when you were alive!
(from "Final" by Pablo Neruda, from El mar y las campanas)
In an intensely circuitous month of sustained reading and study and recitation, I have plunged into the poems of Pablo Neruda.
The route was accidental: a student brought in an old videotape of Il Postino for the continuing education/humanities Literature class I was teaching to watch. I remember really liking it the first time I saw it, when it came out, but barely remembered the Neruda poems featured, except that they were almost exclusively love poems and there was a gorgeous young Italian woman that the mailman woos, and wins, using Neruda as an inspiration and a source.
Always impressionable, I re-read 20 Love Poems and a Song of Despair. then read Feinstein's workmanlike biography, which has some good stuff like this: Soon after Neruda's death, Francisco Velasco found an eagle trapped in his Santiago house, in the room where Neruda always stayed. Velasco recalls Neruda once telling him, that, 'if there was another life, he would like to be an eagle.'
In short order, I dug out my old copy of Neruda and Vallejo (translated by Robert Bly, from The Seventies Press), a copy of Neruda's Political Poetry, checked out from the library the Stephen Mitchell translations (Fleshly Apple etc.) and the massive selected poems "The Poetry of Pablo Neruda" (edited by Ilan Stavan).
Am now drowning in Neruda, as is easy to do. His first collection (20 Love Poems...) came out when he was barely twenty and made him a celebrity in Chile. He wrote over 2000 poems over fifty years, and eventually became internationally famous as a poet. Workers, peasants, the poor, and everyone else, it seemed, in South America, Mexico, Russia, China, the Far East and Europe, stopped Neruda on the street and recited their favorite poem of his, often in tears.
His was a passionate, first-person writing. "I am not a contemplative," he once said, comparing himself to Mallarme, who was an early influence but, Neruda maintained, wrote "closed room poems." Neruda progressed from love poems (20 poems) to tormented poems in exile (the first two Recidencia collections) to the political poetry of the Canto General in support of working people and the poor all over the world (an unashamed Communist from age 25 onwards, he completely ignored Stalin's monstrosities until many years after the murderous facts had become universally accepted), to the monumental Elemental Odes, a return to writing more simply about nature and love.
Boris Pasternak to Yevtushenko: "I didn't intend to lead anyone anywhere. I think a poet is a tree -- it stands still and rustles its leaves."
On September 15, 1970, President Nixon instructed CIA Director Richard Helms to prevent Allende taking power in Chile by lending assistance to a military coup. Neruda wrote a blistering poem,“A call for the destruction of Nixon and praise for Chilean revolution” (in Spanish, “Incitación al nixonicidio y alabanza de la revolución chilena”):
Because I love my country
I claim you, essential brother,
Old Walt Whitman with your gray hands.
So that, with your special help
Line by line, we will tear out the roots
And destroy the bloodthirsty President Nixon.
There can be no happy man on earth,
No one can work well on this planet
While that nose continues to breathe in Washington.
Asking the old bard to confer with me
I assume the duties of a poet
Armed with a terrorist’s sonnet
Because I must carry out with no regrets
This sentence, never before witnessed,
Of shooting a criminal under siege,
Who in spite of his trips to the moon
Has killed so many here on earth
That the paper flies up and the pen is unsheathed
To set down the name of this villain
Who practices genocide from the White House.
There's lots of dross -- how couldn't there be in 2,500 poems? -- but there's a consistent, heady, charismatic first-person speaker in many of the poems who celebrates the abundance and goodness and mystery of the natural world in gorgeous close detail and ear-snapping juxtaposition and connection.
And that's just in English! For the first time in my life, I've forced myself to slowly, haltingly read the original Spanish verse ("remember that the real poem is on the other side of the page," Neruda once chided his legions of translators and, by extension, his millions of readers). Jorge Edwards said of Neruda's years in self-imposed 'exile' in the Orient: "Actually, his Spanish became quite odd. It was very much influenced by solitude. He heard chiefly English, as spoken in the English colonies, and his use of verbs is not altogether Chilean or Spanish. It was something new..."
A young Hispanic woman in my humanities class read "Ode to My Suit" in the original Spanish from the Elemental Odes in our final class, and I almost wept at the liquid abundance of her pronunciation. I asked her what it was like to read it out loud in Spanish. "The words are common," she said. "I know most of them already -- but have never seen them altogether like this!" She perfectly defined great poetry.
Ode To WineDay-colored wine,
wine with purple feet
or wine with topaz blood,
as a golden sword,
as lascivious velvet,
and full of wonder,
never has one goblet contained you,
one song, one man,
you are choral, gregarious,
at the least, you must be shared.
you feed on mortal
your wave carries us
from tomb to tomb,
stonecutter of icy sepulchers,
and we weep
blood rises through the shoots,
wind incites the day,
nothing is left
of your immutable soul.
stirs the spring, happiness
bursts through the earth like a plant,
and rocky cliffs,
as song is born.
A jug of wine, and thou beside me
in the wilderness,
sang the ancient poet.
Let the wine pitcher
add to the kiss of love its own.
My darling, suddenly
the line of your hip
becomes the brimming curve
of the wine goblet,
your breast is the grape cluster,
your nipples are the grapes,
the gleam of spirits lights your hair,
and your navel is a chaste seal
stamped on the vessel of your belly,
your love an inexhaustible
cascade of wine,
light that illuminates my senses,
the earthly splendor of life.
But you are more than love,
the fiery kiss,
the heat of fire,
more than the wine of life;
the community of man,
chorus of discipline,
abundance of flowers.
I like on the table,
when we're speaking,
the light of a bottle
of intelligent wine.
and remember in every
drop of gold,
in every topaz glass,
in every purple ladle,
that autumn labored
to fill the vessel with wine;
and in the ritual of his office,
let the simple man remember
to think of the soil and of his duty,
to propagate the canticle of the wine.