There was a moment in an interview I conducted in the 1990s with American social documentary photographer, Milton Rogovin, at which it occurred to me that I had arrived at a single degree of separation from the great Chilean poet born Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto, later to become Pablo Neruda. Or perhaps I ought to say I would have been at one degree of remove, had Neruda lived beyond my seventh birthday. As it is he died in 1973, a result of cancer, shortly after the Kissinger-backed military coup against Salvador Allende.
Milton once showed me a book given to him by the poet after their collaboration on the project Windows That Open Inward, and just as Pablo Neruda’s Wikipedia entry would have us expect, the ink was green, the colour of hope. It was Rogovin who first told me about this idiosyncrasy, although I seem to recall having read Robert Bly on the matter. I have something around a half-dozen Neruda anthologies, and it is to Bly and Alastair Reid that I am partial, not as a scholar of Spanish (which I am not) but as a casual reader. Citations in this essay will come from Reid’s and Bly’s editions, with use also of Anthony Kerrigan’s and Jodey Bateman’s translations.
Neruda strikes me as an outstanding example of the rounded poet, someone who is equally attentive to and effective at aesthetics and politics. There is no shortage of writers who have tried and failed at this act of balancing, and this is especially the case with Socialist authors. The imperative of the leftist writer to get his political message across with force and clarity has often come at the expense of aesthetics, or language, both in poetry and in prose. Not only has Neruda written many poems whose only purpose is aesthetic, such as his love poetry, but he has composed them in an imaginative style which stands in contrast to much 20th Century poetry of the left. By this I mean that he does not write in a “realistic” mode, but rather in a dense, image-based way:
It so happens I am sick of being a man.
And it happens that I walk into tailorshops and movie houses
dried up, waterproof, like a swan made of felt
steering my way in a water of wombs and ashes.
The smell of barbershops makes me break into hoarse sobs.
The only thing I want is to lie still like stones or wool.
The only thing I want is to see no more stores, no gardens,
no more goods, no spectacles, no elevators.
It so happens that I am sick of my feet and my nails
and my hair and my shadow.
It so happens I am sick of being a man.
Still it would be marvelous
to terrify a law clerk with a cut lily,
or kill a nun with a blow on the ear.
It would be great
to go through the streets with a green knife
letting out yells until I died of the cold.
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.
That’s why Monday, when it sees me coming
with my convict face, blazes up like gasoline,
and it howls on its way like a wounded wheel,
and leaves tracks full of warm blood leading toward the night.
And it pushes me into certain corners, into some moist houses,
into hospitals where the bones fly out the window,
into shoeshops that smell like vinegar,
and certain streets hideous as cracks in the skin.
There are sulphur-colored birds, and hideous intestines
hanging over the doors of houses that I hate,
and there are false teeth forgotten in a coffeepot,
there are mirrors that ought to have wept from shame and terror,
there are umbrellas everywhere, and venoms, and umbilical cords.
I stroll along serenely, with my eyes, my shoes,
my rage, forgetting everything,
I walk by, going through office buildings and orthopedic shops,
and courtyards with washing hanging from the line:
underwear, towels and shirts from which slow
dirty tears are falling.
Somewhere I think this style has been termed “deep image,” whatever that means. With Neruda however I feel I ought to resist the too-technical description, his poetry, though difficult, never being academic. He writes plainly, in the sense that he appeals to the reader’s own emotional, personal connection to ordinary material objects. There is no schooling aside from life required to read a Neruda poem:
“To the Foot From Its Child”
A child’s foot doesn’t know it’s a foot yet
And it wants to be a butterfly or an apple
But then the rocks and pieces of glass,
the streets, the stairways
and the roads of hard earth
keep teaching the foot that it can’t fly,
that it can’t be a round fruit on a branch.
Then the child’s foot
was defeated, it fell
it was a prisoner,
condemned to life in a shoe.
Little by little without light
it got acquainted with the world in its own way
without knowing the other imprisoned foot
exploring life like a blind man.
Those smooth toe nails
of quartz in a bunch,
got harder, they changed into
an opaque substance, into hard horn
and the child’s little petals
were crushed, lost their balance,
took the form of a reptile without eyes,
with triangular heads like a worm’s.
And they had callused over,
they were covered
with tiny lava fields of death,
a hardening unasked for.
But this blind thing kept going
without surrender, without stopping
hour after hour.
One foot after another,
now as a man,
or a woman,
through the fields, the mines,
the stores, the government bureaus,
this foot worked with its shoes,
it hardly had time
to be naked in love or in sleep
one foot walked, both feet walked
until the whole man stopped.
And then it went down
into the earth and didn’t know anything
because there everything was dark,
it didn’t know it was no longer a foot
or if they buried it so it could fly
or so it could
be an apple.
It may be the case that one either “gets” Neruda or does not, but his vast popularity suggests that he is a writer who communicates powerfully with the common man and woman. Even when I am unable either to explain or paraphrase a Neruda poem, I feel that I know exactly what it means. Here is a good example:
“Melancholy Inside Families”
I keep a blue bottle.
Inside it an ear and a portrait.
