Aside from classroom exercises in classic poetry,  my own interest in verse developed around the age of 15. I began to look up the poets who influenced Jim Morrison. That led me to the Beat poets like Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Michael McClure; and the 19th century French poets like Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Verlaine and Charles Baudelaire.  

This began a domino effect of discovery.  Everytime I discovered someone 'new', I would learn of other poets and writers that I had yet to read. I lost many hours of time wringing my hands in bookstores with the painful decisions that had to be made. It was rare for me to walk out of a bookstore with fewer than four or five new books. 

I also began to discover which publishing companies could be trusted to put out great work. One of those publishing companies was New Directions Press. This press founded by James Laughlin put out many excellent bilingual collections of poetry by Rimbaud and Baudelaire. They also published a lot of writers that were cutting edge or avant-garde. Since I liked to challenge myself this was greatly appealing to me. 

 I began to seek out their books at random often without any advance knowledge of the writers or poets. It seems startling to me now that I discovered The Captain's Verses by Pablo Neruda wholly by accident. I had no advance knowledge of his poetry when one fateful day I walked into a bookstore and plucked a copy off the shelf. I flipped through it and was hooked. 

 I guess my ignorance can be excused by my youth. I was still a high school lad and Neruda doesn't penetrate most high school curriculums. My 11th grade English teacher was most impressed with my literary range but couldn't provide adequate reasons for certain omissions. He did, however, encourage my extensive reading. 

Pablo Neruda was a major discovery. This Chilean born poet won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971. He was born Neflati Ricardo Reyes Basoalto in 1904. He began writing poetry at the age of 10. He was an accomplished poet by his early twenties. He adopted the pen name Pablo Neruda in honor of 19th century Czech poet Jan Neruda.

The Captain's Verses (Los Versos del Capitan) was originally published anonymously in 1952. The poems written were addressed to Matilde Urrutia who he would marry in 1955. The poems include both poems expressing devotion as well as lover's quarrrels. The highly personal nature is one reason for the early anomynity. He thought the few copies printed would disappear. The first official publication of these poems would be in 1963. The New Directions bilingual edition was originally released in 1972, about a year before Neruda's death. 

It is now twenty years later and this collection of poetry still holds a special place in my heart. Neruda had the capacity to be direct while still employing brilliant imagery. This is a book that I refer to from time to time for inspiration and comfort. I will pick it up and open and random and something will jump out at me. I find a poem called The Dead Woman (La Muerta). It concludes beautifully: 

I shall walk with cold and fire and death and snow/my feet will want to march toward where you sleep,/but/ I shall go on living,/ because you wanted me to be, above all things, /untamable,/ and, love, because you that that I am not just one man /but all men. 

Here he is expressing deep sorrow at the theoretical loss of the loved one. This is both inspiring and poignant. It can not be easy to fathom the potential loss of a lover. What would you do if your spouse died? How would you handle it? His resolve is impressive although I wonder what Matilde thought. It seems amazing to so readily confess to loving again although it is a probable reality. I doubt I would use a verse like that to impress a would be amour. Matilde must have been an amazing woman to accept and appreciate such honesty.

He atones for himself with a poem like Your Laughter(Tu Risa). Here he writes:

 Take bread away from me, if you wish/ take air away,but/do not take from me your laughter./Do not take away the rose,/the lanceflower that you pluck,/the water that suddenly/bursts forth in your joy,/the sudden wave/of silver born in you.

 This poems follows poems called Your Feet and Your Hands. Neruda wrote with extraordinary passion and love. The translations by Donald D Walsh do an excellent job of capturing the fiery verse. I also love that the original Spanish is published en face with the English translation. I just wish my command of Spanish was better so I could read the originals without referring to the translations. As beautiful as a translation of verse may be, there will always be something lost. 

There are several poems that remain old favorites. A line from The Insect (El Insecto) is where I gained the title for this review. I've always liked that line although he was more serious when he wrote it than I am when I read. In the poem he is transforming himself into an insect and his lover into a giant being. He is slowly embarking on the adventure of exploring her body. I get slapped in the face when I try lines like that but he got away with it. (I really got to improve my Spanish!) 

I think people who appreciate great poetry and love poetry will enjoy this book. Those more fluent in Spanish than I am will probably gain a lot more than I did. Neruda produced some of the greatest love poetry ever written. He also wrote in a style that is relatively easy to understand. One needn't be a Rhodes Scholar to comprehend this verse. Neruda was a poet of the people and a passionate lover. That is revealed with stunning clarity in this collection.


Author's Notes/Comments: 

The title just means "I am smaller than an insect." It's one of my favorite lines from Neruda.

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allets's picture

I have The Collected Works of Neruda

I will have to revisit it.