Sunday, August 18, 2013

Selected Poems of Pablo Neruda

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

Actually, this book has a bit of a library backstory. My wife originally picked this up for me back in May, but I was unable to get through it in the three weeks I had it checked out. It should have renewed, but somehow the request missed by a day, which meant it had to be returned. Fine. But then, despite showing in the computer system, it didn’t make it back to the shelf. After a few attempts to find it on different days, we finally decided that it had to be ordered online so they would make the effort to locate it. Thus, after a few weeks, it finally appeared, and I could check it out again. By then, I was deep into a series of vacations, and it just took me a while to finish.

I am not fluent in Spanish, so I checked out a translation. This particular edition is translated by Ben Belitt, and contains the original Spanish on the opposing page, so that they can be compared.

This is both a good and a bad thing. Good, in that one can see the decisions that the translator made (I can read a number of Spanish words, and many others have common Latin roots); but bad, in that it is obvious that the sound of the original language is so much more melodious than the English version.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that this particular translation had some problems. In a couple of cases, I noted that the translator used rather large words to translate what looked like simpler words in the original. In others, it seemed as if he went out of his way to make the English version “sophisticated” rather than sticking to the more fluid and unpretentious original. Since this translation was done in 1961, one wonders if the translator were trying to make the poetry fit the style of the times.

Of course, all translation is a compromise. As I noted in my discussion of Inferno, the poetic feel and form and meaning often compete with each other. In that case, the prose translation conveyed the meaning of the words best, and preserved the terza rima form, but not the rhyme or rhythm. The older poetic translation also preserved the terza rima, and captured the rhyme and rhythm, but took great liberties with the meaning of the words, and often stretched syntax to the point where it became nearly unintelligible. Robert Pinsky’s translation was true to the words and story, and made the rhymes come out, but broke up the original tercets in order to do that. It’s all a compromise.

In a weird coincidence, a few days after I started this collection, the Chilean government announced that they would exhume Neruda’s body, and investigate whether he had been poisoned by the Pinochet regime. 

Huh? What’s that? Well, Neruda was a bit of a communist, and didn’t exactly keep his mouth shut about it. He was a friend of Salvador Allende, the socialist president of Chile, who was deposed (and probably murdered) by Augusto Pinochet during his coup d'état in 1973. Neruda had the audacity to criticize the new ruler, and was planning an escape to Mexico at the time of his death. (It is generally agreed that he died of advanced prostate cancer, but, obviously, others have other theories.) Whatever the case turns out to be, it was interesting to see his name in the news.

 Neruda recording his poems for the Library of Congress. Photo Public Domain.

This collection contains excerpts from Neruda’s major poetic works from 1925 through 1958. In general, I found that I enjoyed the later works more than the earlier ones. Neruda’s poems tend to focus on love and freedom, along with a hatred of inequality and oppression. Political issues find their way into some of the poems. (There was an interesting reference to the Spanish Civil War in “A Few Things Explained,” for example. His language evokes the same emotions that I felt reading The Cypresses Believe in God, a wonderful novel set in that period.) I loved his strikingly unusual metaphors, and attention to unusual details - the ones often overlooked.

Here are a few excerpts from the ones that stood out to me.

The opening of “Nocturnal Collection” from Residencia en la Tierra.

I had vanquished that angel of sleep, allegorical
mourner; but his travail went on and his ponderous footfall
came closer, sheathed with snails and cicadas,
sea-born, and brackish, smelling of fruits.

Also from that same early collection, “Ars Poetica.”

Between dark and the void, between virgins and garrisons,
with my singular hear and my mournful conceits
for my portion, my forehead despoiled, overtaken by pallors,
a grief-maddened widow bereft of a lifetime;
for every invisible drop that I taste in a stupor, alas,
for each intonation I concentrate, shuddering,
I keep the identical thirst of an absence, the identical chill
of a fever; sounds, coming to be; a devious anguish
as of thieves and chimeras approaching;
so, in the shell of extension, profound and unaltering,
demeaned as a kitchen-drudge, like a bell sounding hoarsely,
like a tarnishing mirror, or the smell of a house’s abandonment
where the guests stagger homeward, blind drunk, in the night,
and the reek of their clothes rises out of the floor, and absence of flowers-
could it be differently put, a little less ruefully, possibly?-
All the truth blurted out: wind strikes at my breast like a blow,
the ineffable body of night, fallen into my bedroom,
the roar of a morning ablaze with some sacrifice,
that begs my prophetical utterance, mournfully;
an impact of objects that call and encounter no answer,
unrest without respite, an anomalous name.

