Dressed as an Admiral

Michael Wood

  • Memoirs by Pablo Neruda, translated by Hardie St Martin
    Souvenir, 370 pp, £12.99, June 2004, ISBN 0 02 856481 2
  • Isla Negra: A Bilingual Edition by Pablo Neruda, translated by Alastair Reid
    Souvenir, 416 pp, £14.99, June 2004, ISBN 0 285 64913 2
  • The Essential Neruda: Selected Poems edited by Mark Eisner
    City Lights, 199 pp, US $16.95, April 2004, ISBN 0 87286 428 6

Ilya Ehrenburg had a complaint about his friend Pablo Neruda’s work. ‘Too much root,’ he said. ‘Too many roots in your poems. Why so many?’ Neruda, reporting this remark in his memoirs, took it as a joke, which it probably was, and as a compliment, which it probably wasn’t. Isla Negra has a whole section, originally a separate volume, called ‘The Hunter after Roots’, and Neruda is not the sort of poet who hunts for things he can’t find, or indeed for things he hasn’t already found. ‘It’s true,’ Neruda wrote. ‘The frontier regions sank their roots into my poetry and these roots have never been able to wrench themselves out. My life is a long pilgrimage that is always turning on itself, always returning to the woods in the south, to the forest lost in me.’ This sounds like hocus pocus, and the weird, disavowing syntax is suspicious. The regions sink the roots, the roots can’t get out, and the forest gets lost. What is the poet doing all this time?

Well, he’s using the hocus pocus for his poems, where it turns into something else. Even thin and unpersuasive lines (‘I don’t mind/being one stone more, the dark stone,/the pure stone that the river bears away’) show the writer hard at work on his myth, and the myth itself, when fully functional, is magnificent, a solemn, slightly pompous story that somehow manages to roll Wordsworth into Whitman:

Cuando escogí la selva
para aprender a ser,
hoja por hoja,
extendí mis lecciones
y aprendí a ser raíz, barro profundo,
tierra callada, noche cristalina,
y poco a poco más, toda la selva.

When I picked out the jungle
to learn how to be,
leaf by leaf,
I went on with my lessons
and learned to be root, deep clay,
voiceless earth, transparent night,

and beyond that, bit by bit, the whole jungle.

This is what Neruda calls the ‘terrenal herencia’, the ‘earthy endowment’ of poetry, and we notice that the passive constructions have disappeared. The poet chooses, learns, prolongs his lessons. A poem called ‘La tierra austral’ (‘The South’) is full of the snakes, birds, fruit, place names of southern Chile, and the forest is said to be silent when the poet listens, full of sounds when he sleeps. He buries his tired feet in the rotting earth and returns, he says, to life:

Pero, sólo de entonces,
de los pasos perdidos,
de la confusa soledad, del miedo,
de las enredaderas,
del cataclismo verde, sin salida,
volví con el secreto:
sólo entonces y allí pude saberlo,
en la escarpada orilla de la fiebre,
allí, en la luz sombría,
se decidió mi pacto
con la tierra.

But only from that point,
from my lost steps,
from my bewildered solitude, from fear,
from the entangling vines,
from the torrential green, with no escape,
did I come back with the secret.
Only then and there could I realise it,
on the precipitous edge of fever.
There, in the sombre light,
it was decided and made,
my contract with the earth.

The pact or contract goes back to the passive mood, but the movement of these lines makes clear that the poet is telling himself, as well as us, a story. There is an escape from the place of no escape, and both parties to the pact will keep the secret: the earth won’t say anything, and the poet will pretend the earth is doing the talking.

