I’ve just finished reading The Essential Neruda: Selected Poems, edited by Mark Eisner, and I must say I was a little disappointed by it, especially considering the mostly positive reviews I read of it. Since the book is 200 pages long, I expected to find more than 50 poems, but perhaps I shouldn’t have considering that the original Spanish version is provided on one page and the translation is provided on the opposing page.
More to the point, I wasn’t particularly impressed with Neruda’s early poems, even the famous love poems. But, then, I’ve never been particularly fond of love poems as they generally strike me as rather artificial and inflated, even though I think Marvel’s “To His Coy Mistress” may be one of the greatest poems every written.
I was nearly half way through the volume before I even found a poem that I thought deserved a second reading. Luckily, I found more poems that I like in the second half of the book, starting with “I Explain Some Things,” which reminded me of Picasso’s La Guernica If I had to identify one theme that most attracted me, it would have to be his social protest poems.
I also liked his later poems, which seemed more personal and perhaps more reflective than most of his poems:
Little by little, and also in great leaps,
life happened to me,
and how insignificant this business is.
These veins carried
my blood, which I scarcely ever saw,
I breathed the air of so many places
without keeping a sample of any.
In the end, everyone is aware of this:
nobody keeps any of what he has,
and life is only a borrowing of bones.
The best thing was learning not to have too much
either of sorrow or of joy,
to hope for the chance of a last drop,
to ask more from honey and from twilight.
Perhaps it was my punishment.
Perhaps I was condemned to be happy.
Let it be known that nobody
crossed my path without sharing my being.
I plunged up to the neck
into adversities that were not mine,
into all the sufferings of others.
It wasn’t a question of applause or profit.
Much less. It was not being able
to live or breathe in this shadow,
the shadow of others like towers,
like bitter trees that bury you,
like cobblestones on the knees.
Our own wounds heal with weeping,
our own wounds heal with singing,
but in our own doorway lie bleeding
widows, Indians, poor men, fishermen.
The miner’s child doesn’t know his father
amidst all that suffering.
So be it, but my business
the fullness of the spirit:
a cry of pleasure choking you,
a sigh from an uprooted plant,
the sum of all action.
It pleased me to grow with the morning,
to bathe in the sun, in the great joy
of sun, salt, sea-light and wave,
and in that unwinding of the foam
my heart began to move,
growing in that essential spasm,
and dying away as it seeped into the sand.
trans. Alastair Reid
I love the way this poem contrasted his concern for the oppressed with his own personal life, which seemed the very opposite. One might wonder if his concern for the oppressed isn’t one of the reasons he is so positive about his own life. There’s nothing quite like doing something for someone else to make you feel better about yourself. Of course, someone more cynical might argue that it was his championing of the underdogs in society that helped to create his fame and to win him a Nobel Prize late in life.
Personally, if I were starting over, I would probably have bought a book that contained more of his poems, and, more particularly, contained more of his later poems, because they were definitely my favorite. I really wonder how good of a feel you can get for a poet from just 50 poems, even if they are considered “fifty of the most essential poems by one of history’s greatest poets in dynamic new translations.”