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This Wednesday is our dramatic reading of Pablo Neruda poetry. All day I walk around the house reciting the poems, stumbling over words in Spanish. I have to say them over and over, first to learn to enunciate each word, then to hear the rhythm of the words together, finally to understand their meaning.

Our performance follows the chronology of Neruda’s life in poems. We start with his early love poems, published in 1923 (when Neruda was only 20 years old!) in a collection called Veinte Poemas de Amor. Many years later, Neruda said this:

Veinte Poemas de Amor make a painful book of pastoral poems filled with my most tormented adolescent passions. It is a book I love because, in spite of its acute melancholy, the joyfulness of being alive is present in it…I wrote in a long, slender-bodied abandoned lifeboat left over from some shipwreck. The sky overhead was the most violent blue I have ever seen. I don’t think I have ever again been so exalted.

Next we cover poems Neruda wrote while serving a series of honorary consulships that took him to East Asia, Europe, and throughout South America. Neruda wrote Solo La Muerte during this time. Of all the poems we’ll be covering on Wednesday, Solo La Muerte is my favorite. 

The first time I read it in rehearsal, I couldn’t get the emphasis right on certain syllables in the many words I rarely used. The director told me to practice, to say the poem 17 times out loud if I had to. Now the verses roll out in a deep, ethereal voice. I wonder how could Neruda at such a young age have known death so well? Then I read this quote and everything makes sense.

I had only solitude open to me. That time was the loneliest in my life. Yet I also recall it as the most luminous, as if a lightning flash of extraordinary brightness had stopped at my window to throw light on my destiny. My work progressed very slowly. Distance and a deep silence separated me from my world, and I could not bring myself to enter wholeheartedly into the alien world around me. If the very air he breathes does not enter into the poet, his poem is dead: dead because it has not had a chance to breathe.

I read somewhere recently that Neruda is often thought of as either a poet of love or a poet of politics. I thought I knew him as both, but I realize now I never really knew him. What I know now is his political poems transform me. I nearly spit the names of dictators (“the dictatorship of flies”) he ticks off in his poem La United Fruit Co.:

          Trujillo flies, Tacho flies,
          Carías flies, Martínez flies,
          Ubico flies, damp flies
          of humble blood and marmelade,
          drunken flies that buzz over the common graves,
          circus flies, clever flies
          well versed in tyranny.

Neruda’s political fire, it’s said, was started with the Spanish Civil War and the murder of García Lorca. Neruda operated inside and outside the political system. He was elected senator of the Republic, he joined the Communist party of Chile, he protested on behalf of striking miners and for a time lived in exile. I read the following quote and it ignites in me this question: Who are today’s “Pablo Nerudas”?

Poetry is an act of peace. Peace goes into the making of a poet as flour goes into the making of bread. Arsonists, warmongers, wolves hunt down the poet to burn, kill, sink their teeth into him. The Spanish Fascists started off the war in Spain by assassinating its greatest poet. But poetry has not died; it has a cat’s nine lives. They harass it, they drag it through the street, they spit on it and make it the butt of their jokes, they try to strangle it, throw it into prison, and it survives every attempt with a clear face and a smile as bright as grains of rice.

As the first bullets ripped into the guitars of Spain, when blood instead of music gushed out of them, my poetry stopped dead like a ghost in the streets. From then on, my road met everyman’s road. And suddenly I saw that from the south of solitude I had moved to the north, which is el pueblo, the people, whose sword, whose handkerchief my humble poetry wants to be, to dry the sweat of its vast sorrows and give it a weapon in the struggle for bread.

I have no answers. I’m touched by this poet in a way I never was before. I don’t pretend to know much about him still. Yet somehow, he’s getting through.

Try it. Pick a poem by someone you know is great but whose greatness, perhaps, you’ve never truly known. Read that poem out loud 17 times. Read it in an empty house. Read it until you shout it, you drone it, you channel it. Read it until it starts to become yours.

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