Pablo Neruda – the name evokes romance and revolution in my consciousness, a riot of metaphors and action, a turbo charged celebration of love and beauty, the most original and compelling images, a flood of high emotion that assails my senses and dulls them so that the only thing I am receptive to when I have Neruda’s verse before my eyes is Neruda’s verse. Everything else blacks out and I’m transported to a world I have never seen before – and it’s beautiful!
When after long deliberation I made up my mind to read him I made it a point to start at the first collection Neruda had published in his life: Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair.
But I’m not a very big fan of the limited aesthetic of love poetry, which often rehashes done-to-death old metaphor and similes, stringing the most common emotions in the most common lines; which is rather subpar, of the throwaway variety, read once and never to be revisited. So I approached the collection under review with some reserve.
I was stumped, stunned, silenced. From the very first poem Neruda shamed me. From third poem onwards I was apologising to him. By the time I reached the end of the collection I became Neruda’s devotee. And so I am to this day and will remain forever!
There is no one who marries terrestrial or nature’s metaphors of earth, sea, fire, wind, trees, moon and stars so masterfully to the anatomy of their beloved.
Below I collect some of the beautiful images from the collection:
Take a look at the simple and stunning eroticism of these lines. From the opening poem:
Body of a woman, white hills, white thighs,
you look like a world, lying in surrender.
My rough peasant’s body digs in you
and makes the son leap from the depth of the earth.
And the transition of the beloved from white hills to weapon.
I was alone like a tunnel. The birds fled from me,
To survive myself I forged you like a weapon,…
In ‘Almost Out of the Sky’ we have the most innovative and unlikely metaphors for the beloved. One can only appreciate the beauty by reading and re-reading these lines which have since then become my signature favourites.
But you, cloudless girl, question of smoke, corn tassel.
You were what the wind was making with illuminated leaves.
Behind the nocturnal mountains, white lily of conflagration,
ah, I can say nothing! You were made of everything.
All elements fail the beloved. She is simply ‘made of everything!’
From ‘Every day you play’, Neruda finds the beloved in the most unlikely places. Holding a cluster of fruit is like holding the beloved’s head:
You are more than this white head that I hold tightly
as a cluster of fruit, every day, between my hands.
And further on:
You are like nobody since I love you.
Let me spread you out among yellow garlands.
Oh let me remember you as you were before you existed.
And if you go on:
You are here. Oh, you do not run away.
Cling to me as though you were frightened.
How you must have suffered getting accustomed to me,
my savage, solitary soul, my name that sends them all running.
Neruda ends the poem with a striking image:
to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees.
(First published in Spanish 1924; translated from the Spanish by W. S. Merwin)