Book Review: Twenty Love Poems and A Song of Despair by Pablo Neruda
Here I love you.
In the dark pines the wind disentangles itself.
The moon glows like phosphorous on the vagrant waters.
Days, all one kind, go chasing each other.
-Pablo Neruda from “Here I Love You”
When I was in high school, a local radio station from the town where my school is located interviewed me about being a student (aspiring) poet. None of my friends knew about this at the time (a select few learned about it years after the interview happened) except my high school English teacher (who, somehow, made the whole thing possible). At that time, I had delusions of grandeur about being a poet and, during those times when my feelings were aflame, I put my thoughts to paper with sincere frequency. The interview centered about my inspirations about being a student poet and my inspiration, if there are any. Of course, I forgot most of the answers that I gave except the fact that I am inspired by, the most famous muse of all, Love.
Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair centered and, I assume, was inspired by Love. Neruda’s love for different women (I assume), and his love his native Chile. It truly takes a poet of tremendous skill to make poems of this caliber, poems that celebrate women and nature in the same breath as if they are both inseparable.
While reading this, Neruda made me see and feel his imagery. Time stops and modern life, with all its hustle and bustle, disappears. The weary reader, beaten to death by the speed at which today’s life is going, will be transported to a differently-paced world where time is not dictated by the rules of the clock but instead by the cadence of Neruda’s poetry. The city disappears and is replaced by mountains; the honking of cars is replaced by the singing of birds; and the indifference and cynicism that you feel will be replaced by a sense of longing. Such are the power of Neruda’s words.
Of course, everything reads naturally and without effort. You know that this is really how Neruda feels when he was writing the poem. There are no pretensions and there are no gimmicks and this is really how, in the moments that we are filled with love and despair, we wanted to sound like. When reading this, I remembered thinking to myself that this is exactly what I feel when I am in love; only I didn’t know how to express myself in such a beautiful way.
The timing of the collection was also touched upon in the introduction by Cristina Garcia. Twenty Love Poems and A Song of Despair came out in the aftermath of World War I. How this affected the recovery of our world, I don’t know. But I cannot help imagining a soldier, coming back from the war, getting his hands on a copy of this book of poems. A soldier, exposed to the brutality of war, reads and finish the collection of poems and then finds himself feeling a sense of longing replacing his cynicism which leads to him looking forward to going home to his native land, wherever that may be, and to the love of his life, whoever she is.
My favorite poem in the collection is I Like For You To Be Still and Here I Love You. When I was reading them, I was filled with such longing and my heart sighed like it was in despair even when it wasn’t. I came to read this collection for Tonight I Can Write but I eventually liked the two poems I mentioned above more. In I Like For You To Be Still, Neruda writes:
I like for you to be still: it is as though you were absent,
distant and full of sorrow as though you had died
One word then, one smile, is enough
And I am happy, happy that it’s not true
And then, in Here I Love You:
Here I love you and the horizon hides you in vain.
I love you still among these cold things.
Sometimes my kisses go on those heavy vessels
that cross the sea towards no arrival.
I see myself forgotten like those old anchor.
The piers sadden when the afternoon moors there.
My life grows tired, hungry to no purpose.
I love what I do not have. You are so far.
Such are the powers of Neruda’s words that I am transformed into someone who feels that the love of his life is so far away even though she is really just beside me, hearing me read these words to her.