Forrest Gander opens his “Prologue” to Then Come Back with an admission: “It’s true, I’ve been caught in print several times saying, ‘The last thing we need is another Neruda translation.’” His caveat: this hesitation comes not from a lack of admiration for Pablo Neruda’s verses and the “attention he’s justly received,” but rather out of a desire to “champion terrific lesser-known and more contemporary Latin American writers in translation.”
I felt relief reading these lines, given my experience with Neruda’s ubiquitous, nearly biblical verse as an undergraduate and then as a graduate student writing about twentieth-century poetry across the Americas. As a Chilean born in Santiago and raised in Los Angeles, whenever I visited Chile as a kid I would get the question: “You know about Neruda?” This was a kind of litmus test of how gringa I might be. As soon as I replied, “por supuesto,” my interlocutor would channel Neruda’s voice, words flowing slowly and rhythmically, letters and sounds interconnected in a movement like the rolling sea. The recitation lasted a line or two, and more often than not began, “Puedo escribir los versos más tristes esta noche. . . .” This is the opening line of the twentieth poem from Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair. Neruda’s famous cache of love lyrics debuted in 1924 when he was nineteen years old (his second book!) and was translated into English by W. S. Merwin in 1969: “Tonight I can write the saddest lines. . . .” Neruda’s early poems share themes with the posthumously discovered work in Then Come Back: romantic love that propels the poet to live voraciously while providing a deep source of lyric creativity, Chile’s people and natural landscapes, and the insatiable need to write poems to constitute a self who can speak of the most intimate things alongside the body politic. Both collections also have twenty-one poems, a mirroring that invites comparison.
The newly discovered poems were hidden in Neruda’s notebooks, composed on restaurant menus and loose sheets of paper.
Neruda died in 1973, a dozen days after the September 11 coup that ushered in Augusto Pinochet’s seventeen-year military dictatorship. Neruda had served as a diplomat in Burma, India, Sri Lanka, Mexico, Spain, Argentina, and elsewhere, and his travels figure widely in his poetry. In 1945 he was elected senator of the northern Chilean provinces of Antofagasta and Tarapacá, and he subsequently joined the communist party, only to be forced into hiding and exile when President Gabriel González Videla outlawed communism in 1948. During this period, Neruda completed his foundational opus, Canto General, which enumerates the history of the New World from a Latin American perspective, paying particular attention to the poet’s native country. The book, comprised of 15 sections and nearly 250 poems, was first published in 1950 in Mexico City in a special edition with drawings by the Mexican muralists Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Following the release of Canto General, Neruda began composing the poems in Then Come Back, a process that continued until the year he died.
The relatively short poems in Then Come Back, which are not titled but numbered, contrast with the ambitious myth-making scope of Canto General, yet the two books share a lyrical thrust that bears down on Chile’s, and the New World’s, struggles to become independent. In the closing stanza of the fourth poem, Neruda writes:
No matter, my ancient ways will keep teaching and singing to you
of what’s bitter and electric in this impure, this radiant time. . . .
A few lines later he promises:
I’ll open pages of iron and dew to a blasted and blessed century,
a century gone brown as dark-colored men with tormented mouths
who, in my lifetime, came into a conscience and decent plumbing,
and came to claim a flag stained by centuries of blood and torture.
There are pairings everywhere here, opposites and complements: “teaching” and “singing,” “bitter” and electric,” “impure” and “radiant,” “iron” and “dew,” “blasted” and “blessed,” “conscience” and “decent plumbing,” “blood” and “torture.” Forces and counterforces are at work during a “century gone brown.” Men who are not of the white European ruling class have arrived to “claim a flag,” to name with “tormented mouths” the country that is their own. It is of central importance that this evocative description turns from the passivity of torment to the agency of claiming.
This turn resonates with an event in the life of the poem’s author, who changed his name from Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto to Pablo Neruda, after the Czech poet Jan Neruda. Neruda explains in his 1971 Paris Review interview that he took his pen name when he “was only thirteen or fourteen years old” to stave off problems with his father, who did not want him to be a poet and who questioned the use of such a profession. Neruda’s decision to rename himself, as an artist and later legally, parallels what occurs in the poem, from speaking as a “tormented” mouth lacking paternal approval to becoming a self-named lyrical voice. The potential usefulness of Neruda’s verse, or any poetry for that matter, can be the stuff of heated debate, especially in tense political times. The question of whether the poet, or his readers, might face political danger given the kind of lyrical claims Neruda makes in his poems is easily answered: Yes.
