh the goblets of the breast! Oh the eyes of absence!
Oh the roses of the pubis! Oh your voice, slow and sad!
Body of my woman, I will persist in your grace.
My thirst, my boundless desire, my shifting road!
Dark river-beds where the eternal thirst flows
and weariness follows, and the infinite ache.
(tr. W.S. Merwin)
Neruda benefited from a tradition among Latin American governments of subsidizing authors through appointments to the foreign service. He served in cities around the world, an experience that profoundly shaped his vision; but he always returned to Chile with a renewed sense of wonder and called himself "a Chilean ever and always."
Neruda's first post, which he chose at random, was in Rangoon, Burma, where he was cut off from his language, his culture and his history. Profoundly estranged from everything around him ("Really, don't you find yourself surrounded by destructions, deaths, ruined things . . . blocked by difficulties and impossibilities?" he wrote to a friend), he began to write the harsh, ferociously surreal poems that would bloom into the three disconsolate volumes of Residence on Earth (1925-1945). These poems reflect ancient terrors and modern anxieties, and his near-religious desolation: He once called them "a mass of almost ritualistic verses . . . with mystery and suffering, like those created by the poets of old." These poems reflect ancient terrors and modern anxieties, his near-religious desolation. "It so happens I am sick of being a man," he confesses in "Walking Around":
seguir siendo raíz en las tinieblas,
para mí tantas desgracias.
I don't want to go on being a root in the dark,
insecure, stretched out, shivering with sleep,
going on down, into the moist guts of the earth,
taking in and thinking, eating every day.
I don't want so much misery.
I don't want to go on as a root and a tomb,
alone under the ground, a warehouse with corpses,
half frozen, dying of grief.
(tr. Robert Bly)
"Life led me through the world's farthest regions," Neruda once said, "before I reached what should have been my point of departure: Spain." He married twice during the years he served in various consular positions in Ceylon, Java and Singapore, in Buenos Aires, where he became friends with Federico García Lorca, then in Barcelona and Madrid, where he also became friends with Rafael Alberti and Miguel Hernández.
This remarkable poetic fraternity was blown apart by the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, and Neruda spent the next few years shuttling between Madrid, Paris and Santiago. He was a passionate supporter of the Republican cause and wrote fiery poems denouncing the fascists and, eventually, raging against their victory. "So you ask why his poems/ don't tell us of dreams, and leaves,/ and great volcanoes in his native land?" he asked in "I Explain Some Things": "Come see the blood in the streets,/ come see/ the blood in the streets,/ come see the blood/ in the streets!"
Neruda had slowly developed a vision of un-alienated man, of justice and equality. "The world has changed and my poetry has changed," he said in 1939. On the night of his father's death in 1938, he began Canto general (General Song), which by the time it was published in 1950 had grown into 340 poems arranged in 15 sections. The heart of the epic is "The Heights of Macchu Picchu," his meditation on the Inca fortress hidden for centuries in the Andes Mountains. He said it marked "a new stage in my style and a new direction in my concerns." As he stood on the hallowed ground, Neruda vowed to make the stones speak on behalf of those who had built and labored on it. "Rise to be born with me, brother," he called out:
I come to speak through your dead mouth.
All through the earth join all
the silent wasted lips
and speak from the depths to me all this long night
as if I were anchored here with you,
tell me everything, chain by chain,
link by link, and step by step,
file the knives you kept by you,
drive them into my chest and my hand
like a river of riving yellow light,
like a river where buried jaguars lie,
And let me weep, hours, days, years,
blind ages, stellar centuries.
Give me silence, water, hope.
Give me struggle, iron, volcanoes.
Fasten your bodies to me like magnets.
Hasten to my veins to my mouth.
Speak through my words and my blood.
(Tr. John Felstiner)
Yo vengo a hablar por vuestra boca muerta.
A través de la tierra juntad todos los silenciosos labios derramados y desde el fondo habladme toda esta larga noche como si yo estuviera con vosotros anclado, contadme todo, cadena a cadena, eslabón a eslabón, y paso a paso, afilad los cuchillos que guardasteis, ponedlos en mi pecho y en mi mano, como un río de rayos amarillos, como un río de tigres enterrados, y dejadme llorar, horas, días, años, edades ciegas, siglos estelares.
Dadme el silencio, el agua, la esperanza.
Dadme la lucha, el hierro, los volcanes.
Apegadme los cuerpos como imanes.
Acudid a mis venas y a mi boca.
Hablad por mis palabras y mi sangre.
What had begun as a poem about Chile turned into one that delineated the full geological, biological and political history of South America. It became a comprehensive song, a general chant, a Whitmanian epic of the New World, a mythification of America.
