by William O'Daly
Copper Canyon Press: 96 pp., $15 paper
"World's End," originally published in Spanish in 1969, toward the end of the career of the great poet Pablo Neruda (he died in 1973, soon after the coup that killed his friend and compatriot Chilean President Salvador Allende), is a book-length sequence that weaves together the personal and the political, the public and the private, the domestic and the global. For Neruda, poetry meant much more than the expression of emotion and personality. It was a sacred way of being and came with duties. He wrote poetry to explain himself to himself, but he had a mission to shape the world too. He was opposed to W.H. Auden's famous declaration: "Poetry makes nothing happen."
Ambitious in every sense
Neruda didn't buy that for a moment. For him, poetry could change everything. He lived a life of passionate engagement and his work was ambitious in every sense. He was, as American poet Campbell McGrath has written, "president of Pablo Neruda Enterprises / director of the great public works project: Pablo Neruda." "World's End" -- here translated into English in full for the first time by William O'Daly in a bilingual edition -- balances nothing less than the tumult of a century against a lifetime's personal vision.
Neruda personally experienced many key historical events (the Spanish Civil War, for example, in which his friend and fellow poet Lorca was assassinated) and bore witness to others. Here he rants full-on against U.S. involvement in Vietnam: "Why were they compelled to kill / innocents so far from home, / while the crimes pour cream / into the pockets of Chicago? / Why go so far to kill / Why go so far to die?" Elsewhere he rebukes (and excuses) himself for having believed in the tyrant Stalin for too long, remaining loyal to "el partido" even when other leading writers and intellectuals drawn, like him, to Marxism and the Soviet Union during the turbulence of the 1930s, had long since rejected Moscow's leash. "I was unaware of that which we were unaware," he writes. "But light was discovered / and we recovered our reason: / not for any man or his crime / would we throw the good / into the cellar of the wicked."
This may not seem like much of a mea culpa, but Neruda the idealist struggled to come to terms with the failure of the Soviet experiment even while he railed against an America that, he believed, had moved dangerously beyond the traditions of freedom and democracy expounded by Lincoln and Whitman, the poet whom Neruda revered above all others. Neruda described "World's End" as his "bitter book," and one of its subjects, certainly, is disillusion. "I have taken a kick / from time and it is now a mess, / the sad box of my life," he writes. "I cannot show people / my collection of shivers: / I felt lonely in a house / riddled with leaks / in a downpour that heard no appeal."
The desolation recalls his earlier groundbreaking book "Residence on Earth." There's the same sense of life turned to ashes and strangeness, wonderfully expressed. But in Neruda the possibility of revival is never far away. That's why so many readers throughout the world still rely upon him. He sings of despair in tones that soon thrill again, using his verse like a shaft of light, cross-examining the darkness so that a switch can be turned, or a metaphor spun magically into something that sustains. "As a poet baker / I prepare the fire, the flour, / the leavening, the heart, / and I, involved up to the elbows, / kneading the light of the oven, / the green water of language, / so the bread that happens to me / sells itself in the bakery."
The scope of "World's End" is as vast and changeable, and as uneven, as the ocean that Neruda loved. Some poems try too hard: "I want to know, my brothers, / I said to the Fisherman's Union, whether you all love yourselves as I do. / The truth is -- they answered me -- / we fish for fish / and you fish inside yourself / and later return to fish for yourself / and throw yourself back into the sea." This feels, somehow, at least one fish too many. In another poem, Neruda seizes the same metaphor, tuning it more precisely to the pulse of inner life: "I am a working fisher / of verses, living and wet / that go leaping in my veins." Elsewhere he becomes the blunt peddler of agitprop, the combiner of dissonance and harmony, the praiser of trees and wood and the ordinary, the poet whose driving rhythms sometimes fling themselves headlong at life and at other times slow down to hold life gently and caress it: "All leaves are this leaf, / all petals are this flower, / and abundance is a lie. / For all fruit is the same, / the trees are one, alone, / and the earth, a single flower."
"World's End," like much Neruda, contains bewildering multitudes. Some poems incite, others console, as the poet -- maestro of his own response and impresario of ours -- looks inward and out. "The century of the exiled, / the book of the exiled. / The brown century, the black book, / this is what I must leave / written and open in the book, / exhuming it from the century / and bleeding it in the book," he writes in "Saddest Century," one of the final poems here, "those who keep leaving behind / their loves and their mistakes / thinking that maybe maybe / and knowing never never / and it was my turn to sob / this dusty wail / for those who lost the earth / and to celebrate with my brothers . . . the victorious buildings, / the harvests of new bread."
O'Daly has spent more than 20 years translating Neruda's late work, and here he brings his awe-inspiring nine-volume Copper Canyon project to a conclusion with taut, spare renderings that capture what, in the end, is the hopeful pith of Neruda's troubled old-age rumination: "The world was finishing us / and we went on losing / winning more each day." Neruda turned the whole dramatic odyssey of his life into a poem in progress, and O'Daly's work reminds us how astonished, and grateful, we should continue to be.
Rayner is the author of many books, including "The Associates," "The Devil's Wind: A Novel" and the forthcoming "A Bright and Guilty Place."