Poetry

Poetry Sunday: “Dreaming Neruda,” by Kathy Engel

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor
Becky_author+photo_cropped_7-12-14Let’s begin with a few words about Neruda, called by Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez, “the greatest poet of the 20th century in any language.” Pablo Neruda was the pen and later legal name of Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto, a Chilean poet and diplomat who lived from 1904 to 1973. Neruda published his first book, Crepusculario, when he was just 19 years old and the widely read Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair came out when he was 20. During his lifetime, he occupied diplomatic posts in Chile, Spain, Mexico, and elsewhere, and his consular service in Madrid during the time of the Spanish Civil War (Lorca was executed in this time period) is said to have been what politicized him and his poetry. Neruda served as a Senator for the Chilean Communist Party until it was outlawed in 1948 and a warrant issued for his arrest forced him into exile in Argentina. He returned to Chile to serve as an advisor to Salvador Allende and died—some say he was murdered—after Augusto Pinochet’s rise to power. During his lifetime, Neruda enjoyed enormous popularity, and people turned out in masses to hear his poems. When Jean Paul Sartre turned down the Nobel Prize in 1964, he reportedly said it should have gone to Neruda, which it did in 1971. The last years of Neruda’s life were spent in Chile’s Isla Negra region, where he lived in relative solitude with his third wife Mathilde.
While reading about Neruda’s life, I was struck by a parallel between the trajectory of his poetry and that of today’s poem. Neruda’s early work is characterized by a frank sensuality, a celebration of the body and its intimate relation to other bodies and to the natural world. We see this in the first half of today’s poem, in the very specific references to “bare feet” and “bent toes,” to a “curved shell,” a “bamboo bowl,” a “hoof-print on clay” and those gorgeously-hued, perfect eggs. In maturity, Neruda became a political poet writing openly and critically about the abuses of power. Today’s poem makes the same turn in line 14’s “oh names of brown and black bodies the state murders.” Neruda’s late-age poetry was characterized by spirituality and simplicity and a kind of vegetative hope, qualities evoked in the last three lines of “dreaming neruda,” with the speaker’s “dream of a ‘we’” and the hope—embedded in a plea—that Neruda can serve as a beacon in the fog of contemporary moral and political turmoil.
The poem’s structure is simple: twelve unrhymed couplets plus an extra line in the last stanza; lines vary from as short as five (line 1) to as long as twelve (lines 9, 10, 14, 26) words, with the second line always indented. The font is all lower-case and punctuation is omitted. Without caps or punctuation, the lines spill over from one into the next, a rush mitigated by the strict formality of the couplet form. The sense is of a contained outpouring, a speaker overwhelmed by despair but struggling to maintain control. In a sense, every poem of heightened feeling—every lyric poem—generates this tension between form and content.
Besides the absence of capitalization and punctuation, at least two other elements contribute to the sense of this speaker’s barely-contained outpouring of grief and tentative hope for something better for humanity. The first is the repetition of “oh,” a word that recurs 18 times in the poem and is found in every stanza but the first and fourth. Even uttered only once, the word “oh” represents a cry or welling up of feeling. When “oh” recurs more than once within a stanza, as in stanzas 9 (five repetitions) and 12 (four), the cry emotional stakes are raised. The second element propelling the poem forward and saturating its emotional intensity is its concentration of internal rhyme, assonance, and consonance. If you look, you’ll find such sound repetitions in every line, but my favorite examples are stanza 4’s repeating plosive b’s in “bamboo bowl” and fricative c’s in “clay, crochet,” also featuring a rhyme between “clay” and “crochet.

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  • Susan Gunter November 9, 2016 at 11:31 am

    Thank you for this lovely poem and for your careful parsing of its language. Every time I read one of your essays I think about poetry in a new way. Thank you!

    Reply
  • Susan Gunter November 9, 2016 at 11:31 am

    Thank you for this lovely poem and for your careful parsing of its language. Every time I read one of your essays I think about poetry in a new way. Thank you!

    Reply
  • Patricia Yarberry Allen, M.D. November 6, 2016 at 9:09 am

    Rebecca,
    We are so grateful for Kathy Engel’s poem and your thoughtful interpretation and discussion of both the poetic forms used by the poet and the reminder of the references to loss of life for so many at the hands of those who had the power to commit these acts of horror. We have chosen Sunday as our day for Poetry for just these reasons. You give us a day for reflection and possibly redemption.
    Pat Allen

    Reply
  • Patricia Yarberry Allen, M.D. November 6, 2016 at 9:09 am

    Rebecca,
    We are so grateful for Kathy Engel’s poem and your thoughtful interpretation and discussion of both the poetic forms used by the poet and the reminder of the references to loss of life for so many at the hands of those who had the power to commit these acts of horror. We have chosen Sunday as our day for Poetry for just these reasons. You give us a day for reflection and possibly redemption.
    Pat Allen

    Reply