Leo Boix on Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair
February 13, 2023
This Valentine's Day, we're sharing a new introduction to Pablo Neruda's Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair written by Leo Boix. The theme for National Poetry Day 2023 is 'refuge' and in this introduction Leo Boix finds refuge in the sensuality and corporeality of Nerudas poetry, he finds refuge in books and poetry, and details how Neruda finds refuge in Chile and Temuco.
Body of skin, of moss, of eager and firm milk
I first read Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair as a young teenager growing up in a southern suburb of Buenos Aires, Argentina. My object of desire wasn’t a series of female bodies, like in Pablo Neruda’s masterpiece, but a male one. I would read the book in a secret queer key, often alone in my bedroom or under the old eucalyptus tree that grew in our small courtyard garden. I’d imagine the naked body of my male friend as a smooth map anchored in the natural world of my subtropical surroundings,
where the eternal thirst flows
and weariness follows, and the infinite ache.
I still remember memorising the book’s verses to recite in my head to a forbidden lover – perhaps a friend in the neighbourhood, someone at school, or an imaginary beloved – picturing him ready for an erotic battle ‘like a weapon, / like an arrow in my bow, a stone in my sling’. I’d copy in my personal diary the penultimate poem of the collection and the one generally considered the most memorable in the book: ‘Tonight I Can Write’. This is one of the poems that to me better conveys the ambiguity between an intense feeling of love and its intrinsic fragility. Dazzled by its devastating lines and internal repetition, I’d remind myself of the overwhelming power of physical, youthful love, sometimes followed by a sense of sheer abandonment and dejection:
Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
Write, for example, ‘The night is starry
and the stars are blue and shiver in the distance.’
The night wind revolves in the sky and sings.
What prompted me to read and reread Neruda’s famous verses in the first place? What drew me to his sensual descriptions of the human body, to the mysterious landscapes of his native Chile and to his often despairing and melancholic tone?
Looking back, I was perhaps captivated by the sensuousness of Neruda’s language, by the inner music of each line, the melodic rhythm and cadence in every poem, by the intricate rhyme scheme and the various stresses in words and verses that always made me recite them out loud. But, of course, I didn’t know all this back in my teenage years. I would just read and recite as if enthralled by a magic spell.
The small book was kept in our family bookcase. It was probably bought by my mother, a hard-working head teacher in our local primary school, or perhaps bought by her father, my maternal grandfather, a bookish man who read fiction and poetry profusely, even though he never finished secondary school because, as an orphan, he didn’t have the financial means to study.
It was because of that family library, and thanks to books such as Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, that my interest in poetry and poetic language began. I remember taking the book of poems with me to our holiday house in Quequén, a windswept rural town south-west of Buenos Aires on the Atlantic coast, where we’d religiously spend every summer. There, among the large trees and constant bird calls from the Atlantic pampas, I’d compose my own secret love poems, very much inspired by Neruda’s, but directing my gaze to a male lover. In my own versions I’d also recreate the natural landscapes of Quequén and Buenos Aires, placing the beloved in this green scenery.
From the large eucalyptus or the fruit trees that surrounded the house, to the rough blue seas of the South Atlantic beaches we used to go to, I’d imagine my lover’s body as if made out of the natural elements I was seeing during those long, hot days of January: dried bark, scented leaves of bay and eucalyptus, rich, humid soil, thick sand, all sorts of sea shells, salty sea froth, seaweed, a multitude of twigs.
Like in Neruda’s poems, the cherished body of my male friend would turn into ‘white hills, white thighs [. . .] like a world, lying in surrender’, or into a sensual body ‘of skin, of moss, of eager and firm milk’. It was often a body of natural qualities, arriving ‘in the flower and the water’ to my imagination.
I was fascinated by the poems in the book that sung to the beauty and magnetism of the beloved, moving with ease from ecstasy and melancholy to sexual rupture, physical abandonment and the tragedy of love. And if you were in love with someone, you would quote from Neruda. That’s what we did as teenagers growing up in Argentina. And, I presume, the same for many young people all over Latin America. These sensuous poems succeed in intertwining the body of the beloved with their soul, linking the ethereal with the earthly, the corporeal with the spiritual, marrying the earth with the moon in a captivating affair of the senses.
Every time I read the book I found that with each passing poem there was a growing sense of raw sexuality and arousal, often rooted in the Latin American experience. Years later, and after studying Latin American literature at university, I would realise that one of the book’s powers is that it shifts away from European tropes of love and sex to create a new poetic language more concerned with a Latin American-centric voice.
Neruda wrote Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, his second poetry collection, when he was only nineteen years old, a publication that would end up catapulting the young Chilean poet into fame as one of the most influential lyrical voices of the twentieth century.
He spent most of his childhood years in Temuco, a densely forested region in southern Chile long inhabited by the Mapuche people and considered a gateway to the country’s dazzling lake district, the Conguillío National Park and the Llaima volcano. In his memoirs, Neruda would describe Temuco and its surroundings as Chile’s ‘Far West’. There was also Puerto Saavedra, a port in the Araucanía region where he and one of his muses, his lover Teresa León Bettiens, would spend time together during the summer.
Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair draws inspiration from this distinct Latin American region of snowcapped volcanoes, breathtaking lakes and endless shores near the Pacific Ocean, an area that endures constant rain during its long winter months. It is an ethereal landscape of ancient black pine forests, silver gulls and towering sea waves usually surrounded by fog and oceanic winds and framed by the foothills of the southern Andes and vast starry night skies.