All three of the books under review are part of the centennial celebrations which are taking place all over the world – although in the UK and the Eastern US only quietly, so far as I can tell. Neruda was born on 12 July 1904, and died on 23 September 1973, 12 days after the Chilean coup d’état and the death of Salvador Allende. He started writing at a very early age, and repeatedly said that he produced poems the way fruit-trees produce fruit – another instance of the pact at work. He published his first volume of verse, Crepusculario, in 1923, and what remains his most famous book, Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada, in 1924. We could translate the first title as ‘The Book of Twilight’, and the second, more confidently and more easily, as ‘20 Love Poems and a Desperate Song’. Between 1927 and 1943 Neruda was Chilean consul in Burma, Sri Lanka, Java, Singapore, Spain and Mexico. He wrote the three volumes of Residencia en la tierra/Residence on Earth (1933, 1935, 1947), regarded by many as his masterpiece, and worked on his Canto general/General Song (1950), which he himself thought his ‘most important book’. In 1945 he was elected senator for the mining provinces of Tarapaca and Antofogasta, and joined the Communist Party of Chile. In 1947, after Neruda had published an open letter defying the newly instituted censorship of the press and made various turbulent speeches in the Senate about what he called the ‘bitter wrongs’ suffered by his country, including one with a title borrowed from Zola, ‘Yo acuso’, the anti-Communist government of González Videla forced him into hiding and then into exile, and he remained abroad for more than three years. Back in Chile he published two volumes of Odas elementales/Elemental Odes (1954, 1956), and other books; honours and translations and critical commentaries began to accumulate. He was repeatedly tipped for the Nobel Prize, which he finally won in 1971. He became the Communist Party’s candidate for the presidency of his country, but only in order to give his constituency’s support to Allende and Unidad Popular. When Allende was elected, Neruda became ambassador to France. Neruda saw Communism as the path of hope for Latin America (‘I have never had reason to regret the choice I made between darkness and hope in that tragic time’), although he did come to recognise the ‘sinister details’ of Stalin’s rule. He didn’t think they were more than details, however, and a long, ostensibly introspective poem about the period in Isla Negra is simply (and rather shockingly) called ‘The Episode’.

Memoirs and Isla Negra belong intimately together, in one sense, since both are versions of autobiography. Memoirs started out as a series of articles for a Brazilian monthly, which appeared in 1962, and was published posthumously in its final version in 1974. The Spanish title is Confieso que he vivido (‘I Confess that I Have Lived’), and includes among its meanings the suggestion that poets too have lives, even if they don’t always own up to them, and that this poet in particular has piled up plenty of experience, not all of it salubrious. The work is not really confessional. It is anecdotal, often entertaining, rarely revealing. What the memoirist remembers, Neruda says, ‘is not the same thing the poet remembers. He may have lived less, but he photographed much more, and he re-creates for us with special attention to detail. The poet gives us a gallery full of ghosts shaken by the fire and darkness of his time.’ Living and photographing here are both metaphorical, and the thought that the memoirist lives less than the poet gives a new twist to the title, which is perhaps also saying: ‘I may as well confess that I also merely lived like everyone else, quite apart from the true, full life the poet lives in his work.’ There is a lyrical evocation of Neruda’s southern childhood; there are strong portraits of many writer friends (Vallejo, Lorca, Eluard, Ehrenburg and others), moments of sorrow and sympathy (but never regret) for abandoned women; comic tales of travellers’ mishaps; a fabulous account of a journey across the Andes into exile. Neruda is proud to have become ‘the poet of my people’ – his people are Chileans first and last, but he also uses the word ‘American’ in a capacious way – and he reminds us that workers and peasants know Neruda poems by heart, and that Che Guevara took the Canto general to the Sierra Maestra.

