Perhaps the Sword Is Mightier: Neruda and Nixon
Long and unwieldy titles are usually the product of academic minds mired in literalism. I know that, after composing a long academic essay, the process leaves me creatively desiccated and I want nothing else than to slap the verbal equivalent of a bar code on my essay and ship it off for the Judgment of my superiors. That said, there is untamed beauty in a snaking title like A Call for the Destruction of Nixon and Praise for the Chilean Revolution, which appears on the cover of one of my favorite Pablo Neruda books. The poetry within the book is much more concise, relative to its form and to Neruda’s previous work, excising experimentation or metaphor to produce a direct polemic. Its target it clear; its mean for accomplishing the destruction of Richard Milhouse Nixon are much more obscure.
One reason for this is that the Chilean Revolution, guided by the radical democratic forces of Popular Unity and the country’s president, Salvador Allende, prided itself on its legality and relative pacifism. Neruda, who earlier in life published paeans to the Red Army and the fighters of Stalingrad, by this time no longer wants to extol revolutionary violence, at least not in the same way. He commits a poetic assassination of the dictator of world capitalism, the butcher of Cambodia, but struggles with what he calls his “terrorist” sonnets throughout the short text. He has lost none of his rage nor his pride in his country, but it seems to me that the limitations of the parliamentary revolution tragically cut short by an American-backed coup and economic blockade expose themselves within his verse. Chile’s communists had no better poet than Pablo Neruda, but poetry makes for a poor national defense, and Nixon was to have his way despite his ritualistic obliteration in this book. Nixon died comfortably, rehabilitated and pardoned. Allende died violently, and the revolution with him.
Still, we can implant ourselves with these vital words, the words that Neruda chose to open up his book of verse:
Because I love my country
I claim you, essential brother,
Old Walt Whitman with your gray hands.
So that, with your special help
Line by line, we will tear out the roots
And destroy the bloodthirsty President Nixon.
There can be no happy man on earth,
No one can work well on this planet
While that nose continues to breathe in Washington
Asking the old bard to confer with me
I assume the duties of a poet
Armed with a terrorist’s sonnet
Because I must carry out with no regrets
This sentence, never before witnessed,
Of shooting a criminal under siege,
Who in spite of his trips to the moon
Has killed so many here on earth
That the paper flies up and the pen is unsheathed
To set down the name of this villain
Who practices genocide from the White House