by Stephen Burt
One of the world’s most popular—and passionate, and prolific—modern poets, Neruda has also been well attended by scholars. That attention made it a welcome surprise when archivists discovered 21 poems, or parts of poems, that the Chilean Nobel laureate penned but never published between the 1950s and his death in 1973. The poet and novelist Forrest Gander, already known for translations of Mexican poets, seems like the obvious pick to bring the new Neruda into English, and he does not disappoint. Neruda’s organic creation, his erotic energies, bloom into “the flower that directs and sustains us, / the wheat that dies into bread and portions out our lives, / the mud with the smoothest fingers in the world.” Rather than printing the Spanish and English versions on facing pages, the unusual edition presents all the English ones first, and the Spanish originals afterward, allowing bilingual readers to read either on its own and then compare the two; samples of handwriting also appear, along with extensive notes. Neruda’s devotion to the political left, and his propulsive short lines, animate a poem of memory: “before I turned twenty I received, / amid the blows of police cudgels, / the throbbing / of a vast, subterranean heart.” Cosmonauts, Chilean flora and fauna, “Chilenos, / a poor people, / miners, / fishermen,” figure in these pages, whose fluent style resembles Neruda’s well-known odes; they are held together by the capacious emotions of the very quotable poet himself, for whom “the heart is a leaf / and the wind makes it throb.”
This review originally appeared in American Poets, Spring-Summer 2016.