on neruda's WINTER GARDEN, an essay from ARGUMENTS WITH THE THOUGHT POLICE
by john bart gerald
drawings by julie maas

 

 

On Neruda's Winter Garden

July 20, 1990: a book review of Pablo Neruda's Winter Garden, translated by William O'Daly, Copper Canyon Press, 1986. (* See subsequent notes, 1)

    This is a modest even humble book, one of the manuscripts remaining on the desk of Pablo Neruda at his death, not long after Chile's President Allende was murdered.

    The CIA backed overthrow is still yielding the mass graves of those who disappeared under General Pinochet's rule. The killings remain a crime against humanity. Under the horrifying title of "Many Thanks," Neruda writes of arriving late at that amphitheatre, "When they closed the doors / and the world disappeared..." His poems remain to speak for the thousands who disappeared, for the lost humanity of Chile , and he writes calmly in Winter Garden of the names of god, of perception and wisdom in age, and of despair when he can look only to the sea for his freedom.

    Loyal to people rather than power, the poetry is consistently deep, passionate, wise, insisting on life, crying in the American wilderness. US intelligence disapproval has had to confine itself to a character assassination of Neruda the man. The New York Times Book Review (Jan 24,'88) offered a feature article, "Intellectuals and Assassins - annals of Stalin's Killerati," with Neruda's picture , and that of the Mexican muralist Siqueiros, among others, while citing Defence Intelligence Agency research to intimate links between both and a KGB death squad. (* See subsequent notes 2)

    Since Neruda isn't around to defend himself, it's worth noting that Hayden Herrera's Frida, a Biography of Frida Kahlo, finds him amid the lives of Diego Rivera, Kahlo and their guest, Trotsky, in Mexico, as a Chilean diplomat providing Siqueiros with a visa, when Siqueiros was in police custody for riding by Trotsky's lodgings and shooting at the shutters. Neruda was in 1971 Chile's ambassador to France. US Poet and statesman, Archibald MacLeish helped save Ezra Pound's life, yet no one implicates MacLeish in Nazi war crimes. And it was MacLeish who introduced me to Neruda, in a mid-Sixties lunch at the Algonquin in New York City. Neruda gave me and signed in huge green scrawl a copy of his Collected Poems. Through twenty-five years of political changes the ethic of the poems remains flexible and true to people. The actions by both men value life above politics.

    Whatever is done to Neruda's reputation (* See subsequent notes 3) - (MacLeish in his Deerfield retirement also had to turn to small presses to publish his work), his poetry has already survived the worst a military system can do to its people. In the final days of Winter Garden, as the Pinochet regime closes his life's experience, Neruda writes with honesty poems which are a trial of his soul. As always, he is inclusive of the reader in his life's won knowledge, and without arrogance. And without evading the repercussions of his people's attempt at freedom, he foresees the consequences in a winter garden where life moves slowly , surely enough to assert its inevitable return. In "Guatama Christ," he chides the future for fingering and spending the names of God with good and evil. His fury at lasting injustice remains - "...golden brown victims who blazed with napalm / while Nixon with the hands / of Cain blessed those he had condemned to death...," but amidst an awe and commitment to the spiritual "iridescent footprint still shimmering in the light," - that sense in Neruda's best poems that the miraculous has just happened. His moments of pagan wholeness are at peace with his understanding a christ who walked for a while in Chile as the common man.

    If you are accustomed to Ben Belitt's translations of early work, which retain the fever in the sinew of the line but are a little fancy, you'll find William O'Daly's: simple, direct, responsible and respectful. He doesn't interfere and he uses the craft of his poetry with restraint, yet naturally, and the translations like Spender's of Lorca, lead one again to the music of the Spanish line.

*

Subsequent notes, February 13,2000:

1. This review was accepted for publication by Harvard Book Review, ten years ago in the States, but when the issue appeared the review was missing. I was assured it wasn't "censored," but "replaced."

2. I tried to challenge The New York Times Book Review article, with a letter to the editor. I noted that the military sources who brought us the Vietnam war were now destroying a poet for a propaganda advantage. My letter (Jan. 25, 1988) wasn't printed, and I know of no other challenge by American writers, allowed in print.

3. Frances Stoner Saunder's book, Who Paid the Piper: the CIA and the Cultural Cold War (London: Granta Books, 1999) reveals a CIA covert operation of 1963, which decided to deprive Neruda of a Nobel Prize because he was a Communist. Operatives pressured Ren' Tavernier, a French poet and Resistance editor under the Nazi occupation, to co-author a tract accusing Neruda of pro-Stalinist political propaganda. Tavernier who survived one military occupation or another, is said to have complied, but with the result that the Nobel went to fellow Frenchman, Sartre who refused it (excellent !), while Neruda was simply awarded a Nobel the next time.
    Without knowing this sophisticated story, I met Tavernier when he was President of French PEN, in 1983, and an eloquent spokesman for freedom of expression. After considerable harassment in the States I was looking for support to continue writing freely. American PEN took care of Soviet dissidents and its own elite. Tavernier wouldn't help me find work, but offered his poems to publish. They were anti-fascist and very good. In one, Pinochet was included in a gallery of monsters, though we disagreed about Castro, whom I favoured. I thought his own work was being suppressed because of his ties to Communists in the French Resistance, so I gathered and translated a small book. Back in Moody Maine with printing costs out of pocket, our small family press brought out the bilingual edition in 1984, Poèmes 34 Poems, his first book of poems since 1940. Subsequently a book of his poems appeared in France. He wrote that he sent me copies, three times, but they never arrived. He won the French Academy's Grand Prize for Poetry - for all his poetry, and became President of International PEN.

 

 

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