Born in Parral in the far south of Chile in 1904, Pablo Neruda is one of the giants of twentieth century poetry. From his first books Crepusculario and Veinte Poemas de Amor y una Canción Desesperada, both written before he turned twenty, to his death on September 23 1973 Neruda wrote and published an extraordinary quantity of poetry. His work ranges from the early love poetry which established his reputation within Latin America, to political and social poetry including the monumental Canto General, an epic that tells the history of Latin America from pre-conquest to the present, to the several books of Odes where Neruda brings poetry to the most ordinary, everyday things. Humour, surrealism, political invective, tenderness, rhapsodic celebration of human existence in all its diverse particulars—such are the elements out of which Neruda’s poetry emerges. His poetry also comes from a life and an era of history that were dramatic in their dangers and their choices. If Neruda resembles any other poet it is probably most of all Whitman in the sense of his openness, his embracing of everything and everybody. What enabled Neruda to make poems of everything from salt and tomatoes to a movie theatre in winter or a train in the rain was a passionate instinct for beauty and an inexhaustible curiosity before things.
The Book of Questions (El libro de las preguntas) is a posthumous work, written at the very end of Neruda’s life. In November 1972 Neruda resigned his diplomatic position in Paris and returned to Chile, to his home on Isla Negra. The democratic government of Salvador Allende was in severe trouble, plagued by politically motivated strikes, facing shortages of vital foodstuffs and supplies and with the threat of a coup from the right-wing military. At that difficult moment and troubled by ill-health Neruda was working on seven new books of poetry heplanned to publish the following year for his seventieth birthday. Neruda died in a clinic in Santiago twelve days after the coup — the precise circumstances of his death are less than clear. With his long association with the Communist Party and his close support for Allende, he was certainly a proscribed individual in the eyes of the new masters of Chile. Whether he was mistreated by soldiers and died afterwards from a heartattack triggered by the mistreatment, as one rumour suggests, is uncertain. The repression that followed the coup was of a level of brutality and ferocity unparalleled in Chile’s history. Imprisonment, torture and mass murder were to mark the lives of millions of ordinary people — a dark epoch which the country has still not come to terms with.. To recall this history here is important as a sense of this gathering darkness is present in various subtle ways right through The Book of Questions.
Why would Neruda who normally wrote with clear and strong views on everything turn at the end of his life, facing the signs of oncoming disaster, to write a book of questions? The idea that Latin America’s most prestigious poet, having written the long history of the Americas, having written his books of Odes on everyday things, should in old age as his country was about to plunge into an appalling darkness produce a book of almost childlike questions, radiant in their simplicity, might seem a paradox worthy of his rival poet and story teller, Borges. The entire book seems to be itself a question mark.
The Australian poet MTC Cronin has long been an enthusiastic reader of Neruda. Returned from a trip overseas in 1999 and wanting to refocus herself on the writing of poetry, Cronin set herself the task of writing responses for all of the 74 poems of Neruda’s book. It was a way of creating out of the sheer joy of poetry and inhabiting for a little while the strange beauty Neruda has set up in his book. The result is a work rich in humour, insights, beauty and perplexity. It is, if you like the continuation by another hand of the dream work of Neruda.
Between Neruda’s Book of Questions and Cronin’s Talking to Neruda’s Questions what shifts most noticeably is the totally different personality brought to bear on surreal or oneiric material, on the koan-like questions designed to trigger insight. On the one hand there is Neruda: ageing male with an acute political consciousness living on the edge of a political catastrophe, shot-through with melancholy, loss, a pronounced deathward tinge; on the other hand Margie Cronin: in-your-face young female, brash, full of life, of energy, focussed towards life. Likewise the two books highlight two very different historic moments: Chile on the brink of collapse, the forces of repression about to sweep in and destroy Latin America’s unique brave experiment in democratic socialism; Australia on the edge of a new millenium, relatively secure, safe and prosperous, its government intent on denying the very real evils that have marked this country’s two hundred year history of colonisation.
