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The Poetry of Neruda

Residence on Earth

by Pablo Neruda, translated by Donald D. Walsh
New Directions, 359 pp., $3.75 (paper)

Extravagaria

by Pablo Neruda, translated by Alastair Reid
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 303 pp., $8.95

Five Decades: A Selection (Poems: 1925-1970)

by Pablo Neruda, edited and translated by Ben Belitt
Grove, 456 pp., $3.95 (paper)

We are many” is the title of a rather unconvincing poem by Pablo Neruda about his own multiple selves. The phrase could be applied with greater force perhaps to the translators of Neruda into English. They really are many: Ben Belitt (Selected Poems, 1961, A New Decade, 1969, New Poems, 1972, Splendor and Death of Joaquín Murieta, 1972, and now Five Decades), Nathaniel Tarn (The Heights of Macchu-Picchu, 1966), W.S. Merwin (Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, 1969), David Ossman and Carlos B. Hagen (Early Poems, 1969), Anthony Kerrigan (in Tarn’s Selected Poems, 1970), Robert Bly and James Wright (Neruda and Vallejo, 1971), Alastair Reid (Extravagaria, published in England in 1972), Donald D. Walsh (The Captain’s Verses, 1972, and Residence on Earth).

They are many and they are not, on the whole, very good. Only Robert Bly and Anthony Kerrigan make Neruda sound in English as if he might be a good poet in Spanish. Belitt makes Neruda sound like Belitt, a man lost in a maze of affected diction and syntax. Tarn makes him sound like a fluent minor Victorian (“it was from far, I know not when”), and the rest usually mislay him altogether in a limbo between languages, in that translators’ territory where people speak of “irreplaceable rapture” and an “innumerable mouth,” say things like “He was dazzling, that bony one,” and “My sad tenderness, what comes over you all at once?” Reid quite often escapes into readable English, but since he chooses to translate poems that are mostly slender or trivial in the original, we are still left wondering about Neruda’s real stature as a poet.

The author of Extravagaria may well be a great writer (and is, in my view), but in this book he is merely flexing his muscles, playing his scales and paying a few debts. The work is casual, whimsical, silly, sometimes charming, occasionally clear and strong (as in the poem reproduced on the following page), and almost willfully minor when set beside Residence on Earth, or any section of the Canto General, or beside the later Memorial de Isla Negra. Walsh also eludes some of the general indictment because he is not trying to translate Neruda, merely to provide us with literal versions. “since Neruda expresses his poetic ideas very simply and directly,” he writes blandly in his introduction to The Captain’s Verses, “it is possible to translate him quite literally with no loss of validity.” No loss at all? Walsh doesn’t risk the same sort of statement about Residence on Earth, but his practice remains the same: honest, dull, stilted, usually accurate, the right sort of rendering for people who are really reading the Spanish with a little help from across the page.

Elsewhere, though, the most elementary errors turn up all over the place: a failure to understand that solo, for example, means alone while sólo means only, or that por means by as well as for; an inability to distinguish between peso meaning weight and paso meaning footstep, between sentirse meaning to feel and sentarse meaning to sit down, between espuma meaning spume and esperma meaning sperm; a failure to grasp simple phrases or sequences of thought, so that when Neruda writes of his shaken country we have to read of his “shifting paternity,” and when he tells us that he is not preaching to us (“y no es propaganda del bien/lo que estoy diciendo en mi canto“), we find ourselves reading “whatever I say in my songs / is more than benign propaganda.”

Poetic license some of this, no doubt, rather than a misunderstanding of the Spanish, but then one wonders how far such license is supposed to stretch. Belitt is the champion here, adding and inserting and inverting with reckless abandon, and even rewriting completely when he feels like it. Thus Neruda’s lovely, simple lines—

Tú has sido, amor, mi única impaciencia,
antes de ti no quise tener nada

(meaning literally, “You, my love, were my only impatience / before I wanted you I didn’t want anything”)—become

You are the heat of the world that sets my heart burning.
Till you came, nothing moved in the world, or was moved.

Belitt’s Five Decades is the largest selection of Neruda’s poems we have in a single volume, but I don’t recommend it unless you like puzzles: there is a certain interest in figuring out how such tortured English can be derived from such straight Spanish, how the poet’s walking through life, for instance, caught up in a painful love affair, can turn into “I moved among happenings / in the midst of my mournful devotions.”