When the night dominates
the feathers of the owl,
when the hoarse cherry tree
rips out its lips and makes menacing gestures
with rinds which the ocean wind often perforates —
then I know that there are immense expanses hidden from us,
quartz in slugs,
blue waters for a battle,
much silence, many ore-veins
of withdrawals and camphor,
fallen things, medallions, kindnesses,
It is only the passage from one day to another,
a single bottle moving over the seas,
and a dining room where roses arrive,
a dining room deserted
as a fish bone; I am speaking of
a smashed cup, a curtain, at the end
of a deserted room through which a river passes
dragging along the stones. It is a house
set on the foundations of the rain,
a house of two rooms with the required number of windows,
and climbing vines faithful in every particular.
I walk through afternoons, I arrive
full of mud and death,
dragging along the earth and its roots,
and its indistinct stomach in which corpses
are sleeping with wheat,
metals, and pushed-over elephants.
But above all there is a terrifying,
a terrifying deserted dining room,
with its broken olive cruets,
and vinegar running under its chairs,
one ray of moonlight tied down,
something dark, and I look
for a companion inside myself:
perhaps it is a grocery store surrounded by the sea
and torn clothing from which sea water is dripping.
It is only a deserted dining room,
and around it there are expanses,
sunken factories, pieces of timber
which I alone know,
because I am sad, and because I travel,
and I know the earth, and I am sad.
The images in this poem combine to create a sense of loss and isolation. At times however Neruda would subvert his habits of writing, such as in the poem “I’m Explaining a Few Things”:
You are going to ask: and where are the lilacs?
and the poppy-petalled metaphysics?
and the rain repeatedly spattering
its words and drilling them full
of apertures and birds?
I’ll tell you all the news.
I lived in a suburb,
a suburb of Madrid, with bells,
and clocks, and trees.
[ … ]
And one morning all that was burning,
one morning the bonfires
leapt out of the earth
devouring human beings —
and from then on fire,
gunpowder from then on,
and from then on blood.
Bandits with planes and Moors,
bandits with finger-rings and duchesses,
bandits with black friars spattering blessings
came through the sky to kill children
and the blood of children ran through the streets
without fuss, like children’s blood.
[ … ]
see my dead house,
look at broken Spain :
from every house burning metal flows
instead of flowers,
from every socket of Spain
and from every dead child a rifle with eyes,
and from every crime bullets are born
which will one day find
the bull’s eye of your hearts.
And you’ll ask: why doesn’t his poetry
speak of dreams and leaves
and the great volcanoes of his native land?
Come and see the blood in the streets.
Come and see
The blood in the streets.
Come and see the blood
In the streets!
A poem which here comes to mind, and which illustrates Neruda’s more direct style, is “The United Fruit Company”:
When the trumpet sounded
everything was prepared on earth,
and Jehovah gave the world
to Coca-Cola Inc., Anaconda,
Ford Motors, and other corporations.
The United Fruit Company
reserved for itself the most juicy
piece, the central coast of my world,
the delicate waist of America.
It rebaptized these countries
and over the sleeping dead,
over the unquiet heroes
who won greatness,
liberty, and banners,
it established an opera buffa:
it abolished free will,
gave out imperial crowns,
encouraged envy, attracted
the dictatorship of flies:
Trujillo flies, Tachos flies
Carias flies, Martinez flies,
Ubico flies, flies sticky with
submissive blood and marmalade,
drunken flies that buzz over
the tombs of the people,
circus flies, wise flies
expert at tyranny.
With the bloodthirsty flies
came the Fruit Company,
amassed coffee and fruit
in ships which put to sea like
overloaded trays with the treasures
from our sunken lands.
Meanwhile the Indians fall
into the sugared depths of the
harbors and are buried in the
a corpse rolls, a thing without
name, a discarded number,
a bunch of rotten fruit
thrown on the garbage heap.
These poems give one something of the range of Neruda’s style. He is a poet of beauty and sadness, of dignity and feeling, and always a poet in love with the land, with objects, and with the surface of things:
“Too Many Names”
Mondays are meshed with Tuesdays
and the week with the whole year.
Time cannot be cut
with your weary scissors,
and all the names of the day
are washed out by the waters of night.
No one can claim the name of Pedro,
nobody is Rosa or Maria,
all of us are dust or sand,
all of us are rain under rain.
They have spoken to me of Venezuelas,
of Chiles and of Paraguays;
I have no idea what they are saying.
I know only the skin of the earth
and I know it is without a name.
When I lived amongst the roots
they pleased me more than flowers did,
and when I spoke to a stone
it rang like a bell.
It is so long, the spring
which goes on all winter.
Time lost its shoes.
A year is four centuries.
When I sleep every night,
what am I called or not called?
And when I wake, who am I
if I was not while I slept?
This means to say that scarcely
have we landed into life
than we come as if new-born;
let us not fill our mouths
with so many faltering names,
with so many sad formalities,
with so many pompous letters,
with so much of yours and mine,
with so much of signing of papers.
I have a mind to confuse things,
unite them, bring them to birth,
mix them up, undress them,
until the light of the world
has the oneness of the ocean,
a generous, vast wholeness,
a crepitant fragrance.
I have let the poet do most of the talking, as I well should. My purpose today has been to introduce Neruda to people who have never before read his poems. If you are one of these, please do yourself the favour of borrowing or buying a copy of his work. If you have however read Neruda’s work in the past, now may be a good time to do so again.