The Neruda Touch
"Neruda was a kind of King Midas," Gabriel García Márquez once said. "Everything he touched turned to poetry." From his youthful days of insatiable love in Santiago, Chile, through the hermetic loneliness of the Far East to García Lorca and the tragedy of Spain to the heights of Macchu Picchu and, finally, to his "autumn" at Isla Negra, Pablo Neruda was the pure poet of an impure world. His myriad voices came from the earth and the sea, from women and shadows, from death and pollen. He breathed the language he wrote and thereby gave a presence to absence, a density to his emptiness and a voice to the voiceless.
Born Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto in 1904 in the rainy south of Chile, Neruda immediately gravitated to the poetic vein. He was befriended by Gabriela Mistral, the Chilean poet and Nobel Laureate, who secured him a scholarship to study in Santiago. By the age of 20 he had published his second book, Twenty Love Poems and A Song of Despair. Its unabashed sensuality and intense hunger was received with excitement and controversy, affirming his burgeoning talent.
This early fame led to Neruda's appointment to consular posts in Burma, Ceylon, Jakarta, and Singapore over the next five years. Out of this period of extreme loneliness and cultural shock came Residence on Earth, a disturbing voice entirely new to Spanish poetry, dense with enigmatic metaphors, impoverished in spirit and propelled by a mysterious rhythm of life and death.
Following his joyous introduction to the poets of Spain and the subsequent tragedy of the civil war, he returned to Chile. On his way through Peru, a pilgrimage to the ancient heights of Macchu Picchu provoked a transforming vision of the birth of Latin America and his own rebirth, which he explored in his Whitman-inspired work, Canto General.
"The Heights of Macchu Picchu," which is at the core of Canto General, is at once a return to past origins and a renaissance from the Latin American earth. It was written in 1944, at the height of World War II, when the Latin American voice was forging its identity out of and apart from the catastrophes of Europe.
The 12-part poem follows a physical and spiritual journey from the past to the present, from the lost history of Latin America to its dawn of resurgence and from the poet's interior confusion to his union with the lost dead. The language is dense with ambiguity and paradox, ripe with a surreal movement that evades any logic.
The first five sections of the poem are driven by a chaotic hunger for "the exhausted human spring." The darkness and sense of oblivion of Residence on Earth encounter a new world, a "towering reef of the human dawn," that contains a lost unity between man and earth, a place where the kernel of life and death once merged with human civilization.
In his encounter with Macchu Picchu, Neruda proclaims his vision of this formerly concealed world, whose life has suddenly been released. "Rise up with me, American love," he pleads to the earth itself and the dead spirits that once erected the great temple. A new incantatory language emerges with the fresh flow of the earth's elements and an awakening of the depths. It is the heart of Neruda's grand work, where his fresh, symbolic language, his repeated themes of sea and earth, man and history, chaos and meaning are taken to their deepest territories.
In the later years, Neruda continued to travel and to explore new worlds and new voices. One result of this was Odes to Common Things (Odas Elementales), simple celebrations of familiar objects that he made deliberately more accessible for the people of the countryside, to whom he felt obligated.
In the early '50s, Neruda took up residence at Isla Negra on the Chilean coast, where he set out on a poetic journey to explore his own life in the face of his present loves and influences.
In Isla Negra, we find the aging poet reflecting on his life in a simple and direct voice. Written in a series of notebooks that links past and present, Neruda recounts his origins and his continuing love for the world. He progresses from his imagined birth and discovery of the sea, sex, and poetry to the weight of time overtaking his daily life.
The impassioned struggle against chaos from his early poetry is gone, replaced by a surrendering to the inevitable. The enigmatic images and heavy language are replaced by clear, short verse. In taking account of the transformations in his life, he finds memory to be something elusive and unreliable, truth "a firefly in the dark." He is more generous with his spirit and more inquisitive with his questions.
It is impossible to communicate the fertile language, the originality of metaphor, and the sheer poetic expansiveness of Pablo Neruda's work. This must be left to the poetry itself -- of which there is never enough and from which he always opens fresh worlds, as in the opening of the final poem of Isla Negra, "The Future is Space":
El futuro es espacio,
espacio color de tierra,
color de nube,
color de agua, de aire,
espacio negro para muchos suenos,
espacio blanco para toda la nieve
para toda la musica.
|The future is space,
color of water, air,
black space with room for many dreams,
white space with room for all snow,
for all music.