But then the besetting sin of Neruda’s translators is a refusal to leave him alone, a reluctance to say what he says, a perverse, elaborate flight from the tone of the original. Silent mothers become mute matriarchs, true love becomes unfalsified ardor, forgetting is almost invariably oblivion. Gloves become gauntlets, coins currency, flowers blossoms, and hard cavities become adamantine hollows. The comic climax to all these attempts to bundle Neruda off into some sort of Pre-Raphaelite old folks home comes in The Heights of Macchu-Picchu, where Tarn translates the ordinary Spanish word for glass (vaso) as chalice, and Robert Pring-Mill, in an introduction to the volume, comments on the “religious overtones of such an image.” There are religious overtones in the work, as it happens, but none of them accompanies that modest glass.

In one sense, of course, Neruda is an old-fashioned poet, but that is because he prolongs traditions, not because he tries to sound archaic and lofty. Many of his favorite poetic strategies belong to the nineteenth century (or even earlier) rather than to the twentieth. He prefers similes to metaphors; he likes to personify moods, conditions, landscapes; he is fond of operatic exclamations and of directly addressing countries, provinces, shades of the dead, features of the natural world like stars, rivers, and the sea; he is fond of decorous, elegant inversions, of formal antithesis (summer-winter, life-death) and of asymmetrical pairs (silence and slime, suits and pride, drunkards and jasmines, yesterday and Valparaiso). He likes dying falls and melting conclusions.

He is a poet who has not so much rejected or retreated from modernism (in the English meaning of the term) as he has managed to get along without it, to preserve older forms without seeming nostalgic or reactionary. He will not break with the poetic past so long as it will nourish the poetic present; and if he often, in spite of all this, seems more modern than he is, it is because he skillfully alludes to modernity quite a lot—borrows from the languages of mathematics and science, for example. He is a thoroughly rhetorical poet. Rather than wringing eloquence’s neck, as Verlaine advised, he gives eloquence a new lease of life by making it discreet and direct. But this is the point. Neruda’s vocabulary, apart from an occasional excess of fragrance, twilight, and autumn, is entirely contemporary and prosaic—even in the early Residence on Earth, where he achieves surrealist effects by means of the most commonplace objects and animals: beds, brooms, shoes, dogs, coffins. Neruda’s best poetry is born in the interplay between this everyday language and those courtly, often intricate poetic manners.

Some very famous lines will serve as instances. “La poderosa muerte me invitó muchas veces” is translated by Tarn, safely enough, as “Irresistible death invited me many times,” but that seems inconclusive in English. Invited me to what? Belitt writes, “Death, overmastering all, has beckoned me often,” but that has precisely the grandiose and hackneyed flavor that Neruda hints at and then undermines by the casualness of the word invite, which not only suggests a certain courtesy and sociability in death’s persistence but gets an element of wit out of colloquial usage. To invite someone in Spanish is to take them out or have them over: stern death, an allegorical figure out of the Spanish seventeenth century, becomes a modern suitor or hostess—and yet the line also retains something of its seventeenth-century ring.

Again, “El reino muerto vive todavía” is a line of great force which simply won’t cross over into English, for all kinds of obvious reasons. Literally it means “The dead kingdom still lives” but its energies in Spanish come from the immediate juxtaposition of the parts of the oxymoron (muerto vive) and from the fact that vive has two syllables and todavía has three (four on some counts): it is a long line of five words. There are good reasons, then, for Tarn’s expanding the line to “The fallen kingdom survives us all this while,” but that is then padded out and fancy in exactly the way that Neruda is not.

A last example, from an earlier poem, about the Civil War in Spain (the two lines just discussed both come from The Heights of Macchu-Picchu):

y por las calles la sangre de los niños
corría simplemente, como sangre de niños.

Walsh translates this as

and through the streets the blood of the children
ran simply, like children’s blood.

Sound enough, but everything is lost by the failure to keep the repetitive word order (blood, children; blood, children), and the rhyme of the key word (children) with itself. Tarn becomes fussy by the sheer mention of the word fuss

and the blood of the children ran through the streets
without fuss, like children’s blood.

—and Belitt, as is his wont, misses Neruda’s tone entirely—

the blood of children was seen in the streets,
flowing easily out, in the habit of children.

