"World's End" by Pablo Neruda
Reviewed By Richard Rayner
"World's End," originally published in Spanish in 1969, toward the end of the career of the great poet Pablo Neruda (he died in 1973, soon after the coup that killed his friend and compatriot Chilean President Salvador Allende), is a book-length sequence that weaves together the personal and the political, the public and the private, the domestic and the global. For Neruda, poetry meant much more than the expression of emotion and personality. It was a sacred way of being and came with duties. He wrote poetry to explain himself to himself, but he had a mission to shape the world too. He was opposed to W.H. Auden's famous declaration: "Poetry makes nothing happen."
Ambitious in every sense
Neruda didn't buy that for a moment. For him, poetry could change everything. He lived a life of passionate engagement and his work was ambitious in every sense. He was, as American poet Campbell McGrath has written, "president of Pablo Neruda Enterprises / director of the great public works project: Pablo Neruda." "World's End" -- here translated into English in full for the first time by William O'Daly in a bilingual edition -- balances nothing less than the tumult of a century against a lifetime's personal vision.
Neruda personally experienced many key historical events (the Spanish Civil War, for example, in which his friend and fellow poet Lorca was assassinated) and bore witness to others. Here he rants full-on against U.S. involvement in Vietnam: "Why were they compelled to kill / innocents so far from home, / while the crimes pour cream / into the pockets of Chicago? / Why go so far to kill / Why go so far to die?" Elsewhere he rebukes (and excuses) himself for having believed in the tyrant Stalin for too long, remaining loyal to "el partido" even when other leading writers and intellectuals drawn, like him, to Marxism and the Soviet Union during the turbulence of the 1930s, had long since rejected Moscow's leash. "I was unaware of that which we were unaware," he writes. "But light was discovered / and we recovered our reason: / not for any man or his crime / would we throw the good / into the cellar of the wicked."
This may not seem like much of a mea culpa, but Neruda the idealist struggled to come to terms with the failure of the Soviet experiment even while he railed against an America that, he believed, had moved dangerously beyond the traditions of freedom and democracy expounded by Lincoln and Whitman, the poet whom Neruda revered above all others. Neruda described "World's End" as his "bitter book," and one of its subjects, certainly, is disillusion. "I have taken a kick / from time and it is now a mess, / the sad box of my life," he writes. "I cannot show people / my collection of shivers: / I felt lonely in a house / riddled with leaks / in a downpour that heard no appeal."
The desolation recalls his earlier groundbreaking book "Residence on Earth." There's the same sense of life turned to ashes and strangeness, wonderfully expressed. But in Neruda the possibility of revival is never far away. That's why so many readers throughout the world still rely upon him. He sings of despair in tones that soon thrill again, using his verse like a shaft of light, cross-examining the darkness so that a switch can be turned, or a metaphor spun magically into something that sustains. "As a poet baker / I prepare the fire, the flour, / the leavening, the heart, / and I, involved up to the elbows, / kneading the light of the oven, / the green water of language, / so the bread that happens to me / sells itself in the bakery."