Selected Poems: Pablo Neruda Selected Poems: Pablo Neruda by Pablo Neruda
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“I wrote down five verses:
one green,
one shaped like a breadloaf,
the third like a house going up,
the fourth one, a ring,
the fifth one
small as a lightning flash…

Then came the critics: one deaf,
and one gifted with tongues,
and others and others:
the blind and the hundred-eyed,
the elegant ones
in red pumps and carnations,
others decently clad like cadavers…
some coiled in the forehead
of Marx or thrashing about in his whiskers;
others were English, just English…” ~ Excerpt from “Oda a la critica (Ode to criticism)”

Pablo Neruda remains the master of the understated employing the most subtle linguistic flourish and layers of meaning even while he is eviscerating critics and expressing no desire to write for their pleasure. This is Neruda, the straight shooter with a crooked eye. The witty raconteur who leaves his audience ever slightly unsure if they are standing on the outside of some inside joke. The consummate sage who maintains a peculiar complexity being still simple enough to contemplate twice before forming an opinion without feeling foolish. Each poem is a self contained anecdote enlisting object, emotion or location to convey a story beneath a story. Some moments touch upon the political while others are personal. Some conclusions are sober while others are downright silly. When I lean into a page of Neruda, I anticipate arising each time with a new appreciation of the fluidity, continuity and harmony of each word unleashed, but is this really Neruda or merely my projection of meaning upon his creation?

During the same period as I was completing this text, I read John McWhorter’s “Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue” which charted the evolution of English from its first climb out of the European countryside until the present day. That work caused me to further contemplate the evolution of other languages. While McWhorter elaborated upon the use of gender distinction in Latin grammar, I came to wonder if I could ever truly understand Neruda. Language is not simply words as they are employed, but the internal cultural themes which give birth to those words and their particular arrangement. If such strict grammatical rules create internal meaning in the formation of each word, how is it possible to translate Neruda and still maintain the richness of meaning which exists in the original tongue? My suspicions were later confirmed as I decided to browse a few reviews of this title in preparation for composing my own review. They were largely negative, but the basis for their negativity was that they felt the translation was clunky, ineloquent and weighted too heavy with Ben Belitt’s own artistic license in translating the work into English. Where does Neruda end and Belitt begin?

In my opinion, I could find no fault with any of the poems contained. Belitt does take license to translate them in an extremely verbose manner, but I think this quality lends the work a diligent and articulate specificity which makes the metaphor more meaningful. I say this with full consideration of the fact that I read the Spanish original only to ensure that I had remembered pronunciation from the 3 years of classes I attended in high school. Whenever I am asked if I know Spanish, my response has been the same for 10 years, “Un poquito.” Therefore I may not qualify to render my opinion on whether Belitt’s florid word choice may have strayed from Neruda’s original intent in writing each work. Still when I consider the intricacy of meaning as it travels between the dual labyrinth of language and culture, I wonder to myself if anyone could compose a translation which would remain true to Neruda as he saw himself. Poetry is but a mirror reflecting our own internal meaning back at us. As I read the works selected, I liked what I saw. Perhaps that speaks more to what I find glorious and beautiful in writing, language and poetry than what merit the book holds for Neruda, Belitt or any other human being for that matter.

“Arid and taut–day’s drumskin,
a sounding opacity: that’s how Spain was:
an eyrie for eagles, flat-landed, a silence
under the throng of the weathers,

How, with my soul and my tears,
I have cherished your obstinate soil, your destitute bread
and your peoples, how, in the deepest
recess of my being, the flower of our villages,
furrowed, immobile in time, lives for me, lost,
with your flinty savannas
magnified under the moon and the eons,
gorged by a fatuous god.” ~ Excerpt from “Como era Espana (How Spain Was)”

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