The question of whether the poet, or his readers, might face political danger is easily answered: Yes.
In 2013 a Chilean judge ordered an investigation into the cause of Neruda’s death. It had long been suspected that “El Poeta” might have been poisoned by Pinochet agents eager to shield the regime from a powerful dissenting voice. (Neruda had been the presidential candidate for the communist party in 1969 but bowed out to support the candidacy of Salvador Allende, who was president of Chile until the 1973 coup.) The probe resulted in Neruda’s exhumation. Results from multiple forensic examinations remain inconclusive, but the Chilean government released a statement late last year theorizing that the injection of a painkiller had hastened the poet’s death. His remains, which have now been exhumed three times, were ordered back to their burial place at his house in Isla Negra in April of this year, his fourth funeral.
Parallel to this, another exhumation of sorts unfolded pertaining to Neruda’s body of work. In 2011 the Pablo Neruda Foundation decided to catalog every item in its collection, in case anything had been missed in prior rounds of archival organization. The cataloging process led to the discovery of a trove of previously unpublished poems, some composed on restaurant menus or loose sheets of paper and others hidden within Neruda’s notebooks. Spanish publisher Seix Barral released these in 2015 as Tus pies toco en la sombra y otros poemas inéditos and they form the source texts for Gander’s translations in Then Come Back. Copper Canyon’s edition includes photographic reproductions of the handwritten poems and detailed notes about where each was discovered, as well as additional commentary on their provenance and how they fit within Neruda’s oeuvre. The double exhumation of Neruda over the last five years underscores the importance of revisiting, rereading, and returning.
The first six poems in Then Come Back are love poems for Matilde Urrutia, Neruda’s third wife. While he and Matilde appear as entwined lovers and creative collaborators throughout his verses, the choreography of their domestic, artistic, and romantic encounters framed by the lyric line can also hook urgently into the history and geography of their native country. The first poem begins:
I touch your feet in the shade, your hands in the light,
and on the flight your peregrine eyes guide me
Matilde, with kisses your mouth taught me
my lips came to know fire.
Matilde is a powerful muse who teaches and guides Neruda, not only in questions of kisses and fire. In the ninth and final line of the poem, the poet learns something new from the communion of their bodies, his ears pressed to her breasts, his blood “pound[ing] out” her “Araucan syllable.” By using his body to listen to hers, Neruda engages a visceral language of syllables originating from the Araucanian Mapuche, the largest group of indigenous people in Chile. In the final line’s culminating moment, the poem opens in unexpected directions and the intimacy between the two figures explodes out toward the collective, specifically Chile’s Mapuche people.
It had long been suspected that “El Poeta” might have been poisoned by Pinochet agents eager to shield the regime from a powerful dissenting voice.
The political elements of Neruda’s poetry, especially as a way of naming and gathering a collective body of people, is at times explicit (“to claim a flag stained by centuries of blood and torture”) and at other times more private and subtle (“my blood pounded out your Araucan syllable”). They always exist alongside quieter humanistic moments that speak without clear frameworks for political engagement or alliance.
The collection’s title comes from the seventh poem, where this precise kind of private moment occurs. The poetic voice addresses a “young man” (arguably the young poet himself, as well as the artist in all of us) and advises him to wait:
keep your silence
until the words
And while the ripening occurs,
dirty your hands
with burnt oil,
from the cauldron,
put on your new suit
and then . . .
take a walk
over the sharp stones
then come back.
Before the young poet can begin to produce work, he must “ripen” and “dirty” his hands with whatever is in front of him. He must toughen himself by treading the “sharp stones” and then return to the beginning, his point of origin. The process of coming back, the return to one’s roots or one’s original and younger self, is a powerful ritual to invoke. Even if you change your birth name, even if your president outlaws your political party and declares a warrant for your arrest, even if you go into exile and reconnect with old friends and meet new ones and produce good work abroad, even if your country’s dictator is wary enough of you to arouse suspicion among your countrymen that you were poisoned, even when you die, you will always come back to the person you were in the beginning. You cannot, and perhaps more forcefully should not, shed your origins. We must all contend with where we come from because that is where we are going.
