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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2144

Author: Pablo Neruda (1904–73)

First published: Tus pies toco en la sombra y otros poemas inéditos, 2014, in Spain

Translated from the Spanish by Forrest Gander

Publisher: Copper Canyon Press (Port Townsend, WA). Illustrated. 160 pp.

Type of work: Poetry

In these manuscript poems, written on playbills, napkins, and...

(The entire section contains 2144 words.)

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Author: Pablo Neruda (1904–73)

First published: Tus pies toco en la sombra y otros poemas inéditos, 2014, in Spain

Translated from the Spanish by Forrest Gander

Publisher: Copper Canyon Press (Port Townsend, WA). Illustrated. 160 pp.

Type of work: Poetry

In these manuscript poems, written on playbills, napkins, and odd scraps of paper, the Nobel Prize–winning poet Pablo Neruda writes about love, friendship, and the complicated joys of life. The discovery of these poems has prompted fresh assessment of Neruda’s late poems.

On June 18, 2014, the Barcelona-based publishing firm Seix Barral announced that it would publish twenty manuscript poems recently discovered in the archives of the Pablo Neruda Foundation in Santiago, Chile. The paperback volume Tus pies toco en la sombra y otros poemas inéditos (I touch your feet in the shade and other unedited poems) appeared soon after under Seix Barral’s Planeta imprint with an introduction and notes by Darío Oses, director of the foundation’s library. In his introduction, Oses explains that in 2011, twenty-five years after it took responsibility for preservation of Neruda’s papers, the Fundacíon Pablo Neruda (Pablo Neruda Foundation) began a systematic review of its holdings. Oses and his assistants discovered numerous drafts and variants of the published poems, but also some “fugitive” works that resisted all attempts to connect them to one or another of the poems in Neruda’s large canon. There were twenty-one of these poems in all, written over the last two decades of Neruda’s life. Evidence for the dates was both external and internal, coming from printed information on the paper the poet used as well as from associations with events and writings over those years. (Notes on these associations and dates are included in an appendix to the volume.) Oses concludes the introduction by pronouncing the discovery of these previously lost poems both a literary event of great significance and a stimulus to fresh readings of Neruda’s work.Courtesy of Copper Canyon Press

In the English edition of this volume, published in 2016 under the title Then Come Back: The Lost Neruda, translator Forrest Gander writes about his own experience with Neruda. Gander, himself a celebrated poet with previous experience translating Neruda’s work, admits that he originally felt he would rather direct his attention to any of several other contemporary Latin American poets, such as Coral Bracho or Antonio Cisneros. But as he gained access to the digitized manuscripts, guarded as carefully as a Shakespeare first folio, he was drawn into the mysteries they presented. Some did not seem as puzzling to him as they had seemed to Oses and his associates. Rather than add notes of his own, he has made small departures from a strictly literal translation. In poem 10 (“Maravillosa oreja” / “Marvelous ear”)—an ode to the ear of Matilde Urrutia, Neruda’s third wife—Gander adds the word “abalone” to gloss the phrase “little ears of the sea” because, as he notes in the prologue, Chileans of an earlier generation used that circumlocution for those sea snails. Other small emendations are there for the bilingual reader to discover. In the last line of poem 1 (“Tus pies toco en la sombra, tus manos en la luz” / “I touch your feet in the shade, your hands in the light”), for example, Neruda writes that when he places his ear on Matilde’s breast, he hears her “sílaba araucana.” Though the adjective “auracana” is more likely to refer to “Araucanians”—an old name for the indigenous Mapuche people of Chile and Argentina—than to Araucana, a prized breed of domestic chicken, Gander translates the phrase as “Araucan syllable,” which allows for both possibilities.

