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Pablo Neruda's prophecy in poetry


Cover image of Pablo Neruda's Book fo Questions, translated by William O'Daly. Cover is covered in coloured squares, in some of which are pictured a dove, a lemon, the moon and a flower bed 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 preparing to revolt?' Los chalecos means vests in Spanish, but anyone reading this poem at the time would know its military and political connotations. Vests were worn by soldiers, including top brass with lots of medals attached. When Pinochet took control of Chile in a coup d'état, it was a vindication of the fear spoken, by implication, in some of the lines of The Book of Questions.

Many suspected foul play when Neruda died 12 days later. In 2011 his former driver claimed Neruda had been poisoned by secret agents, contradicting the official version, death from cancer.

Due to legal action from the Communist Party, the Chilean government last month exhumed the body. This act is contentious itself; the Pablo Neruda Foundation disapproves, while the family want closure, one way or the other. Preliminary results confirm that Neruda did have an advanced case of prostate cancer, but tests continue, both in Chile and the United States. Full results could take up to three months.

The questions kept on coming. Neruda could nail his colours to the mast:

It is bad to live without a hell:
aren't we able to reconstruct it?
And to position sad Nixon
with his buttocks over the brazier?
Roasting him on low
with North American napalm?

Dantesque conjectures were a way of dealing with political upheaval inside Chile. And through those years some of his questions came to have prophetic meaning: 'Why in the darkest ages do they write with invisible ink?' This is not softened by a line like 'Is peace the peace of the dove?' We know where his sympathies are when he says:

Do all memories of the poor
huddle together in the villages?
And do the rich keep their dreams
in a box carved from minerals?

But as we return into The Book of Questions we find that all of life presents us, and the poet, with paradoxes that contain within them leads and explanations, if only we pay attention.

It is almost offhand when he jokes Cuántas Iglesias tiene el cielo? — 'How many churches are there in heaven?' Exact statistics are not on his mind when Neruda wonders, Does a pear tree have more leaves than Remembrance of Things Past? For these are the words of someone looking out beyond present disasters.

He keeps hope alive, pays attention daily to the value and goodness in the world, seeing in these things that which is truly life-giving. It is a South American, after all, who would ask De qué suspende el picaflor su simetría deslumbrante? — 'From what does the hummingbird hang its dazzling symmetry?'

Philip Harvey headshotPhilip Harvey is the poetry editor of Eureka Street. He maintains a word study site, a poetry readings site and a workplace blogspot


Topic tags: Philip Harvey, Pablo Neruda, Salvadore Allende, Chile, Pinochet



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Existing comments

Thanks, enjoyed reading this very much. The great American poet Wallace Stevens answered this question from Ian Hamilton's "Against Oblivion: Some Lives of the Twentieth-Century Poets" (2002) - Questionnaire: As a poet what distinguishes you, do you think, from an ordinary man? Stevens: Inability to see much point to the life of an ordinary man. Best words I've read about Stevens: "He knew other writers - William Carlos Williams, e e cummings, Marianne Moore. They knew him and his work. He was part of the group, but always off on the fringe, a luminous absence. That's where he wanted to be."

Pam | 13 May 2013  

Thank you for this beautiful reflection on Neruda's poetry and the timely reminder of his timeless questions.

Jena Woodhouse | 15 May 2013  

Thanks for this, Philip. Readers might also like to know publishing details, and whether this is a bilingual collection.

Chris Watson | 15 May 2013  

Thanks, Philip. Always a delight to read your pieces.

Joe Castley | 15 May 2013  

In reply to Chris Watson, ‘The Book of Questions’, by Pablo Neruda, was translated by William O’Daly and published in 1991 in Port Townsend, Washington State by the not-for-profit poetry outfit called Copper Canyon Press. (ISBN 1-55659-040-7 (hbk) 1-55659-041-5 (pbk)) The bilingual arrangement is superb. The translation was republished by the same press in 2001, ISBN 1-55659-160-8. Trove at the National Library states this is a 2nd edition, but the press’s own site makes no such distinction, which tells me that 2001 is an impression, not an edition. If anyone can verify this, I would be grateful. I work with the 1991 imprint, which came as a donation into the Library where I work, in the same week as the news of the first autopsy report. Some people call that providence, others synchronicity. O’Daly has many happy moments throughout, but the Spanish is the thing. English is the first language of most Eureka Street readers. Further readings of The Book of Questions are going out on my readings blog, with the Spanish and O’Daly together.

PHILIP HARVEY | 15 May 2013  

I so much enjoyed your article Philip. I have been a great admirer of Neruda for several decades and often utilise his poems in my marriage rituals. I have at least six of his books and his poetry is like music.Elemental Odes would be my favourite. Pablo Neruda a passion for life by Adam Feinstein is a fine biography as it is fuelled by an infectious enthusiasm for the poems.

john hill | 15 May 2013  

There is a video of William O'Daly reading a (very) little of the book at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=50HOSjYNvlw&feature=youtube_gdata_player If that link doesn't work, just search for the names.

Penelope | 16 May 2013  

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