For some reason, I really liked Neruda’s poems on food. For example, this early one from the same collection.

“Apogee of Celery”

From an innocent center never dinted
by sound, from the waxes’ perfection,
the linear lightnings break clear:
doves with a spiral’s propensities
whirled over indolent streets in a odor
of shadows and fishes.

These are the veins of the celery; the spray and the humors,
the hats of the celery!
This, the celery’s signature, its firefly
taste, its cartography
soaking in colors:
its head droops, angelically green,
its delicate scallops despair;
its celery feet range the market-stalls
in the day’s mutilation, sobbing:
doors close at its passing
and delectable horses kneel down.

Crop-footed, green-eyed, it flows
to all sides, and within it, the droplets,
the secret things, sunken forever:
the tunnels of ocean, whence arises
the stairway proscribed by the celery.
the disaster of shadows submerged,
the proofs in the middle of air,
the kiss in the depths of the stone.

At midnight, someone beats at my door
with drenched hands in the mist
and I hear a deep voice, a voice barbed
with prohibitive wind, the voice of the celery:
wounded, it rages against water and root
and plunges its bittering sheen in my bed;
the blades of its turbulent scissors strike at my breast
seeking a way to my heart under smothering water.

What would you have of me, crack-bodiced
guest in my funeral dwelling?
What ruinous ambit surrounds you?

Tissue of darkness and light and lugubrious fibers,
blind rivets, ringleted energies,
river of live, indispensable threads,
green branches beloved of the sun,
I am here, in the night, and I listen to deathwatches,
solitudes, secrets,
and you come in the midst of a lowering cloud-rack,
to root in my heard and grow great and make known to me
what is dark in the brightness, the rose of creation.

This is crazy and genius rolled up together. Who gets poetic about celery? (Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes maybe, but oatmeal was more his thing.) And yet, somehow, it becomes a metaphor for alienation and creative inspiration.

Much later, in his Odas Elementales (Elemental Odes), Neruda would find inspiration in a wide variety of simple, everyday objects and incidents. If I were to pick a favorite collection, it would be the Odes.


The artichoke
of delicate heart
in its battle-dress, builds
its minimal cupola;
in its scallop of
Around it,
demoniac vegetables
bristle their thicknesses,
tendrils and belfries,
the bulb’s agitations;
while under the subsoil
the carrot
sleeps sound in its
rusty mustaches.
Runner and filaments
bleach in the vineyards,
whereon rise the vines.
The sedulous cabbage
its petticoats;
sweetens a world;
and the artichoke
dulcetly there in a gardenplot,
armed for a skirmish,
goes proud
in its pomegranate

Till, on a day,
each by the other,
the artichoke moves
to its dream
of a market place
in the big willow
a battle formation.
Most warlike
of defilades-
with men
in the market stalls,
white shirts
in the soup-greens,
field marhals
close-order conclaves,
commands, detonations,
and voices,
a crashing of crate staves.

with her hamper
make trial
of an artichoke:
she reflects, she examines,
she candles them up to the light like an egg,
never flinching;
she bargains
she tumbles her prize
in a market bag
among shoes and a
cabbage head,
a bottle
of vinegar; is back
in her kitchen.
The artichoke drowns in an olla.

So you have it:
a vegetable, armed,
a profession
(call it an artichoke)
whose end
is millenial.
We taste of that
scale after scale.
We eat of a halcyon paste:
it is green at the artichoke heart.

The original Spanish ending is better:

la pacifica pasta
de su corazón verde.

See what I mean about translations being a compromise? But still, an amazing picture. Really, after reading that, can you think of a cabbage as anything but sedulous?

One more from Odes.

“A Lemon”

Out of lemon flowers
on the moonlight, love’s
lashed and insatiable
sodden with fragrance,
the lemon tree’s yellow
the lemons
move down
from the tree’s planetarium.

Delicate merchandise!
The harbors are big with it-
for the light and the
barbarous gold.
We open
the halves
of a miracle,
and a clotting of acids
into the starry
original juices,
irreducible, changeless,
so the freshness lives on
in a lemon,
in the sweet-smelling house of the rind,
the proportions, arcane and acerb.

Cutting the lemon
the knife
leaves a little
alcoves unguessed by the eye
that open acidulous glass
to the light; topazes
riding the droplets,
aromatic facades.

So, while the hand
holds the cut of the lemon,
half a world
on a trencher,
the gold of the universe
to your touch:
a cup yellow
with miracles,
a breast and a nipple
perfuming the earth;
a flashing made fruitage,
the diminutive fire of a planet.

