Selected Poems of Pablo Neruda
Full Woman, Fleshly Apple, Hot Moon is a new presentation of the poetry of Pablo Neruda, the most widely read and loved poet of the twentieth century. Out of the great profusion of Neruda’s poetry, Stephen Mitchell has selected forty-nine poems and brought them to life for a whole new generation of readers.
Pablo Neruda’s poetry is vast in many ways. There are several thousand pages of it, to begin with, very uneven in quality but stunning in its sheer profusion. Neruda couldn’t help writing poems, he wrote as naturally as he breathed, wrote with the unthinking, exuberant abundance of Nature herself. He makes most other great modern poets seem pinched, restrained, perfectionistic. Compared with him, even Whitman had writer’s block.
Making a selection from this abundance was like standing in some treasure cave from The Thousand and One Nights: coffers and urns overbrimming with jewels lay all around me, but my companion genie said I was only allowed to fill my own pockets. So I made no effort to be representative, to take an equal number of diamonds, pearls, emeralds, sapphires, rings, massive necklaces, filagree bracelets, pre-Columbian animal figurines of pure gold, platinum large-breasted goddesses with ruby nipples. I just took what I loved most. When my pockets were full, I left.
I had to leave behind many of Neruda’s greatest poems, because they weren’t my favorites: the passionate youthful hymns to sex of Twenty Poems of Love, the dark, lonely, outraged, restless brilliance of Residence on Earth, the encyclopedic hymn to the Americas that is Canto General, with its masterpiece “The Heights of Macchu Picchu.” As great as some of these poems obviously are, I am not often drawn to reread them.
The poetry of Neruda’s that I love best, that I do reread with an always-renewed pleasure, is the poetry of his ripeness, beginning with the first book of Elemental Odes, published when he was fifty years old, and ending with Full Powers, published when he was fifty-eight, eleven years before his death. These are the poems of a happy man, deeply fulfilled in his sexuality, at home in the world, in love with life and its infinite particular forms, overflowing with the joy of language. They are largehearted, generous poems, resonant with a humor that is rare in modern poetry, in any poetry. The sometimes showy surrealism of the earlier poems has mellowed into a constant, delicious skating on the edge of nonsense.
If “love calls us to the things of this world,” in Richard Wilbur’s memorable phrase, Neruda is one of the most loving poets who has ever written. We may be put off by the doctrinaire and self-dramatizing comradeliness of the more political poems, but there is a deeper sense of genuine communion that speaks through all his mature work. His sources of inspiration are unlimited. He turns his attention to an elephant or a pair of socks or time or an artichoke or an atom or a star or a bar of soap, and immediately it comes to life, it becomes the center of the universe, linked in an often astonishing series of metaphors to anything and everything else in the interconnected web of beings. The con-nections are so ceaseless, so surprising, that we may find ourselves racing to keep up with the fecundity of his imagination, gasping for breath at the brilliance and rightness of it all.
I enter these poems with delight and leave them with exhilaration, grateful for the vividness with which they let me see the world through the eyes of a fabulously intelligent child. “Behold, I make all things new.” Neruda would have hated to have me quote Revelation about him. But the spirit of poetry, whether or not we call it holy, does make all things new. And Neruda, who gathers so many of the things of this world into his large embrace, brings us closer to the loving, humorous, compassionate source of all these things, since, with all his impassioned love for language, he is a poet who can say:
I utter and I am
and across the boundary of words,
without speaking, I approach silence.
ODE TO THE ONION
your beauty formed
petal by petal,
crystal scales expanded you
and in the secrecy of the dark earth
your belly grew round with dew.
Under the earth
and when your clumsy
green stem appeared,
and your leaves were born
in the garden,
the earth heaped up her power
showing your naked transparency,
and as the remote sea
in lifting the breasts of Aphrodite
duplicated the magnolia,
so did the earth
clear as a planet,
round rose of water,
of the poor.
your globe of freshness
in the fervent consummation
of the cooking pot,
and the crystal shred
in the flaming heat of the oil
is transformed into a curled golden feather.
Then, too, I will recall how fertile
is your influence on the love of the salad,
and it seems that the sky contributes
by giving you the shape of hailstones
to celebrate your chopped brightness
on the hemispheres of a tomato.
But within reach
of the hands of the common people,
sprinkled with oil,
with a bit of salt,
you kill the hunger
of the day-laborer on his hard path.
Star of the poor,
paper, you rise from the ground
eternal, whole, pure
like an astral seed,
and when the kitchen knife
cuts you, there arises
the only tear
You make us cry without hurting us.
I have praised everything that exists,
but to me, onion, you are
more beautiful than a bird
of dazzling feathers,
you are to my eyes
a heavenly globe, a platinum goblet,
an unmoving dance
of the snowy anemone
and the fragrance of the earth lives
in your crystalline nature.
ODE TO MY SOCKS
Maru Mori brought me
which she knitted with her own
two socks as soft
I slipped my feet
as if they were
with threads of
and the pelt of sheep.
my feet became
made of wool,
two long sharks
of ultramarine blue
by one golden hair,
two gigantic blackbirds,
in this way
that for the first time
my feet seemed to me
like two decrepit
of that embroidered
of those luminous
the sharp temptation
to save them
the wild impulse
to put them
in a golden
and each day give them
and chunks of pink melon.
in the jungle
who hand over the rare
to the roasting spit
and eat it
I stretched out
and pulled on
then my shoes.
