Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair
I have read Neruda’s poetry, in English, from time to time in anthologies and enjoyed it. I'm a great admirer of W. S. Merwin both as a poet and a translator. I respect the role Nerdua took in supporting Chilean democracy. I am aware of the impact of this book when it was first published in 1924, when the author was 20, on Chilean literature and on the literature of Western European languages.
The book consists of 21 poems about the poet’s rejoicing in having a lover, and occasional resentments and frustrations. While these poems are mostly written in exultation of discovery, a sense of loss or abandonment stalks in the background with a nagging question of just who should be afraid of being abandoned. Reading the poems you feel yourself in the poet’s mind. The poetry is vaguely metrical and incantatory but not in precise meter in English. My copy has the Spanish on facing pages, and I know a little Spanish. In Spanish it seems a little more musical. His lover(s?) is never clearly identified as individuals, and we know them mostly as women whose bodies are visible and sensible to the poet and who make emotional gestures to him. What is most striking is the opulent succession of imaginative, sensual metaphors that on first reading don't make much sense but often make more sense on rereading. Often they seem to strain at originality or mildly shocking the reader:
Your breasts seem like white snails.
The butterfly of shadows has come to sleep on your belly.
Se parecen tus senos a los caracoles blancos.
Ha venido a dormirse en tu ventra una mariposa de sombra
Similes and metaphors like this make sense on reflection, but not in the way the strained metaphors of, say, John Donne, another passionate and explicit love poet, make sense. Donne expects you to puzzle them out; Donne assumes and fosters your close attention, whereas Neruda hustles your attention along.
With all the buildup of expectation, I was somewhat disappoint. Emotional exaggeration seems to strain toward sincerity. This is a young man's book, a youth’s book, drunk on the sudden reality of fantasy, or perhaps on a sudden fantasy of reality. Perhaps I'm too old for it. There are some books that should be read at certain ages. Perhaps our literature is too old for it, has lived past the time where these innovations glitter. Perhaps it is a book a reader must come to in a certain range of years, and that range of years is shrinking as the literary conventions that the poems disdained diminish in retrospect. I was often reminded of Andre Bretton’s L'Union libre, which was published seven years later. I like Breton’s poem better because it seems more focused on its subject, less focused on its intoxication.