I recently saw the film “Neruda” which follows poet and politician Pablo Neruda on his escape from Chile in 1948. Interestingly the film choose to use a clearly unreliable and biased narrator in the form of the policeman hunting Neruda. The result was a bit weird but provided some contrast to Neruda’s role as the hero of the story. It allowed me to choose between the heroic tale Neruda might have told himself, the negative story told by his persecutor, or something in-between. It was weird but I mostly liked it.
The film also provided several examples of Neruda’s poetry and I left it with a desire to read some of it for myself. Poetry in translation is of course always a challenge but I did study Spanish many years ago and although I have forgotten almost all of it I selected a bilingual edition of his early collection “Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair“. That way I could at least get a glimpse of the original poetry besides the translation. It also forced me to read slowly, alternating between the Spanish and the English translation. Interestingly, I felt that the tone of the poems changed with the language.
I found it easy to like Neruda’s poetry and can see why it is so popular. These are poems that speaks directly on the first read. I particularly enjoyed the striking imagery in many of the poems. “I want to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees” may be one of the most sensual lines I’ve read in a poem.
However, as I kept reading the shadowy nature of the woman/women he described started to bother me. The poems seemed directed more to an idea of a woman than to an actual, living person, and she thus remained a body or an ideal, never an individual. I don’t really mind that in an occasional poem but 21 in a row is too many. I should search for some of his non-love related poetry, I suspect I may enjoy those more. Or perhaps any of his poems written after the age of 19.
I read it in a bilingual translation where the English translation was written by W. S. Merwin.