Book Review: Readings
Reviewed by Dominic Luxford, Fri., April 2, 2004
The Essential Neruda: Selected Poemsedited by Mark Eisner
City Lights, 234 pp., $16.95
Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) published his first book of poetry at the age of 19 (which he financed by selling all of his possessions), and by 20 with the publication of Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair he was a celebrity. His Complete Works stands today at nearly 4,000 pages. Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971 (celebrated in Chile as a national holiday), Neruda was called by Gabriel García Márquez "the greatest poet of the 20th century in any language." He was probably the most widely read and, many claim, the most loved.
The Essential Neruda: Selected Poems the beautifully executed outcome of a collaboration among noted poets, scholars, and translators, including Alistair Reid, Robert Hass, and Stephen Mitchell is actually only one element in a much larger project, "One Hundred Years of Pablo Neruda," organized to celebrate the centennial of Neruda's birth. In conjunction with the book, a feature-length documentary film is being made about Neruda by the book's editor, Mark Eisner. The project also includes worldwide public readings of Neruda's poetry during April, National Poetry Month. (For more information, go to www.nerudadoc.org or www.dialoguepoetry.org.)
Though not without its flaws, The Essential Neruda will prove to be, for most readers, the best introduction to Neruda available in English. In fact, I can think of few other books that have given me so much delight so easily. At only 234 pages (bilingual), it somehow manages to convey the fullness of Neruda's poetic arc: Reading it is like reading the autobiography of a poetic sensibility (granted, the abridged version).
Neruda's poetry is characterized by passion in love and in politics as well as by compassion. He referred to himself as an "anti-intellectual" and called on the "poet's responsibility ... to defend the people, the poor, the exploited." Commonly referred to as the "people's poet," he believed in the power of language, especially of poetry, to make visible the "quiet dignities" of the ordinary person.
And while Neruda's poetry leaves no subject or emotion untouched, he tends to be at his strongest when at his quietest, when describing "the soul's word, melancholy," or when admitting, simply: "Comes a time I'm tired of my feet and my fingernails/and my hair and my shadow./Comes a time I'm tired of being a man." In "Ode With a Lament," he writes of his mortally sick daughter: "You stand your ground, chock/full of teeth and lightening./You propagate kisses and clobber the ants./You cry from vitality, from an onion, a bee."
W.H. Auden famously wrote, "poetry makes nothing happen." It would seem that Neruda spent his entire life trying to prove this wrong. In awarding the Nobel Prize to him, the Swedish Academy declared: "In his work a continent awakens to consciousness." Thirty years later that continent, and the world, continues to awaken through him. This book is probably your best chance to become a part of it.