Sunday, July 11, 2004

We must fill this dumb continent

Tomorrow is the century of the birth of Pablo Neruda, perhaps the greatest poet of the mid-twentieth century, and certainly the greatest poet of the twentieth century to write in Spanish. Like many other writers from Latin America, his literary work combined with politics. He served his native Chile as a consul to various European countries, and also served as a Chilean senator until he was forced into exile because of his republicanism. The Spanish Civil war was for him, as for others, a watershed. However, Neruda never lost sensuality or corporality of his images, never hardened his poetry in the face of his political resolve.

Neruda was also an American poet--or rather a poet of the Americas. Neruda, in his diplomatic career, spent many years in Spain. He became aware of how empty the Americas were in a literary sense. Not a land empty of people, but silent without their words and heritage.

His collection Canto general tried to fill the poetic vacuum without displacing the people who came before. He ponders the silent ruins of Machu Picchu, the forgotten legacy of a great empire, and stares down upon the civilizations that have established themselves on the continents. Like many poets from the United States, his Americas have an intimate relationship with the ocean: the power of the ocean, his connection with the entire planet with the ocean. Later, Neruda reflected:
[W]e writers within the tremendously far-flung American region ... listen unceasingly to the call to fill this mighty void with beings of flesh and blood. We are conscious of our duty as fulfillers - at the same time we are faced with the unavoidable task of critical communication within a world which is empty and is not less full of injustices, punishments and sufferings because it is empty - and we feel also the responsibility for reawakening the old dreams which sleep in statues of stone in the ruined ancient monuments, in the wide-stretching silence in planetary plains, in dense primeval forests, in rivers which roar like thunder. We must fill with words the most distant places in a dumb continent and we are intoxicated by this task of making fables and giving names. This is perhaps what is decisive in my own humble case, and if so my exaggerations or my abundance or my rhetoric would not be anything other than the simplest of events within the daily work of an American.

In his lecture for the Nobel Prize Neruda desribed the journey that he took into exile. He described a trip over the Andes to find the place where Argentina began, where his country Chile ended. It reflected on the remoteness of life in South America and the remoteness of the border, the alienness of boundaries in an empty land, and the universality of human emotion:
[J]ust before we reached the frontier which was to divide me from my native land for many years, we came at night to the last pass between the mountains. Suddenly we saw the glow of a fire as a sure sign of a human presence, and when we came nearer we found some half-ruined buildings, poor hovels which seemed to have been abandoned. We went into one of them and saw the glow of fire from tree trunks burning in the middle of the floor, carcasses of huge trees, which burnt there day and night and from which came smoke that made its way up through the cracks in the roof and rose up like a deep-blue veil in the midst of the darkness. ...

Near the fire lay a number of men grouped like sacks. In the silence we could distinguish the notes of a guitar and words in a song which was born of the embers and the darkness, and which carried with it the first human voice we had encountered during our journey. It was a song of love and distance, a cry of love and longing for the distant spring, from the towns we were coming away from, for life in its limitless extent. These men did not know who we were, they knew nothing about our flight, they had never heard either my name or my poetry; or perhaps they did, perhaps they knew us? What actually happened was that at this fire we sang and we ate, and then in the darkness we went into some primitive rooms. Through them flowed a warm stream, volcanic water in which we bathed, warmth which welled out from the mountain chain and received us in its bosom.

[Personal note:] When I met woman who would become my wife, I knew little of the Spanish writers that intrugued her. I was still quite limited in imagination in my interest in German and Scandinavian writers. Neruda was the first Spanish-language poet that she introduced to me. Thank you, bunny.

Neruda site at University of Chile
Washington Post memorial
NY Times memorial


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