What is happening in those lines in Spanish is that a simile of the kind that one might find in Eluard or Aragon, or even Prévert (simple as the blood of children) is first turned into a mildly mocking tautology (the blood of children is as simple as the blood of children), and then taken up as a sober expression of horror. Reality shames all such small and elaborate poetic tricks. The blood of real children is running in Spanish streets, and even the most exuberantly analogical of poets can compare it only with itself: only the blood of children is like the blood of children.

Pablo Neruda was born Neftalí Reyes in 1904 and died in September, 1973, twelve days after Allende. There was a cruel symbolic suitability in such timing. Neruda, a communist since the Spanish Civil War (although he joined the Party later), a Chilean senator for much of his life, a candidate for the Chilean presidency in 1970, who stood down in favor of Allende, had lived to see his country come closer to his hopes for it than it had ever been. He fell ill at the end of 1972 and returned to Chile from his post as Allende’s ambassador to France. He had an operation for cancer of the prostate. Then the coup came and Neruda died of heart collapse, his country slithering off into a dictatorship of a kind that had already hounded Neruda into exile in the late Forties. Neruda’s death, like his life, kept pace with the fortunes of Chile.

In this perspective, even Neruda’s greatest poetry is merely part of a larger picture, just an element in a pattern of life and writing which embodies and pleads for a whole set of Latin American possibilities: the poet in politics, the politician who is a great poet; the public man with the incomparable common touch; the popular poet, even the oral poet, since people who can’t read still know and love and recite and sing poems by Neruda, who receives international critical acclaim. It is a vision of a vast but integrated personal life, and beyond that a vision of a multifarious but coherent community, summarized in one exemplary individual. It is an attractive prospect, although it may be something of an illusion—if you have to be Pablo Neruda to bring it off, the example is eccentric rather than prophetic or symptomatic—and many younger Latin American writers would say such a prospect was crippling, damaging to all kinds of talents who live less comfortably in the public eye than Neruda did. In any case, when it comes to literature, history has a way of turning out to be a New Critic rather than a student of culture and society. It remembers texts and forgets the rest, and we can turn to Neruda’s literary career without feeling unnecessarily trivial—as trivial as Neruda himself would have thought us were he still alive.

The Heights of Macchu-Picchu, written in 1945, is a sequence of twelve poems, a section of the Canto General and a major work in its own right. It is perhaps the best of all introductions to Neruda, since his gifts receive their full expression there and since it is also a form of spiritual autobiography, a description of a moral and aesthetic journey out of baffled solitude into a sense of poetic mission. It points backward toward Residence on Earth, Neruda’s early masterpiece, most of which was written before 1935, and forward to the Canto General (1950), into which it was incorporated. It parodies earlier manners and scouts for later ones. Above all it balances perfectly two insistent, enduring strains in Neruda’s work: the desire to clear up confusions and the desire to hang on to them.

I am sure / of the unmoving stone,” Neruda writes in a later poem, “but I know the wind.” He loves the stillness and ideal geometry of Macchu-Picchu, the spectacular Andean ruin of an ancient Inca city, but he finds a battery of questions and uncertainties there, change and extinction among that rocky permanence: “Stone upon stone, but where was man?” Was Macchu-Picchu a city erected, like so many others, on misery and hunger and death, and who will speak now for the vanished laborers who built it and supplied it with meat and grain? They themselves can’t return from subterranean time, as Neruda puts it, but perhaps the poet’s concern for them will lend their voices to his poem. In effect Neruda is asking for their blessing on the whole of the Canto General, a colossal, unequal monument, a long celebration of the American continent, an angry, at times sentimental, at times very compelling plea for the wretched of the American earth.

It is hard to see where a poet could go after such a book—Whitman, in similar circumstances, just kept adding poems to his. Neruda’s life’s work was done by the time he was forty-five, and there is a sense in which he simply managed to outlive himself elegantly for twenty years, remaining as prolific as ever without really finding a subject that mattered enough. Many people admire the four books of elementary (or elemental, or both) odes published in 1954, 1956, 1957, and 1959, but for me they have, along with Extravagaria (1958), too much the tone of the great man showing us how humble and playful he can be.

