Let me begin with a confession: like any post-adolescent of the late 1980s with literary pretensions, I adored Pablo Neruda’s poems. I had recently read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and was preparing to remain on the continent one way or another, via Paz, Borges and Neruda.
Those love poems! Those humid, earthy exhalations of fervour! All that spring, all those cherry trees. And – in the moments when we weren’t so lovelorn – the fierceness of Neruda’s political poems (especially Spain in Our Hearts), was enough to have us examining poems like his Ode to Tomatoes and debate whether it was meant to be purely sensual or whether “viscera” and “murder” indicated that this was to be read as (also) a political poem. I guess at that time I found a lot to like in Neruda.
A change of view
In later years, it became harder to see what it was. I mean, just look at Every Day You Play: the infantilising of the beloved, the unironic “my savage solitary soul” and the breathtaking arrogance of “I alone can contend against the power of men”. Granted, the speaker of the poem and the poet are not identical but there’s too much in Neruda’s poetry of this “savage solitary” figure of the poet through whom history itself should speak, for a reader to believe that this wasn’t also Neruda’s self-image.
(In fact, re-reading that poem, I feel an immediate urge to go listen to that song from Sound of Music. I sense affiliations and connections.)
Then there’s the rape. If we must consider his politics and his diplomatic career as inseparable from his poetry, let us also consider how he raped a Tamil woman worker while he was consul in Sri Lanka in the 1920s and then wrote about it in his memoirs.
Were these poems necessary?
So I’m not sure how to respond to a new collection of Neruda’s poetry. Then Come Back: The Lost Neruda Poems is a collection of 21 poems discovered by the estate of Pablo Neruda, among his papers and notes. These poems have been translated by the poet Forrest Gander, with extensive notes (translated by Lizzie Davis) about their discovery and place in the timeline of Neruda’s work.
Forrest Gander begins his Prologue by admitting that he’d said, “The last thing we need is another Neruda translation”, because he’d rather have the works of more recent, lesser-known poets translated. And yet Gander is pulled in, I suspect more because of what the process of translation brings to his own poetry than because of any real desire to translate Neruda.
And let me admit the result is a beautifully produced piece of work with facsimiles of Neruda’s own writing (famously, in green ink) – one poem scribbled on a menu card – and poems organised first in their English translations and, in the second half of the book, in the original Spanish followed by the Notes. It has become usual to have bilingual editions with poems and their translations on facing pages, and I think this departure is refreshing in its confidence that the reader can approach the poems (and translations) as a whole, without any crutches to aid them.
The poems were found amongst others that went on to become published collections. Some, as Gander himself points out, are clearly unfinished, ending sometimes with a comma. For Neruda, at least, there must have been good reasons to leave these poems out of any collection he happened to have been working on. It’s puzzling, then, to understand what made the Pablo Neruda Foundation and Neruda’s widow, Matilde Urrutia, select these for publication.
I can’t help thinking of the bootlegs, live recordings, outtakes and suchlike that emerge with some regularity from the archives of famous, dead rock stars. They’re meant for devotees who’d like to own every available part of their rock gods, but often don’t do the artist any favours.
These “lost” poems are what you might expect from Neruda. Here are some key words and phrases: “brimming”, “tremor”, “fragrance”, “spring”, “stretch out your body”, “natal fires”, “my ancient ways will keep teaching and singing to you”. It’s not unfair to pluck these words and phrases out, because single words and phrases often constitute the Neruda line. I find it very annoying to read down the page absorbing single words at a time.
Among the better poems, there’s one addressed to Neruda’s younger self (Poem no. 7) which ends like this:
put on your new suit
with heaven in reach you can
worry about the lily,
take on the orange blossom and the dove,
arrive into your radiance,
without forgetting the state
without forgetting your own
or the earth,
take a walk
over the sharp stones
then come back.
There are less successful poems: one a tirade against the telephone, another an incomplete self-justification in response to someone who’d scrawled the words, “Don’t be vain” on Neruda’s wall. And then there’s the so-bad-it’s-good first poem addressed to his wife, which has the immortal lines:
Oh legs bequeathed the essence of perfect
I’d like to remember poem 7, but I’m certain I will often whisper “perfect oats” to myself every morning at breakfast.
Then Come Back: The Lost Neruda Poems, Pablo Neruda, translated by Forrest Gander, Copper Canyon Press