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Pablo Neruda's prophecy in poetry

  • 15 May 2013

Like many great poems, life is worked out by testing both questions and answers. 'Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?' is a beautiful question, made more beautiful by the 13 line reply that follows. A poem with all the answers is as unconvincing as a poem that's never asked any questions. We seem to find ourselves somewhere between those two extremes, which is why some poems work for us now, while others bide their time.

The last poems of the Chilean Pablo Neruda are a cycle of 74 cantos called El Libro de las Preguntas, The Book of Questions. In fact, the poems consist entirely of questions, which act as much to celebrate as to query the world around us. They reveal the poet in his many moods — humourous, nostalgic, political, sentimental, metaphysical, absurd, realistic, passionate, wistful — and in just a few words reduced to the fundamentals.

The unquestionable marvel of the nursery rhyme lives in a line like Dónde dejó la luna llena su saco nocturno de harina?, which William O'Daly translates 'Where did the full moon leave its sack of flour tonight?' Neruda's child-like eye surprises us to the end.

Soon enough though his voice toughens: 'Is the sun the same as yesterday's or is this fire different from that fire?' When he asks 'How old is November anyway?' he is asking us for an answer, but do we have one? With a question like 'Tell me, is the rose naked or is that her only dress?' the human world and nature confront one another. 'Where is the centre of the sea?' could keep geographers busy for hours.

Neruda can turn a question into an image in time: 'Why do assemblies of umbrellas always occur in London?' And there are questions we have thought all our lives without putting them into words: 'What did the tree learn from the earth to be able to talk with the sky?'

Still, not everything is living for living's sake. Time is of the essence. Neruda wrote these poems on the eve of the violent overthrow of the elected government of Chile in 1973. He was a close friend of President Salvador Allende, which is why some lines unsettle the general sense of an enquiring mind at peace with the world: Pero es verdad que se prepara la insurrección de los chalecos?

O'Daly has this as 'But is it true that the vests are