Book Review

Twenty Love Poems & A Song of Despair by Pablo Neruda

it's not love if u pretend they don't shit

Pablo Neruda was a thirsty, melodramatic bitch.

This collection, Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, contains 21 poems about love, desire, pain and romantic distance. Originally published in Spanish in 1924, this bilingual edition offers the original work, plus W. S. Merwin’s 1969 translations. In the poems included here, Neruda whines and begs and howls at the moon, he evokes clouds and smoke and the sea and storms and the tempestuousness of hurricanes and the beating burning firey depths of love.

This is love poetry with about as much subtlety as a dick pic, this is balls to the wall, flat out, man passion. Macho passion: chest beating, bottle smashing, arsonista love.

This is suicide love, this is passion that sparks and burns and blazes like a motherfucking traincrash, this is love and passion and desire that exists in the body and mind of a MAN. These are words and phrases that would be almost 100% inappropriate to ever say in a romantic or sexual setting, but if they were said in the way they were meant they’d probably be electrically sexy. This is Latinate love poetry turned up to fucking eleven, it is overblown, it is prurient without being erotic, it is masturbatory, it is self-indulgent and it is absolutely fucking great.

Tits are compared to hills, desire is constantly likened to inebriation (“ebria”), despair is seen as the opposite of Fuck and ejaculation is likened to volcanic explosion (“saltar […] del fondo de la tierra”). The word “my”, however, recurs, and comparisons between male and female desire are pretty fucking old fashioned. The woman acquiesces to the boundless desire of the man (“mis ansia sin límite”), and her behaviour is receptive throughout. The object, or objects, of these love poems is not a person, they are an object, a doll (“muñeca”), they lack agency, they lack desire. How your lover feels about you should matter, imo, not solely how you feel about them. These could be unrequited, unwanted, love songs, but they are inventive, at least, in their objectification. They are passionate, but they are passionate for a body, not for a human that lives within one.

In some places, tbf, Neruda does consider supplication, but it doesn’t feel sincere. In one poem he writes about his words being more his lover’s than his, (“[…] mis palabras. / Más que mías son tuyas”), but this kind of tone doesn’t ring true elsewhere. In any real love poem – as opposed to a sex poem – the words belong to the object; a poet in love cares for their lover, not their own words. This is all fire and deep oceans and collapsing landscapes and powerful, life-changing, life-destroying, passion. There are memorable images, such as comparing skin to the smoothness of grapes, describing arms like transparent stone, but there are also very unoriginal-feeling images that still retain their lusty oomph, “my thirst burned” (“mi sed abría”), the “water of your soul” (“el agua de tu alma”), “drunk on honey” (ebria de miel), “oceanic eyes” (“tus ojos oceánicos”), I could go on.

Neruda was horny as fuck, and it shows. Madness and fire and water are on most pages, as too are animals and animality. It’s melodramatic, it’s over the top, it’s often dehumanising of the love object and it’s sometimes so crass it’s embarrassing. But it is entertaining? Yes. Does it convey an emotion, a character, a mood? Yes. Are they love poems? No. They’re sex poems, because:

Photo on 08-07-2018 at 15.50

Neruda is hot shit. Fun, funky, thirsty. I had a good time playing with his words.

///

I’ve been in Barcelona for about a week at the time of writing, but I have spent most of my time here preparing for the TEFL classes I am taking, attending the TEFL classes I am taking, or walking my dog and sleeping. A couple of nights ago, after conducting a phone interview with Berfrois about my forthcoming poetry collection (Bad Boy Poet, pre-order here), and knowing that I was on top of the work I needed to have done for my classes the following day, I picked up Neruda’s book of love sex poems, clipped my dog’s lead onto his matching collar and bow tie set, and we headed out into the night like a pair of reprobate animals seeking gintonic and somewhere dim to sit and read in public.

And we did it.

I am staying in Vila de Grácia at the moment, and haven’t really explored it very much. I wandered down Carrer de Verdí, a busy (mostly pedestrianised) street close by, until I found a bar promising €5 euro gintonics on its A board. I peered in through the door, made sure I could enter with Cubby, and did so. I ordered my gin, sat on a stool with my dog at my feet and I read Neruda for about an hour, bouncing from awe to shock to amusement.

Neruda’s writing is from the balls, and like most things that are macho macho macho more than anything else, they frequently veer towards the ridiculous. Pablo Neruda was a thirsty, melodramatic bitch and it absolutely fucking shows on every page. Sex, desire, fuckneedery, is key to his being but has been deified, reified, in a manner that is almost laughable. “It’s not love if you pretend they don’t shit”, I scrawled in the front of my copy of the book, and laughed to myself.

That is the difference between a love poem and a sex poem. Sex is physical, love often contains physicality but also needs something more complex, less definable, more cerebral. You can love someone without wanting to fuck them, in contrast to the fact that nobody loves everyone they desire, and most pretty much everyone has fucked someone they explicitly do not and will never love. Sex and love are not the same, and though both of them can be found within the definitions of either (and each can lift the other in dramatic and emotional ways), it feels pretty old school – to me – for them to be conflated. Obviously, though, this is poetry from almost 100 years ago. So, y’know, who fucking cares what I think about it.

A good read. I’m enjoying life at the moment. Which is absolutely fucking lovely, tbh. See ya around.

1 comment on “Twenty Love Poems & A Song of Despair by Pablo Neruda

  1. Pingback: Selected Poems by Federico García Lorca – Triumph of the Now

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