pablo neruda 2

It was forty ago today that Chile’s General Augusto Pinochet overthrew Salvador Allende, in a CIA-supported coup, replacing his democratically elected government with a bloody dictatorship. Twelve days after the coup, the poet Pablo Neruda died in mysterious circumstances, many believe murdered by the Pinochet regime. (Earlier this year a Chilean court ordered Neruda’s body to be exumed for forensic tests and a warrant was issued for the arrest of the man supposedly involved in poisoning the poet).

Gabriel García Márquez once called Neruda ‘the greatest poet of the 20th century in any language’, though as New York Times Book Review critic Selden Rodman observed after the poet’s death ‘No writer of world renown is perhaps so little known to North Americans’, or indeed to the wider Anglophone world. Born in 1904 as Neftali Ricardo Reyes Basoalto, Neruda chose his pen name after the Czech poet Jan Neruda. He first came to attention with his 1924 collection Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada (‘Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair’), a cycle of sensuous and erotically charged love poems, but one also shot through with an almost unbearable sense of alienation, despair and chaos. The Spanish poet Federico García Lorca said of Neruda that he was ‘a poet closer to death than to philosophy, closer to pain than to insight, closer to blood than to ink. A poet filled with mysterious voices that fortunately he himself does not know how to decipher.’

Neruda’s friendship with Lorca, and Lorca’s execution by Franco’s nationalists, drew him into the Spanish Civil War (he was at that time in Spain as a consul for the Chilean Government). The civil war, and his involvement, transformed both his poetry and his politics. In1937 he published from the frontline España en el Corazon (‘Spain in our Hearts’), an angry, polemical collection, very different  to Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada. Neruda joined the Communist Party and, on returning to Chile, was elected to the Senate.  In 1970, he ran for the presidency on a Communist ticket, though he withdrew his nomination after reaching an accord with Salvador Allende, the socialist candidate.

Neruda’s attachment to Stalinism cannot easily be brushed away. But his fierce political commitment, and his extraordinary poetic sensibility, are both to be celebrated. So, here are three Neruda poems from across his life. The first, ‘Tonight I can write’, is from his 1924 collection Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, an exquisite expression of love, pain and sorrow. The second ‘I explain a few things’, is a furious, seething demand for political commitment in the Spanish Civil War.  The third poem, ‘Ode to Things’, is a wonderful, life-affirming hymn to the beauty of humanly-created objects, of ‘all things, not just the grandest [but] also the infinitely small’.

The three poems, taken together, illuminate magnificently Neruda’s poetic genius. They are an apt way of marking the 40th anniversary of the Chilean coup. They seem also, in their own way, a fitting way of marking the other somber anniversary that falls today – that of 9/11.

The paintings are all by Picasso: L’Etreinte (1901), Guernica (1937) and Pitcher with Apples (1919)


Tonight I Can Write

picasso l'entreinte


Tonight I can write the saddest lines.

Write, for example, ‘The night is starry
and the stars are blue and shiver in the distance.’

The night wind revolves in the sky and sings.

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
I loved her, and sometimes she loved me too.

Through nights like this one I held her in my arms.
I kissed her again and again under the endless sky.

She loved me, sometimes I loved her too.
How could one not have loved her great still eyes.

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
To think that I do not have her. To feel that I have lost her.

To hear the immense night, still more immense without her.
And the verse falls to the soul like dew to the pasture.

What does it matter that my love could not keep her.
The night is starry and she is not with me.

This is all. In the distance someone is singing. In the distance.
My soul is not satisfied that it has lost her.

My sight tries to find her as though to bring her closer.
My heart looks for her, and she is not with me.

The same night whitening the same trees.
We, of that time, are no longer the same.

I no longer love her, that’s certain, but how I loved her.
My voice tried to find the wind to touch her hearing.

Another’s. She will be another’s. As she was before my kisses.
Her voice, her bright body. Her infinite eyes.

I no longer love her, that’s certain, but maybe I love her.
Love is so short, forgetting is so long.

Because through nights like this one I held her in my arms
my soul is not satisfied that it has lost her.

Though this be the last pain that she makes me suffer
and these the last verses that I write for her.


I Explain A Few Things



You are going to ask: and where are the lilacs?
and the poppy-petalled metaphysics?
and the rain repeatedly spattering
its words and drilling them full
of apertures and birds?
I’ll tell you all the news.

I lived in a suburb,
a suburb of Madrid, with bells,
and clocks, and trees.

