The subject of these essays is Neruda's Residencias en la tierra (translated usually as "Residence on Earth"), an enormously influential set of poems published in three batches -- Residencias I in 1933; Residencias II in 1935 and Residencias III in 1947. All of the poems are drawn from the excellent translations in Pablo Neruda, Residence on Earth (Residencia en la Tierra) (Donald D. Walsh, trans., New York: New Directions Books, 1973; ISBN 0-8112-0467-7).
The poems in Residencias are transitional and for that reason highly important as a window onto socio-cultural and political shifts in Latin America during the crucual 20th century, as Latin America slowly reframed issues of colonialism, integraiton and the social, political and economic construciton of states. They mark that wonderfully dynamic time in Neruda's poetry and Latin American development, between a heroic post colonial (heroic) age, marked for Neruda by the early embrace of the myth of the erotic in Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada ("Twenty Love Poems and a Desperate Song") and the open embrace of the social movements poetry after the embrace of Stalinist Marxism during the Spanish Civil War and the poetry of España en el corazón ("Spain in My Heart"). As Donald Walsh suggested in his introduction to the volume:
Many of the poems in the first two [Residencias] were written when Neruda was on consular duty in the Far East, and his sense of alienation and isolation is evident in the hermetic and surrealistic images in some of the pieces. . . . The third volume, Tercera Residencia, published twelve years after the second, shows a poet deeply affected by the Spanish Civil War and the murder of his fellow poet Federico Garcia Lorca. Neruda writes with a deep sense of involvement in social justice and political decency.Donald Walsh, Introduction, in Pablo Neruda, Residence on Earth (Residencia en la Tierra), supra.
The "in-between-ness" of these poems suggest much of the dynamic that suffuses both political and economic culture within Latin America. It reminds one that much of what ultimately is expressed as social, political or economic thought (and the consequential action) is deeply embedded in cultural developments that do not appear in news headlines or the writings of social science or legal academics. It is with that in mind that I explore a number of these poems. In order to understand the great eruptions in Cuba, Argentina, Chile, Nicaragua, El Salvador and other places, it is necessary to confront Neruda.
These essays owe an enormous debt to my long ago mentor, Luis E. Yglesias, Associate Professor Emeritus of Spanish and Comparative Literature, Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts, who taught me both how to read poetry and how to understand it as part of the conversation producing and reflecting social, political, economic, and cultural realities.
I start with a poem from Residencias I--Arte poetica (Ars Poetica) (Pablo Neruda, Residence on Earth (Residencia en la Tierra), supra, 46 ).
Entre sombra y espacio, entre guarniciones y doncellas
dotado de corazón singular y sueños funestos,
precipitadamente pálido, marchito en la frente
y con luto de viudo furioso por cada día de vida,
ay, para cada agua invisible que bebo soñolientamente
y de todo sonido que acojo temblando,
tengo la misma sed ausente y la misma fiebre fría,
un oído que nace, una angustia indirecta,
comosi llegaran ladrones o fantasmas,
y en un cáscara de extensíon fija y profunda,
como un camarerohumillado, como una campana un poco ronca,
como un espejo viejo, como un olor de casa sola
en lo que los huéspedes entran de noche, perdidamente ebrios,
y hay un olor de ropa tirada al suelo, y una
ausensia de flores,
--posiblemente de otro modo aún menos melancólico--,
pero, la verdad, de pronto, el viento que azota mi pecho,
las noches de substancia infinita caídas en mi dormitorio,
el ruido de un día que arde con sacrificio
me piden lo profético que hay en mi, con melancolía,
y un golpe de objetos que llaman sin ser respondidos
hay, y un movimiento sin tregua, y un hombre confuso.
Thus we encounter the poet at the cusp of understanding. He is between--between shadoe and space, decoration and women. He has lost but not yet found. Confusion marks the boudnaries of his experience--strongly felt yet strangely unprocessed. Ingested but not absorbed, he records but understands that this is not enough. Yet he cannot even see the horizon. Even the langiuage is opaque--inaccessible.
We are reduced to sensation in a mindframe marked by an utter passivity. and detachment Between-ness suggests the impossibility of connection. He half lives--the widower mourning each day of life. He half drinks--somnolently ddrinking water that is not there. He hears, but the sounds are far off suggesting ghosts or thieves--beyond sight, control or even connection to the world he occupies. Even that space is occupied between life and humiliation--the humiliated waiter, the slightly raucous bell, the old mirror. These are images of decay and absence, of being out of place and off objectification, a reduction to a utility mired in the past. And also an absence--he occupiesa space in which the strongest element is the lingering oder of the wild party of the past, the cloths thrown on the floor, the absence of flowers. Even passion is a memory--and perhaps not even his.
But this detachment naggs at him. There is something more to him that this Proustian evocation, some grounding--not in the present but for ht efuture, a call to prophesy that is mounful, swarming with objects. Not yet in reach, it leaves a man confused. Constant flux, unanchored, prophesy without foundation in past or future, leaves him to record the constant flux, the "swarm of objects that call without being answered."
Here is a Latin American sensibility of the early 1930s--thoroughly "in between." The past, quickly receding like the memory of a wild party in a house now empty except for the smell of cloths thrown on the floor suggest the long engagement with a colonial past. It leaves an order and a memory of is excess, wildness and humiliation. The future remains beyond the horizon. For the present there is only confusion--memory of sensation, the flux of movements and the call to prophesy--to a future not yet in sight. The early 20th century saw a Latin America between empire and domination. It clung to colonial patterns of social organization and relations with other parts of the world. It had a memory of the colonial metropolis, but now is disconnected. It mourns for the past but knows that it cannot be reclaimed--though perhaps its ghosts linger and thieves abound. Latin America, like Neruda, stood bewildered and in between. And immobile.
This is the image, and the sort of consciousness, that will mark Latin America for a long time in the 20th century. Against these confusions, the revolutions of the right--in Argentina, Chile and Guatemala--and the revolutions of the left--in Cuba, Chile, offer versions of the "prophesy there is in me." But that is in the future.