By Kary Vannice
I wish I could remember the first Pablo Neruda poem I ever read … Was it the one that starts …
“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 …”?
Or was it the one that ends …
“ … My words rained over you, stroking you. A long time I have loved the sunned mother-of-pearl of your body. Until I even believe that you own the universe … ”?
I simply can’t remember which of his poems first captured my attention. But I do remember feeling as though his passion seemed to rain down the page, at times a gentle mist, still others a torrential deluge. I envisioned each drop finding its way though his matrix of words, lines, and stanzas, some getting caught in upturned letters, then brimming over and spilling out onto the next line.
For me, Neruda’s use of words evokes an imagery that is unparalleled by any other poet or author.
Pablo Neruda, born Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto in Parral, Chile, in 1904, had a special way of seeing the world and describing it. As a child, it is said, he didn’t just see objects, but also the name of the object when he looked out into the world. When looking up into a tree, he saw the words, leaf, branch, bark, flower, pollen … If a bee passed by, he saw the word bee drifting above the ground, or landing on a flower.
It’s no wonder he became known as a poet at the age of 10 and was working for a literary magazine publishing poems and articles at the age of 13.
Pablo Neruda is arguably one of the most accomplished poets of the 20th century. Throughout his life, he wrote and published thousands of poems and other works. He is best known for is passionate love poems. His most famous work, Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada (Twenty poems of love and a desperate song), was published when he was just 20 years old.
Clearly Neruda expressed a passion for life from a very early age, but if you’re wondering why you may never have heard of Pablo Neruda, it could be that his passion extended beyond the literary world into the political one.
During his lifetime, Neruda occupied many diplomatic posts, nearly all of them related to his devotion to the Communist Party and radical leftist politics.
At the age of 23, he served in his first diplomatic post, but it wasn’t until his post in Spain, in his early thirties, during the Spanish Civil War that he became intensely interested in politics and enchanted with the “collective obligation.” Much of his writing during this period was influenced by his ardent belief in the Communist way.
In his late thirties, Neruda was appointed to a special post in Mexico City. Upon arriving, he described his first impressions: “The intellectual life of Mexico was dominated by painting. These Mexican painters were covering the city with history and geography, making their presence felt in civic life, with iron‐clad polemics.”
His artistry and political views quickly found him with the likes of Pablo Picasso, Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and David Alfaro Siqueiros, whom he later helped to flee Mexico for Chile after he was accused of being a co-conspirator in the assassination of Leon Trotsky.
In 1943 Neruda left Mexico to return to Chile. There, as he did throughout his life, he continued his double life as poet and political activist, simultaneously publishing poetry and serving the Communist Party agenda. His artistic side would write poetry that would read, “I love you between shadow and soul. I love you as the plant that hasn’t bloomed yet, and carries hidden within itself the light of flowers. I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where.”
While his political side would write poems like, “I wrote about weather and water I described mourning and its purple character, I wrote about the sky and the apple, now I write about Stalingrad … I put my heart where I please. I do not feed on exhausted paper, basted with ink and with the inkpot. I was born to sing to Stalingrad.”
In 1971, Neruda won the Nobel Prize for Literature (despite strong opposition because of his past political ties). The award read, “for a poetry that with the action of an elemental force brings alive a continent’s destiny and dreams.”
As much as Pablo Neruda used his gift of literary prose to woo women, he used it to woo men to his political agenda.
In 1973, in the days leading up to the political coup d’état by right-wing Augusto Pinochet, when Pablo’s house and grounds were searched by Chilean forces, he famously remarked to the armed soldiers, “Look around—there’s only one thing of danger for you here—poetry.”
It was that “poetry” that would lead to his suspicious death a short time later.
In 1973, Pablo was undergoing treatment for cancer. On September 23rd, while at a local hospital, just days after Pinochet had forcibly taken control of the country, Neruda was injected with a suspicious substance and died 6½ hours later.
Many believe Pinochet ordered the injection because Neruda was rumored to have scheduled a flight to Mexico where it was said he was planning to lead a government in exile that would denounce Pinochet.
Neruda’s political affiliation essentially painted his works “red,” and many have refused to acknowledge his brilliance on a purely literary level. New York Times Book Review critic Selden Rodman said, “No writer of world renown is perhaps so little known to North Americans as Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.”
Which is a shame, because while Neruda’s poems when read in Spanish take on a transcendent quality, even when translated into English they embody the passion of a man who was unshakable in his commitment to living life to the fullest, in both his private and political life.
Perhaps the American poet Mark Strand summed it up best when he said, “There is something about Neruda—about the way he glorifies experience, about the spontaneity and directness of his passion—that sets him apart from other poets. It is hard not to be swept away by the urgency of his language, and that’s especially so when he seems swept away.”