I took this with me on a holiday by the beach in winter for two main reasons:
1. The friend who first introduced me to Neruda (with “Tonight I can write the saddest lines”) loves that particular town, and it seemed appropriate; and
2. The friend who loaned me the collection would surely find it hilarious to imagine me clutching the book to my bosom, staring tragically/romantically/poetically (they’re all synonyms right?) out to sea.
Actually, so would the first friend.
Anyway. I am not much of a reader of poetry. I love the sound of poetry and I appreciate the artistry of using words as Neruda does, but I am at heart an impatient reader. I love words and I like the idea of lingering over them, but… it never really happens. Plus, I am realising that I am more plot-driven than beauty-focussed, which means poetry isn’t really going to work for me.
ANYWAY 2. Neruda. He uses words in beautiful ways – well, I presume he does in the original Spanish, and this isn’t just WS Merwin’s attempt to get work out there under someone else’s name. (What would be the point of that anyway?) Friend 2 pointed out to me that Neruda objectifies his subject a lot, and that’s absolutely crucial to much of his poetry: you don’t get “Body of a woman, white hills, white thighs / you look like a world, lying in surrender” otherwise. But he does create some exquisite imagery.
Ah vastness of pines, murmur of waves breaking,
slow play of lights, solitary bell,
twilight falling in your eyes, toy doll,
earth-shell, in whom the earth sings!
I had at first expected “Tonight I can write” to be the “Song of Despair” mentioned in the title, but it’s not – it’s the twentieth love poem. Which made me realise, as I had been slowly realising over reading the collection, that to differentiate the love poems and the song of despair is to suggest something that is not there. In most of the love poems, despair is either present or looming on the margins. And the song of despair is of course only possible because of the love that is also present.
If you like poetry, this is highly recommended. If you want to try poetry, this is short and delightful and evocative. I’m glad I read it.