Neruda is known as a great love poet, and the first half-dozen poems in this collection are unabashed love lyrics to the great love of his life, Matilde, who is named in poem 1 and who was his third wife when the others were written. But even in poem 4 (“Qué entrega a tu mano de oro la hoja de otoño que canta” / “What guides autumn’s singing leaf into your golden hand”), where the poet aches for the return of his chosen lover, he addresses his words to “you with eyes yet to be born,” which may refer to future generations as well as to the lover whose eyes he hopes to open so that she can see the world as her love helps him see it. Poem 5 (“Por el cielo me acerco” / “Crossing the sky I near”) returns to her, specifically the glory of her red hair, and poem 6 (“Corazón mío, sol” / “My heart, sun”) to their shared experience. Then in poem 7 (“Aun en estos altos” / “Even in these steep”), he recalls his callow youth, when he first came to Santiago, dreaming of poetry, and he gives some hard advice to others in the same position:

toughen up

take a walk

over the sharp stones

then come back.

Following poem 8, an ode to the lilac, poem 9 (“‘No te envanezcas’, alguien dejó escrito” / “‘Don’t be vain,’ someone had scrawled”) replies to those who consider Neruda vain. It states that his only cause for vanity is the poetry that has “coursed through [his] body” since childhood and notes that the words of that poetry have spoken for countless others, including the prisoners and forlorn lovers who have written to thank him for bringing back a sense of freedom and joy. As the speaker goes on to say that he takes more interest in the people of his country than in the suit of clothes he wears, the poem reminds us that Walt Whitman was among Neruda’s favorite poets, a writer of free verse who wrote for the people of his country as though his story were theirs. This leads to poem 11 (“Al chileno” / “If they put”), which reflects on what Chileans of different classes and genders carry with them as they journey far from home. It goes there by way of Neruda’s ode to the ear, which glories in “your ear”—the “you” being Matilde, according to Gander’s prologue, although Oses notes that the poem bears similarities to the poet’s other odes to various body parts, including the eye and the liver. Ear imagery recurs in poem 20 (“Del incomunicado” / “From isolation”), which talks mockingly about Neruda’s adversarial relationship with the telephone; although he has “shake[n] hands with all the world” (todo el mundo, which can also be translated as “everyone”), he resents that maintaining his connections to the world requires him to “degrad[e] [him]self” by subjecting his “superior ear” to the “everyday prostitution” of telephone conversations—yet no more than he resents the silence when the phone does not ring.

In poem 21 (“Estos dos hombres solos” / “Those two solitary men”), included in the English-language edition although it has survived only in typescript, Neruda reflects on what Earth may have looked like to the first Soviet cosmonauts and how they “conquered an inanimate heaven” by bringing human life and emotions into what had been empty space. Politically, Neruda was a Communist, which forced him into exile in earlier periods of his life; although his politics later contributed to his celebrity, they may have ultimately cost him his life. Less than two weeks after the Chilean coup d’état of September 11, 1973, when the American-backed forces of military commander in chief Augusto Pinochet ousted the democratically elected socialist government of Neruda’s friend Salvador Allende, Neruda, who had previously been diagnosed with prostate cancer, died at a clinic in Santiago. The cause of death was reported to be heart failure, but many long suspected Pinochet’s involvement, and in 2011 the Chilean government opened an official investigation into Neruda’s death.

The poems in Then Come Back are printed first in English and then in Spanish, accompanied by facsimile images of most manuscript pages, which were mainly written in the green ink that Neruda favored. They are untitled, listed in the table of contents by the first line of each poem; the title of the Spanish edition comes from the first line of poem 1. The English translation takes its title from the advice in poem 7, directed at Neruda’s young self and others like him, but it echoes the first word of poem 18: regresa, from the line “Regresa de su fuego el fogonero,” which Gander translates as “Comes back from his blaze, the fireman.” In the first thirty-six lines of this forty-one-line poem, representatives of different human professions come back from the poetic essence of their experience: “the hero comes back from oblivion, / the poor from another day gone, / the surgeon from staring down death . . .” Finally, “like the rest,” the poet takes off his clothes, goes to bed with his partner, and enters the dream that keeps the world going.

