On Pablo Neruda
And it was at that age…poetry arrived in search of me
Like many poets, I began scribbling verse at a young age. (With any luck, my sister-in-law will never feel compelled to share the poem I wrote when she married my brother.) Post-college, my desire to write poems dissipated as other priorities took hold. That is, until I walked into Los Angeles’ much-lamented Dutton’s bookstore and plucked a copy of Pablo Neruda’s Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair from the shelf. I didn’t know then about the scope of Neruda’s oeuvre or his Nobel Prize or his political and diplomatic careers. What I knew was that when I read and you are like the word Melancholy./I like for you to be still and you seem far away and I no longer love her, that’s certain, but maybe I love her./Love is so short, forgetting so long, I was hooked—and not merely hooked by the romantic notions these words conveyed but by the musicality that made them unforgettable. These poems would teach me that the music of the line is what makes poetry.
What I didn’t know was that I would be enchanted by other facets of Neruda’s poetry, as well. His curiosity, for example, as reflected in The Book of Questions: how do the oranges divide up/sunlight in the orange tree? or and what is the name of the month /that falls between December and January? or in the sea of nothing happens/are there clothes to die in? These whimsical, philosophical mediations are eternally delightful meals for any writer’s consumption.
I came to learn, too, of Neruda’s passionate political commitments in reading A Call for the Destruction of Nixon and Praise for the Chilean Revolution where he begins by invoking Walt Whitman, relying on his gray hands,/so that, with your special help/line by line, we will tear out by the roots/and destroy this bloodthirsty President Nixon and continuing, in praise of his homeland for Chile, for her blue sovereignty,/for the ocean of fisherman,/for the copper and the struggles in the office,/for the bread of nightingale children,/…for the sea, the rose and ear of grain,/for our forgotten countrymen… Of course, we’re still living in a country that clings to the types of political stances Neruda reviled and we would do well to follow his lead in calling out those who promote them, whether in Washington, D.C., Texas, or anywhere else in the country.
I also learned that, despite his concerns with political issues in his homeland, Neruda maintained a deep concern and keen observation for ordinary things. One only has to read his odes (among my favorites: “Ode to a Pair of Socks”, my feet were/two woolen/fish/in those outrageous socks/two gangly/navy-blue sharks/impaled/on a golden thread and “Ode to Clouds”, giant feathers/ of light, nests/of water/and now a single/filament/of flame or rage. I re-read the odes as a constant reminder to look and look again to make sure I’ve looked as closely as possible.
The references above don’t begin to do justice to the breadth of the work of Pablo Neruda. The Poetry of Pablo Neruda published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2003 is almost 1000 pages and Copper Canyon Press has recently announced the upcoming publication of his “lost poems”. These are all poems to be read and re-read; that send me running to my pens and papers in the hope that a little of Neruda’s magical genius will rub off so I can write the first, faint line/faint, without substance pure/nonsense,/pure wisdom/of someone who knows nothing…
Note: All italicized lines of poetry are written by Pablo Neruda
(Previously published in Al-Khemia Poetica)