Selected Poems

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Selected Poems
By Pablo Neruda
Vintage Classics – £10.99

Simultaneously suave and surreal, the brilliant Chilean poet Pablo Neruda was as erotically charged in his writing as Charles Bukowski; although many might consider his writing to be far more colourful and considered. Not to mention risqué. As such, that much of Neruda’s poetry was overtly political should come as no surprise, especially when one bears in mind that he served as a diplomat for many years, and almost ran for the Chilean presidency in the early seventies.

Likewise, the fact that his body was exhumed just last month (April) – to determine whether or not he was killed, supposedly poisoned, by the ghastly Pinochet regime – should also come as no surprise. Said regime, had after all, murdered many, many thousands, and Neruda, almost pre-empting where his country was heading, had already written ‘Death Alone’ (from Residencia en la Tierra, II); of which the following speaks volumes:

I see, when alone at times,
coffins under sail
setting out with the pale dead, women in their dead braids,
bakers as white as angels,
thoughtful girls married to notaries,
coffins ascending the vertical river of the dead,
the wine-dark river to its source,
with their sails swollen with the sound of death,
filled with the silent noise of death.

As Carol Ann Duffy is quoted as saying on the back cover of this excellent compilation: ‘’The poems today remain as urgently gorgeous as freshly picked flowers.’’ Indeed,  Selected Poems contains some of the best of the Chilean’s resonant, exploratory and intensely individualistic verse; a great deal of which is clearly rooted in the physical landscape and people of his native land.

At times, breathtakingly moving, the poems herein span a lifetime of immense, important work. Beginning in 1924 with Veinte Poemas de Amor and concluding in 1967 with La Barcarola, it’s no wonder the poet – who took his name from the Czech poet Jan Neruda but was born Neftali Ricardo Reyes Basoalto – won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971.

Written in both Spanish and English, these 487 pages contain sensuous sentiments of love, melancholy heartache and poignant odes to the sea. There’s also a great deal of inflammatory, political wit. A great deal of which, does much to substantiate that Neruda’s literary canvas is almost cinematic in scope.

This is evident on a number of occasions throughout the book, none more so than in his acute, yet overtly frank celebration of sex that is ‘Lone Gentleman’ (from Residencia en la Tierra, I):

Young homosexuals and girls in love,
and widows gone to seed, sleepless, delirious,
and novice housewives pregnant some thirty hours,
the hoarse cats cruising across my garden’s shadows
like a necklace of throbbing, sexual oysters
surround my solitary home
like enemies entrenched against my soul,
like conspirators in pyjamas
exchanging long, thick kisses on the sly.

The radiant summer entices lovers here
in melancholic regiments
made up of fat and flabby, gay and mournful couples:
under the graceful palm tress, along the moonlit beach,
there is a continual excitement of trousers and petticoats,
the crisp sound of stockings caressed,
women’s breasts shining like eyes.

Both revelatory and inspiring, these Selected Poems do much to remind us of just how inventive, confrontational and powerful a poet Pablo Neruda was. So much so, that his legacy will probably, hopefully (and luckily), outlast that of Pinochet’s.

David Marx

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