Helpless Collector: The Lost Poems of Pablo Neruda

Neruda Crop

With work by turns sensual, political, magical, and earthy, Pablo Neruda is one of the world’s most beloved poets, as well as an extremely well studied literary figure. That is why it was a tremendous literary surprise when, in going through Neruda’s archive in the years after 2011, archivists uncovered twenty-one unpublished poems and fragments written between the 1950s and Neruda’s death in 1973. This spring, the newly uncovered poems, translated by Forrest Gander, have been gathered into a beautiful edition entitled Then Come Back, from Copper Canyon. Poet Tess Taylor talks to historian of Latin America Patrick Iber about what the new poems contain, the magical and gorgeous home where they were hidden, and how they help us see Neruda newly now.

Tess Taylor: As a poet, but not a Neruda or Latin America scholar, I read these poems and am struck again by just how pleasant it is to read Neruda. I feel his sensuality, his praise of the magic in ordinary things. I think of lines like “smithing the secret tin” or “settle your perfect hips here on the bow of wet arrows.” I love it when he calls his beloved “a secret hard-bodied dove.” I could read lines like that all day. But as someone deeply schooled in Neruda’s life and times, you read their contexts differently. Can you tell me about your experience of reading this collection?

Patrick Iber: I too was struck by the beauty of some of the poems: though they are unpublished, most of them don’t feel like leftovers. But it’s true that I couldn’t help but think about the life Neruda was living when he wrote them. The poems here were discovered among papers dating from the mid-1950s to 1973. That is the only part of the Neruda archive that still exists, because his third wife, Matilde Urrutia, kept it safe at the extraordinary house he built for her (known as La Chascona) when she was his mistress. That house still holds his archive, so the materials there reflect a particular time in his life. He had passed many of his most politically turbulent years by then, until the final few, when he was close friends with the Socialist president of Chile, Salvador Allende, who was overthrown just before Neruda’s death. It’s safe to say that his poetry had also settled, as he had. So while the poems here are new and not derivative, their themes are often familiar. There are the love poems he is so known for, paeans to Chile’s beautiful geography, odes to concrete things. There is at least one revelation, in my view: an unusual reflection on telephones and communication.

As a poet, did any of these categories strike you as more skillfully rendered than the others?

TT: I saw that mix of categories as well. It struck me that we as readers were making enormous leaps across time and space — that Neruda, who was always conceiving full album collections, would not himself have ever conceived of this collection as a collection. Instead it’s made of our desire for Neruda, and our desire to piece together even the smallest bits that might have been lost. But even though it doesn’t move as a deliberate collection might, Neruda’s linguistic richness comes through so strongly and his salty praise of common people and things. I love that poem to the telephone, too.

But I want to back up. You’ve actually been to the archive where these poems were found. Can you describe it?

PI: La Chascona, the home where the archive is stored, is built into a hillside in Santiago, the Chilean capital. There’s a small stream running through the yard. The exterior is painted ultramarine blue, and parts of the upper house are shaped like the prow of a ship. It has an entirely unconventional design; there are few rooms that are box-shaped. I remember one room with a sloping, creaking wooden floor that recreates the feeling of being aboard a ship. Neruda was a helpless collector of objects (as a Communist, he was sometimes given a hard time about this bourgeois habit), and the house is full of the things he picked up on his travels around the world. My most vivid memory is a gigantic pair of shoes — designed like derbies, I think — but as big as snowshoes. One wonders what possible purpose their maker could have had in making them — perhaps that mystery is what Neruda liked about them too. The house was built for Matilde Urrutia when she was Neruda’s mistress (they later married), and there is a also a famous painting of Matilde given to Neruda by his friend the Mexican painter Diego Rivera, in which Neruda’s facial profile is hidden in Matilde’s hair, representing their secret relationship.

TT: A ship-shaped ultramarine house, a clandestine painting, artistic but perhaps unfunctional shoes. That sounds incredibly rich — like each of those things might be a figure for poetry itself. I love the image of the “helpless collector” — someone in the thrall of the aesthetic, which the poems show. And that helpless collector quality seems so in line with the archetype of the poet — at once wanting communal politics but also being in the thrall of specific aesthetic objects with particular aesthetic beauty. This also seems so resonant with Neruda’s life — especially this settled, late part you mention. I’m wondering if the poems offer any new glimpses into Neruda or confirm a rich vision that you already felt was there? And — what about the more political and early experiments do you miss?

PI: The archivist at La Chascona (Darío Oses, who wrote the introduction to this collection) told me it was Matilde who began to preserve his papers; no one did so for him in the 1920s, ’30s, or ’40s. And Neruda, oddly enough, didn’t preserve them well himself. As a result, we don’t have anything here from his experimental periods in the 1930s and 1940s that took him in different directions — more surrealistic and moody in the ’30s; and more triumphant and grandiose in the ’40s and early ’50s as he tried to produce poetry that would hasten the Communist politics that he favored. Of course, we have poems and writings from those periods, but no archive from which to discover new fragments.

To me, the poem in this collection that feels like it adds the most insight into Neruda’s life and personality is the reflection on life with the telephone. There isn’t a lot of whimsy in Neruda’s work, but there’s a kind of bemused irritation in that one that quickly shifts to a sinister register. (“I live trembling that they won’t call me / or that they will, those idiots, / my anxiety is medicationproof, / doctors, priests, politicians, / maybe I’m turning myself into a telephone, / an abominable, black-lacquered instrument / through which others communicate”) One can only imagine how annoyed he would have been in an ode to the smartphone. It’s also chronologically the last poem, from January 1973. I said earlier that Neruda seems settled poetically in this volume, but his life was hardly a relaxing one.

To give context to this telephone poem: 1970 was the year his close friend, the Socialist Salvador Allende, was elected president of that Chile after several unsuccessful attempts. In the United States, the Nixon administration (as other administrations before it had also done), maneuvered to keep Allende from taking office, and, once he did anyway, did its best to undermine Chile’s economy and ruin Allende’s presidency. In 1970, Neruda would have been excited to at long last have a left-wing president in office. Allende gave him the important job of ambassador to Paris — relations with Europe were especially important as Chile sought to mitigate the effects of U.S. hostility. Little doubt his phone was ringing constantly. It was a time of excitement, but not a peaceful one. Allende frequently called on Neruda for advice while president; some of those calls that troubled Neruda would have been from Allende himself. But by late 1972, both the poet and the president were despairing as Chile’s political situation deteriorated. In September 1973, Chile’s military bombed the presidential palace, and Allende committed suicide rather than surrender. Thousand of leftists were killed and tortured by the military government, especially in the first days.

Neruda died soon after — he had prostate cancer, but it used to be said that died of heartbreak. (He may also have been the victim of a medical assassination, since the military government feared the power of his voice.) I can’t help but think of all the work he was doing on behalf of Allende’s government when I read this, and how well he captures the transformation of hope into fear. For me, this is the poem in this volume with the qualities of a classic — it speaks powerfully and poignantly to its own time as well as to our own.

Tess Taylor is the author, most recently, of Work and Days (see her interview with Adam Fitzgerald about the book here).

Patrick Iber is the author of Neither Peace Nor Freedom: the Cultural Cold War in Latin America.  He is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Texas at El Paso.