It’s incredibly difficult to imagine that there is anything new to say about Pablo Neruda. But Neruda, probably the most prolific poet of the twentieth century, provides endless opportunities for his readers, scholars and critics to re-evaluate his oeuvre. World’s End (Copper Canyon, 2009) is a treasure-trove of intimate insight, available in its entirety in English for the first time in William O’Daly’s careful and precise translation. In this expansive book-length poem Neruda oscillates between moments of vulnerable reflection on his own life and work (including his controversial early support of Stalin for which he denounces his naivety), bitter condemnation of the violence of the twentieth century, and a prophetic poetic voice.
World’s End, written towards the end of the poet’s life in 1968-69, is in many ways a response to the sometimes naive exuberance of his only other book-length poem Canto General, which was written over a much longer period of time from 1938-49. World’s End follows in the epic footsteps of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, but instead of the celebratory and ultimately hopeful sense of Canto General, in this work Neruda bitterly confronts the century of violence he has participated in as witness and activist.
Here we have the mature Neruda. A Neruda of silence and of memory—his own, and historical. Of forgetting and the unforgettable. Here is a Neruda at times disillusioned about the power and usefulness of art in the face of so much violence:
It is our heavy epoch,
the age of iron paws,
the bloody and circular century,
and we must recognize
the wheels of the Apocalypse.
After all, they did not serve us,
the fragile human towers,
everything was soft and breakable,
any painting may be riddled with holes,
a sonata does not defend us,
the books burn and pass on.
(Death of a Journalist)
Despite this horror, this despair, Neruda (and this is why can forgive him so much) is ultimately certain that his work as a writer is vital: “I do not dedicate myself to the ashes, / I go on naming and believing” he writes in an elegy for Oliverio Girondo of the same name.
In the dizzying vastness of the book, Neruda telescopes from the intimate to the expansive. Encompassing everything, he writes bestiaries and indictments of the U.S.’s war in Vietnam, elegies and love poems. He condemns himself with one breath and defends himself with the next. He laments and he celebrates. It is the contradictions that make this work so important, and so human. It is also this unrestrained breadth that makes this poem seem less like a coherent sequence and more like a collection of individual poems.
For a patient reader (or more likely, a Neruda scholar), reading it as a sequence reveals subtexts that form the skeleton of the poem. Confronting the recurring violence, the modern mechanisms of war, the technology of destruction that threatens to overwhelm his humanity, there is silence and forgetting. Ultimately, this is a work about the unforgettable. The shared burden of violence and the responsibility of the poet to remember the unalterable truth. And only once that truth has been committed to poetry is it possible to “forget / so as to sustain hope” (“The Worship II”). This contradiction—silence as the way to bear witness, and forgetting as the way to remember—rests on the plurality of silences and of forgettings. Neruda writes between “the truthfulness of silence” (“The Passion”) and the missing who are “crucified in the silence / of this age of agony” (“The Missing”). In a “century of communicating / failed communications” (“Know It Know It Know It”) “words will come to an end / all language will be burned” (“Bomb I”) because language can’t withstand the abuses of propaganda, cover-ups and official lies. Language must lapse into silence in order to recover the ability to remember truth, and in doing so, allow the poet to unburden himself of that truth.
Neruda finds this restorative power primarily in his relationship to the natural world. In “The Idler” he writes:
May the enemy forgive me
if I wasted too much time speaking
with sands and minerals:
I had no real reason
but I learned a lot about silence.
Politics and nature depend on one another in this work, and as the cycle nears its end Neruda reclaims his power as a poet connected intimately to his people, his land and his sea.
But I move forward singing
my song, and the roads tell me
of the many they have seen pass
in this century of people without a country.
And the poet keeps on singing
so many victories, so much pain
This book is perhaps most valuable for the insight it provides into Neruda’s political engagement with the major events of the twentieth century, and his contemporary writers. In addition to coming to terms with his role in history, he places himself among (or in opposition to) the great writers, mentioning among others Whitman, Vallejo, García Marquez, Juan Rulfo, Carlos Fuentes, Zola, Rimbaud and Baudelaire. The personal-historical, the mediation of history through the voice of the poet, is most interesting in this case for what it tells us about the poet.
And what it tells us about the poet is told in the voice of William O’Daly, the translator of this book, along with the other eight late and posthumous Neruda books published in this series by Copper Canyon. O’Daly re-creates in English the variety of Neruda’s voices within this poem. Surrealism mixes with politics and love poetry, and in the refusal of a distanced poetic voice O’Daly meets the challenge of Neruda’s self-implication in a heterogeneous vocabulary and a multitude of registers and dictions. From the prophetic to the elegiac, the nuanced variation of language is beautifully explored in resonant English. In contrast to the melancholic politics already quoted, take this short poem “Physics:”
Love, like the resin
of a tree filled with blood,
hangs out its strange odor of the origin
of natural enchantment:
the sea goes to extremes
or the devoured night
breaks over your motherland:
your soul breaks inside you,
two bells of bone sound,
and nothing happens but the weight
of your body, empty once again.
If Neruda, like Whitman, contains multitudes, then here we come to him in his full multitudinousness. Volumes could (and likely will) be written about the implications of this work in understanding one of the most important poets of the twentieth century. Equally, in reading this book at the dawn of the twenty-first century, we have an unparalleled vantage point from which to reflect on the suffering, the pain, and our implicit share of that guilt of the most violent century in history. The perfection of the technologies of destruction requires the poetics of this book to remember, and to help us forget, the unforgettable.