American Neruda:
Two New Recordings Restore What Was Once Lost in Translation

originally published in The San Francisco Bay Guardian

In 1994, 23 years after he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, Pablo Neruda became the poet laureate of the American dorm room. Thanks to the success of the small Italian film Il Postino—about a bereft mailman who uses Neruda's poetry to woo a lover—having Neruda's Cien Sonetos de Amor on your bookshelf was suddenly the literary equivalent of taping posters of Robert Doisneau's Le Baiser de l'Hotel de Ville, Paris, 1950 and Monet's Waterlilies to the wall above your mini-fridge and microwave. U.S. readers quickly learned what Latin Americans had known for decades about the Chilean writer: nobody expresses the tactile, verdant depths of love with the gushing complexity of Neruda.

But knowing Neruda only for his love sonnets is like knowing Miles Davis only for Kind of Blue. Neruda's writing spanned over fifty years and was more often than not grounded in a radical South American politics of liberation and struggle. After all, it was Neruda's strident communism as a Chilean senator and his vehement opposition to the labor policies of President González Videla that made the storyline of Il Postino's poetic romance possible—the postman is only able to deliver letters to Neruda in his Italian village because Neruda is there living out four years of political exile.

Did people know that when they quoted velvety lines about longing and absence, they were quoting a man who once wrote that Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale" was better off at the taxidermist's or the British Museum, a man who, during the Vietnam War, chided Robert Frost for writing prose that ignored America's role in "bathing the world in blood"? Did they know they know that their love muse was, as Colombian salsero Yuri Buenaventura sings on his recent Vagabundo album, the poet of the Latin American dream, of a continent free from the corruptions of torture and cocaine? Did they know they were invoking a man who called out to miners and farmers alike, "Rise up and be born with me, brother. From the deepest riches of disseminated sorrow, give me your hand"?

This last line comes from Canto General, Neruda's landmark 1950 retelling of Latin American history in 250 poems, excerpts of which are newly translated by Marc Eisner in The Essential Neruda: Selected Poems (City Lights). Eisner's compact bilingual collection gathers the work of eight different Neruda translators into a digestible tour of Neruda's poetic range, from his odes to everyday objects and fables of mermaids and mariners to his protests against the United Fruit Company.

The occasion for Eisner's collection is the centennial of Neruda's birth, which has also inspired two musical celebrations of Neruda's career: Luciana Souza's Neruda (Sunnyside) and the hispano group-think of Neruda En El Corazon (BMG Spain). Like Eisner, Souza traffics in translations, only hers are double; she does Neruda in English and in song. She goes far beyond the love sonnets in her choices (though Sonnets 49 and 99 are there), landing instead on more challenging Neruda poems like "Memoria" and "Casa" that can be hard to read, let alone sing. Souza gets able help from Edward Simon's angular piano arrangements, which are so delicate and airy that you almost forget they're there.

Her rounded, Portuguese-colored voice flows over Neruda's language as much as it is gets tripped up by it, and it's those moments of tense, awkward phrasing that make Neruda such an interesting exercise in cross-genre interpretation. The tonal contrasts are what feel the most shocking: Neruda's emotional, fleshy intensity, Souza's brainy, artful coolness.

In his Nobel lecture, Neruda spoke of his poems as beginnings to be finished by others, "as a piece of stone or wood on which someone, some others, those who follow after, will be able to carve the new signs." It's an attitude that adds artistic weight to Souza's work—each of her songs a new sign carved out of the original wood. Same goes for the songs on Neruda En Mi Corazon, which, while smelling more like a centennial cash-in than Souza's, still fares far better than previous Neruda marketing blitzes (the embarrassing Postino soundtrack forced the dead poet to be voiced by Wesley Snipes, Julia Roberts, and Madonna).

The all-in-Spanish compilation foregrounds Neruda's political, pan-continental voice. The Uruguayan Jorge Drexler asks over clanking beats, "Who are those that suffer? I don't know, but they're mine," right before Spain's Ana Belen sings about an assassination, about earth that's crying. There is, in fact, little of the American Neruda here—Neruda En Mi Corazon reclaims Neruda as the poet of the Americas, the emancipating voice of everyday people and everyday objects, from Buenos Aires to Isla Negra to Mexico City. His words shape-shift with each national context: in Mexico, he is the bouncing dub of Julieta Venegas's "A Callarse"; in Argentina, he's the melodramatic tango of Adriana Varela's "Me Gustas Cuando Callas (Poema 15)."

The closest we get to the more recognizable American Neruda is Enrique Morente's closing love sonnet, "Quienes Se Amaron Como Nosotros?" But even then, there is talk of governments, and the I becomes the greater we. Remembering a past love is just another way for Neruda to envision a more just social future, when "other eyes will be born in the water" and "wheat will grow without tears."

Josh Kun is Assistant Professor of English at UC Riverside and the author of Strangers Among Sounds: Music, Race, and America, which will be published next year by UC Press. His writing on music and the arts appears in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Magazine, and many other publications. He is currently writing a book on Tijuana.