By this time, Neruda had become an ardent communist. Over the years he wrote a lot of sincerely felt, but otherwise weak, didactic poems denouncing Western imperialism. His strident praise for the Communist Party seems at best naive, and his admiration for Stalin, whom he never disavowed, can be hard to stomach. Such figures as Octavio Paz and Czeslaw Milosz broke with him over communism. In his Memoirs, completed just a few days before his death, he called himself "an anarchoid," and that seems closer to the truth. "I do whatever I like," he said.
Nonetheless, Neruda's social and political commitments were crucial to his life and work. He was elected senator for the Communist Party in Chile in 1945. He campaigned for Gabriel González Videla, who became president the next year -- and whose government then outlawed the Communist Party. Neruda denounced him, and in 1948 he was accused of disloyalty and declared a dangerous agitator. After a warrant for his arrest was issued, he went into hiding in Chile, then fled to Argentina and traveled to Italy, France, the Soviet Union and Asia. (His brief stay on the island of Capri during his exile was fictionalized in the touching film "Il Postino.") Throughout this period he was writing love poems for Matilde Urrutia -- "Ah great love, small beloved!" -- who became his third wife. These blossomed into The Captain's Verses (1952), which was published anonymously, and 100 Love Sonnets (1959).
Neruda returned to Chile in the mid-1950s, and his productivity continued unabated until the end of his life. When he was invited by the editor of a Caracas newspaper to contribute weekly pieces, he accepted on the condition that the work appear in the news section and not in the literary supplement. The paper agreed. "This is how I published a long history of time, things, artisans, people, fruit, flowers, and life," Neruda recalled in his Memoirs. The three books that then came out in rapid succession -- Elemental Odes, New Elemental Odes and Third Book of Odes (1952-1957) -- were truly meant to be elemental, even elementary, to carry news of things from their birth onward, to accord material objects a life of their own, to estrange the familiar.
The list of their subjects is dizzying. Nothing ordinary was alien to Neruda, or, for that matter, ordinary -- everything was magical. He wrote separate odes to tomatoes and wine, to an artichoke and a dead carob tree, to conger chowder, to a large tuna in the market, to his socks and his suit, to his native birds, to light on the sea, to the dictionary, to a village movie theater. He wrote an ode to time and another to the Earth, an "Ode for Everything." "Nothing was to be omitted from my field of action," Neruda commented. The first poem, "The Invisible Man," is explicit in its sense of the poet's urgency: "what can I do,/everything asks me/to speak,/everything asks me/to sing, sing forever." These three rapturous collections present an affirmative alternative to the three despairing books of Residence on Earth, which Neruda came to feel were too negative. The odes are funny, fiery and exultant, savagely new and profoundly ancient.
Neruda became a faculty member at the University of Chile in 1962, worked intensively on the 1964 and 1970 presidential campaigns for the socialist Salvador Allende, and served as the Chilean ambassador to France. He received the Nobel Prize in literature in 1971. "There is no unassailable solitude," he said in his acceptance speech. "All roads lead to the same point: to the communication of who we are." He concluded:
"I come from a dark province, from a country separated from others by a severe geography. I was the most abandoned of poets, and my poetry was regional, sorrowful, steeped in rain. But I always had confidence in man. I never lost hope. That may be why I am here with my poetry, and with my flag."
Ill with cancer, Neruda retired to his beloved house in Isla Negra, Chile, where he had written Isla Negra, A Notebook (1964), a kind of autobiography in verse that explores his landscape, his roots, his formative experiences. This is supplemented by his splendid Memoirs, as well as by seven books of poems published posthumously. He wrote of entering "the silence into which everything falls/and, finally, we fall." Heartbroken over the coup that ousted Allende and the dark hour enveloping his country, Neruda died of cancer 11 days later -- on Sept. 23, 1973 -- in Santiago.
Neruda remains an immense presence in poetry. His work contained multitudes, like his beloved predecessor Walt Whitman. He was a poet of freedom and the sea, a wondrous love poet, the singer of an endlessly proliferating nature, a necessary voice of social consciousness. His work is radiantly impure and obstinately humane. In his Memoirs, Neruda asserts:
"Poetry is a deep inner calling in man; from it came liturgy, the psalms, and also the content of religions. The poet confronted nature's phenomena and in the early ages called himself a priest, to safeguard his vocation . . . . Today's social poet is still a member of the earliest order of priests. In the old days he made his pact with the darkness, and now he must interpret the light."
Edward Hirsch, one of five North American recipients of Chile's Presidential Medal of Honor for his contributions to understanding the work of Neruda, writes the weekly "Poet's Choice" column for Book World.