Poem 19 (“Roa Lynn and Patrick Morgan”) is the only one written about specific individuals other than Neruda and his muse. The pair are identified in the opening line, and the next lines locate them vaguely in space—“moored in these waters, / bewildered on this river,” headed either “off to sea or to hell.” Neruda’s readers have learned much about the two since the poem was first published; their names are mentioned together in an Argentine newspaper notice from May 1968, which Gander reproduces in his prologue. According to the notice, Morgan was captivated by an interview with American poet Roa Lynn Lanou that was published in the Buenos Aires Herald, and he sought her out; the two met for the first time three days later, and they married three days after that. Lynn kept her own copy of the poem, which Neruda himself gave her, and she has since written about her story for the New Yorker. The poem ends with the pair heading up a “four-armed river”; Oses considers the line “quite cryptic” and notes its “apocalyptic” tone, although he was seemingly unaware of the identities of the named individuals at the time.

While he wrote everything from political manifestos to historical novels, Neruda is best known and loved for his love poems. Many of his poems have been translated into English, including the early volume Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada (1924; Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, 1969) and Cien sonetos de amor (1959; 100 Love Sonnets, 1986). Translations by eight poets, including Gander, are included in The Essential Neruda: Selected Poems (2004).

Gander’s new translations read very smoothly. One’s reading may well break into two groups of ten, with “Those two solitary men” as a coda. The first group finds the poet in the heat of love and focused on the life of poetry, while the second finds him thinking about bidding farewell to his world—to the Andes and Chile and mornings on Earth. Although they are disjecta membra, the scattered remains of a distinguished poetic career, the twenty-one poems hold together nicely in the arrangement chosen by Oses and followed by Gander. They read well in either language and reverberate further when read in both languages with Oses’s notes. The words of Oses are translated throughout by the American poet and translator Lizzie Davis.

Reviews of the collection have been relatively positive. Washington Post reviewer Elizabeth Lund noted that publication of the English edition was made possible by a Kickstarter campaign and that it serves as a reminder that Neruda’s work “still matters.” Sara Wilson for World Literature Today raved about the full-color reproductions of the original texts, which afford “a glimpse into the lived experience of this master.” Lawrence Olszewski, in a review for Library Journal, called Then Come Back “a miniretrospective that captures the essence of his more famous works.” In a well-argued minority report for the Indian website Scroll.in, former fan Sridala Swami criticized Neruda’s tendency toward “the infantilising of the beloved” and noted that “if we must consider his politics and his diplomatic career as inseparable from his poetry,” one must also take into consideration Neruda’s alleged rape of a Tamil woman while serving as Chilean consul in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in the 1920s.

Review Sources

  • Lund, Elizabeth. “Newly Discovered Works by Pablo Neruda and Other Best Poetry This Month.” Review of Then Come Back: The Lost Neruda, by Pablo Neruda, et al. The Washington Post,26 Apr. 2016, www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/newly-discovered-works-by-pablo-neruda-and-other-best-poetry-this-month/2016/04/26/78e5b784-07df-11e6-a12f-ea5aed7958dc_story.html. Accessed 17 Oct. 2016.
  • Olszewski, Lawrence. Review of Then Come Back: The Lost Neruda, by Pablo Neruda. Library Journal, 1 Feb. 2016, p. 80.
  • Swami, Sridala, “Pablo Neruda’s Lost Poems Have Been Published, but Perhaps They Should Have Stayed Lost.” Review of Then Come Back: The Lost Neruda, by Pablo Neruda. Scroll.in, Scroll Media, 29 June 2016, scroll.in/article/810732/pablo-nerudas-lost-poems-have-been-published-but-perhaps-they-should-have-stayed-lost. Accessed 17 Oct. 2016.
  • Wilson, Sara. Review of Then Come Back: The Lost Neruda, by Pablo Neruda. World Literature Today, May–Aug. 2016, p. 51.
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