And the moral of my ode
beauty is twice
and what is good is doubly
when it’s a matter of two
Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.
This one time upon the earth,
let’s not speak any language,
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.
It would be a delicious moment,
without hurry, without locomotives,
all of us would be together
in a sudden uneasiness.
The fishermen in the cold sea
would do no harm to the whales
and the peasant gathering salt
would look at his torn hands.
Those who prepare green wars,
wars of gas, wars of fire,
victories without survivors,
would put on clean clothing
and would walk alongside their brothers
in the shade, without doing a thing.
What I want shouldn’t be confused
with final inactivity:
life alone is what matters,
I want nothing to do with death.
If we weren’t unanimous
about keeping our lives so much in motion,
if we could do nothing for once,
perhaps a great silence would
interrupt this sadness,
this never understanding ourselves
and threatening ourselves with death,
perhaps the earth is teaching us
when everything seems to be dead
and then everything is alive.
Now I will count to twelve
and you keep quiet and I’ll go.
If only I could speak with birds,
with oysters and with small lizards,
with the foxes of Selva Oscura,
with representative penguins,
if the sheep would listen to me,
the languorous, woolly dogs,
the huge carriage-horses, if only
I could talk things over with the cats,
if the chickens could understand me!
I have never felt the urge to speak
with aristocratic animals:
I am not at all interested
in the world view of the wasps
or the opinions of thoroughbred horses:
so what, if they go on flying
or winning ribbons at the track!
I want to speak with the flies,
with the bitch who has just given birth,
to have a long chat with the snakes.
When my feet were able to walk
through triple nights, now past,
I followed the nocturnal dogs,
those squalid, incessant travelers
who trot around town in silence
in their great rush to nowhere,
and I followed them for hours,
they were quite suspicious of me,
those poor foolish dogs,
they lost the opportunity
of telling me their sorrows,
of running with grief and a tail
through the avenues of the ghosts.
I was always very curious
about the erotic rabbit:
who provokes it and whispers
into its genital ears?
It never stops procreating
and takes no notice of Saint Francis,
doesn’t listen to nonsense:
the rabbit keeps on humping
with its inexhaustible mechanism.
I’d like to speak with the rabbit,
I love its sexy customs.
The spiders have always been slandered
in the idiotic pages
of exasperating simplifiers
who take the fly’s point of view,
who describe them as devouring,
carnal, unfaithful, lascivious.
For me, that reputation
discredits just those who concocted it:
the spider is an engineer,
a divine maker of watches,
for one fly more or less
let the imbeciles detest them,
I want to have a talk with the spider,
I want her to weave me a star.
The fleas interest me so much
that I let them bite me for hours,
they are perfect, ancient, Sanskritic,
they are inexorable machines.
They don’t bite in order to eat,
they bite in order to jump,
they’re the globe’s champion highjumpers,
the smoothest and most profound
acrobats in the circus:
let them gallop across my skin,
let them reveal their emotions
and amuse themselves with my blood,
just let me be introduced to them,
I want to know them from up close,
I want to know what I can count on.
With the ruminants I haven’t been able
to achieve an intimate friendship:
I myself am a ruminant, I can’t see
why they don’t understand me.
I’ll have to study this theme
grazing with cows and oxen,
making plans with the bulls.
Somehow I will come to know
so many intestinal things
hidden inside my body
like the most clandestine passions.
What do pigs think of the dawn?
They don’t sing but they carry it
with their large pink bodies,
with their little hard hoofs.
The pigs carry the dawn.
The birds eat up the night.
And in the morning the world
is deserted: the spiders sleep,
the humans, the dogs, the wind sleeps,
the pigs grunt, and day breaks.
I want to have a talk with the pigs.
Sweet, loud, harsh-voiced frogs,
I have always wanted to be
a frog, I have loved the pools
and the leaves, thin as filaments,
the green world of the watercress
with the frogs, queens of the sky.
The serenade of the frog
rises in my dream and excites it,
rises like a climbing vine
to the balconies of my childhood,
to the budding nipples of my cousin,
to the astronomic jasmine
of the black night of the South,
and now so much time has passed,
don’t ask me about the sky:
I feel that I haven’t yet learned
the harsh-voiced idiom of the frogs.
If this is so, how am I a poet?
What do I know of the multiplied
geography of the night?
In this world that rushes and grows calm
I want more communications,
other languages, other signs,
to be intimate with this world.
Everyone has remained content
with the sinister presentations
of rapid capitalists
and systematic women.
I want to speak with many things
and I won’t leave this planet
without knowing what I came to find,
without resolving this matter,
and people are not enough,
I have to go much farther
and I have to get much closer.
And so, gentlemen, I’m going
to have a talk with a horse,
let the poetess excuse me
and let the professor pardon me,
all week I’ll be busy,
I have to constantly listen.
What was the name of that cat?
ODE TO IRONING
Poetry is white:
it comes from the water covered with drops,
it wrinkles and piles up,
the skin of this planet must be stretched,
the sea of its whiteness must be ironed,
and the hands move and move,
the holy surfaces are smoothed out,
and that is how things are made:
hands make the world each day,
fire becomes one with steel,
linen, canvas, and cotton arrive
from the combat of the laundries,
and out of light a dove is born:
chastity returns from the foam.