Your Lovely Feet Gleamed Like Fish

Pablo Neruda – The Captain’s Verses (Carcanet, 2020)

Neruda. A legend. And yet, little known in the English language. Brian Cole, translator of The Captain’s Verses, wonders why.

I look at the picture of the man on the cover. He is well-fed, with a face at once warm and yet sceptical. He is dressed professorially, with a white shirt, tie, a woollen cardigan and a scarf. In the back are the bleached white walls of a Chilean village.

I realise it must be searing hot there. But Neruda is wearing a scarf.

Here, I think, lies the secret to Neruda’s lack of Anglophone readers. There is an unbearable heat to his poetry that makes us uncomfortable. We have to cast it off. We cannot bear it. We’ll wilt.

The Captain’s Verses were first published anonymously in 1952. Neruda was in the middle of leaving one wife for another, and these passionate poems of love and squabble would, he feared, break his soon-to-be-ex-wife’s heart.

But the anonymity only made them more intense. Our speaker, the Captain, takes his “rose so little, tiny and naked,” into his arms. He loves her feet, he kisses her feet, because they bring her to him. She is a trembling leaf, a tiny horse, a waving field of wheat.

He lifts her up. He holds her head. He drinks her blood. He dies over and over, living inside her heart.

The intensity is raw. At times, like the opening poem, “In You the Earth”, and the closing one, “Letter on my Travels”, there is a solid enough image there to bear the flood of words, to keep the structure solid, like a bridge over a rushing torrent.

In other poems, the whole thing collapses into a delirium of mixed metaphors.

                  As if the blustery wind of dreams

                  Had given fresh

                  Fire to your hair

                  And had dipped your body in wheat

                  And silver to leave it dazzling bright

Neruda is less like a love poet here than a true lover. His words are sticky, running over each other, losing all signification, showing only the mingled lust and love that comes between lovers in the night.

They are embarrassing then, yes? Creepy maybe?

Here, I think, is the crux. English readers are puritans. Lusty poems written during a man’s divorce can’t help but feel sleazy. Intense passions are suspect; those that feel them (or, worse, express them!) are dangerous.

But that’s only English readers. And readers on the page at that.

Neruda’s poems have open, freely-running lines. They are quite clearly for performance, to be read aloud.

They are of the oral tradition. A tradition that makes sense of the mixed metaphors. A tradition that thrills in cliché. Neruda is often on fire, his love is burning, his heart swells up, swells with flame.

And his communism, his fighting; what little resemblance it bears to our soggy placard-bearers! He is a man, fighting in the name of love and faith and friendship. He could be a knight on horseback:

                  And in the middle of life I shall be


                  Next to my friend, facing the enemy,

                  With your name on my lips

                  And a kiss that never

                  Went away from yours

These words could be Don Quixote’s, but they aren’t. They are true. Well, not true, but foolish and filled with passion, which is better than true.

The act of translating Neruda into English is, also, Quixotic. Thankfully, Cole always picks the right word. Carcanet has also made the right choice in presenting this as a dual-language edition. Some lines must be read out in the Spanish if they are to come alive in sound.

A perfect collection for lovers.

(It’s a shame we couldn’t get the review out for Valentine’s day – ed.)

  • Zoe Islander-Bax

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