Since the first time I read his poems, it seemed to me that poems came to Pablo Neruda as easily as air comes to those who breathe. I remain fascinated by that, and it is hard for me to name any other poet who had been blessed with the same talent as Neruda.
/Pablo Neruda, photo via greatthoughtstreasury/
An extraordinary person, Neruda was born Ricardo Eliecer Neftali Reyes Basoalto, in a working class family. His mother died when he was a baby, his father was a railroad worker. In Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People, a picture book written by Monica Brown and beautifully illustrated by Julie Paschkis, Brown describes Neruda’s rides on train with his father: “Whenever the train made a stop, Neftali would run off into the forest to search for beetles and birds’ eggs and tall ferns that dripped water like tears.”
Early on, Neruda showed great talent for writing, and was encouraged by one special teacher, a great Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral, to write poetry and read more.
/from the book Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People/
Neruda was only nineteen years old when the famous Veinte Poemas volume was published. It was considered controversial because of its explicitly sexual nature. Later on, his poetry and prose advocated an active role in social change rather than simply describing his feelings, as his earlier works had done. He became a true activist for change.
That is very obvious in Residencia en la Tierra, or Residence on Earth, Neruda’s most extraordinary and powerful work of poetry. It was concieved among the feelings of alienation, and reflects the chaos of the world, hard to understand, hard to make sense of. Introducing Neruda at a lecture at the University of Madrid in 1934, Federico Garica Lorca described him as “a poet closer to death than to philosophy, closer to blood than to ink.”
/Neruda and his wife Matilde, photo via cafleurebon/
One of Neruda’s strongly political poems that stayed in my mind for a long time is Almería. During the Spanish Civil War the city was shelled by the German Navy. Almería surrendered in 1939, being the last Andalusian capital city to fall into Francoist forces.
A bowl for the Bishop, a bowl chewed and bitter,
A bowl of steel scraps, of ashes and tears,
A bowl brimming over with fallen walls and sobs,
A bowl for the Bishop, a bowl of Almería’s blood.
A bowl for the banker, a bowl of cheeks
of children from the happy South, a bowl
of explosions, mad waters, of ruins and terror,
a bowl of broken ankles and trampled heads.
Each morning, each murky morning of your life,
you’ll have it steaming and hot on your table:
you’ll push it back a bit with your soft soft hands
so as not to see it, not taste it so often;
you’ll push it back a bit between the bread
and the grapes, this bowl of silent blood
that will be there each morning, every
A bowl for the Colonel and the Colonel’s wife,
at a garrison party, at every party,
over curses and spit, with the dawn’s light of wine,
so you’ll look out over the world, trembling and cold.
Yes, a bowl for you all, richmen here and there,
monstrous ambassadors, ministers, atrocious dinner-guests,
ladies with comfortable tea tables and chairs:
a bowl destroyed, overflowing, filthy with the blood of the poor,
each morning, each week, forever and ever,
a bowl of blood from Almería before you,
Pablo Neruda died in 1973, shortly after the military coup in Chile occured. His funeral procession was delayed by Pinochet’s regime, but in the end, it was the only public demonstration the military dictatorship could not suppress – thousands of people broke curfew and attended the funeral. Thousands of people marched through Santiago, chanting “Pablo Neruda – presente” meaning “Pablo Neruda – present/with us”. It was dangerous to do that, but they still did it, paying respect to Neruda, poet of the people.
In 2003, thirty years after Neruda’s death, an anthology of 600 of Neruda’s poems was published as The Poetry of Pablo Neruda. The book remains one of my favourite little treasures.
Although Neruda has forever ensured his place in the hearts of people with his magical sonnets and unique ways of portraying women and love as the driving forces of the universe, his political poems are what always captured me the most. His call for justice. One of them, like Almería, is United Fruit Co.
When the trumpet sounded
everything was prepared on Earth,
and Jehovah gave the world
to Coca-Cola Inc., Anaconda,
Ford Motors, and other corporations.
The United Fruit Company
reserved for itself the most juicy
piece, the central coast of my world,
the delicate waist of America.
The United Fruit Company was an American corporation that traded in tropical fruit (primarily bananas), grown on Central and South American plantations, and sold in the United States and Europe. The business blossomed in the early and mid-20th century, and the company soon controled vast territories and transportation networks in Central America, the Caribbean coast of Colombia, Ecuador, and the West Indies.
It rebaptized these countries
and over the sleeping dead,
over the unquiet heroes
who won greatness,
liberty, and banners,
it established an opera buffa:
it abolished free will,
gave out imperial crowns,
encouraged envy, attracted
the dictatorship of flies:
Trujillo flies, Tachos flies
Carias flies, Martinez flies,
Ubico flies, flies sticky with
submissive blood and marmalade,
drunken flies that buzz over
the tombs of the people,
circus flies, wise flies
expert at tyranny.
The company maintained a virtual monopoly in certain regions, some of which came to be called banana republics, such as Costa Rica, Honduras, and Guatemala. It had a deep and long-lasting impact on the economic and political development of several Latin American countries and was frequently accused of bribing government officials in exchange for preferential treatment, exploiting its workers, paying little by way of taxes to the governments of the countries in which it operated, and working ruthlessly to consolidate monopolies.
With the bloodthirsty flies
came the Fruit Company,
amassed coffee and fruit
in ships which put to sea like
overloaded trays with the treasures
from our sunken lands.
Latin American journalists sometimes referred to the company as el pulpo (the octopus), critics often accused it of exploitative neocolonialism and leftist parties in Central and South America encouraged the company’s workers to strike.
Meanwhile the Indians fall
into the sugared depths of the
harbors and are buried in the
a corpse rolls, a thing without
name, a discarded number,
a bunch of rotten fruit
thrown on on the garbage heap.
United Fruit was merged with Eli M. Black’s AMK in 1970, to become the United Brands Company. In 1984, Carl Lindner, Jr. transformed United Brands into the present-day Chiquita Brands International, leading distributor of bananas in the United States. There are still a lot of issues connected to the company’s business, just one example is the case in 2007, when the French NGO Peuples Solidaires publicly accused the Compañia Bananera Atlántica Limitada (COBAL), a Chiquita subsidiary, of knowingly violating workers’ basic rights and endangering their families’ health and their own. According to the charge, the banana firm carelessly exposed laborers at the Coyol plantation in Costa Rica to highly toxic pesticides on multiple occasions. Additionally, COBAL was accused of using a private militia to intimidate workers.
So – United Fruit Co. might have a new face on, but it still is, like in the days of Neruda, an expert at tyranny.
I love that Neruda wrote about it. I love the way he was presente. I might be over-romanticizing his era, but I can’t escape the feeling we are in the need of Nerudas of our time – and I can’t seem to find them.
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