by Stephen Kessler
The cardboard slipcases of the three-volume Obras completas and the four-in-one Libro de las odas have been through a lot since I bought them in Madrid in 1976 at one of those dilapidated bookstalls across from Atocha, had them wrapped in layers of brown paper by the ladies in the basement of Correos who expertly, with just string and hot wax, would prepare your package, not even a box, for the voyage to California, and unwrapped them intact at home in the Soquel hills a few weeks later.
Since then they have survived several moves and have not been left behind for the next residents or sold or donated like so many others, and up on the coast the carpenter ants found the uncoated cardboard just the tasty texture for their paper hunger, and the old glue in the cases’ corners was coming loose in places, and if you picked one up it would start to come apart in your hands.
Today, when I was moving some books around, their decrepitude was evident, so despite what should have been a sentimental attachment to such seminal items in my library, and despite the faded photos on the cases’ backs of the great poet I once admired so much and loved so much that I learned to translate on the training wheels of his odes—despite or perhaps because of his iconic stature, the only Hispanic poet anyone knows besides García Lorca, the brand name everyone recognizes and adores no matter how much of the poetry reeks of self-congratulation and communist bromides and pride in his prodigious gift and gloating about his great sex with Matilde—I decided I’d had enough reverence for the old man and my small way of smashing his icon was to throw those cardboard slipcases, photos and all, into the blue recycling bin alongside the driveway.
The red leather Obras and green leather Odas look better, less dust-encased, less artifacty, less iconic, more accessible, more readable. But I have read quite enough Neruda, much as he meant to me in my twenties, and amazing as the Residencia en la tierra poems remain, so much stronger and more imaginative and more authentic in their alienation than the political speechifying of the later years and his voice-of-the-people persona. Those commitments to justice and revolution may have been for him historically necessary but they didn’t do his poetry much good and have set a bad example for the kind of finger-pointing agitprop and feel-good righteousness widely practiced today across a land politically contaminated by the most grotesque presidency this country has ever suffered. Poetry may be one way to address this crisis, but who is listening?
Neruda’s most lasting work will be the early love poems, the existentially angst-soaked surrealism, a few of the odes, and Canto general, greater than Pound’s Cantos as “a poem containing history,” when Pablo’s political vision was fresh and embodied in narratives and had not congealed into slogans. I keep him on my shelf as a marker along the way and an occasional point of reference, a poet worth revisiting from time to time, but mostly a father figure, as Whitman was to Pound, whose authority it is time to question—just as I have long since rejected Pound. As Whitman wrote, “Who learns my lesson best learns to destroy the teacher.”
That’s why I’ve recycled the rotting slipcases of the Obras and the Odas, and why those books look better now on the shelf beside the equally important Borges and Aleixandre and Vallejo and Paz and Cernuda, not to get into the poets in other languages. I’m sick of old Pablo being the only name out of the mouth of anyone who learns I’m a translator—I’ve translated him, but so what, so has everyone else. He was promiscuous with his permissions, permissive with conflicting translations, and posthumously Carmen Balcells, his Barcelona agent (and practically everyone else’s in Hispanic literature), bargained hard for every new lucrative edition of even his most marginal work, which even he, who published prodigiously, didn’t choose to publish when he was alive.
But the Neruda brand has legs, and even though he was bald and built like Alfred Hitchcock, so he doesn’t have the glamour of García Lorca or Frida Kahlo, nor their tragic stories, he sells like Coca-Cola on a hot day in the tropics, and all his various publishers hear the cash registers ringing in his verses like perfect rhymes.
Down in the blue bins the cardboard slipcases are mingling already with the cereal boxes and office paper and empty bottles and plastic containers, Pablo’s picture mashed indifferently against the rest of the remnants the truck will come to pick up later this week, crashing us awake before dawn as it dumps the plastic barrels into its maw.
Why does it feel so good to recycle Neruda?
Stephen Kessler’s most recent book is Garage Elegies, to be published this spring by Black Widow Press. His translations of Luis Cernuda have received a Lambda Literary Award, the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award, and the PEN Center USA Translation Award. His version of Neruda’s “Heights of Machu Picchu” appears in Machu Picchu, a book of photographs by Barry Brukoff. He lives in Santa Cruz, California, where he writes a weekly column in the Santa Cruz Sentinel. See what he’s published in AGNI here.