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“We the mortals touch the metals,
the wind, the ocean shores, the stones,
knowing they will go on, inert or burning,
and I was discovering, naming all these things:
it was my destiny to love and say goodbye.”
– Pablo Neruda
Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) was born July 12, 1904, as Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto. He was a Chilean poet, diplomat, and politician who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971. He is considered the national poet of Chile. Neruda’s writing covered a wide range: historical epics, political manifestos, an autobiography, surrealist poems, and passionate love poetry. His first collection of verse, Crepusculario (Book of Twilights) was published in 1923 under his pen name, Pablo Neruda. Crepusculario was quickly followed in 1924 by Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada (Twenty Love Poems and A Desperate Song), which is still the best-selling book of poetry in the Spanish language.
He was a member of Chilean diplomatic missions in Burma, Argentina, Spain, Mexico, and was in France when he ended his diplomatic career upon being diagnosed with cancer. Neruda also served a term in the national Senate of Chile as a member of the Chilean Communist Party in the mid-1940s. In 1948, President Gabriel González Videla outlawed communism in Chile, and a warrant was issued for Neruda’s arrest. Friends hid him for months in the basement of a house in the port city of Valparaíso before he escaped through a mountain pass into Argentina. He published Canto general (General Song) in 1950. Neruda returned to Chile from exile in 1952. Years later, he became a close advisor to Chile’s socialist President Salvador Allende. When Neruda came back home after his 1971 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Allende invited him to read at the Estadio Nacional before 70,000 people.
In 1973, Neruda had been hospitalized just before the Allende government was overthrown by Augusto Pinochet in a coup d’état, which was supported clandestinely by the Nixon administration. He left the hospital because he suspected a doctor of injecting him with an unknown substance for the purpose of murdering him on Pinochet’s orders, and died at his home just hours later. Though there have been conflicting claims about his allegation that Pinochet tried to have him poisoned, an international forensic test conducted in 2013 rejected the allegation, concluding that he had terminal prostate cancer.
Pinochet, backed by right-wing elements of the armed forces, denied permission for Neruda’s funeral to be made a public event, but thousands of grieving Chileans disobeyed the curfew and crowded the streets.
Columbian novelist Gabriel García Márquez once called Neruda “the greatest poet of the 20th century in any language.”
by Pablo Neruda
Like ashes, like oceans gathering themselves,
in the submerged slowness, in what’s unformed,
or like hearing from a high place on the road
the cross-echo of church bells,
holding that sound just off the metal,
confused, weighing down, turning to dust,
in the same mill of forms, too far away,
remembering or never seen,
and the fragrance of plums, rolling to the ground,
which rot in time, infinitely green.
That everything so quick, so lively,
immobile, though, like the pulley, wild inside itself,
those wheels in motors, you know.
Existing like dry stitches in the seams of the tree,
silent, encircling, like that,
all the limbs mixing up their tails.
I mean from where, to where, on what shore?
The constant swirl, uncertain, so mute,
like the lilacs around the convent,
or death’s arrival on the ox’s tongue,
who falls in jerks, his guard down, his horns trying to sound.
That’s why in what’s immobile, stopping oneself to perceive,
then, like an immense fluttering of wings, above,
like dead bees or numbers,
ay, that which my pale heart can’t embrace,
in multitudes, in tears scarcely shed,
and human exertions, storms,
black actions suddenly discovered,
like ice, vast disorder,
oceanic, for me who enters singing,
like a sword among the defenseless.
Now then what is it made of, that surge of doves
there between night and time, like humid ravine?
That sound, already so long,
which falls striping, the roads with stones,
or better yet, when just one hour
expands without warning, extending endlessly.
Within the ring of summer
the great pumpkins listen once,
stretching out their poignant plants,
of that, of what’s asking so much,
full, dark with heavy drops.
“Dead Gallop” from Residencia en la tierra (1933), in The Essential Neruda, © 2004 by City Lights Books and Fundación Pablo Neruda, edited by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Nancy J. Peters
by Pablo Neruda
Everything on the earth bristled, the bramble
pricked and the green thread
nibbled away, the petal fell, falling
until the only flower was the falling itself.
Water is another matter,
has no direction but its own bright grace,
runs through all imaginable colors,
takes limpid lessons
and in those functionings plays out
the unrealized ambitions of the foam.
“Water” from The Poetry of Pablo Neruda, edited by Ilan Stavans – Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2015 edition
by Pablo Neruda
An odor has stayed among the sugarcane
Carrion, blood, and a nausea
Of harrowing petals.
Between the coconut palms lay the graves, in their stilled
Strangulation of ruined bones, of speechless death-rattles.
A finical dictator is talking
With top hats, gold braid, and collars.
The gloved laugh redoubled, a moment
Spanning the passageways, meeting
The newly-killed voices
And the blue mouths freshly buried. Out of sight
The unseen weeping, like a plant
Whose seeds fall endlessly on the earth,
Whose large blind leaves grow even without light.
Hatred has grown scale on scale,
Blow on blow, in the ghastly water of the bog,
The snout filled with ooze and silence
And vendetta was born.
“The Dictators” was published in Poetry magazine in the January 1952 edition
The Distance Between Two Doors
by Pablo Neruda
And one by one the nights
between our separated cities
are joined to the night that unites us.
The light of each day,
its flame or its repose,
they deliver to us, taking them from time,
and so our treasure
is disinterred in shadow or light,
and so our kisses kiss life:
all love is enclosed in our love:
all thirst ends in our embrace.
Here we are at last face to face,
we have met,
we have lost nothing
“The Distance Between Two Doors” section III of “Ode and Burgeonings,” from Love Poems, © 1973 by Pablo Neruda and Donald D. Walsh (translator) – New Directions