Poetry has always been inaccessible to me. In high school, my teachers told me I had to interpret poems, but if my interpretation varied from theirs, I did not do well on my tests. This taught me to fear poetry. In my adulthood, friends have advised me that I need to feel poetry, that a successful poet will evoke strong emotions, but my fear continued to be an obstacle. To me, all poetry is abstract and my early indoctrination in school demonstrated that poetry must be understood to be appreciated. This has prevented me from letting go and allowing the words of the poet to reach me. Unlike poetry, non-fiction has a definitive form. I can follow the narrative and it makes sense. After years of running from poetry, Pablo Neruda’s Memoirs has shown me the beauty of it. His descriptive language, utilizing similes, metaphors and vibrant adjectives is captivating. He transports me around the globe, especially to Chile, and I am in awe over the natural world. I feel the horrors of colonialism and I empathize with his love of words. The difficulty in writing an essay about Memoirs is deciding which passages I should explore. It’s like standing on a beautiful beach and being told you can only look at one grain of sand. So much will be left untouched.
Neruda begins Memoirs by discussing his childhood and the landscape of his homeland. About the foul weather that often accosted Araucania, he writes, “Threads of rain fell, like long needles of glass snapping off on the roofs or coming up against the windows in transparent waves, and each house was a ship struggling to make port in the ocean of winter.” (p. 6) Rain is transformed into a destructive force. Glass is sharp and can cause injury if it is handled improperly. Waves kicked up by the powerful force found in storms can be deadly. This rain he speaks of is not to be enjoyed, but feared. Ships battle the stormy seas, but sometimes lose and sink in the ocean. In this passage, houses become ships, so that even they do not guarantee safety and the residents look forward to spring as a sailor looks forward to land. I can feel the impact of the rain and I am glad that I am not there.
Several pages later, Neruda describes a garden he remembers from his youth, “The strange thing about this unkempt garden was that, by design or through neglect, only poppies grew there. The other plants had disappeared from this gloomy corner. Some were huge and white like doves, some scarlet like drops of blood, some purple or black, like widows forgotten there.” (p. 16) The similes here are striking. The poppies are a metaphor for the range of the human experience. There are times of peace, as represented by the doves. Times of pain and suffering are symbolized by the blood. And loneliness is expressed by the presence of the widows. I can see the poppies as clearly as if I were standing in the garden and the colors are vibrant, especially the scarlet which is a far more powerful color than the blander red.
Neruda writes about the sea in the following paragraph. He describes the ocean which “unleashed its fury there between two big hills, Huilque and Maule. It wasn’t just the immense snow crested swells, rising many meters above our heads, but the loud pounding of a gigantic heart, the heartbeat of the universe.” (p. 16) Angry waves strike the coast and anyone lucky enough to witness its greatness is left in awe. The “snow crested swells” call to mind immense mountains that stretch into the heavens and practically touch the sky. As they rise, gaining height and momentum, they remind man of his smallness. Despite the ocean’s ability to destroy, it is also vital for human survival. It maintains the pulse of an ecosystem the same way the heart maintains life within a living being.
The passages in Memoirs about Valparaiso, a port city in which Neruda would one day live, are incredibly descriptive. The contrast between the economic situation and its aesthetic beauty is remarkable. The people in Valparaiso, as in many other districts in Chile, are poor. Neruda succinctly and effectively describes the lack of resources in one sentence, “Poverty spills over its hills like a waterfall.” (p. 58) There is no uniform waterfall. They vary in height, volume and force but the flow is consistent. The rate of poverty may fluctuate from one year to the next, but it never dries up. It continuously plagues the people, pounding their spirits much like the water pounds the earth. The landscape surrounding the waterfall remains beautiful, but water, over times, alters it just like the people are altered by their lack of money.
It is not just poverty that shapes the lives of people in Valparaiso. Earthquakes also impact but never destroy the city: “Sometimes Valparaiso twitches like a wounded whale, it flounders in the air, is in agony, dies and comes back to life.” (p. 60) This is a brilliant and an extremely visual simile. The whale is a vital beautiful life force in the ocean. It is also an animal that was once hunted to provide oil and other resources to people. Whalers may not have respected the whales, but their death helped sustain society. The port of Valparaiso is vital to the survival and sustenance of Chile. Like the whale, Chileans in Valparaiso are exploited, made to work without legitimate compensation. When an earthquake hits, it may level the city so that it appears destroyed, but the people struggle against the tragedy, much like a whale will fight for its life once a harpoon pierces its body. The whale doesn’t always survive, but the idea, the concept of rebirth is alluring. And the people of Valparaiso are resilient to the point of rising out of the ashes of death and devastation.
Amidst poverty and pain there is beauty. The city is vibrant and bright, “The houses became colors: a blend of amaranth and yellow, crimson and cobalt, green and purple.” (p. 63) The choice of colors is stunning – not just the basic shades but specific appealing hues. Amaranth, crimson and cobalt, paint a stunning cityscape. I am immediately carried back to my own visit to the city. For two days, I walked the hills, weaving through the streets. It is the houses, their colors that I remember best.
