The wonderful poet Tess Taylor and I had a conversation about “Then Come Back,” a collection of recently-discovered unpublished poems by Pablo Neruda. It is up now at the Barnes & Noble Review. My favorite is one about a telephone:
To me, the poem in this collection that feels like it adds the most insight into Neruda’s life and personality is the reflection on life with the telephone. There isn’t a lot of whimsy in Neruda’s work, but there’s a kind of bemused irritation in that one that quickly shifts to a sinister register. (“I live trembling that they won’t call me / or that they will, those idiots, / my anxiety is medicationproof, / doctors, priests, politicians, / maybe I’m turning myself into a telephone, / an abominable, black-lacquered instrument / through which others communicate”) One can only imagine how annoyed he would have been in an ode to the smartphone. It’s also chronologically the last poem, from January 1973. I said earlier that Neruda seems settled poetically in this volume, but his life was hardly a relaxing one.
To give context to this telephone poem: 1970 was the year his close friend, the Socialist Salvador Allende, was elected president of that Chile after several unsuccessful attempts. In the United States, the Nixon administration (as other administrations before it had also done), maneuvered to keep Allende from taking office, and, once he did anyway, did its best to undermine Chile’s economy and ruin Allende’s presidency. In 1970, Neruda would have been excited to at long last have a left-wing president in office. Allende gave him the important job of ambassador to Paris — relations with Europe were especially important as Chile sought to mitigate the effects of U.S. hostility. Little doubt his phone was ringing constantly. It was a time of excitement, but not a peaceful one. Allende frequently called on Neruda for advice while president; some of those calls that troubled Neruda would have been from Allende himself. But by late 1972, both the poet and the president were despairing as Chile’s political situation deteriorated. In September 1973, Chile’s military bombed the presidential palace, and Allende committed suicide rather than surrender. Thousand of leftists were killed and tortured by the military government, especially in the first days.
Neruda died soon after — he had prostate cancer, but it used to be said that died of heartbreak. (He may also have been the victim of a medical assassination, since the military government feared the power of his voice.) I can’t help but think of all the work he was doing on behalf of Allende’s government when I read this, and how well he captures the transformation of hope into fear. For me, this is the poem in this volume with the qualities of a classic — it speaks powerfully and poignantly to its own time as well as to our own.