Pablo Neruda’s Poetry of Love and the Void
Travel produces vigorous hungers in the would-be world explorer. It’s as if the body’s cells, knowing that you have lost the anchor of familiarity, press their case all the harder. They demand the satisfactions of food and drink and bouts of stimulation so alien to normal life they can leave you sullied with nervousness. Loneliness, too, becomes a belligerent companion, stalking you like a mannequin in the shape of absent lovers, friends, or companions. Unusual pleasures like the thrill of awkwardly hauling yourself onto old fortress walls, seeing a modern city unfurl like a blanket of light under a mountain ridge, or letting your body and mind soak in the damp of a sauna, provide only temporary comforts. I find myself constantly unsettled, and have confronted a mirror of this nervous unsteadiness in the poetry of Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet and socialist political leader whose death was robbed of official recognition by US-sponsored murderers led by Pinochet.
I feel that now,
with the dead year of drought scarcely over,
now that the mistakes which bled us all
are over and we begin to plan again
a better and juster life,
the menace once again appears
and on the walls a rising rancor.
– From “Insomnia,” translated by Alastair Reid
Neruda’s poetry maps the disquieting facts of modernity: love always haunted by absence, revolutionary struggle, death’s omnipresence, and rivers of chaos. His writing on modernity is not the messianic militarism of fascists and Futurists or the slate-grey and cynical dance of postmodern literature. Unlike the fascist, Neruda’s poems do not stage overripe festivals for the nation or envision a monstrous and divine plenty belonging to the us who should be fed. And while he observes and takes an accounting of chaos, he does not see the rush of wordplay as its own reward. Rather, his poems pinpoint the voids and interruptions––opportunities either for destruction or renewal––that constantly present themselves in critical moments.
Come on, let’s leave
this suffocating river
in which we swim with other fish
from dawn to shifting night
and now in this discovered space
let’s fly to a pure solitude.
–From “The Future Is Space” translated by Alastair Reid
In the poem above, the narrator and an unnamed companion have to communicate to each other across mountains. Separation and the quiet fury of the day are taken as the default; the unity that love brings is temporary and exceptional, something discovered or wrought with sweat rather than natural. Another poem illustrates the same theme:
I like it when you’re quiet. It’s as if you weren’t here now.
As if you were dead now, and sorrowful, and distant.
A word then is sufficient, or a smile, to make me happy,
Happy that it seems so certain that you’re present.
–From “Twenty Love Poems: 15” translated by Robert Hass
Once again we have a dialectical unity of opposites, a spiraling motion between presence and absence and between uncertainty and surety. Out of the quiet of death, the void of silence, erupts a profound transformation. I find, in my own observations, that such “miraculous” occurrences can only emerge from a chrysalis of emptiness and doubt. Separated from the person I love most, I find myself sensitized to light, as it were, so that the mere thought of her brings a sense of momentary joy. Then, of course, a pang of sadness for the absence. Reading this poetry brings these feelings to an acute climax. So many cliches about the power of poetry have propagated that I feel reluctant to gush further.
Neruda was a man blessed and cursed to witness a peaceful transformation in his native country of Chile and then to watch it unravel in blood and smoke and gunfire while he was dying of cancer. Without unwarranted romanticism or needless phrases, his words have the power of truth, the distorted mirror that shows the vanity of the capitalist and imperialist west for what it is rather than what it fancies. In Turkey, in the United States, and everywhere else, we require the talents of such companions as Pablo Neruda. As much as water and bread. As he himself wrote,
“On our earth, before writing was invented, before the printing press was invented, poetry flourished. that is why we know that poetry is like bread; it should be shared by all, by scholars and peasants, by all our vast, incredibly, extraordinary family of humanity.”