A second meaning for Then Come Back can be found in Gander’s prologue, where he describes his translation process and what he gains in his own writing from working intensively on someone else’s text: “I always come back from translation changed.” Gander’s translations are spacious, and the volume gives them full range to do their work, placing the Spanish not on the customary facing pages, but as a discrete block at the book’s end. Gander goes further, describing the “durable moment of translation” as a “sublimation of the self so extreme that the music of someone else’s mind might be heard.” Neruda’s music is demanding, no doubt, and it is good that Gander’s renditions stand alone, unencumbered by the original versions.
Even if your president declares a warrant for your arrest, even if your country’s dictator is wary enough of you to arouse suspicion that you were poisoned, even if you go into exile, you must contend with where you come from.
Change, whether a micro-adjustment or a permanent transition, is a theme that emerges in the fourteenth poem, with “man . . . hard at work digging his grave.” The poem’s penultimate stanza refers specifically to the May 22, 1960, Valdivia earthquake, the most powerful earthquake ever recorded. It brought forceful change to the earth and its inhabitants, including tsunamis that struck Chile, Japan, Hawaii, and the Philippines, and flooding, landslides, and many strong aftershocks in Chile. And yet those who “fell dead there / died before dying.” The poet suggests that the residents of Valdivia had long endured demise and death—economic, social, cultural, and spiritual—before the cataclysmic earthquake, a disaster that threatened the city’s very “communion of roots” and the possibility of its regeneration.
Change as loss does not have to be on the scale of a natural catastrophe to unfold meaningfully and urgently before us. We must see and hear what is in front of us and follow the adage in the poem’s final lines, to let the everyday wind make our hearts throb like leaves, to attune our empathy to our neighbors and ourselves: “as they say / the heart is a leaf / and the wind makes it throb.”
Leaves in the wind can be traced through a handful of Neruda’s other poems in the volume, including the fourth (“autumn’s singing leaf” and “it’s been rain’s right . . . to tutor a biting silence / with spears that time and wind unfurl into leaves”), the eight (“Lilac / leaves / all the leaves, / explosion / of foliage, / the earth’s / trembling / canopy”), and the thirteenth (“Addled adolescence, sad and sweet, / quagmire of gloom / where leaves / and bodies tumble”).
The twenty-first poem echoes the image of the heart as a leaf in the wind, but in an intergalactic setting with two astronauts floating in space, “those first men / up there”:
among astral bodies polished and glistening
like grass at dawn,
something new came from the earth,
wings or bone-coldness . . .
a strange bird
to the distant human heart.
The “something new” from earth is most immediately the astronauts, but also refers to the spirit of what they carry, humanity itself. They are “a strange bird” that throbs or pulses to the “distant human heart” back on earth. The human heart in this poem takes the role of the wind in the prior lyrics; it is what makes something else throb, what causes a stir.
My favorite poem in the collection, the twentieth, feels a bit different from the rest. It lays out the “degradations” of the landline telephone, a lyrical rant about the invasive aspects of telephonic technology that can be translated into an urgent commentary about how we are enslaved by our smart phones in the present moment:
degrading myself to the point of yielding
my superior ear (which I consecrated
innocently to birds and music)
to this everyday prostitution,
affixing my ear to an enemy
trying to take control of my being.
The poet recounts, unhappily, that he “prostrated” himself whenever “the ringing / of that horrid despot demanded / my attention.” In addition to a clamoring against the way we let our lives become a series of interruptions determined by the telephone, the poem should be read as expressing the poet’s fears as what future utility his work may serve as a cultural and sociopolitical amplifier. To translate this concern into the contemporary moment, the power of branding, and the power of having a powerful brand, is double-edged and includes the risk of emptying our signifiers of their meaning as they become nothing more than vehicles to amass likes, followers, votes.
If Neruda were alive today, I suspect he would see the poet’s role when faced with the latest technology similarly to how he assessed the overwhelming newness of human exploration into outer space: there is an urgent need for poets to develop a new vocabulary regarding the Internet, social media, and virtual reality. We cannot come back from our technological adventures unchanged, and more than ever we must do the work to return, again and again, to the human core of ourselves. Otherwise how can we stay connected to where we come from, animal and vegetable and mineral, and how can we remain connected with our fellow humans on human terms?