‘What I like is to change tones, seek out all possible sounds, pursue every colour, and look for life forces wherever they may be,’ was how Neruda responded to a question put him in relation to his Elemental Odes.
The endlessly prolific, omnivorously curious, impassioned, exuberant lyricist of these odes, in which every subject from an artichoke to a tomato to conger chowder is celebrated for its life-enhancing properties, was also at various times a diplomat, a senator, a political megalomaniac, but above all, the poet Pablo Neruda, one of the twentieth century’s few poetic giants.
In the Elemental Odes Neruda employed a sinuous line rather like a rose-stem barbed with images. And because in Spanish the preponderance of words end in vowels, any attempt to translate Neruda’s use of almost constant rhyme, would prove disastrous. This may be why both Neruda and Lorca sound so estranged, so delyricized in English, but Margaret Sayers Peden has coped well in finding a simple poetic language which corresponds to the meaning of the original, if seldom lifting it into poetry. What we get are language-signs. And that’s OK even if the words don’t sting, bite, smell or crackle with an impulsive charge. What we have here is readability rather than re-creation.
The Elemental Odes must be some of the most accessible and enjoyable poems in Neruda’s prodigious oeuvre. And while his poetry is highly visual, intensely coloured, his interests are not those of simple description, but of the evocation of interiors. In the ‘Ode To Conger Chowder’ he writes:
‘(its mottled skin slips off
like a glove,
leaving the grape of the sea
exposed to the world),
the tender eel
to serve our appetites.’
Neruda’s insatiable appetite for life had him not only ingest his South American continent, but also the universe. The global feel to these poems – they are for everyone – contributes directly to their success, and whether he is discovering ‘scarlet honey’ as in ‘Ode to the Third Day’, or the ‘iridescent sapphire’ in a hummingbird or blue insects who ‘dip their heads/in a diamond’, the poet is always opening up space, using the poem as an intersection point for the five senses, the four elements.
Everything in Neruda’s writing is sensuous, tangy, erotic. Neruda’s affair with Matilde Urrutia which had begun in the late 1940s, may have been partly responsible for his renewed praise of love. In ‘Ode to Tomatoes’ he writes, ‘I sleep beside you, / my arms and lips caress your waist, / I lie beside you, sowing my warmest kisses.’ Matilde and the Isla Negra – an island which became almost an interchangeable persona – were the sounding-boards for the effusive prolificism of Neruda’s later poetry.
‘I want people to enter a hardware / store through the door of my / odes’ he writes in ‘The House of Odes’. It wasn’t simply Neruda’s Communism which had him believe that poetry should be for the people, it was also his concept of building a poem, as one might construct a house or a boat. The earthy, practical side of Neruda stresses the physicality of the craft of writing poetry, and the purposeful construct that a poem becomes. His odes are not artefacts isolated on the page, out of sight until the reader chooses to open the book, but living entities, poems which are part of everyday life, heightening the commonplace until it too enters into union with the poetic. And much of Neruda’s art is a process of sharing: his generosity leads him to want everyone to proclaim poetry as an act of living. When he writes of a rooster, it is to assert, ‘I’ve never seen a president / in gold braid and stars / adorned / like this / rooster . . .’ His lemon contains ‘the miniature fire of a planet .’ He is fixated by the need to retrieve each moment of living. In his Memoirs, Neruda wrote passionately of the design behind his Elemental Odes. He had this to say: ‘In Odas Elementales I decided to deal with things from their beginnings, starting with the primary state, from birth onward. I wanted to describe many things that had been sung and said over and over again. My intention was to start like ·the boy chewing his pencil, setting to work on his composition assignment about the sun, the blackboard, the clock, or the family. Nothing was to be omitted from my field of action; walking or flying, I had to touch on everything, expressing myself as clearly and freshly as possible.’
And by these terms the Elemental Odes are a triumph of metaphor marrying the object of its vision. Nothing is excluded, but everything is altered in the process of being recognised. The Odes are a monumental achievement, an act of giving in which the poet embraces the universe. Only Neruda could have achieved this, and I recommend this book to everyone who is curious about life and the diverse occupants of our planet.