Saturday, January 16, 2016

Neruda: The Language of Love and the Poetry of Desire

Hola mi Gente,
I need to get new friends. My one remaining single friend is getting engaged today and will be marrying soon. Yuck. And no, I am not interested in getting married.

Today, an essay…
* * *

1904 - 1973

Whether sun-struck mornings, rainy weekends odorous with the alkaline smell of sex, or starry nights, poetry has been with me -- like a beacon -- and I've used it to illuminate other lives, other worlds. In discovering others (in discovering you), I discovered myself and I have lived with these poems until they have become a part of the very air I breathe.

I remember the first time my father, a dabbler in poetry, tossed me a dog-eared little book and told me, “You want to know poetry? Read this.” 

I was barely fourteen and Neruda swept through my soul with the impact of a tsunami. I would never be the same -- ever. After Neruda, there is no one. He is the greatest poet of the 20th century, in any language.


Pablo Neruda, magnificent poet of Chile and eventually of the world. Internationally recognized, he was a figure larger than life, like a Picasso or a Chaplin. He is one of the most widely read and beloved poets in history. I once made love to a woman who pleaded for me to read her Neruda while connected together.

Gawd… I was young.

Occasionally, whenever the need to quiet the inner dialog arises, I make a pilgrimage to the beach. I take my little Neruda book, raggedy with years of use. What could be more fitting than to go to the beach and read Neruda aloud? He loved the playfulness of the sea -- creative as it is destructive, forever in flux -- moving. He loved and celebrated the rejuvenating marriage of wind, water, and sand, and found his inspiration in the crashing fury and freedom of the waves, the seabirds, the seemingly endless infinity of a blue sky.

He loved how the sea was forever renewing itself, a renewal reflected in his work and his life. He felt that creating poetry was like constantly being reborn. So I head for the sea to recite and celebrate his poems and to return once again refreshed, deepened, reborn.

In one of his most emotionally motivated and sublime associations, Neruda linked womanhood to the regeneration of the earth and the cycles of nature. It is one of the most powerful associations in all of poetry.

He never knew his own mother, who died two months after his birth, but he adored his stepmother, who he called la mamadre (“the more-mother”). At age fourteen he wrote his first lyric for her. He later wrote, “… it was at that age… poetry arrived / in search of me.”

Born NeftalĂ­ Ricardo Reyes y Basoalto, he later took on the pen name of Pablo Neruda in order to conceal his poetry from a disapproving father. But he quickly found approval elsewhere, when he published his second collection, the amazing Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, in 1924. The collection would make him a literary celebrity and is still revered throughout Latin America. This was the book my father gave to me for my fourteenth birthday.

Neruda’s is the first poetry in Spanish that celebrates erotic love in sensuous, earthy language -- without shame. He would later say, “Love poems were breaking out all over my body.”

As I read these poems for the first time, I immediately recognized the archetype of the adolescent lover -- at the same time a child and an adult -- being schooled in the art of longing and obsession. “Tonight I can write the saddest lines,” Neruda declared in the twentieth love poem. “I no longer love her, that’s certain, but maybe I love her. / Love is so short, forgetting is so long.” I’m still profoundly affected by my memory of reading the first poem in this collection. I see it as an initiation, a ritual introduction into to the language of love and the poetry of desire:

Body of a Woman

Body of a woman, white hills, white thighs.
You look like a world, lying in surrender.
My rough peasant's body digs into you
and makes the son leap from the depths 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 breasts! 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 eternal thirst flows
and weariness follows, and the infinite ache.

(translated by W.S. Merwin)

Neruda would travel the world and his first stop was in Rangoon, Burma where he would find himself estranged from his language, his culture, and his history. It was here he would begin to write harsh, ferocious and surreal poems that would flower into the three volumes, Residence on Earth. These poems reflect terrors and modern anxieties.

Neruda would marry several times in his life which makes me wonder about those who mourn the supposedly scarcity of romance. Who more romantic than Neruda? And what would they think of him once he left them? 

He would eventually turn to politics and forge within his vision of an unalienated humanity, of justice and equality, a new poetry reflecting this growth. His political and social commitments were central to his life. He was elected senator for the Communist Party in Chile in 1945. Eventually, he was accused of disloyalty and declared dangerous. Neruda went into hiding, then fled to Argentina, and traveled to Italy, France, the Soviet Union, and Asia. It was his stay on the island of Capri during his exile that was fictionalized in the touching film Il Postino. If you do anything today, at least rent the film, you’ll enjoy it (click here). It’s not time travel, nor knights in shining armor, nor even all that chivalrous, but it damn sure is romantic.

Throughout this period he was writing love poems for Matilde Urrutia, who became his third wife. Those blossomed into The Captain's Verses (1952), and 100 Love Sonnets (1959), which features my all-time, favorite Neruda poem:


I crave your mouth, your voice, your hair.
Silent and starving, I prowl through the streets.
Bread does not nourish me, dawn disrupts me, all day
I hunt for the liquid measure of your steps.

I hunger for your sleek laugh,
your hands the color of a savage harvest,
hunger for the pale stones of your fingernails,
I want to eat your skin like a whole almond.

I want to eat the sunbeam flaring in your lovely body,
the sovereign nose of your arrogant face,
I want to eat the fleeting shade of your lashes,

and I pace around hungry, sniffing at the twilight,
hunting for you, your hot heart,
like a puma in the barrens if Quitratue.

It’s infinitely better in Spanish, but how can one even think of writing poetry after reading something like that?!

Everything was magical for Neruda. Nothing ordinary was alien, or for that matter, ordinary -- everything was magical. He wrote separate odes to tomatoes and wine, to an artichoke and one to a dead tree, to conger chowder, to a fuckin' large tuna in the market, to his socks and his suit, to birds, to light on the sea, to the dictionary, to a movie theater. He wrote an ode to time and another to the Earth, an “Ode to Everything.”

Eventually, he was awarded the Nobel Prize. Neruda would write prolifically to the end. Ill with cancer and retired to his home in Isla Negra, he would write of entering “the silence into which everything falls / and, finally, we fall.” Heartbroken over the (US-sanctioned) coup that ousted Allende and the impending darkness that would eventually envelope his country, Neruda died eleven days later, on September 23, 1973, in Santiago.

Neruda remains a giant in poetry. His work contains multitudes, like his poetic ancestor, Walt Whitman. He was a poet of freedom and of the sea, a wondrous love poet, and a necessary voice of social consciousness.

In Neruda’s own words:

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 of priests. In the old days he made his pact with darkness, and now he must interpret the light.

Radiantly impure, stubbornly humane… RIP Neruda.

My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization… 


Brittanica entry for Neruda (click here)
Wikipedia entry for Neruda (click here)
Site with many of Neruda’s poems (click here)

Labels: essays, Neruda, poems, poetry, aesthetics

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