The most interesting elements in the book are its contradictions, which hint at precisely the depth and complication Neruda tries to deny. He disapproves of ‘the rigidly pessimistic air’ of his Residencia volumes, their ‘painful moodiness’, and says that by 1939 he had ‘already done enough tramping over the irrational and the negative’. ‘I have been too simple a man,’ he implausibly writes. ‘This has been my honour and my shame.’ Cities are all ‘cobwebs and silence’, and he is ‘still a poet of the great outdoors’. This is where the myth helps him, since it allows him to believe all this stuff and tell a more intricate story at the same time. The simple, outdoor fellow who deplores ‘the brooding subjectivity’ of Veinte poemas can also describe the book as his ‘love affair’ with Santiago de Chile, the place he was supposed to hate. ‘It is a book I love because, in spite of its acute melancholy, the joyfulness of being alive is present in it.’ This is exactly right, and indeed none of Neruda’s poems, early or late, has the exclusive inward gaze he likes to attribute to what he thinks of as his less socially aware work. ‘In my poems,’ he says in a fine phrase in Memoirs, ‘I could not shut the door to the street’; and he later writes of his poetry as not being ‘happy to stay in a room’. But this is true of all his poems, whatever their subject, and whatever their quality, and that is why so many people have loved them. Outside the room is the primeval forest, of course, but also the crowded city, and the people and cultures, ancient and modern, of the world. The Neruda who (sometimes) likes to scorn book-learning, the anti-literary boor who insults Vallejo on their first meeting by saying they shouldn’t treat each other as writers, also reads (and mentions) Petrarch, Góngora, Quevedo, Baudelaire, Pushkin, Dostoevsky and Chekhov, and says he wove a memory of Proust’s description of Vinteuil’s sonata into his Residencia: ‘His words led me to relive my own life, to recover the hidden sentiments I had almost lost within myself.’ Neruda was translating Romeo and Juliet into Spanish at more or less the same time as he was writing Memoirs. ‘I was always quick to forget,’ he writes in a poem in Isla Negra; this is not a refutation of the great ‘sonata’ from Residencia – ‘No hay olvido’ (‘There’s No Forgetting’) – but a reminder of how difficult such matters are. One can always fail to forget as well as fail to remember. There is no rigid pessimism in the following lines from ‘No hay olvido’, and they are not locked in a room of the self. On the contrary, there is a great deal of tenderness towards others, and if the phrase about wanting to forget clearly glances at the poem’s title and implies a stark impossibility, the very form of the sentence reminds us discreetly that the thing can after all be done.

hay tantos muertos,
y tantos malecones que el sol rojo partía,
y tantas cabezas que golpean los buques,
y tantas manos que han encerrado besos,
y tantas cosas que quiero olvidar.

there are so many dead,
and so many levees the red sun has cloven
and so many heads that knock against hulls,
and so many hands that shut up kisses,
and so many things I want to forget.

The translation is Forrest Gander’s, in The Essential Neruda.

Isla Negra (neither black nor an island, Enrico Mario Santí reminds us in an afterword to Alastair Reid’s translation) is the name of the village where Neruda bought a house in 1939, and where he spent much of his writing time. The book named for the village was first published in five brief volumes in 1964, and the full title is Memorial de Isla Negra – ‘memorial’ meaning ‘notebook’, as Reid says, commenting on the ‘translation hazards peculiar to this book’. The five sections (‘Where the Rain Is Born’, ‘The Moon in the Labyrinth’, ‘Cruel Fire’, ‘The Hunter after Roots’, ‘Critical Sonata’) represent successively the writer’s youth, his student years and early consular postings, his experience of Spain during the Civil War and Chile after his return, his loves, his further travels, his devotion to his ‘poor, dark country’, his late sense of his own career, both political and poetic. Reid, who first met Neruda around the time of its publication and has translated much of his later verse, calls this work ‘a set of assembled meditations on the presence of the past’. He politely adds that ‘it is not injudicious to say . . . that some of the poems are better than others’; and it is true that Isla Negra, while maintaining the scope, lacks the intensity of some of Neruda’s early work. There are wonderful poems here, though. I’m thinking particularly of ‘The First Journey’, ‘The Night Train’, ‘Monsoons’, ‘That Light’, the two poems about the woman Neruda called Terusa, ‘I Remember the East’, ‘Exile’, ‘Suddenly, a Ballad’, ‘Solitude’.

Do we meet ‘a gallery full of ghosts’? Not quite. The dead are never entirely dead in Neruda’s poems, forgetting and remembering are always entangled, as in Proust, and even when Neruda says there is nothing but death to be seen or that no human traces remain in the darkness of an Indian death, the tone tells another tale. ‘Sólo la muerte’ is the title of an early poem. Here’s how it ends, and you may wonder when you last saw death so lively. The admiral is an echo of Baudelaire’s ‘vieux capitaine’, but the rest of the imagery is all Neruda’s:

Pero la muerte va también por el mundo
vestida de escoba,
lame el suelo buscando difuntos,
la muerte está en la escoba,
es la lengua de la muerte buscando muertos,
es la aguja de la muerte buscando hilo.
La muerte está en los catres:
en los colchones lentos, en las frazadas negras

vive tendida, y de repente sopla:
sopla un sonido oscuro que hincha sábanas,
y hay camas navegando a un puerto
en donde está esperando, vestida de almirante.