Between Neruda and Cronin there are also parallels and connections. Relative to the dominant cultural centres of the USA and Europe, both are outsiders, “Southerners”, “nacido en el Sur” (“born in the South”) as Neruda frequently says of himself, coming in from the outer places of Southern Chile or Australia, with great brashness and confidence. Both are gifted with immense energy and are very prolific writers. Though she has been writing for only a relatively short time, MTC Cronin is amazingly productive with five main collections of poetry published since 1995 and a further eight or so manuscripts ready for publication. Like Neruda, Cronin generally works to create whole books in a given style based on a unifying theme or approach. Cronin and Neruda both stand at quite a distance from confessional or narrowly autobiographic poetry, the dominant mode in late 20th century English-language poetry. Both prefer to create a certain distance in their poems and let words, objects, poetic structures generate the poem, trustingthat their own personality and their own concerns will shine through anyway.
Looked at one way it might seem an easy way out, to make poems from another’s poetry. Looked at another, equally valid way, it is a very brave thing to attempt to write on the same level of beauty, originality and imaginative freshness as Neruda—to place one’s own lines and images side by side with Neruda’s hoping that they will be read as a seamless whole. Margie Cronin has made the task that much tougher by reproducing all of the questions in each poem and writing responses for all of Neruda’s seventy four poems. Think, if you like, of someone writing a counter-book of sonnets where lines, phrases, images from Shakespeare are set side by side with one’s own images and lines, hoping that the reader will see no sudden breaks in tone or quality. If someone familiar with Neruda’s work but not too familiar with The Book of Questions looks at one of these poems they would be hard-pressed to say which phrases come from Neruda and which from Margie Cronin.
And yet the differences between the two are quite profound. Individually the poems might be exercises in a surreal technique, but in their total effect they leave the reader with a strong sense of the personality of their maker. Likewise they leave the reader with the sense of a certain way of seeing the world, a flavouring of reality that is there probably with little or no conscious effort on the poet’s part. Surrealism of the kind Neruda and Cronin are practising here is both a machine for making sense and a machine for not making sense. By letting beautiful, curious or funny nonsense have some measure of freeplay the poem can, as if by itself, trace both the face of its maker and the flavour that tinges a certain moment or place of reality.
Poetry as it has unfolded by the end of the twentieth century is marked frequently, though not always, by a non-narrative mode as painting is by the non-figurative. Two things we ask of this new poetry: that it be beautiful, that it provoke thought.Connected to both these demands is the requirement that such non-narrative poetry take us somewhere new. Where such poetry succeeds—as in the case of Apollinaire, Blaise Cendrars, Pierre Reverdy, Lorca, Alberti, Vallejo, Neruda and so many others—it also achieves something else regardless of the writer’s intentions—it connects to us and woos us by carrying a strong impression, an intimate sensation of the writer’s being.
Published posthumously in 1974, Pablo Neruda’s The Book of Questions is a sequence of closely interlinked poems written in the final months of the famous South American poet’s life. It was at a time, too, when his country was about to be plunged into turmoil and dictatorship. To a degree, this information is perhaps all that is required to explain the particular and reiterated gesture of Neruda’s seventy-four poems. Each of them is brief (often no more than six or eight lines in the form of fragmentary verses or coplas) and all of them are questions. None of these questions are answered. All of them are left open to the air—even the questions about Hitler being tortured in hell. All of these questions, whether about poetry or the sea or the grape harvest or Paris, contour the final moments of Neruda’s voice with a precision and a pathos which are intense. Casting the poet into the figure of petitioner or child or anxious spirit, the sequence leaves the reader with an overwhelming sense that the poet knows he is facing an unanswerable silence, a terminal point for speech, psyche and physical sensation. As the sequence proceeds, the questions ramify and interconnect, working almost like nets through which Neruda attempts to sift the silence and darkness which are oncoming.
Though presenting themselves as questions, these poems do not need to and, given their purpose, cannot be answered. They operate on a knife-edge of expectation and reflection: they are the questions of someone who is looking ahead but looking ahead at a nothingness. “If I’m dead,” Neruda asks early on,
and haven’t realised yet
whom do I ask what time is it?
