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Notes on Pablo Neruda’s Exhumation – Revisiting Chile’s Beloved Poet


article written by Evie Johnson (Co-Editor in Prose and Artwork)

The body of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) has been exhumed this week from where he was buried next to his wife, Matilde Urrutia, in the garden of their home in Isla Negra. This comes forty years after his death, in which it was believed that he had succumbed to his illness of prostate cancer. Now, Chilean authorities are questioning whether or not he was in fact poisoned on the orders of Gen Augusto Pinochet, Chile’s military ruler at the time. His death came just 12 days after the death of ousted Chilean President Salvador Allende, of which Neruda was a firm supporter. For more information regarding the investigation into Neruda’s death, click here.

With this recent news, I thought it would be nice to rediscover a few of my favourite Pablo Neruda poems. What’s so lovely about Neruda’s poetry is his beautiful metaphors that constantly delight line after line. His phrasing is a celebration of language and every poem is a joy to read. I hope you enjoy reading the ones I have selected here.

Sonnet XII

Carnal apple, Woman filled, burning moon,
dark smell of seaweed, crush of mud and light,
what secret knowledge is clasped between your pillars?
What primal night does Man touch with his senses?
Ay, Love is a journey through waters and stars,
through suffocating air, sharp tempests of grain:
Love is a war of lightning,
and two bodies ruined by a single sweetness.
Kiss by kiss I cover your tiny infinity,
your margins, your rivers, your diminutive villages,
and a genital fire, transformed by delight,
slips through the narrow channels of blood
to precipitate a nocturnal carnation,
to be, and be nothing but light in the dark.

A sonnet rich with beautiful imagery, from ‘Cien sonetos de amor’ (100 Love Sonnets) first published in 1959 translated by A. S. Kline. I especially love the line “kiss by kiss I cover your tiny infinity” it’s just spectacular.

The Song of Despair

The memory of you emerges from the night around me.
The river mingles its stubborn lament with the sea.

Deserted like the wharves at dawn.
It is the hour of departure, oh deserted one!

Cold flower heads are raining over my heart.
Oh pit of debris, fierce cave of the shipwrecked.

Read the rest of ‘The Song of Despair’ here.

From ‘Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada’ (20 Love Poems and a Song of Despair) translated by W. S. Merwin. First published in 1924 when Neruda was just 19. “Cemetery of kisses, there is still fire in your tombs” I love the powerful imagery here and how he is playing with romance and grief, showcasing his deep emotions.

The Book of Questions, III.

Tell me, is the rose naked
or is that her only dress?

Why do trees conceal
the splendor of their roots?

Who hears the regrets
of the thieving automobile?

Is there anything in the world sadder
than a train standing in the rain?

The Book of Questions, LXIX.

Do thought of love fall
into extinct volcanoes?

Is a crater an act of vengeance
or a punishment of the earth?

With which stars do they go on speaking,
the rivers that never reach the sea?

From ‘The Book of Questions’ translated by William O’Daly. These poems, usually around 4 or 5 couplets are a departure from Neruda’s usual poetry. The diction is simple, unlike his sonnets that are filled with rich imagery, but I enjoy the unanswerable and sometimes silly questions these poems ask.

The Book of Questions, XV.

But is it true that the vests
are preparing to revolt?

Why does spring once again
offer its green clothes?

Why does agriculture laugh
at the pale tears of the sky?

How did the abandoned bicycle
win its freedom?

I love the personification of inanimate objects in this poem. “Agriculture laugh” and imagining a bicycle being free and riding itself is what really stays with me hours after I’ve finished reading the poem.

You can also find some more wonderful Neruda poems by clicking here including ‘Eulogy for Federico Garcia Lorca’ and ‘Ode to Federico Garcia Lorca’ – two that I particularly enjoy. I would love to hear what your own favourite Neruda poems are, favourite lines and any interesting comments about the poems above.

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