Article by Philip Harvey first published in Eureka Street on May the 14th, 2013
Like many great poems, life is worked out by testing both questions and answers. Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?, is itself a beautiful question, made more beautiful by the thirteen line reply that follows. A poem with all the answers is as unconvincing as a poem that has never asked any questions. We seem to find ourselves somewhere between those two extremes, which is why some poems work for us now, while others bide their time.
The last poems of the Chilean Pablo Neruda are a cycle of 74 cantos called El Libro de las Preguntas, The Book of Questions. In fact, the poems consist entirely of questions, which act as much to celebrate as to query the world around us. They reveal the poet in his many moods – humourous, nostalgic, political, sentimental, metaphysical, absurd, realistic, passionate, wistful – and in just a few words reduced to the fundamentals.
The unquestionable marvel of the nursery rhyme lives in a line like “Dónde dejó la luna llena su saco nocturno de harina?”, which William O’Daly translates “Where did the full moon leave its sack of flour tonight?” Neruda’s child-like eye surprises us to the end. Soon enough though his voice toughens: “Is the sun the same as yesterday’s or is this fire different from that fire?” When he asks “How old is November anyway?” he is asking us for an answer, but what is our answer? Do we have one? With a question like “Tell me, is the rose naked or is that her only dress?” the human world and nature confront one another; the words conjure extra meanings the more we care to think about them. “Where is the centre of the sea?” could keep geographers busy for hours. Neruda can turn a question into an image in time: “Why do assemblies of umbrellas always occur in London?” And there are questions we have thought all our lives without putting them into words: “What did the tree learn from the earth to be able to talk with the sky?”
Still, not everything is living for living’s sake. Time is of the essence. Neruda wrote these poems on the eve of the violent overthrow of the elected government of Chile in 1973. He was a close friend of President Salvador Allende, which is why some lines unsettle the general sense of an enquirying mind at peace with the world: “Pero es verdad que se prepara la insurrección de los chalecos?” O’Daly has this as “But is it true that the vests are preparing to revolt?” Los chalecos means vests in Spanish, but anyone reading this poem at the time would know its military and political connotations. Vests were worn by soldiers, including top brass with lots of medals attached. When General Augusto Pinochet, the head of the army, took control of Chile in a coup d’état, it was a vindication of the fear spoken, by implication, in some of the lines of El Libro de las Preguntas.
Many suspected foul play when Neruda died twelve days later. In 2011 his former driver claimed that Neruda had been poisoned by secret agents, contradicting the official version, death from cancer. Due to legal action from the Communist Party, the Chilean government last month exhumed the body. This act is contentious itself, the Pablo Neruda Foundation disapproves, while the family want closure, one way or the other. Preliminary results confirm that Neruda did have an advanced case of prostate cancer, but tests continue, both in Chile and the United States. Full results could take up to three months.
The questions kept on coming. Neruda could nail his colours to the mast:
It is bad to live without a hell:
aren’t we able to reconstruct it?
And to position sad Nixon
with his buttocks overt the brazier?
Roasting him on low
Roasting him on low
with North American napalm?
Dantesque conjectures were a way of dealing with political upheaval inside Chile. And through those years some of Neruda’s questions came to have prophetic meaning: “Why in the darkest ages do they write with invisible ink?” This is not softened any with a line like “Is peace the peace of the dove?” We know where his sympathies are when he says
Do all memories of the poor
huddle together in the villages?
And do the rich keep their dreams
in a box carved from minerals?
But as we return into The Book of Questions we find that all of life presents us, and the poet, with paradoxes that contain within them leads and explanations, if only we pay attention. It is almost offhand when he jokes “Cuántas Iglesias tiene el cielo?”, “How many churches are there in heaven?” Exact statistics are not on his mind when Neruda wonders, “Does a pear tree have more leaves than Remembrance of Things Past?” For these are the words of someone looking out beyond present disasters. He keeps hope alive, pays attention daily to the value and goodness in the world, seeing in these things that which is truly life-giving. It is a South American, after all, who would ask “De qué suspende el picaflor su simetría deslumbrante?” “From what does the hummingbird hang its dazzling symmetry?”