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.

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