Pablo Neruda is my god. I just have to state that up front, so that we can quickly dispel any ideas that this will be an unbiased review of his work. I fell in love with his poetry during graduate school and I have never ceased to be amazed by the power of his straightforward language and salt-of-the-earth images. I was not, at the time, a poetry reader – but reading Neruda converted me. I was in awe; I came to worship at his alter.
Neruda won the prestigious Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971, despite his aspiration only to be a “poet of the people.” He believed that poetry was too erudite and stuffy for the working man – so he composed simple verses with sexual, earthy imagery. Descriptions such as “full woman, flesh-apple, hot moon / thick smell of seaweed… kiss by kiss I travel your little infinity / your borders, your rivers, your tiny villages” (Sonnet XII) captured the imagination of both his fellow Chileans and the literary academy, though – thus he landed on the international stage.
Although there are many excellent volumes of Neruda's translated poetry, including a book filled entirely with his Odes, 100 Love Sonnets (Cien sonetos de amor) is my absolute favorite. It is filled with simple but romantic lines like, “You sing, and your voice peels the husk / of the day’s grain… I hear only your voice, your voice / soars with the zing and precision of an arrow” (Sonnet LII). His poems compare his beloved to the simple fruits of the earth, bringing the reader to a new appreciation of not only woman’s form and spirit, but of the elements of creation as well. Neruda writes, “I love your pure gifts, your skin like whole stones / your nailes, offerings, in the suns of your fingers / your mouth brimming with all joys” (Sonnet XL). Comparisons like these elevate our understanding of beauty – he helps us to see the splendor of things that we have formerly taken for granted.
My favorite of all his love sonnets is Sonnet XIII:
The light that rises from your feet to your hair,
the strength enfolding your delicate form,
are not mother-of-pearl, nor chilly silver:
you are made of bread, a bread the fire adores.
The grain grew high in its harvest, in you,
in good time the flour swelled;
as the dough rose, doubling your breasts,
my love was the coal waiting ready in the earth.
Oh, bread your forehead, your legs, your mouth,
bread I devour, born with the morning light,
my love, beacon-flag of the bakeries:
fire taught you a lesson of the blood;
you learned your holiness from flour,
from bread your language and aroma.
This sonnet contrasts Neruda’s warm, earthy beloved with the hard, cold “mother-of-pearl” and “chilly silver,” emphasizing that something which might be mistaken for simple and unexciting is warm and inviting, is pure and life-giving. Although someone who is familiar with the sonnet form can enjoy the way that Neruda plays with the technical features of the poetic structure, anyone can enjoy his sensual descriptions because his words and phrases are so straightforward.
This collection is a beautiful way to explore the sensuality of language, enjoy the passion (and despair) of gut-wrenching emotion, and celebrate devotion that is firmly rooted in that which is familiar – but surprisingly exotic at second glance. Five stars for the god of poetry, who managed to write poems that even my husband enjoys.
Note: this review is (of course) in honor of Valentine's Day and participates in the Weekly Geeks Challenge for February 12, 2011.