The odes are poems of very short lines addressed to pianos, elephants, socks, artichokes, books, tomatoes, laziness, Guatemala, winter, Leningrad, rain, wine, summer, sadness, life, and much else. Many of them are appealing, but generally their simplicity seems strained, and the reverse of the authentic simplicity of Neruda’s best work. There is a poem about Vallejo in Extravagaria which is an insult to the reader and to Vallejo’s memory. We were just two poor carpenters, the argument runs, and now that he is dead, there is nobody big enough to understand me. Vallejo’s reputation and a disagreeable fake naïveté on Neruda’s part both serve as the instruments of a piece of self-congratulation.

On the other hand, there is the remarkable verse autobiography, Memorial de Isla Negra (1964), which is really casual and relaxed in the way that Extravagaria merely tries to be. Without pretensions of either humility or grandeur, the poet remembers patches of his life: his father, his family’s friends, his loves; places, thoughts, moods, moments. I should say also that early and late in his career (and in between) Neruda wrote incomparable love poems, and that he seems never to have written a bad poem about the sea.

But Residence on Earth remains, in my view, the greatest of all Neruda’s books. Neruda himself came to regard it very harshly. It helped people to die rather than to live, he said, and if he had the proper authority to do so he would ban it, and make sure it was never reprinted. No doubt there was an element of pose in that pronouncement since, as Rodríguez Monegal remarks, Neruda never took any steps to keep the baleful book out of his collected works, and continued to regard it as one of his best volumes. Still, Neruda told Rita Guibert that a boy had committed suicide with the book beside him, so it certainly helped at least one person to die.

It is a painful, brilliant, despairing work, full of surprising turns of phrase and marvelously simple, inventive imagery. “I understand the harmony of the world,” Paul Claudel once wrote, “when shall I come across the melody?” Residence on Earth in its earlier parts—the last section is devoted to the Spain of the Civil War—presents a man who understands neither the harmony nor the melody, who sees only chaos and multiplicity, a busy or bored, frantic or lethargic alien world in which he has no place or purpose. Neruda wrote much of the book in India, when he was intensely lonely, and the whole of the exotic East parades across the text like a broken-down circus, an array of odd, cruel customs which add up only to nightmare. As late as in Memorial de Isla Negra we hear Neruda saying, “And if I saw anything in my life it was one evening / in India, on the edge of a river: a woman of flesh and bones being burned.”

Yet there is a curious quality to all this unmistakable anguish, and I quoted Claudel for this reason: not just because one can hear actual echoes of Claudel in some of Neruda’s longer lines, or because both men were much-traveled diplomats, professional exiles for large portions of their lives, but because both appear to have had exceptional propensities for despair, which they simply smothered in orthodoxy—Neruda’s communism seems to have served much the same purpose as Claudel’s Catholicism—and conjured away in expansive displays of ingenuousness and optimism. More important—and this is the point of the comparison here—the despair which speaks in the early works of both men is not the spleen and self-doubt of Vallejo or Kafka or Proust or any other of those heirs of Baudelaire whom we think of as paradigmatically modern men, but a sense of separation, a sense of uselessness, of a life of pure contingency in a profuse, pointless universe, which is accompanied by a seemingly entire and undiminished self-confidence.

An unchanging angel lives in my sword,” Neruda writes at the end of a dark poem. He begins another, “I have defeated the angel of the dream.” Again: “I like the tenacity that lives on in my eyes.” Neruda’s very impermeability to the attractions of the East is a form of strength, the sign of a substantial, unshaken identity. Like Claudel, Neruda rarely doubts himself but constantly frets about his lack of connection with others; and it is this connection with others that Neruda finally encounters in Spain—in poets and companions first of all, in Lorca and Rafael Alberti, and then in a whole, attacked nation. From Spain,Neruda can return to Chile by way of Macchu-Picchu, and feel at one with the dead and the living of his continent. He found in Spain what Claudel found in a stormy, adulterous relationship: a path to the blurred world outside the certain, even the arrogant, self, a way of making that world come clear, a release for the self from its proud, bewildered gloom.

The loneliness of Residence on Earth takes on a special, metaphysical edge because it is not the loneliness of a generally tormented, unhappy man. “Perhaps I was condemned to happiness,” Neruda says in a later poem; but then the sentence was in many ways severe, for until his Spanish experience Neruda seems to have failed to find in the world any answer to his own energy and generosity and abundance. Perhaps health has its neuroses, Nietzsche wrote. Residence on Earth reflects the hovering dementia of the insufficiently demented, the echoing solitude of an undivided self.

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