Chile, as depicted by Neruda, is extraordinarily scenic, but it also bears the scars of colonialism. This legacy influences Neruda’s perspective of the world. He notices what others might not and, in doing so, he empathetically records his observations. Referring to England’s retreat from India, he writes, “She parted from her former subjects without leaving them schools or industries, or housing, or hospitals, only prisons and mountains of empty whiskey bottles.” (p. 79) It is the juxtaposition of the things that strengthen a society to those that destroy it which makes this sentence extremely potent. I can clearly see the mountain of empty whiskey bottles and the prisons full of men who’ve broken laws that were forced upon them in an effort to suppress them. There is something eerily familiar in this passage, something to which I can relate. The United States also has a history of subjugation, an oppression of one race for the benefit of another. Here too alcohol has been used as means to placate and defeat a people whose culture is different, whose skin is darker. The bottles are empty, implying that the poison has been ingested by people who have no education, no hope of bettering themselves. England, with no compunction, left her former subjects destitute and Neruda succinctly and scornfully sums up her sins.
Neruda’s most poignant commentary about colonialism revolves around a captive elephant. In his prose, the elephant is a metaphor for the colonized: “The captive elephant turns down his food for a good many days. But the hunters know his weakness. They let the animals fast awhile and then bring them sprouts and tender stalks of their favorite plants, those they would forage for on their long forest treks when they were still free to roam at will. At last, this elephant breaks down and eats. He has been tamed and begins to learn his heavy chores.” (p. 94) The elephant is broken to the will of humans much as the colonized were broken to the will of the colonists. The colonized were once self sufficient. They grew what they wanted and ate what they needed. But then the colonists stepped in, demanding that certain crops be sown. These crops were to be sold on the market. Meanwhile, the colonized would have to purchase the food they once grew themselves in order to feed their families. When famines struck or when prices surged beyond what people could afford they, like the elephants, went hungry. Hunger is a powerful motivator. To avoid starvation the colonized would strain under the yoke of heavy chores, chores inflicted upon them by their oppressors. Like the elephants they became docile and tame, no longer working for themselves. Neruda clearly conveys the pain of the people in this heartbreaking description of the elephant.
It is not all surprising that a poet would be in love with language and Neruda expresses his appreciation so incredibly and explicitly that he renews my passion for words. Writing about names he heard in Mongolia, he says, “More so for someone like me who lives in all beautiful names. I live in them as in dream mansions intended just for me. And so I have lived, relishing every syllable, in Singapore’s, in Samarkand’s names. When I die, I want to be buried in a name, some especially chosen, beautiful-sounding name, so that its syllables will sing over my bones, near the sea.” (p. 207) He lives in names. I can visualize him taking refuge in the syllables, shelter in the sounds. The names are so endearing, they are like dreams and he delights in them so that he feels as if they were created just for him, for his pleasure alone. When he dies, he wants names to shroud him, an eternal rest comforted by that which he loves greatly. These names will be like lullabies sung to children, to lull them to sleep. The names are woven into the sounds of the sea, and I can hear their peaceful song. As I finish this passage, I too feel compelled to wrap myself in their soothing chants and rest peacefully in the solace of their embrace.
A life of writing has forged an intimate relationship between Neruda and Spanish. He says, “You can’t live an entire lifetime with a language, stretching it length wise, exploring it, poking around in its hair and its belly, without having this intimacy become second nature to you. That’s what happened to me with Spanish. The spoken language has other dimensions: the written language acquires unexpected elasticity. Using language like clothes or the skin on your body with its sleeves, its patches, its transpirations, and its blood and sweat stains, that’s what shows a writer’s mettle. This is style.” (p.261) Reading this passage I am immediately reminded of a certain shirt I once loved. When I first bought it the design was sharp and colorful, the cotton fit just right. But I wore it running, trekking and I sometimes even slept in it. I wore it until the colors faded, the fabric stretched and holes eventually revealed more than the cloth covered. Years of my life, more experiences than I can remember were etched into the fabric. This is what it means to be a writer, to feel as connected to words as I felt to that shirt. If language is the same at the beginning of one’s writing career as it is at the end, the writer has not used it sufficiently. If a shirt bears no stains, no holes, no stretching the shirt has not been used as it should. It has not been loved. A writer cannot develop his own style, if he doesn’t learn to stretch and twist the language. The more he experiments with words, the more he will fall in love with them.
Without words, without language there would be no poetry and poetry is vital for mankind. Reading the following sentence I finally understand why we need poetry, and what I have been missing for so many years while I ran from it. It is as if Neruda is speaking directly to me when his says, “The world’s air transports poetry’s molecules, light as pollen or hard as lead and those seeds land in the furrows, or on people’s heads, giving everything an air of spring or of battle, producing flowers as well as missiles.” (p. 293) One does not need analysis to understand poetry, to appreciate it. The earth does not need to analyze pollen for flowers to grow. The earth needs only to open itself up and allow the seeds to settle and soon flowers will bloom. That is what it’s like to feel poetry. I need only to open myself up to the words, the pulse, and the rhythms of a poem and I can appreciate it.
Elizabeth Jaeger’s work has been published in Boston Accent Lit, Damfino, Inside the Bell Jar, Italian Americana Cultural and Historical Review, Blue Plant Journal, Yellow Chair Review, Drowning Gull, Icarus Down Review, Linden Avenue Literary Journal, Atticus Review, and Literary Explorer.