From there you could look out
over Castille’s dry face:
a leather ocean.
My house was called
the house of flowers, because in every cranny
geraniums burst: it was
a good-looking house
with its dogs and children.
Remember, Raul?
Eh, Rafel? Federico, do you remember
from under the ground
my balconies on which
the light of June drowned flowers in your mouth?
Brother, my brother!
loud with big voices, the salt of merchandises,
pile-ups of palpitating bread,
the stalls of my suburb of Arguelles with its statue
like a drained inkwell in a swirl of hake:
oil flowed into spoons,
a deep baying
of feet and hands swelled in the streets,
metres, litres, the sharp
measure of life,
stacked-up fish,
the texture of roofs with a cold sun in which
the weather vane falters,
the fine, frenzied ivory of potatoes,
wave on wave of tomatoes rolling down the sea.

And one morning all that was burning,
one morning the bonfires
leapt out of the earth
devouring human beings —
and from then on fire,
gunpowder from then on,
and from then on blood.
Bandits with planes and Moors,
bandits with finger-rings and duchesses,
bandits with black friars spattering blessings
came through the sky to kill children
and the blood of children ran through the streets
without fuss, like children’s blood.

Jackals that the jackals would despise,
stones that the dry thistle would bite on and spit out,
vipers that the vipers would abominate!

Face to face with you I have seen the blood
of Spain tower like a tide
to drown you in one wave
of pride and knives!

see my dead house,
look at broken Spain :
from every house burning metal flows
instead of flowers,
from every socket of Spain
Spain emerges
and from every dead child a rifle with eyes,
and from every crime bullets are born
which will one day find
the bull’s eye of your hearts.

And you’ll ask: why doesn’t his poetry
speak of dreams and leaves
and the great volcanoes of his native land?

Come and see the blood in the streets.
Come and see
The blood in the streets.
Come and see the blood
In the streets!


Ode to things

picasso pitcher


I have a crazy,
crazy love of things.
I like pliers,
and scissors.
I love
and bowls –
not to speak, or course,
of hats.
I love
all things,
not just
the grandest,
small –
and flower vases.

Oh yes,
the planet
is sublime!
It’s full of pipes
through tobacco smoke,
and keys
and salt shakers –
I mean,
that is made
by the hand of man, every little thing:
shapely shoes,
and fabric,
and each new
bloodless birth
of gold,
carpenter’s nails,
clocks, compasses,
coins, and the so-soft
softness of chairs.

Mankind has
oh so many
Built them of wool
and of wood,
of glass and
of rope:
ships, and stairways.

I love
not because they are
or sweet-smelling
but because,
I don’t know,
this ocean is yours,
and mine;
these buttons
and wheels
and little
fans upon
whose feathers
love has scattered
its blossoms,
glasses, knives and
scissors –
all bear
the trace
of someone’s fingers
on their handle or surface,
the trace of a distant hand
in the depths of forgetfulness.

I pause in houses,
streets and
touching things,
identifying objects
that I secretly covet;
this one because it rings,
that one because
it’s as soft
as the softness of a woman’s hip,
that one there for its deep-sea color,
and that one for its velvet feel.

O irrevocable
of things:
no one can say
that I loved
or the plants of the jungle and the field,
that I loved
those things that leap and climb, desire, and survive.
It’s not true:
many things conspired
to tell me the whole story.
Not only did they touch me,
or my hand touched them:
they were
so close
that they were a part
of my being,
they were so alive with me
that they lived half my life
and will die half my death.


    • Thank you. It is true that after the Khrushchev speech, Neruda distanced himself from Stalin and his ‘cult of personality’, but he remained loyal to the Party and to the Soviet Union. I am not aware that Neruda, publicly at least, disavowed that loyalty, even at the end of his life.

    • Apologies, I did not mention the translators, though I linked to the works from which the poems came. For the record, ‘Tonight I Can Write’ is translated by WS Merwin, ‘I Explain a Few Things’ by Donald Walsh and ‘Ode to Things’ by Ken Krabbenhoft.

  1. Hello. I enjoyed this, thank you. I think that Neruda died of a broken heart, of tiredness of life, of disillusion. Scientifically he may have died of cancer, may have been killed, but the time his body chose to die was as deeply meaningful as his poetry. His funeral was the first public display of pain and opposition against the (civilian-)military regime that had just broken Chile’s spine. There are some photos of his funeral at:
    Just a little correction, (the small error may be a slip of the finger, but given the short time lines of the Allende government and the coup, is important). Neruda ran for the presidency at the beginning of 1970 not 1971. Thanks again.

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