by Pablo Neruda
Copper Canyon Press 2009
Reviewed by Matt Soucy
“I am an obscure professor: / I teach classes of light to the earth.”
Pablo Neruda’s World’s End has finally been translated into English 40 years after its initial publication in Spanish. Translator William O’Daly does a wonderful job of keeping the language palpable and rhythmic. Written five years before the end of Neruda’s life, this eerily relevant book is also a wonderful introduction to Neruda because of its balance of image and representative message.
If you look for Neruda in the bookstore, and you should every now and again, you will generally find multiple collections and repackagings of his romantic verses or odes. Neruda wrote some of the finest romantic poetry ever put on the page. However, remembering him as a romantic poet would be like remembering Shakespeare as a writer of sonnets who also did some stuff on the stage. Neruda is political, a fierce and essential critic of 20th century international affairs.
World’s End, the last installment in Copper Canyon’s long effort to publish all of Neruda’s final books (The Hands of Day is reviewed here), is very heavy on two of Neruda’s most valuable contributions to literature – political commentary and humanism. For Neruda, the two go hand-in-hand. There are no political associations or events without personal associations and events. Our amazing ability for denial that allows us to wear shoes made by starving children is cultivated by the little, personal denials we make in our everyday lives. But Neruda does not indict his readers; he empathizes:
Memories do not nourish me,
and I embark on the life before me
moving the plaster of the century
and the shoe of each day,
suffering without a cross the torment
of being the one most crucified,
torn to shreds under the wheels
of the false, victorious century.
(from “Time in the Life”)
We lied to our friends
In the sadness or the silence,
And the enemy lied to us
With a mouthful of hate.
It was the cold age of war.
It was the quiet age of hate.
From time to time a bomb
Burned the soul of Vietnam…
(from “Know It Know It Know It”)
He often refers to the close or end of the 20th century (still 1/3 of the century left to go) as being the end of a global shame fueled by blood, miscommunication, greed and convenient and destructive ideologies:
A century with shoe shops
filled the world with shoes
while feet were cut off
by snow or by fire,
by gas or by ax!
At times I remain bowed
by all that weighs on my back,
the repeated punishment:
it took a lot for me to learn to die
with each incomprehensible death
and to bear the remorse
of the wantonly criminal:
because after the cruelty
and even after the vengeance
Perhaps we were not so innocent
given that we went on with our lives
as they were killing the others.
Perhaps we rob our better brothers
of their lives.
(from “The Wars”)
Neruda repeatedly slams the war in Vietnam, even accusing Gen. Westmoreland by name (“Vietnam”). He views Cuba and Fidel Castro as shining stars held up to the world as an example of the true future. Neruda was heavily criticized for his support of Castro, but the beauty of World’s End is that, as you read some of the greatest literature of the 20th century, you also receive a lesson in what it means to experience and interpret history as it passes. Neruda’s words are always global in scope, and pointed towards certain ideals that Castro represented to many.
There are eleven sections to the book and it becomes more focused on individual experiences as it progresses. As always, Neruda is heavy on natural imagery. Fortunately, Neruda is the only person who can use “sea” 1,000 times in a single book (he doesn’t, but he could have if he had so chosen) and truly evoke the purest experience of that breathtaking phenomenon every time.
I learned the why of misfortune
in the school of water.
The sea is a wounded planet
and the breaking is its greatness:
this star feel into our hands:
from the tower of salt
scatters its heritage
of living shadow and furious light.
It has not married the earth.
We still do not understand it.
He uses nature for imagery, but obviously derives significant meaning and purpose for a place through its landscapes. He viewed Chile as his motherland and that land had a character wholly independent from, but essentially influential to, the people:
There is a cemetery of bees
there in my land, in Patagonia,
and they return with honey on their backs
to die of so much sweetness.
it is a stormy region
curved like a crossbow,
with a permanent rainbow,
like the tail of a pheasant:
the falls of the river roar,
the foam leaps like a hare,
the wind cracks and expands
in the surrounding solitude:
the meadow is a circle,
its mouth full of snow
and its belly ruddy.
there they arrive on by one,
a million with another million,
all the bees arrive to die
until the earth is covered
in great yellow mountains.
I will never forget their fragrance.
(from “Bees (II))
The only form absent here is the ode. You won’t miss it. You love Neruda; you might not know it yet due to limited or biased exposure. World’s End is a perfect in-road to him, with a balance of politics, romance, genuine human experience and more mind-altering simplicities than most poets conceive in a lifetime.