As a child, I used to eat lemons right of our tree, much to my mother’s consternation. (My teeth actually survived pretty well. Apparently, despite common belief, sugar is worse for teeth than lemons...)

It wasn’t just flora, however. Fauna inspired this one, from Canto General.

“Some Beasts”

It was the twilight of the iguana:

From a rainbowing battlement,
a tongue like a javelin
lunging in verdure;
an and heap treading the jungle,
monastic, on musical feet;
the guanaco, oxygen-fine
in the high places swarthy with distances,
cobbling his feet into gold;
the llama of scrupulous eye
that widens his gaze on the dews
of a delicate world.

A monkey is weaving
a thread of insatiable lusts
on the margins of morning:
he topples a pollen-fall,
startles the violet flight
of the butterfly, wings on the Muzo.

It was the night of the alligator:
snouts moving out of the slime,
in original darkness, pullulations,
a clatter of armor, opaque
in the sleep of the bog,
turning back to the chalk of the sources.

The jaguar touches the leaves
with his phosphorous absence,
the puma speeds to his cover
in the blaze of his hungers,
his eyeballs, a jungle of alcohol,
burn in his head.
Badgers are raking the river beds,
nuzzling the havens
for their warm delectation,
red-toothed, for assault.

And below, on the vastness of water,
like a continent circled,
drenched in the ritual mud,
rapacious, religious
gigantic, the coiled anaconda.

“The Twilight of the Iguana” sounds like an excellent title for a B movie, actually. Fun stuff.

I won’t quote it in full, but as a cat person, I enjoyed “Oda al Gato.” Here is the best part:

Men wish they were fishes or birds;
the worm would be winged,
the dog is a dispossessed lion;
engineers would be poets;
flies ponder the swallow’s perogative
and poets impersonate flies -
but the cat
intends nothing but cat:
he is cat
from his tail to his chin whiskers:
from his living presumption of mouse
and the darkness, to the gold of his irises.

Like many poets, Neruda was also interesting his choice of objects of derision. “Poets Celestial” takes a direct swipe at Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke, and the whole idea “pure beauty” as idolized by the Europeans of the Fin de siècle. I liked what little Rilke I have read, so this whole thing smacks a bit of the feud between the partisans of Brahms and those of Wagner. Both were masters, and their works in retrospect have more in common than either would have admitted.

More understandable was Neruda’s hatred for dictators. Given Latin America’s bloody history of megalomania, to say nothing of the slaughters elsewhere in the world throughout the 20th century and millennia before, I can’t say I disagree.

“The Dictators”

An odor stayed on in the cane fields:
carrion, blood, and a nausea
of harrowing petals,
Between coconut palms lay the graves, a stilled
strangulation, a festering surfeit of bones.
A finical satrap conversed
with wineglasses, collars, and piping.
In the palace, all flashed like a clock-dial,
precipitate laughter in gloves, a moment
spanning the passageways, meeting
the newly killed voices and the buried blue mouths. Out of sight,
lament was perpetual and fell, like a plant and its pollen,
forcing a lightless increase in the blinded, big leaves.
And bludgeon by bludgeon, on the terrible waters,
scale over scale in the bog,
the snout filled with silence and slime
and vendetta was born.

In many ways, I found myself agreeing with Neruda, rather than disagreeing, despite my general distaste for communism (and Stalinism in particular). Perhaps it is because Neruda, as a poet, rather than a politician, reacts to and writes about injustice. In his world, the dichotomy was between the military dictator and the more democratic socialism. I suspect he would have had plenty of scorn for Hugo Chavez and his ilk as well, given his belief in basic freedoms.

One final quote made a big impression. This is from “The Poet.”

I ranged in the markets of avarice
where goodness is bought for a price, breathed
the insensate miasmas of envy, the inhuman
contention of masks and existences.

I am reminded of a few things with this quote. First and obviously, the sale of indulgences in the Middle Ages. One could buy “holiness” or even escape eternal punishment for a price. (This practice was one of the main causes of Luther’s break with the Catholic church.)

Second, and beyond the scope of this post, is the present association in Evangelical circles of certain middle class privileges with “godliness.” (I’m thinking particularly of the veneration of the stay-at-home mom, but there are many others. I’m hoping to do a future blog post on this subject.)

Anyway, I did enjoy my exploration of Neruda. Thanks to my English teacher cousin-in-law Jennifer for suggesting his works, and that of Auden as well, for my reading project. I would like to find, at minimum, a good translation of Odes for my permanent collection.


  1. I'm currently reading the exact same book and finding similar favorites! "its firefly taste" from Apogee of Celery made me put the book down in awe.
    @abetterjulie from