Poetry in Unlikely Places

The Poetry of Pablo Neruda

edited and with an introduction by Ilan Stavans
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 996 pp., $40.00

The book that came to mean a lot to me as a young poet was an anthology of Latin American poetry that I discovered in a used bookstore in New York in 1959. Originally published in 1942 by New Directions, it had long been out of print, so neither I nor any of my poet friends had an inkling of its existence. It introduced me to the poetry of Pablo Neruda, Jorge Luis Borges, Jorge Carrera Andrade, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, Vicente Huidobro, Nicolás Guillén, César Vallejo, and dozens of other wonderful poets I had never heard of until that moment. I remember turning its pages in the store, realizing what a valuable book it was, paying for it quickly, and rushing home to read all of its 666 pages that very night. It was like reading Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” for the first time, seeing a Buster Keaton movie, hearing Thelonius Monk, and making other such exhilarating discoveries. I knew French Surrealist poetry, had already read Lorca, Mayakovsky, and Brecht, but I had never before encountered anything quite like this poem of Neruda’s:

WALKING AROUND

It so happens I am tired of being a man.
It so happens, going into tailorshops and movies,
I am withered, impervious, like a swan of felt
navigating a water of beginning and ashes.

The smell of barbershops makes me weep aloud.
All I want is a rest from stones or wool,
all I want is to see no establishments or gardens,
no merchandise or goggles or elevators.

It so happens I am tired of my feet and my nails
and my hair and my shadow.
It so happens I am tired of being a man.

Yet it would be delicious
to frighten a notary with a cut lily
or do a nun to death with a box on the ear.
It would be fine
to go through the streets with a green knife,
letting out yells until I died of cold.

I do not want to go on being a root in the darkness,
vacillating, spread out, shivering with sleep,
downwards, in the drenched guts of the earth,
absorbing and thinking, eating every day.

I do not want so many afflictions,
I do not want to go on being root and tomb,
being alone underground, being a vault for dead men,
numb with cold, dying of anguish.

That is why Monday blazes like petroleum
when it sees me coming with my jailbird face,
and it howls like a wounded wheel as it passes,
and takes hot-blooded steps towards night.

And it shoves me into certain corners, certain damp houses,
into hospitals where bones fly out of the window,
into certain shoeshops with a stench of vinegar,
into streets as frightful as chasms.

There are sulphur-coloured birds and horrible intestines
hanging from the doors of the houses that I hate,
there are false teeth forgotten in a coffeepot,
there are mirrors
that ought to have wept for shame and …

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