Often nonsensical at first sight, Neruda’s questions make perfect sense when understood as the questions of someone who is living, feeling and thinking and who is trying to imagine the state of notdoing so: quite literally, trying to imagine the state of not-being. Where does springtime in France get so many leaves? Does smoke talk to the clouds? Such questions trace fragments of thought and memory. Can I ask my book if it’s true I wrote it? Is there anything more silly in life than to call yourself Pablo Neruda? They trace rifts of self-questioning and namelessness. Who is the rice smiling at with its infinite white teeth? Have you realised that autumn is like a yellow cow? They trace the openness and instantaneity of highly-detailed and intimate perceptions.
Perhaps what Neruda is doing here is anticipating the broken off nature of any final work. For though it is true that The Book of Questions is not unfinished in the way that the Schubert’s last symphony or Keats’s Hyperion carry an indelible mark of their creators’ mortality, Neruda’s poem-sequence remains nonetheless a structure which cannot ever be felt to be complete in a formal and grammatical sense. Each question opens up a deep space for the question which follows; and each new question forces the reader to re-think the nature of the question, the transient figure under which it is being spoken, its authenticity, its meaning to the poet and the silence which surrounds it. Strikingly, not a single one of his questions is rhetorical in the sense of implying an already agreed-to piece of information which it might elicit in the reader’s mind. This is the case even with the final question of the book. Where one might expect some stasis, some point of reflection, this question
When is the task of the rose
announced beneath the earth?
continues that delicately balanced sense that no poet can achieve more than a provisional structuring of the poem in time. In a manner thoroughly typical of a modernist poet, each utterance is an action etched in the infinity of time and space.
To answer these active, vibrating, final questions issuperfluous. It would be like speaking aloud a worked-out “answer” to a piece of music. This is why, far from answering them, MTC Cronin talks to and with them, taking them over from their Spanish, varying them, inverting them, speaking the less than obvious and the only obvious speech of the. The outcome is something close to, yet utterly different from, Neruda.
A poem on the edge of death, a poem which hovers in the border-zone between a living voice and a post-mortem one, becomes a poem of everyday consciousness whose fluctuations are between conscious thought and threshold and stray perceptions. Peace now belongs to an infinity of doves and (w)ar is waged by one leopard’s spot. (“Es paz la paz de la paloma? / El leopardo hace la guerra?”— Neruda.) What is filled in is not an answer to Neruda’s questioning. Instead, what is staged as an outgrowth of Neruda’s poetry is a momentary thought, a short instant of excess, which might accompany a set of his questions but whose dynamics and intentions are much more arbitrary than Neruda’s. There is more language, more psychology, in Cronin’s sequence; there is less space and less echo. Paradoxically, however, this return to a more motivated language produces a much higher level of haphazard effect and aleatoric movement in the resulting poem. Whereas Neruda’s arrows are fired with the exact stress and tension of the question format, Cronin’s variations introduce a slight wobble, a fuzziness, as the deliberate result of the way that her poems are cast in the form of statements and assertions. Unlike Neruda’s questions, they cannot help but carry the grammatical weight of their predicates. Though she often employs the stems of Neruda’s questions, the terms which occur in Cronin’s poems (those doves and leopards, that French springtime, that smoke, that book etc.) now only express tentative and fleeting connections. Each expression makes perfect sense, but how they link is not so clear. If the game of truth-telling is not as skeptical and anxious as in Neruda, it is much more illusory and, at times, ironic.
In this way Cronin’s poem reflects the contemporary dimensions of a more flattened sense of space—namely, the space of information, image and code. This impression is so strongly felt that, when reading it, you feel that the poem is veering and zigzagging across hundreds of tiny cells of narrative. Carefree of an overall narrative intention, the sequence seeks to place no subject at its centre but mixes the tones of an intimate register with a deeply impersonal voice. Similarly, what seems to drive the poem is not Neruda’s partly theatrical gesture in which we overhear a voice self-reflecting in space but a discrete, genetic relationship with the earlier text which now acts as the new voice’s palimpsest or key. In this regard the new sequence certainly sets up a space to traverse; yet at the same time it effaces any more than a few specific moments of intention. Its voice is, so to speak, a mix in a background of noise. Ultimately, even the great Chilean poet’s poem can only be counted as one component in that mix. For talking to and with Neruda’s questions over twenty five years later and from the other side of the Pacific, Cronin has here built her own much more latterday yet no less insistent response to the fluctuation of vibrant thought and meaning.