But death also goes around the earth riding a broom,
licking the ground looking for the dead ones,
death is in the broom,
it’s death’s tongue looking for the dead,
it’s death’s needle that needs threading.
Death is in the bedsteads:
in the slow mattresses, in the black blankets
death stretches out like a clothesline, and

then suddenly blows:
blows a dark sound that swells the sheets
and beds are sailing into a harbour
where death is waiting, dressed as an admiral.

The translation is Robert Hass’s, in The Essential Neruda.

And here is the end of a poem called ‘Those Lives’, from Isla Negra:

Y si algo vi en mi vida fue una tarde
en la India, en las márgenes de un río:
arder una mujer de carne y hueso
y no sé si era el alma o era el humo
lo que del sarcófago salía
hasta que no quedó mujer ni fuego
ni ataúd ni ceniza: ya era tarde
y sólo noche y agua y sombra y río
allí permanecieron en la muerte.

If I remember anything in my life,
it was an afternoon in India, on the banks of a river.
They were burning a woman of flesh and bone
and I didn’t know if what came from the sarcophagus
was soul or smoke,
until there was neither woman nor fire
nor coffin nor ash. It was late,
and only the night, water, the river, darkness
lived on in that death.

The ‘if’ inflection suggests both that the poet will always remember and that he (or anyone) could always forget: and literally the Spanish says, ‘if I saw anything in my life’, as if all other sights were something less than seen. And in spite of the detailed list of accumulating absences (woman, fire, coffin, ash), it’s clear that the night and the memory are full of what’s gone, especially of the dead person.

Neruda is extraordinarily difficult to translate, in part because of his apparent simplicity, and in part because of his shifting tone and often surprising vocabulary; and in general, although much translated, he has not been well served: too much plod or pointless infidelity. The exceptions are the always excellent Alastair Reid; and John Felstiner, who devoted a whole book to the problems of translating Neruda, especially ‘The Heights of Macchu Picchu’, a spectacular section of Canto general. The Essential Neruda is therefore a very welcome arrival. ‘Essential’ is probably too bold a claim, since the essence of Neruda, if he has one, is to be large and diffuse, but this brief bilingual selection contains four well-known poems from Veinte Poemas, 14 more from Residencia, seven of the 12 poems that make up ‘The Heights of Macchu Picchu’, and some later work. It includes strong versions by Stephen Mitchell and Robert Hass (from one of which I have already quoted), and the editor, Mark Eisner. In some cases Eisner has reworked translations by others, notably John Felstiner and Stephen Kessler, and he includes a number of poems from the volumes translated by Reid. It’s hard to compress into a single instance what is already compressed into so few, but we could do worse than look closely at ‘No hay pura luz’ (‘There Is No Clear Light’), which appears in Isla Negra and The Essential Neruda, and where we see both why a poet might want to simplify his sense of life and why the simplification won’t work. The dancing eyes of oblivion look unmanageably bright in the apparent greyness of the mind:

No hay pura luz
ni sombra en los recuerdos:
éstos se hicieron cárdena ceniza
o pavimiento sucio
de calle atravesada por los pies de las gentes
que sin cesar salía y entraba en el mercado.

Y hay otros: los recuerdos buscando aún que morder
como dientes de fiera no saciada.
Buscan, roen el hueso último, devoran
este largo silencio de lo que quedó atrás.

Y todo quedó atrás, noche y aurora,
el día suspendido como un puente entre sombras,
las ciudades, los puertos del amor y el rencor,
como si al almacén la guerra hubiera entrado
llevándose una a una todas las mercancías
hasta que a los vacíos anaqueles
llegue el viento a través de las puertas deshechas
y haga bailar los ojos del olvido.

There is no clear light,
no clear shadow, in remembering.
They have grown ashy-gray,
a grubby sidewalk
crisscrossed by the endless feet of those
who come in and out of the market.

And there are other memories, still looking for something to bite,
like fierce, unsatisfied teeth.
They gnaw us to the last bone, devouring
the long silence of all that lies behind us.

And everything lies behind, nights, dawns,
days hanging like bridges between
cities, doors into love and rancour,

as if war had broken into the store
and carried off everything there, piece by piece,
till through broken doors
the wind blows over empty shelves
and makes the eyes of oblivion dance.