In his memoirs, Neruda wrote about some of the sources that inspired his earlier books: ‘Below the volcanoes, beside the snowcapped mountains, among the great lakes, the fragrant, the silent, the tangled Chilean forest . . . I have come out of that earth, that mud, that silence, to roam, to go singing throughout the world.’
This lush and almost mystical natural scenery in Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair allows for human desires to become uncontrollable, for raw instincts to dominate over the intellect, making each line spring off the page:
Your presence is foreign, as strange to me as a thing.
I think, I explore great tracts of my life before you.
My life before anyone, my harsh life.
The shout facing the sea, among the rocks,
running free, mad, in the sea-spray.
The poet moves through a geography of raw emotions and human senses, often enveloped by a world in which nature, and more specifically a marine environment, dominates.
The speaker regularly appears immersed or even made of water, be it the sea, rain, dew or a river, all elements essential to Chile, a country with nearly 4,000 miles of marine coast and over 380 lakes and 560 rivers. The beloved is often the water on which the poet sails and the port where he lands. Desire travels ‘on those heavy vessels / that cross the sea towards no arrival’. The beloved is ‘the drunkenness of the wave’ and has a mouth ‘that has the smile of the water’. At other times, leaves fall ‘in the water of your soul’ and her memory is made of ‘a still pond’. The sea (and the lover) are seen too as elements of (sexual) fusion and consumption, able to absorb and envelop, from land, rocks and the body, to time and space. The tranquil waters of love can quickly turn into raging storms in Neruda’s early work, revealing the constant opposition between balance and chaos, violence and truce, body and soul, sex and abstinence:
Suddenly the wind howls and bangs at my shut window.
The sky is a net crammed with shadowy fish.
Here all the winds let go sooner or later, all of them.
The rain takes off her clothes.
The book is filled with emotion, startling imagery and a unique lyrical style. It breaks away from the traditions and constraints of the Latin American poetry of the period, embracing a new language that is as blunt and direct as it is dazzling.
Neruda’s poetry was well received in the 1920s by the youth of Latin America. They quickly identified with the eroticism, confessional intimacy and love uncovered in the book. It spoke directly to the revolutionary sexual movement in Chile and, to a larger extent, across Latin America, reaching people of all social backgrounds, especially those from the lower and middle classes. Neruda managed to capture the attention of this generation by writing about the present time, the here and now of the awakening body to be loved and desired without regard for the past or the future.
He was considered by many a comparable figure to Walt Whitman, due to his highly political and transgressive ideas about the body, sex and love, which rebelled against the status quo of his period, and by doing so established new poetical ground. His influence succeeded in crossing national, gender, social and racial boundaries, reaching out to new marginalised audiences that saw in him a true pioneer, including young Black poets, poets from indigenous communities and the trans community.
I rediscovered Neruda and my own latinoamericanismo not in Argentina, the country where I was born and where I spent my childhood and teenage years, but in England, where I moved in early January of 1997 to study and work. It was in my new home in the East End of London, and among my new family, mostly migrant friends from Latin America (including some from Chile, Colombia, Bolivia and Mexico), that I went back to Neruda’s poetry.
I was then working at a small newspaper for the Latin American community in the UK, first as a writer and later as an editor. There I learnt more about many of the great Latin American poets, writers and artists of the twentieth century, including Neruda himself.
Later in life, as a Latinx immigrant poet living in Deal, a seaside town in East Kent where I currently live, I’d take Neruda’s poems to schools, literary organisations and poetry collectives to explore with students some of the most important aspects of his earlier poetry, including its erotic undertones and its rare music, but also its specific references to a unique Latin American landscape, folklore and history. Neruda’s book echoes other important Latin American poets that came before him, among them the Uruguayan writers Delmira Agustini and Juana de Ibarbourou, both poets I admire greatly and who infuse the themes of the body, desire and soul into their highly sexual poems. I could also see in Neruda’s poetry similarities to the visual world of some of the most significant Mexican muralists, from David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco to Diego Rivera, as well as capturing the expressive strokes of paintings by Brazilian artist Tarsila do Amaral.
Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, beautifully rendered here [in the new edition by Vintage] in English by the award-winning American poet and renowned Latin Americanist W. S. Merwin, has a potency and an urgency unrivalled in Latin American poetry. It still speaks to me as it did over thirty years ago when I first read it back in Argentina, encouraging my own first attempts as a young gay poet.
Leo Boix is a Latinx bilingual poet, translator and educator born in Argentina who lives in the UK. He is a recent fellow of The Complete Works, a national mentoring programme aimed at poets from minority backgrounds, which included poets such as Kayo Chingonyi, Sarah Howe and Warsan Shire, among others. His poems have been included in many anthologies, such as Ten: Poets of the New Generation (Bloodaxe), The Best New British and Irish Poets Anthology 2019-2021 (Eyewear Publishing) and Un Nuevo Sol: British Latinx Writers (flipped eye), and have appeared in POETRY, PN Review, The Poetry Review and Modern Poetry in Translation. Boix is co-director of Invisible Presence, an Arts Council England national scheme to nurture new Latinx writers in the UK. He is a board member of Magma Poetry, co-editor of its Resistencia issue showcasing the best Latinx writing, and an advisory board member of the Poetry Translation Centre in London. He was the recipient of the Bart Wolffe Poetry Prize 2018 and the Keats-Shelley Prize 2019.