Neruda's garden of verse grew
more than love's roses
Reviewed by John Freeman
Sunday, August 31, 2003
The Poetry of Pablo Neruda
Edited by Ilan Stavans
FARRAR, STRAUS & GIROUX; 996 PAGE; $40
Although he was the world's most popular poet in the 1950s and '60s, Pablo Neruda's recognition has declined since his death in 1973. Today, he has become the poetry equivalent of a dozen red roses. Every Valentine's Day, lovers around the globe race to their lovers with copies of "Twenty Love Poems" clasped to their breasts. The film "Il Postino" certainly aided this phenomenon.
While reductive, this reading does not entirely miss the mark. Neruda was indeed a hopeless romantic, and he continues to seduce women from beyond the grave. But there was more to his career, much more, as editor Ilan Stavans amply showcases in his meticulously edited new volume, "The Poetry of Pablo Neruda," which precedes a less ambitious book due out from City Lights next year, which marks the Chilean's centennial.
While the City Lights volume will appeal to readers seeking an introduction to Neruda's work, Stavans' selection targets the serious reader. Weighing in at a whopping 996 pages, and drawing on the labor of some 37 translators, including Pulitzer Prize-winning poets Paul Muldoon and Galway Kinnell, Mark Strand and Philip Levine, along with Stanford Latin American studies professors Mark Eisner and John Felstiner, the volume includes some 600 poems, chosen by Stavans on the basis of "diversity, representation, and translatability."
Given Neruda's staggering output (an attempt in 1973 at the complete works ran to more than 3,000 pages), Stavans deserves high praise for the volume he has assembled. Thanks to his judicious selections, readers can now appreciate the fabulous evolution of Neruda's career without repetition or any posthumous touching up.
Inside, we find a funhouse mirror of Neruda's personas. There is indeed that melancholy wanderer, mooning at the heavens. But there is also Neruda the ardent surrealist, and there's Neruda the anti-war activist and Neruda the fervent nationalist. In the late '40s, we find Neruda the lonely exile, and, finally, toward the end of his long career, there is Neruda the organic, earth- toned metaphysical seeker, returning to the soil with books like "Machu Picchu. "
Amid all these various hats and disguises, there are some facts we do know. Pablo Neruda was born Neftali Ricardo Reyes Basoalto in 1904 in the Chilean frontier settlement of Parral, known as lush and intensely wild landscape. He took the niftily portable pseudonym Pablo Neruda at age 14; around the same time he had the great fortune of being taught by Gabriela Mistral, the Chilean poet who went on to win the Nobel Prize in 1945.
In 1921, Neruda moved to Santiago with the idea that he would teach French. Instead, he continued writing poetry in earnest, emerging in 1924 with "Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair." It seems unfortunate that this might be Neruda's most recognized volume, because these are not his greatest poems.
Rereading them now, it seems as if the Chilean has borrowed all that is bad from the symbolist poets -- the repetitive references to the soul, the penchant for galloping horses and wave imagery. There is a treacle tone in his erotic poetry that cloys on rereadings. The word "sad," for instance, is used nearly two dozen times in "Twenty Love Songs," including in the immortal line, "Tonight I can write the saddest lines."
Still, there are a few good verses any lothario would be wise to jot down and memorize. "I want/ to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees." And then: "The moon turns its clockwork dream./ The biggest stars look at me with your eyes."
To his credit, Neruda never quite outgrew his infatuation with his own heart, but he learned to channel it better, and he comes back to solid ground in "Residence on Earth," which came from a period of wandering as honorary consul to several Asian countries, from Rangoon in Burma to Colombo in Ceylon. A new element of earthiness and anger enters his poems. In the great "Walking Around," he writes of "dentures left forgotten in a coffeepot." "The Destroyed Street" features this arresting image: "tomatoes implacably assassinated."
It's easy to see how Neruda could progress from such pained observations to communism, which at the time seemed a natural and humane solution to the impoverishment and rot that wracks the Third World. In fact, this rather itinerant job may have saved Neruda's career, for it spurred him to write socially engaged poetry.
For the rest of his life, Neruda honed his skills further, crafting some of the most effective political poetry ever written. In "Victory," he writes of the bosses who "turned into altarboys/ painted their ugly faces with kindness. " His rage at the world's injustices is palpable but controlled.
"I searched the world/ for those who lost their country," he writes in "The Sadder Century." Indeed, Neruda did, flinging his heart at the project like a man with nothing to lose. "The Poetry of Pablo Neruda" is a testament to these soulful wanderings. There is an atlas of suffering included herein, and not just of the romantic sort.
John Freeman's reviews have appeared in the Independent on Sunday, the Wall Street Journal and the American Scholar.